Photo by Pete Cooper, Jr.
Having spent 40 years avidly pursuing redfish, I’ve concluded that they rank among the most adaptable creatures ever to inhabit salt, brackish or, at times, even fresh water.
I’ve caught them in depths ranging from mere inches to almost 150 feet, and on so many different artificial lures and natural baits that the largest tackle box on the market at present wouldn’t hold a single member of each type.
Yet amid all this variation, a single factor has governed whatever success I’ve had with reds: First I had to find them.
I fished for fully a decade in waters widely acclaimed for their redfish populations before I finally caught one. After that momentous event, my previous dearth of action appeared all too explicable: I’d been fishing for them in water that wasn’t shallow enough. Often that’s indeed the key to consistent action with inshore reds.
What you define as “shallow,” however, can get pretty extreme from time to time. So what can you do when normally-productive flats almost go dry, but still hold fish? If any water at all remains on such flats, two options are viable: In areas where the substrate is firm enough to permit wading, do it! But where the bottom’s soft, float it with paddled craft like a canoe or kayak, both of which can either serve as a means of primary transportation or be shuttled to and from a given area behind a larger craft.
While bay-boats are very popular along the Gulf Coast, a lot of folks have recently begun using Florida flats-boats to pursue ultra-shallow reds. The favored types are 16 feet long, weigh in the neighborhood of 500 pounds, and are adequately powered by outboards in the 60-horsepower range. So low to the water that they’ll float on a heavy dew, they’re easily push-poled and therefore quite stealthy. They’re also a bit pricey — but should you desire to take your dusty redfishing to extremes, they’re a very worthwhile investment.
Regardless of your chosen craft, the following tactics apply. But just be aware that the much more inexpensive paddlecraft have served as the means for reaching several thousand of the reds I’ve caught over the years!
Redfish can frequently be found in water too skinny to cover them completely, exposing their dorsal fins and even part of their backs. Appearing to be in some danger of sunburn, these fish (occasionally referred to as “crawlers”) simultaneously create an easy solution to the first-you-have-to-find-them problem and bring into play a few considerations that’ll usually have to be dealt with if you’re going to have any chance of catching ‘em.
“Dusty” areas are often created during a low tide alongside grass shorelines that have been eroded by wave-action, leaving shelves of sorts. This form of structure extends from the present grassline to a dropoff into slightly deeper water. Reds commonly move from the adjacent deeper water to the top of those shelves to feed, and in doing so, their dorsal extremities can become exposed.
When you come upon one in such a setting, toss the usual 1/2-ounce gold spoon at the fish, and you’ll see the red’s hasty departure from the shelf, giving the water the appearance of a plowed-up cotton field!
Dusty reds are skittish. The pulses emitted by a boat moving along a little too fast may not spook them, but they do raise a warning flag for the fish, as will the shadow of a lure passing overhead or the impact of a heavy lure anywhere near them: Any one will send the reds scurrying!
When redfish are found in water this shallow, stealth is paramount, and the use of lures that are much smaller than normal is almost mandatory. I’ve caught more dusty reds on fly-rod poppers than on all other artificial enticers combined. That point made, I’ll reveal that my conventional-fishing favorite is a 1/8-ounce buzzbait ordinarily tossed at largemouth bass that, I’ve discovered, works even better when dressed with a 2 1/2-inch grub in lieu of a skirt. Cast the offering across the fish’s path and reel it slowly along the surface at a slight angle away from the red rather than toward it.
Of course, even tougher days are possible, and those require a bit more finesse — a 2 1/2- or 3-inch grub rigged weedless on an offset worm-hook and without any other hardware. Toss the rig 5 or 6 feet ahead of a fish, let it rest on bottom as the red approaches, and then give it a few slight twitches.
In certain sorts of places, neither of those lures is very useful against dusty reds. One in particular: a rather wide opening in an expanse of submerged grass. During low tides, the grass forms mats; these combine with the shallow water to prevent the boat from getting near enough to the opening to allow an angler to work it effectively with artificial lures.
An alternative is to suspend a single hook no more than a foot beneath a small popping cork, bait it with a medium-sized shrimp, toss it as far into the opening as you can, and wait. Do not pop the cork; the fish can find the bait by scent alone. After 20 minutes or so without a bite, it’ll be time to try something else.
On the bottom end of a really low and still falling tide — when flats and shoreline shelves actually are dry — a good pattern is to locate a cut that still has water draining off of it from interior areas. These can be quite small and with little water movement now, yet may still carry prey into water adjacent to their mouths that’s deep enough for prowling reds.
Approach these spots with the trolling motor set on “slow” for at least the final 40 yards. These reds are in water too deep for anglers to deem them truly “dusty,” but the confining banks adjacent to the cuts’ mouths can induce unease in the fish.
Most important: These fish are catchable. Resist the urge to make the first cast or two directly up the cut; rather, quietly move the boat to a point near the bank 20 yards or so from the cut’s mouth — farther if shellbeds are present near it. Since prey typically spread out along the banks when exiting the cuts, this tactic presents the lure to any fish that’s moved to the adjacent water to feed.
In this setting, a small spinnerbait is a fine choice. For years I’ve created my own using a No. 3 gold Hildebrandt safety-pin spinner fastened to a 1/8-ounce jighead dressed with a 2 1/2-inch shad-type grub. The lure is best worked with a fairly slow retrieve, with s
hort pauses just below the surface.