Redfin pickerel, or the redfin pike as the ol’ timers call them—do they still exist? Or, are they simply forgotten? Have most of the small flowing waters they once flourished in long ago silted in and quit flowing? I’ve fished all over Georgia from trout up high to jackfish in the Okefenokee, and until recently I had yet to snag one.
I can’t recall how many times through the years I’ve heard elder friends mention how much fun they had fishing “back in the ol’ days’’ for those delicious redfin pike, and the tales from overall-clad old timers down at the feed-and-bait store. They’d say, “We’d just head down to the crik with nothing but a pole and a strip of fatback or a piece of red cloth with no hook. Just jigger-bob it around, and when they bit, snatch ’em on the hill.’’
Apparently their little sharp teeth would become entangled long enough for an airborne launch and a wiggle in the leaves. Also, other tricks mentioned were to cut off one of those bright-red fins off the pike itself and flitter it around or even entwine the narrow red strip off a cigarette wrapper around your hook. Wow! Now, I’d like to see that. All would add, “One of the best-tastin’ fish you’ll ever eat.’’
Most of these tales took place way before we had algebra or mathematics in school. Back when it was called ‘rithmetic or ciphering, barefoot kids buckled in Osh Kosh B’Gosh with no shirts and a fishin’ pole that was freshly chopped out of a bamboo patch grown just for that purpose.
Some of my outdoor peers remember their dads and grandpas catching redfins with the unique methods listed above, but since the advancement of fishing technology, most of the younger generations swear by a solid-red Rooster Tail. Still, most haven’t used one in decades, but a lure would be more believable to me, and I’d also be more confident in using one.
Every native old-timer I’ve questioned about redfin pike fishing quickly became interested and shared tips and memories of long ago. Most seemed to think I would be hard-pressed to find a redfin pike. Most of these gentleman hadn’t fished in years. Do you reckon the redfins re-fluorished in those streams, being revived from the record rains? Maybe part of the decreased sightings could be that hardly anyone walks the creeks and branches anymore.
The one habitat that all mentioned was very small, slow-moving streams and branches, most averaging only a few feet or yards wide. They varied from murky water and muddy bottoms to clear streams with vegetative cover. The kind of streams that would commonly dry up to scattered potholes and pools by the road. The pools by the road would be the last ones to hold water during drought times, as they were deepened and widened many years ago for the installation of culvert pipes or piling for bridges.
I believe the reason redfin do not thrive in larger waters is because you have more predatory fish preying on them. Larger species can not survive the drought times in those small streams due to the lowered depths and oxygen levels, so the little redfins fare very well. They even make do in road ditches that keep water year-round. Due to run-off, I wouldn’t recommend eating those.
Again, why have folks quit fishing for them? I assume because bream and catfish fill the table and freezer faster. Bassin’ is more extravagant. Redfin pike was a simple fish of simple times. People fished what was close to the farm back then. People didn’t travel lenghty distances like they will now on a daily basis. It’s more comfortable and glamorous sitting on a pontoon boat or standing on the casting deck of a tricked-out bass boat on some reservoir somewhere. Plus, there’s an endless array of performance-enhancing tackle to choose from.
I ain’t gonna lie, I enjoy the above, but I also don’t mind walking way back in the woods following the stream in boot-sucking mud, wading and watching for snakes, all for a mess of redfin not much bigger than a pack of weenies. I’ll enjoy it because it’s something different, experiencing the nostalgia of the past and a simpler time. This is also a fading heritage, one that I may have never tried had it not been for a recent-stringered photo from an old-roots country redneck from Toombs County named Royce Pierce.
The redfins that Royce has been catching average a little larger than folks normally used to catch. Royce gave me an invite for the streams in his county, and I was anxious for this new journey, an expedition guided by an avid redfin pike fisherman.
Royce, known locally as “Rooster,” says, “The lower the water and hotter the weather, the more aggressive the bite will be. If it’s barely flowing, even better. We got nearly three months of that to go still. Bring plenty of red-bodied Rooster Tails, varying your assortment with different-colored blades (silver, gold or painted). Light line and a small, whippy rod will enhance the accuracy for short casts and pitches, working around those shady ambush points they hide under, such as bushes, vines, treetops and logs. Watch those little teeth.’’
The average-sized redfin caught in most of Georgia will be 6 to 10 inches, and 10 to 12 inches is a good ’un. Anything much longer is a monster. The state record, which is also recognized as a world record, was caught in 1982 in a middle Georgia pond and weighed 2-lbs., 10-ozs.
South Carolina’s record is 1-lb., 8.8-ozs., while Alabama’s record is only 11-ozs. I would say a 12-inch-plus, halfpound or larger redfin would make an awesome trophy mount.
Trip 1: July 2
I was hog hunting and redbreastin’ at Fort Stewart. My friend William was also hunting there and called and said he found a small creek that he said looked like it may be a good pike hole. The area was located in Clyde Creek, a small tributary that feeds into the Canoochee River.
A few minutes later, I was turning the blades on a 1/8-oz. solid-red Rooster Tail. Kinda low, I thought on my first cast. On the second cast my lure was torpedoed from the side, knocking it several inches out of its line of travel. Success! My first redfin pike on rod and reel. It was about 6 inches, had a black back, blotchy green sides and a cream belly, all highlighted by bright-red fins, hence it’s name. If you catch a fish with no red fins, then you got yourself a grass pickerel or its larger cousin, a chain pickerel (jackfish).
In the next few minutes I caught six more averaging 5 to 7 inches long, but I had several fall off the hook right at the bank. I got lots and lots of hits and bumps, nearly every other cast. I was careful to set the hook, as I didn’t want to sling ’em way out in the woods. They were a little on the small side, but I was elated to have finally found some. Next year should be dynamite, as I’ll let them all go in hopes they’ll grow. Folks from way back ate this size regularly, but Rooster has promised larger ones. Could he deliver?
Trip 2: July 5.
Rooster delievered! He’s the only man I know who still pursues redfins, carrying on a tradition handed down by his dad and grandpa. In my lifetime, I’ve never heard of anyone going on an exclusive bona-fide fishing trip targeting redfin pike. To this point, I’ve only heard of redfin being a rare by-catch when fishing for other species.
Rooster called and said, “Meet me at Dad’s. We’ll be fishing Tiger Creek, which runs right behind the house.’’
A little after sunrise we walked worn footpaths through the woods that were decades old, arriving at a narrow dark-water stream averaging 5 to 12 feet wide and barely flowing.
Rooster said, “You’d be amazed of how many stringers of redfin my family has toted out of here over the years. This isn’t the only stretch here that’s good for redfin. Tiger runs through three counties and merges with another good one, Pendleton Creek. Swift Creek is another one. Myself, I don’t believe redfin pike are rare. I think people just quit fishing for ’em. Get ready, we gonna catch some.’’
Both with small spincast rigs loaded with an 1/8-oz. red Rooster Tails, we waded across a shallow ford and walked farther up to work from the opposite bank. I soon figured out why. We wouldn’t be working the same spots at the same time, allowing the shallower fish to calm that had seen one of us and darted away. With deeper pools and shallows only a few inches deep between them, it reminded me of trout fishing, but south Georgia style. Several blowdowns and bushes would usually only block one side of the bank, thus allowing the other to cast where the other couldn’t, or at least from a different angle.
My second cast of the trip bounced off a dead limb protruding above the water, landing only a couple inches behind it. As soon as the blades fluttered beneath the water, WHAM, a torpedo in the side. I went to super-reeling until the little bullet went airborne toward me like he was jumping through a hoop at SeaWorld. He spit out the Rooster Tail and landed on the muddy bank behind me. He knew which way the water was because he went swimming right on top of the mud like a spawning salmon toward it. He measured 10 1/2 inches, a sho-nuff trophy redfin, in these parts anyway.
Many times over the next four hours the creek bottom would echo, “I got another redfin!’’ Later, Rooster witnessed me lose a few redfins as they’d jump and throw the Rooster Tail back at me. Or they would fall off right at the edge and wiggle right back in before I could stoop over. Wiggly ain’t the word. They’d shake that Rooster Tail out faster than a fiest with a squirrel neck in its mouth. And if there is any limb in the water, you can bet they were going to run over and decorate it with your lure. Then they would fall off right before I could wade out and grab ’em. That amazes me since a treble hook has three prongs, right?
Rooster said, “It’d help if you would reel less, jerk hard while taking up slack and ski ’em on in.’’ If hooked, I definitely had to use the pliers. They have hard mouths with a lot of little teeth.
Our tally for the trip was 30 redfin pike 8 inches and above kept, with the majority around 9 to 9 1/2 inches. We released several in the 7- to 8-inch range, all normal-eating size back in the day. We had six or more longer than 10 inches, with our largest three going 10 1/2 inches. We lost many and left plenty for seed but had plenty for two families to have a fish fry.
Our incidental catch was nine warmouth, three jackfish, one stumpknocker, one bass, one flier and one shiner. Guess that shows what the primary species is there, huh?
For this particular species, this was a very blessed day with a quality mess of fish. A lost species? I think not.
A forgotten fish. Definitely not by our older folks, but when they have passed away? Maybe yes then.
It’s up to us to keep the heritage of fishing for redfin pike alive. Royce Pierce surely is. All five of Rooster’s kids know how to catch redfins. Nor are they scared to have mud squirting between their toes while wading out in the creek to unhang a lure. As you continue to have fun pursuing topwater bass, bream beds, limb-lining for catfish and sandbar mullet, save a trip or two ever year for redfin pike. It’s especially good for the kids.
Finding Georgia’s Redfin Pike
I know I talk about Fort Stewart in a lot in articles, but this land includes more than a quarter-million acres in five counties. This is a regional hotspot, as there are many miles of unspoiled waterways that fit the profile and range for redfin pike. My two favorite creeks are Taylor’s and Canoochee, along with their larger tributaries and branch-offs, which are seemingly endless.
However, if you live a long distance from Fort Stewart, you may have redfin pike swimming on your hunting club or in a creek in your backyard.
“Redfin pike can be found all over Georgia, with the exception of a few spots in extreme north Georgia,” said Bert Deener, WRD Fisheries region supervisor. “However, the hot bed for this fishery is in central Georgia, specifically around the Dublin area. In fact, they are highly sought after by some anglers in that part of the state. They keep their redfin honeyholes close to the vest, much like hunters hunting a particular trophy buck.
“If you’ve got a hunting club with a small body of water on it, you may have these toothy fish, too. Redfins prefer slow-moving small creeks, wetlands, weedy ponds and ditches.”