The copper-colored bulldog hits hard, runs strong and fights to the end. A voracious feeder, they’ll pounce on jigs, plugs and topwater lures. Redfish even eat a fly! In the South they’re called redfish, on the east coast it’s red drum; small ones are called rats, keepers are puppies and big redfish are known as bulls.
The red coast runs from Virginia to Texas and, according to fisheries managers, fishing is better than ever. The funnest way to catch reds is sight fishing in the backwaters, but drum can be caught on bait and bottom lures.
What’s not to love?
East Coast Red Drum Fishing
Virginia Red Drum Fishing
Research shows the largest members of a species migrate furthest from the center of its population. True with redfish. The biggest red drum in the world live in Virginia, the northern most extent of their common migration. Ocean Kayak pro Rob Choi recently landed a pending World Record red drum on 20-pound tippet.
He shares his tactics for catching big drum along the pilings of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel (CBBT). Below, he remembers the first day a group of drum nuts discovered monster reds lurking in the pilings of the CBBT.
Rod: Six-foot, heavy-action
Reel: 5500 spinning or large casting
Line: 50-pound braided line
Leader: 80-pound fluorocarbon rigs/lures
Bait: 9/0 circle hook on Carolina rig with two feet of 80-pound leader and a three-ounce egg sinker.
Lures: Two- to three-ounce jighead and eight-inch soft-plastic.
I was sitting in my office, working away. I decide to give Kayak Kevin Whitley a call to wish him a happy birthday. When he answered, I could tell he was excited. Before I could sing the birthday song, Kevin told me he had a 46-inch red drum in his lap. My palms started to sweat, my mind was racing. I tried to return to work, but all I could picture was big drum. A minute later, Lee Williams calls, “Dude, I just hooked a massive red!” Now, I’m standing at my desk, grasping at the air, completely out of my mind.
Forget work. I checked the weather and tide. Both looked perfect. I called my friend and we called our wives. Hours later, after work, family time and loading the boats, we were fishing under the CBBT. Justin got the first bite, his reel peeling line, his kayak dragged through the bridge pilings. Less than a minute into the fight, his line went slack. The fish came unhooked. We hardly had time to cry; a few minutes later I felt my line go slack and recognized the subtle pressure of a fish swimming towards me. I cranked the line tight and set the hook. The fish responded with a violent headshake and screaming run.
The drum pulled me through the first set of pilings without incident. Just when I thought I was home free, the giant drum dragged me back into the bridge. The video shows eight minutes of tackle-testing battle before I lifted a four-foot-long red drum into my lap. After a long night on the water, I didn’t crawl into bed until a few hours before I had to wake up for work. Lucky, the adrenaline rush kept me going through the next day.
Chesapeake Bay Bulls
Season: September to October
Strategy: Outgoing tide can be best. Calm conditions to fish tight to the pilings. Current change is often the best window. Start by catching small croaker, spot and bluefish with a top-bottom rig and Fishbites bloodworm. Drop the bait to the bottom then crank up a few feet. Drift through the pilings while working the jig along the bottom. Look for sudden depth drops and other structure where the drum will hide from the current.
Secrets to Success
North Carolina Red Drum Fishing
Rod: Seven-foot, medium-action, fast tip
Reel: 4000-series spinning
Line: 10-pound braid
Leader: 20-pound monofilament
Lures: Weedless spoons with inline spinner. Walk-the-dog style topwater. Jigs and soft plastics resembling shrimp.
Rigs: Popping cork, 12 to 18 inches 20-pound leader, 2/0, wide-gap hook
Carolina Rig: Eight to 12 inches 20-pound leader, 2/0 wide-gap hook
The first time I went kayak fishing was 13 years ago. When a friend invited me to join him kayak fishing, I thought the idea sounded fun. We were casting in a small creek and it wasn’t long before I hooked a stout redfish. I’ve caught thousands of reds, but this fish pulled the kayak out into the creek and down river. By the time my friend caught up with me, my kayak had bounced off several oyster rocks and nearly tipped over. He was yelling at me to beach the kayak, but I was laughing so hard I couldn’t hear him.
Once I steered the kayak into a clump of grass, I could make headway with the fish. The 26-inch red didn’t have any idea how it would affect me. After getting a few pictures and releasing the fish, we caught several more reds. Nothing will ever compare to the excitement of my first kayak red. Since then, I’ve introduced other anglers to kayak red fishing. There’s no better way to hook someone on the sport.
The saltwater rivers and creeks of southeast North Carolina feature drastic seven-foot tide changes making current and water level key to finding fish. As water drains out of the shallows, fish become concentrated in the last remaining holes.
When the tide floods, especially on the full moon, redfish will explore deep into the marsh. Anchor down current of the hole and work the lure with the water flow. Best days are overcast with light rain, because redfish put on the feedbag when the barometric pressure drops.
Secrets to Success
The speed of the water current changes throughout the tide. A spot might be more productive early or later in the tide cycle. Note how the current is concentrated by an oyster bar or creek mouth or eddies around a point. Search for redfish where the current concentrates bait. Start by casting artificials to the edges of the redfish hole and working it through the center. If the fish are finicky, use a live shrimp, mullet, menhaden or minnow under a popping cork or on the Carolina rig. Redfish are available year-round.
South Carolina Red Drum Fishing
Rod: Seven-foot, medium-fast action
Reel: 1000 to 1500 spinning reel
Line: 15-pound braided line
Leader: 30-pound fluorocarbon
Lures: Gold, weedless spoons; finesse baits on Ned-style jighead; gold ChatterBaits and copper trailer.
Rigs: Carolina rig with live or cut mullet or a quarter chunk of blue crab.
There’s no typical day out on the water, but successful trips will commonly bring a dozen or more redfish to the boat. Justin Carter’s most memorable redfish catch was during the 2011 IFA Kayak National Championships. He lost count on the number of 30-inch redfish he’d caught and decided his best chance to upgrade would be targeting a larger sea trout. Tournament points are awarded for largest combined length of a redfish, trout and flounder.
It wasn’t long before Carter got a big bite on the trout rig, he knew he was in for a fight. As the TV cameras followed him and the mystery fish peeled off line, Carter battled for 15 minutes before he realized he was hooked to a game-changing redfish. “This was an absolute toad, well over 30 pounds, and I could see my line starting to fray in the guides,” he recalls. When Carter finally pulled the redfish close to the kayak, he knew the fish was too big for the net. “I wasn’t sure how I could land her,” he fretted. The fish passed close, and Carter flipped it into cockpit. “As soon as I had her in the kayak, I knew I’d won.”
Redfish run year-round and the action changes with the season. In the winter, redfish can be finicky and lethargic. Sight casting to fish in gin-clear water is frustrating when the fish won’t bite. Pique their appetite with fresh cut bait on a Carolina rig or slowly work a glass-minnow imitation. In spring, the water warms and redfish action turns hot. The aggressive fish pack on pounds after a lean winter, this is a good time to throw walk-the-dog style topwater lures. Summer is a feeding frenzy for the reds.
Look for fish tailing in the shallows grazing on crabs and mollusks. Intercept tailing reds with a crab look-alike. Fish deep into the marsh grass with ChatterBaits and weedless spoons. Fall redfish are near insanity before winter. To get their attention, throw large, loud lures. Low tide is ideal as bait drains out of the creeks. On the incoming tide, look for reds seeking refuge from the current behind shallow bars, drops and dock pilings.
Secrets to Success
Redfish are creatures of habit. They tend to stick to schools, making them even more predictable. If you find a tidal condition and location producing reds, you can likely return to the same spot at the same stage of the tide and find the fish again. Or, find a similar scenario to unlock new redfish grounds.
Florida East Coast Red Drum Fishing
The Sunshine State’s Space Coast is one of the most famous redfish destinations. The upper east coast is regularly featured on television, online and in print as anglers stalk no-motor zones sight casting to red drum in thigh-deep water. The only problem with a famous fishing spot is the famous fish are super smart.
Local guide and Native Watercraft pro Dee Kaminski is practiced at outsmarting some of the swiftest reds. Her tactics and techniques will keep you one step ahead of the star struck redfish. The early bird gets the redfish, Dee tells us about a magical morning when she had the drum fooled.
Rod: Medium-heavy, fast tip
Reel: 2500-3000 spinning
Line: 10-pound braid
Leader: 18 inches of 20-pound fluorocarbon
Lures: Jerkbaits, paddletails and shrimp imitation soft-plastics on 1/16- to 1/8-ounce weedless hook. Light colors in clear water and darker colors in stained water.
Rigs: 3/0 circle hook and a chunk of cut bait or a live shrimp.
One of my favorite days on the water I launched from the No Motor Zone in the Banana River. The north end is restricted NASA property. I think the redfish use it as a refuge. I was paddling for the secret location before sunrise. I came across a drop-off. Then I spotted a huge boil on the water. As I paddled closer, tails popped up. First two, then four and eight. My heart went crazy from excitement. I stopped and watched to see if the school was moving. I choose to cast a Spook Jr. in trout pattern to the outside of the school.
First cast did not spook the drum; they didn’t even react to the lure. The next cast was past the school but this time I decided to retrieve it slowly through the middle of the tailing fish. No bites. I repeated the same cast to the other side of the school and saw a big wake following the lure. My heart was pumping like crazy.
Suddenly, the head and body of the bull red crashed down and I was hooked up. I was on a sleigh ride right as the sun was peaking above the horizon. It wasn’t the biggest red I ever caught, but it was the excitement and the time of the morning was special. A quick photo and she was released to give someone else a thrill of catching a red beast.
Space Coast Drum
Indian River, Mosquito and Banana River Lagoon are landlocked with very little current so redfish must actively hunt food. Find the fish on mud or grass flats and drop offs. In winter, on calm days, reds will flock to shallow grass flats. Summer starts in May fishing early morning on the flats before afternoon thunderstorms rain on the parade. Fall sees the mullet run pass through town allowing redfish to gorge before the winter lean season. I rig three rods: soft-plastic, topwater walker and a back-up rod.
Stealth is the key to catching spooky redfish. Learn how to spot fish pushing water and schools of mullet. Approach slowly, careful not to disturb the water. Make a long cast, land the light lure without a sound three feet ahead and three feet past the school of drum. Don’t bounce the lure, instead work it slowly past the drum. Mess it up and the fish will disappear into the deep water.
Secret to Success
In clear water, on a calm day, when the redfish are wary use a weightless, weedless hook.
Florida West Coast Red Drum Fishing
Rod: Seven-foot, six-inch, medium-heavy, fast-action
Reel: 3000 spinning
Line: 20–pound braid
Leader: 20-pound fluorocarbon
Lures: Twitch baits, soft plastic shrimp on 1/16-ounce open-face jighead
The tournament was winding down and I was heading back to the launch. The tide had dropped out and the water was super low. I paddled to a dock where the water is normally six feet deep but had dropped to two-feet deep at low tide. I spotted a big bull redfish.
I quietly paddled up to the dock, made the perfect cast. As the red turned to eat my lure, a jack creville swooped in and stole the bait right out of his mouth. Luckily, the jack pulled me away from the dock without spooking the redfish. I stuck the GoPro on my head and paddled back in search of the beautiful redfish.
I didn’t see it at first. I kept searching until I spotted the fish 15 feet in front of my kayak. I made a short, backhanded cast and landed my lure right next to the hungry red and he crushed it. After a long battle with light tackle, I landed the 42-inch red. It’s something I will never forget. I’m stoked I captured the experience on film.
Anglers can target reds year-round, but the season closes in August to protect spawning fish. Chase belly crawlers in super shallow water or look for reds searching for food with their tail sticking out of the water. Outgoing current through the low into the start of incoming is the best time to find reds schooled up in deeper holes and channels. Target fish around dock pilings and near oyster bars. Calm, sunny days offer the chance to spot redfish feeding just below the surface.
Secret to Success
If the fish aren’t responding, slow down the retrieve. Illicit bites from lockjaw reds with a chunk of cut bait or crab.
Louisiana Red Drum Fishing
Rod: Seven-foot, medium-heavy conventional
Reel: Powerful compact baitcasting with 24 pounds of drag to handle slot reds and bulls.
Line: 12-pound dark-colored monofilament
Leader: 20-pound fluorocarbon
Lures: ¼-ounce weedless gold spoon; gold-belly, black-back wakebait; black soft plastic spinnerbait with a gold Colorado blade. Popping cork with a curly tail Gulp! and 18 inches of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader.
Redfish often travel in small groups and are very competitive. I once hooked a red while fishing a jig under a popping cork. While I was fighting one drum, another red engulfed the oval cork attached to the line. Just before landing the red hooked on the lure, the line broke. I was still able to net the fish voraciously holding onto the cork.
We are extremely fortunate to have a year-round fishery with liberal catch limits and easy access to slot-sized fish and bruiser bulls. I prefer fishing for slot-sized reds (fits in the 16- to 27-inch size limit) in the shallow marshes of Delacroix and Hopedale, Louisiana. If I’m targeting bulls, the passes and beaches at Grand Isle can’t be beat. South Louisiana has minimal tidal ranges making it easy to fish. I like fishing rising tides where the reds push deep into shallow duck ponds. Fall is my favorite time to chase reds in the kayak. Targeting redfish in the marsh means beating the banks. I rarely anchor or stake out. Reds often give away their presence in shallow water with their telltale V wakes as they swim with tails breaking the surface. Fishing on points, in deep cuts or around schools of bait is a key to catching more reds. If the grass is thick, fish lightweight weedless jerk baits over open patches in the grass.
Secret to Success
Longer fishing rods make it easier to clear the bow of the kayak as a running redfish changes direction. For more bites, position the kayak parallel to shore and fish your way down the bank. Reds will hunt within 10 feet of the bank, so this strategy keeps the lure within the strike zone for the entire retrieve. Fish the lure all the way back to the kayak. Reds will often follow the lure before making a last-second reaction strike right next to the kayak.
Texas Red Drum Fishing
Captain Fil Spencer was paddling after Texas reds before most of us were kayak fishing. His years of experience as a redfish guide pay off with tournament wins and happy customers. The shallow, marsh creeks, rivers and ponds are world famous redfish magnets. The endless opportunities keep anglers guessing. When the bite is on, anglers need to pay attention. Aggressive redfish will steal food from their competition. If the food is attached to your line, you may be fighting another red for your catch.
Rod: Seven-foot, medium heavy
Reel: 30-pound casting reel
Line: 30-pound monofilament
Lures: Topwater frogs, soft plastics and plugs. Four-inch paddletail on ¼-ounce weedless jighead
I hooked a big red with a popping cork. As I was fighting the fish closer to the kayak, I noticed another big redfish following the fish I had on the hook. As I worked the red closer to the kayak, the second fish swooped over and inhaled my popping cork. The thief hit so hard, it broke the wire leader and I lost both fish. Luckily, the feeding frenzy was on. This is a memory I’ll never forget.
Best fishing is from February to December. If the winter water is warmer, the reds will bite all year. Target reds in water shallower than two feet. Texas has little current and minimal tide changes, so water movement and depth aren’t a big concern. Wind can drive the water and affect the fish; I like protected shorelines with grass flats, oyster bars and mud bottom. Casting topwater lures at dawn and dusk is most fun. Soft plastics work when the fish are off the topwater bite. Finicky reds can’t deny fresh bait under a popping cork.
Secret to Success
When the water is high, work deep into the marsh. If the wind pushes fresh water to the coast, look for reds in deep holes. Explore bottom structure at low tide, then return with the high tide to target drops, flats and bars when they are covered with water.
The biggest drum swim furthest from home. | Feature Photo: Joe Underwood