Two Different Flavors Of Coastal Redfish

The giant spawning reds are magnificent, but you can't legally keep them. Included below are the details about how to catch the ones you can.

September is the time that the big redfish seek a mate and spawn. It’s during this time that some oversized reds—upward of 30 pounds or more—can be caught. The trick to catching these behemoths is knowing where they will be located.

Georgia is blessed with the best coastal estuary system along the Atlantic shoreline. While only about 100 miles long as the crow flies, it is immeasurable when you consider all of the fishing locations the estuary contains.

Inlets are the prime location this month for big reds, and I do mean big reds. Some inlets are better than others, but all of the inlets will have the big, bull reds traveling inshore to spawn. From the St. Marys River jetties all the way north to the Savannah River, all of Georgia’s inlets will experience this spawning migration during September and October.

Big, bull reds are caught just outside the inlet mouths by fishing a deep channel or cut that runs along a sandbar. Sometimes a breaker or two may wash up on that sandbar. If you are positioned along the back side of that bar, you will find redfish patrolling and waiting for a feeding opportunity to come rolling into the channel.

We have a lot of names for redfish here in Georgia. Red drum, puppy drum, spottail bass and channel bass are monikers you can find up and down the coast. The name “channel bass” is what we talk about this month. We look for redfish that are moving in the channels and up onto the marsh at high tide. And at low tide, they move along the channel edges feeding up next to the marsh and oyster bars.

The larger, brood fish will be running the deeper channels. They come in, find a favorite spot and spawn with the very willing female population. Biologists have mixed opinions as to whether these huge fish spawn in the exact same location every year. But we do know that these monsters can be found spawning in the exact same locations every year, regardless of where they were born. That makes them easy targets and susceptible to overfishing. These big breeders are coming in from the Atlantic, spawning and returning to the Atlantic, not opting to traverse any farther inland.

Georgia saltwater regulations only allow for the harvest of redfish between 14 and 23 inches (total length), so these big guys need to be released.

Smaller, keeper-sized reds can be found in the Intracoastal Waterway ICW on the Georgia coast. We went after a mess of these recently.

Our choice of inlets was the St. Marys River, but wind and seas prevented us from any chance at a red this day out near the jetties. After being tossed around in some heavy swells, we opted to head back inside to the ICW. We ran north as the tide was falling and stopped to fish a few familiar spots.

Along Cumberland Island where the National Park Service boats dock is located (N 30° 45.275, W 81° 28.459), we found a convention of seatrout. We fished with jig heads and live shrimp, and it was almost every cast that produced a spotted seatrout for us. The problem was they were all exactly 12 inches long, and they must be 13 inches to keep. They were staged in the outgoing tidal current and hit our jigs as they dropped toward the bottom. If the jig was too heavy, it sank too fast and went right by the suspended trout. If the jig was too light, it tended to remain at or just under the surface and again missed the trout below. After some adjustments, we found that a 1/2-oz. jig head was perfect in our current.

The moon was half full and waning, so the tidal current was at its lowest point of the month. As the moon reaches a new moon, the tidal current will be much stronger, and the fish may move out of the strong current. So keeping an eye on that lunar table can help you.

But, we were looking for redfish, and redfish are primarily bottom feeders, so we moved on to another location. Almost due east of the Kings Bay Naval Station entrance and northeast of Drum Point Island, sits a string of four or five long, narrow marsh and oyster shell islands (N 30° 46.981, W 81° 28.757). A deeper channel runs north and south along the east side these islands about 20 feet off the marsh grass.

We stopped and anchored on the east side and at the northern end of this string of grassy islands. Oysters lined the east side, and the water dropped off to a channel that is 7 or 8 feet deep.

We fished here using the same tactics, and it was as if the trout had followed us. We began catching one after another in the current, and all of them were 12 inches long. We wanted to get our baits to the bottom for a red, but the trout hit before the bait could get to the bottom. Darn the bad luck!

But we were looking for redfish, remember? I had caught numerous reds in this exact location in the past, but it had always been on a high tide, and I was able to fish the west side of the little islands. Today the west side was high and dry because we were approaching low tide, so we moved on once again.

A word of caution is warranted here because of the tides in Georgia. There can be as much as a 9- or 10-foot difference in water depth between a high and low tide on the coast. Seven or 8 feet is about the norm, but suffice it to say, it is very easy to get caught on a mud flat as the tide runs out from under your boat.

We moved north in the ICW along the marsh edges and looked for oyster beds coming up out of the water. At high tide, these beds are submerged, and while they do hold fish, the fish tend to move out into the grass at high tide, making them difficult to reach. When the water moves out of the marsh on a dropping tide, the reds and other fish have to move with it.

So, on a low tide, we are left with channels that have water along the edge of oyster bars. It was quite easy to idle along in the channel and watch the water’s edge. Baitfish were everywhere, and occasionally they would be spooked out of the water by a predator fish of some sort. Flounder, as an example, love to lie in the mud at the water’s edge at low tide. They ambush the baitfish for a meal.

Redfish, either alone or in a small school, will run the edge of the water looking to feed on these same baitfish or perhaps a small crab. As they do, they tend to push water ahead of them. They will strike at a school of bait, or they will nose down onto the bottom and forage for a crab. When they do, their tail will stick up out of the water, giving you a classic tailing redfish. They feed in shallow water because they are what we term side-to-side swimmers. They are long, narrow fish, built for pursuing prey left and right, not up and down as in deeper water. In fact, reds that are caught in water more than about 20 feet deep will need to be vented to be released. Their body cannot adjust to the quick pressure changes going to and from deeper water.

We fished the best time possible for tailing reds—one hour before low tide to one hour into the high tide. This allowed us the greatest opportunity to locate fish.

As we moved along one edge at the south end of Stafford Island (N 30° 47.741, W 81° 28.950), my partner jumped up and pointed. It was a tailing redfish. He pitched a jig head with a shrimp to where he had seen the red. At this point, I had on a jig head and a Saltwater Assassin tail in their popular electric-chicken color (chartreuse and pink). As my partner worked his shrimp close to the bank, I cast a little farther down current, where the fish might be as he moved on. Redfish are always on the move, and they almost always move with the current.

A couple of casts later, I hooked up to a nice 22-inch red. Our plan had worked. We waited until low tide was approaching, located the baitfish and then patiently looked for a feeding redfish. When we found a fish, we made our cast ahead of the fish, so the fish would swim to the bait naturally. I used a plastic bait because it stays on my jig better if I am making multiple casts. But, if my partner had made his cast where I made mine, the red would have taken his live shrimp just as readily as it took my artificial. These are feeding fish in this scenario. You really only have to put a bait in their path. They will eat almost anything.

Our tackle this day was normal light- and medium-action spinning and casting gear. I avoid using a swivel to join my leader to the line. I believe that the less terminal tackle, the more natural the bait presentation will be. I use an 18-inch, 20- to 30-lb. test fluorocarbon leader, and I use a double surgeon’s knot to tie the leader to the main line. We used 20-lb. monofilament on one rod and 50-lb. braid on the other. Both worked equally well.

If you are using braid and want to tie to the fluorocarbon leader, it’s best to use a small swivel. Not many knots do well when joining braid to monofilament and fluorocarbon.

The areas along the ICW from St. Marys to Savannah that have marsh edges lined with oyster bars that drop to a deeper channel are myriad. Time spent marking up a NOAA chart at home can be time well spent. Look for the deeper water channels and cuts that come up quickly to an island or creek bank. Then go in search of these areas when the tide is about half low and outgoing. You will quickly see the oysters protruding as the tide drops, and in short order you will have numerous places to fish over the next two hours.

Georgia’s redfish population appears to be stable at the present time, according to Spud Woodward, director of DNR’s Coastal Resources Division. In 2008, after a 2-year cooperative effort by the Georgia DNR, the Florida FWC and the South Carolina DNR, the operation known as the Peach State Redfish Initiative had to be closed down because of budget cuts. While the program ran, the state released more than 756,000 fingerling reds in 2006, and more than 325,000 in 2007. They were able to get some sample results but had to curtail the effort.

DNR biologists once again have a mixed opinion, but most of them feel like the effort showed a 1 to 2 percent increase in the number of redfish during the initiative.

The redfish are there in the ICW, and they are easy to find and catch if you know where to look. With the exception of a topwater bait, artificial and natural bait both worked well for us. We caught fish on almost every other bait we tried.

Check the tides, and plan a trip to coincide with a low around 8 or 9 a.m. That gives you a great fishing opportunity in the morning hours, before the sun runs all the fish off to look for cooler water. It just does not get much better than casting to a tailing redfish in the early morning sun.

September’s GIANT Spawning Reds
By Ron Brooks

When you plan to fish for the big spawning reds, you need to plan your tackle as well. Using the same light tackle we use for slot reds will result in loosing or even killing a spawning red. These breeders need to be brought to the boat as quickly as possible and then gently revived and released. These fish fight hard and will literally fight themselves to death.

We use medium-weight bottom fishing tackle for the big reds. A Penn 330 spooled with 50-lb. braid or 30-lb. mono and a medium-action boat rod is ideal.

We fish with blue crab. If the crab is small, we use the whole crab. If it is large we halve it or quarter it. In all cases we remove the back of the crab and cut off all the legs.

A 10/0 circle hook will insure that you do not gut hook the fish. Hook the crab on a corner of the piece. Depending on the channel depth and tidal current, use a weight that will get the bait to the bottom and keep it there. We use a sliding clip and bank sinkers from 4 to 10 ounces in weight.

Find a channel that comes up from 30 to 40 feet of water onto a shallower flat. These big reds will cruise the edge of those channels moving up onto the shallower shelfs and back.

The best way to ensure a hook-up is to put the bait on the bottom at the edge of a channel and the rod in a rod holder. Then let the fish and the circle hook do their job. The fish will move off with the bait and hook themselves in the corner of their mouth every time.

Please take care of these large breeders. These are the future of our redfish fishery. Let’s not hurt our chances for future trips by allowing one of these big guys to die.

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