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November 22, 2006

Bulls Off the Beaches

Northern Gulf Waters Run Red when Winter Drum Swarm

Our boat had come under attack. Copper streaks began converging on us, their brilliant flanks reflecting the bright winter sun at the water's surface, unmistakable even through the short, hard chop built by the 25-knot northwest wind sweeping off the beach.

This truly unforgettable sight alone was worth the price of admission, not to mention the 8 1/2-hour drive I'd made up to Orange Beach, Alabama, the day before.

"Big redfish are out here, right off our beaches, all winter long." Capt. Clif Jones had assured me of that weeks before, insisting the drive would be worth my while. "Some days you can catch and release 20 or 30 or more, if your arms can hold out - and there's nobody   fishing them!"

Seeing 15- to 30-pound bull reds in pods varying from dozens of fish to hundreds (even thousands, according to Jones, high up in the tower) in all directions made me a believer. Realizing that one has to experience this fishery to grasp it, I spent much of my time snapping photos. I figured that without proof, I could be suspected of stating what Huck Finn would have called a "stretcher."

Forget finesse
Of course, to truly show the action, I'd have needed a 360-degree lens shooting from atop the high tower on Jones' 290 Stamas Tarpon center console. More than once we found ourselves literally surrounded by redfish - every bit as aggressive and hungry as any school of dolphin (mahi) you've ever seen.

And best of all: It's nirvana for fly- and light-tackle enthusiasts (especially those who, like me, find no fishing thrill equal to sight-casting topwater plugs to big fish).

"These fish are hungry," Jones had told me when I wondered what sort of tackle to bring up. "They'll hit anything."

So much for finesse. Finesse is great for finicky predators, particularly when they're few and far between. There's no denying the satisfaction in catching a permit after spending hours trying to find one and then successfully presenting a fly to it.

But if you come up to Orange Beach in the winter, leave the finesse at home. This fishing is all about action - and reaction: see, cast, set, hang on. This is about anglers stumbling over each other and themselves in their haste to get a lure in the water or in their attempts to follow hooked fish around their brothers in rods.

Jones is particularly fond of hooking these brutes on the long rod - and seeing others do the same. "For a lot of guys who come out with me, this is their first time hooking a really big fish on fly," he says.

After more than 15 years as a licensed charter skipper here, Jones knows better than anyone that these bull reds are here all winter, every winter. Of course, that doesn't mean that every day Jones goes out looking for them he finds them in the numbers we did. But in fact, more often than not, he does - and some days are, amazingly, even better.

"When I started guiding [in 1991]," he explains, "everyone said that the redfish thing was pretty much over by November. It turns out they're just getting going in November!"

When the weather and Gulf cool off, the reds heat up, with rapacious fish schooling up off the northern Gulf's white-sand beaches into February.