“There’s a push. It’s a school of mullet, but maybe some reds are nearby,” Stu Apte of Islamorada, Fla. exclaimed as we quietly rounded a shallow, oyster-shell-laden point still within sight of the launch.
I killed the trolling motor and my partners for the day flung flies to the shell-lined bank. My partner astern was Bill Rustin of Raleigh, N.C., a fantastic fly-flinger. Both Stu and Bill were paired with me for the sixth Annual Rich Products Corp. Golden Isles Red-Trout Celebrity Classic out of the Golden Isles Marina on the St. Simons Island causeway.
Stu cast a yellow-and-purple zonker streamer, while Bill cast a gold Dupre’s Spoonfly. Not being an accomplished fly fisherman, I was amazed at the skill the two displayed with the strong winds we faced. After a well- placed backcast, Bill came tight and held on as a big boil confirmed that redfish were indeed stalking the mullet. Several other fish boiled as Bill’s red- fish screamed across the mud flat. For the first couple minutes, Bill gained a foot to lose two. Eventually, the red succumbed to the constant pressure applied by the long rod and came boat- side. After quickly tagging and photo- graphing the fish, Bill released his 28- incher to fight another day. Such a scenario plays out thousands of times each fall on our coast as redfish move in and out of mud flats, creeks and oyster bars in search of a meal.
Each fall I wave goodbye to my buddies who head to the woods to hunt deer as I hitch the boat and head east to our coastal waters. Fewer boats are a welcomed sight as the deer take some of the pressure off of our inshore fisheries. As fall gives way to winter, the large brood redfish are finishing up their spawning ritual in the sounds and nearshore bars, while the sub-adult red- fish, generally weighing up to about 15 pounds, school in the estuaries and coastal rivers. It is that inshore aggregation of redfish that is an absolute blast to catch on light tackle.
Just as hunters are setting up stands on predictable migration routes of deer, the wise angler can learn the daily migration patterns of redfish and score big by intercepting them en route. While several factors trigger deer to move between bedding and feeding areas, redfish are cued primarily by the tides. High tide usually has them pushing up onto the vast mud and grass flats so abundant on the Georgia coast. They root around on the flats trying to dis- lodge fiddler crabs or chase down bait fish that hide amongst the marsh grass. Occasionally, their zealous pursuit of a holed-up crab causes them to go vertical and tip off their location by waving their spotted tail in the air. The lucky angler within casting distance can usu- ally score with a well-placed cast when the red is focusing on getting that fiddler out of its hole. But, this is the prime time of year to catch numbers of reds instead of chasing individual feeders.
Fall and early winter is the time of year your arms can get sore as you pick off multiple fish from schools of literally hundreds of redfish when they file past. When you find the right spots, the water turns copper as the schools pass under the boat. It takes time to find such spots, but once you do, the fish are fairly predictable. During late fall and winter, they are usually hungry and very aggressive. Everyone in the boat can hook up as a big school approaches.
To find such a spot, you have to spend time on the water, just as a hunter spends time in the woods scouting for the right spot. Scour a map and choose a creek system with many fingers at its headwaters. Spend time figuring out where they come and go during each tide cycle. After we have had several cold fronts this fall, the redfish will school up and get into their cold-weather pattern, which will be relatively predictable for the rest of the winter.
Live bait (if you can get it) will work well on redfish, but it is the stalking — just like in hunting — and casting artificials that fires me up. Spinning and baitcasting gear are my forte, but fly fishers score this time of year, as well. My go-to lures for fall and winter redfish are Thunder Spin spinnerbaits, Bite-A-Bait Fighter jerkbaits and Bass Assassin 5-inch Blurp Shads rigged Texas-style and unweighted. Almost any day during the winter, you can get redfish to eat one of these select lures.
Thunder Spins are basically a Beetle Spin on steroids. The same man- ufacturer that makes the high-quality Cajun Thunder float has brought quality components to the saltwater spinner- bait market. The lure’s super-heavy gauge wire arm, premium blade and Bass Assassin spring-lock jighead hold up to many redfish battles. So far this fall, my most productive body colors have been electric chicken, goldfish, Texas roach and limetreuse. The gold- fish and Texas roach have produced best in clear water, while the other two have caught more fish when the water is heavily stained. Thunder Spins are perfectly suited to “blind-casting” on those days when the wind has the water chopped up, the water is muddy or when you simply cannot see the redfish. Methodically fan- casting around creek mouths, oyster- shell mounds or other current breaks will quickly tell you whether a school is present. Work the lure on baitcasting gear slowly near the bot- tom for the most effective presentation. I prefer Sufix Siege 14-lb. test monofilament for this presentation.
Under typical late fall through winter conditions, a jerkbait is extremely effective. Capt. Greg Hildreth, who fishes the Brunswick portion of our coast, selects a Bite-A- Bait Fighter jerkbait for shallow- water redfish. His favorite redfish color is parrot (blue back, chartreuse sides, orange belly).
“There is just something about parrot that the redfish key on. They hammer it,” Greg stated.
As well as parrot, I have had success with gold-blue back and silver-black back Fighters. Jerkbaits are deadly on days when you can see pods of redfish “pushing” across a mud flat. Redfish make a bulge of water as they swim in shallow water. Cast well in front of an approaching school, predicting where they will swim. A subtle twitch or two as the redfish get close is usually all it takes to elicit a vicious strike. Even though Fighters throw well on baitcasting gear, I believe spinning tackle is the best choice for presenting these lures most effectively. I spool up with 20- lb. test Sufix Performance Braid for this application and tie on a 2-foot section of 20-lb. test fluorocarbon leader material.
On the rare days when redfish ignore jerkbaits, unweighted Bass Assassin 5-inch Blurp Shads will usually get them to eat. This is a great lure for calm days, as you can very precisely and quietly deliver this lure to your target. Again, spinning tackle with the braid/fluorocarbon combination is ideal for fishing this lure. I rig these plastic lures Texas-style on a 5/0 XPS Magna O’ Shaughnessy worm hook and fish it unweighted. I usually leave the hook exposed if snags are minimal where I am fishing. Subtle twitches of the rod tip cause the lure to dance back and forth. This vulnerable sashay is irresistible to redfish. My most productive redfish colors have been electric chicken in stained water and good penny in clear water.
On the northern part of our coast, Capt. Eric Adamski loves fishing the Savannah area during late fall and winter. He chases the big bull reds in the surf until about November, when he switches to inshore trout and redfish.
“I catch mostly trout around high tide, but as the tide gets about halfway out, I catch a bunch of redfish in the Savannah River estuary,” Eric said.
Eric’s go-to lure rig is an oval Cajun Thunder Float with a 3- to 5-foot leader attached to a 1/8-oz. jighead impaling a Gulp Shrimp. He delivers this package using spinning tackle (a long rod of at least 7 feet is a must when fishing such a long leader), and he spools up with braided line to minimize stretch on the hookset. Eric fishes cover, such as old pilings, breakwalls, jetties and rockpiles, along the river channel. These are the kinds of places the redfish pull out to during the last part of the outgoing tide. New penny has been his most productive artificial shrimp color.
“I rarely catch keeper-sized redfish from the Savannah, because most of the fish are over the 23-inch maximum size. It’s a great problem to have,” Eric said.
Fly-fishing is extremely popular in saltwater, and the redfish is the inshore “poster-fish” of long-rodders. Calm days during fall and early winter are perfect to pull out a fly rod and hook up. Specialized equipment has been developed over the last decade for anglers pursuing redfish with the fly. Poling skiffs, which can float in mere inches of water, allow anglers to stay on flats much longer than larger bay boats. Greg Hildreth spends a good bit of time on the poling platform of his Mitzi Skiff putting clients on redfish with fly tackle. An eight or nine-weight outfit is a perfect match for redfish. Several crab and minnow pat- terns work, but his favorite is a Clouser Minnow.
The state of Georgia is studying the effectiveness of stocking fingerling redfish to determine if adding hatchery- spawned fish to the population improves the fishery. For more information on the Peach State Reds Initiative, check out the initiative website at www.peachstatereds.org.
As deer season gets in full swing, wave goodbye to your friends heading to the woods, hitch up your boat and chase our coast’s big, drag-stripping redfish. On light tackle, you will have a blast “hunting” schools of copper-colored brutes.