Oyster bars attract more cruisers than a sports pub on a Saturday night. In fact, these natural “watering holes” rank as top pickup spots for many inshore game-fish species from Maryland to Texas. Hang out at the right time, and you’re all but guaranteed to catch fish.
Baitfish and crustaceans are also bar regulars, prompting a variety of predators to take advantage of ambush spots in and around oyster reefs. Choose the right tide and properly present the right bait, and you’ll increase your odds.
“Tide is critical,” says Capt. Jordan Todd of Saltwater Obsessions in Port St. Joe, Florida, who fishes Apalachicola Bay in the state’s Panhandle. “We have oyster bars in different depths of water, so there are oyster bars that’ll be out of water on low tide and covered up on high tide. Then there are others in 5 to 6 feet of water that are covered up all the time.
“For redfish, you want a low tide that’s starting to rise. The first half of the incoming tide, those redfish will start swimming into it and start feeding around those exposed bars. I normally like to start fishing just as they start to get covered up.”
Todd anchors down-current of a bar and throws topwater plugs — chartreuse- or bone-colored Rapala Skitter Walks are his favorites — on top of or beyond the bar, working them back with a walk-the-dog retrieve. He also buzzes weedless, nonweighted soft-plastic paddletail lures across the top of a bar.
As the water deepens, Todd switches to a shrimp jig or a D.O.A. or Gulp! shrimp under a popping cork. “A good angler can use a quarter-ounce jig head or D.O.A. shrimp, and bounce it across the bar,” he says. “Hard twitchbaits, like a MirrOdine or Rapala Shad Rap, work very well.”
“We fish a lot of oyster bars whenever we’re fishing for snook, redfish and trout,” says Capt. Brian Barrera of South Padre Island, Texas, who likes to anchor his boat by barely exposed oyster bars on a rising tide in the Lower Laguna Madre bay.
“When the tide’s just high enough, big schools of mullet will feel safe right on top of the bars, and the snook, trout and redfish won’t have enough water on the bar to come in after them. They’ll be hanging right around it, waiting to get in there.”
Barrera’s go-to bait in that situation is a D.O.A. PT-7 topwater lure. “Since it’s weedless and floating, you can get right on top of the bar. As you retrieve it, the PT-7 looks like a mullet venturing off the bar, and the fish come up and explode on it,” he says. “I’ll also do that with a D.O.A. C.A.L. 5.5 jerkbait and rig it weedless with a 6/0 screw-lock hook. You can drop that over those oyster beds, and it looks like an injured mullet.”
Capt. Brian Sanders, who fishes the Ten Thousand Islands in Everglades National Park out of Chokoloskee Island, Florida, uses live finger mullet, pilchards, threadfin herring and shrimp. He catches the baitfish with a cast net and buys the shrimp.
“The oyster bars in Chokoloskee serve a big purpose,” Sanders says. “They harbor a lot of crabs, shrimp and small baitfish. Raccoons eat the crabs and shrimp at low tide, and as the tide rises, fish come in to eat them too.
“I’ve seen redfish bellies that are packed full of small little crabs. It almost seems like the redfish use the oyster bars to eat the crabs.”
Sanders positions his bay boat in front of oyster bars over dark bottoms with turtle grass. He says redfish, snook, sharks and jack crevalles cruise over that bottom, and his customers also catch reds and seatrout on top of the bars where they’re mixed in with mullet.
Oyster bars also attract black drum, sheepshead, ladyfish and mangrove snapper, which will all eat a live baitfish and a live shrimp.
“The colder months, when there’s not a lot of live bait around, fish a shrimp under a float on a higher tide on top of a bar, and on the edges of the bar when the tide is lower,” Sanders says.
Todd says Apalachicola Bay features a shrimp hatch in spring, so from that time into early summer, he fishes live shrimp under a popping cork. In June, July and August, he switches to small menhaden or cut menhaden for trout; he goes back to shrimp in fall during the white shrimp hatch.
Go With the Flow
Bar-hopping begins as oyster reefs overtop with rising water or become exposed as the tide drops. Knowing the depths of different bars allows anglers to fish all of them when the conditions are optimal for each.
Barrera prefers to fish a falling tide for five or six hours, so when the water drops too low at one bar, he moves 20 or 30 yards to a deeper bar, and makes repeated casts as he waits for the water depth to get right.
“If we hook one or two and it’s pretty fishy, we’ll stay,” Barrera says. “What’ll happen lots of times is we catch one or two and spook the fish, and they’ll scatter. Then we’ll move to the next patch.”
Todd also moves to deeper oyster bars on a falling tide and targets seatrout “because those trout’ll stack up on those deeper bars as the bait comes to them.”
The best bars are not solid masses of oysters but rather clumps of oysters that offer multiple ambush spots for game fish. Bars with sandy spots also can be productive.
“Oyster bars with character, ones that are broken and have little pockets, tend to hold more fish,” Todd says. “I also look for bars that have breaks in them or are horseshoe-shaped or have little holes in the middle of them. The fish can stay in the holes in the bars.”
Says Sanders, “I don’t concentrate on big, giant oyster bars, but scattered oysters near a beach or an island.”
Anglers need tough tackle to pull hooked fish away from oyster bars. Barrera uses 20- or 25-pound leaders on his 10-pound braided line and 7-foot-6-inch G. Loomis E6X inshore rods when fishing in Texas bays. He upgrades to 30- and even 40-pound fluorocarbon leaders when fishing oyster bars.
“A 32-inch snook will pull you into the oysters,” he says. “I tell my clients to try to keep the fish out of the bar as much as possible. As soon as I see it in the bar, or they feel it, I tell them to open the bail, and I’ll use my trolling motor to go up to the bar and get the line out of there.”
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If you do hang up on a bar, “point your fishing rod at it, grab the spool and pull back slowly, and you’ll usually roll over the oysters, then the hook comes free,” says Sanders, who outfits his southwest Florida anglers with 7-foot rods with 3500 or 4000 spinning reels spooled with 20-pound braid and 40-pound fluorocarbon leaders.
Todd uses a 7-foot medium-heavy rod in the Panhandle, with a 4000-class spinning reel spooled with 20-pound braid and usually a 25-pound fluorocarbon leader. When he’s targeting bull reds around deeper bars in 6 to 8 feet of water, he ties on 30- or 40-pound fluorocarbon leaders.