Targeting Jacksonville's 'Red' Tide

Targeting Jacksonville's 'Red' Tide

No, we are not talking about a killer algae bloom. Rather it is an invasion of hungry redfish in the heart of the city!

Though the redfish around Jacksonville are rarely huge, they are abundant and aggressive.
Photo by Chris Shaffer

When it comes to redfish, the Jacksonville area is flush with thousands of quality battlers. Yet in comparison to other areas, these fish get relatively little attention. Perhaps it is the lack of truly monster-sized reds that turn up in other coastal areas. Whatever that reasons, local anglers are more than happy to simply enjoy the action.

The Intracoastal Waterway and the lower St. Johns River in the Jacksonville area offer excellent action for mostly 3- to 8-pound fish. Keep in mind that these reds are not migrant fish, but residents. As a result, though tactics vary by season, redfish can be caught 365 days a year in this area.

"I've fished quite a bit in the other areas for redfish and all over Florida, but few areas offer what we have here in the Intracoastal waters," says professional fishing guide Chris Holleman. "They have mangroves in South Florida; we have the mud flats."

While topography does differ in many instances, it's the shallow-water sight-fishing that draws many anglers to the greater Jacksonville Intracoastal waters.

"In Jacksonville, the fish are shallower. We are actually seeing their shoulders out of the water. It's a totally different experience than you'd get in most parts of Florida," Holleman notes.

He considers a 3-pounder average in this area, but it would take a 7-pound red to be considered a quality fish.

July is an exciting month to fish the Intracoastal for redfish. This month you experience daily episodes in which the redfish have their backs, fins and shoulders out of the water on low tide.

"We have about a 4- to 5-foot tide drop. You can sit in one spot that is totally different at high and low tide. On certain tides, there might be a 15-minute window when they'll bite, and you need to know when that is and how to fish it," Holleman confides. "At high tide you go to one place, and at low tide you go to another. You have to figure out at what point to fish each oyster bar. A lot of it is trial and error."

But that, of course, is exactly why we came looking for a local expert like Chris Holleman.

"You can catch redfish all year in the Jacksonville area," Holleman offers. "The only thing is that during certain times of the year they are more active than at others."

July is one of those times when they are active and willing to feed.

Redfish can be taken on bait or lures. Technique revolves around tides, water clarity and temperature. There is no bad time to fish, but action can often reflect the amount of bait in the system. Reds, like most other fish, are drawn to baitfish and other forage, focusing their lifestyle on feeding on whatever is available in the food chain during that particular time of year.

Traditionally, in the summertime redfish are in a feeding mode because lots of shrimp and other foods are in the system. Thus, several baits work well. Blue crabs are a delicacy for the redfish, while artificial baits like plastic worms and jigs also draw strikes, though not as quickly. Other times you want to throw spinnerbaits or even topwater lures. The key to success is knowing when to fish each.

DEAD LOW TIDE

At the dead low tide, redfish are tough to catch. This can be frustrating, because while the fish are often visible in shallow water, it is very difficult to get them to bite.

During this tide stage, sight-fishing is effective if you are able to creep up on the reds without spooking them. Since the redfish are so shallow, a subtle presentation is also necessary. Often there are no second chances. Spook one fish, and it is likely the whole school will panic too. It is then time to move on in search of more reds.

"Sight-fishing can be a lot of fun. If you can cast well, you have a great chance of catching a redfish. Year 'round we have good sight-fishing," Holleman notes. "Sight-fishing is good in the summer, but you can catch fish many ways. Once fall comes, things start to change because the bait starts to disappear. The shrimp head back into the ocean. The fish are more aggressive as far as hitting lures then because there are fewer baitfish around."

FIRST OF THE INCOMING TIDE

The first of the incoming tide is the most productive tidal phase. Redfish go on the feed when water begins to push in. You find that this is another time when redfish move extremely shallow. The first hour of this tide tends to be the best for sight-casting.

"They aren't afraid to get stuck up on the flats. That's when they move shallow. They aren't afraid the tide is going to drop anymore," Holleman said. "They get active and start to feed."

When the tide is rising is a good time to employ soft-plastic jerkbaits. But you need to know how to cast them. You need to be aware of where the fish is and which way it's headed. Otherwise, spooking reds can be a problem.

"You are looking for 'V' wakes and their backs out of the water. Remember, they are going to be shallow," Holleman cautions. "You don't want to throw too close to fish. You want to cast a few feet in front."

Knowing where to toss plastics can increase catch rates dramatically. Try targeting the eddy right along the edge of the oyster bars. Redfish and oyster bars go hand and hand like peanut butter and jelly. That's because there are a lot of shrimp around them in July. The redfish will be feeding on them. The first of the incoming tide will offer excellent action prior to the oyster bars becoming submerged.

Once the tide covers the shell bars, it can create a problem.

REDFISH HOTSPOTS

There are a number of noted areas along the intra costal Waterway and the St. Johns River in metropolitan Jacksonville that can provide outstanding redfish habitat. Beginning in the north on the ICW, Big and Little Talbot islands are surrounded by a labyrinth of creeks, marshes and shell beds. Between these islands, both of which are state parks, lie Simpson and Myrtle Creeks. These

small streams often hold pods of reds at anytime of the year. The same is true of Sawpit Creek, near the northern end of Big Talbot Island. On a fishing ide, check out the mouth of any small feeder that has shell beds where it joins Sawpit.

As the ICW nears the mouth of the St. Johns River, to the east of the waterway lies the Fort George River. From the inlet at the south end of Little Talbot Island, concentrate on the river's northwest shore as you move inland. On the west of the ICW lies the Sisters Creek area. Arguably the best red-fish habitat in this region, its marsh grass edges and oyster bars teem with reds.

To the south of the mouth of the St. John's, Chicopit Bay forms a crescent running parallel to the river where the ICW continues south. This is another region noted for producing reds. Again, look for the shell beds and target them on rising tides.

Inland along the St. Johns River, the most promising redfish territory is located on the north side of the flow. Heading back into the shallows of tributaries entering the river from this shore can put you in the midst of excellent redfish action. In order moving upstream, check out Clapboard, Dunns and Broward creeks and then the Trout River. The rising tide is the time to prospect these areas.

 

"It's tough to fish because the jigs will hang up a lot," Holleman notes. "What happens is that you won't know where the oyster bars are. That's why it's important to pay attention to where they are during the lowest low tide."

MID-RISING TIDE

When the mid-rising phase of the tide occurs, the water moves in fast. This is when the oyster bars are covered up, making this the time to turn to topwater presentations. Tossing noisy prop baits or stickbaits can get the attention of the redfish.

"The redfish have small mouths, so I like a smaller plug. That's why I throw the Spook Jr. as opposed to a regular Spook," Holleman said.

When utilizing topwater lures in the Intracoastal waters, do not expect non-stop action. At best it may be sporadic. But this is the period when the majority of the larger quality fish are taken. The bites will decrease, but the size of the fish you catch will increase. Just about every one will be 18 inches or longer, with some even topping the 27-inch maximum length.

When fishing topwater presentations, there is no need to blaze your bait across the surface.

"I'd use a medium retrieve rate. If I'm walking the dog, I use a 'twitch, twitch, pause,' and they usually hit it on the pause," Holleman explained.

You want to fish these plugs on top of the inundated oyster mounds. The fish are right on top of the shell beds or around the edges as they prowl for food.

"Topwater works great. You are imitating a finger mullet and menhaden. If you use a heavier leader, it slows the Spook down to where the redfish can catch it," Holleman advises.

He also suggests using a 2-foot 25-pound-test leader on baitcasters when you're fishing Spooks.

"Otherwise it will zig and the redfish will try to grab it and then it will zag, and they'll miss it."

HIGH TIDE

High tide is the period when flow floods back into the marsh grass that lines the Intracoastal Waterway and its feeder waters. Redfish follow the current back into the grass as well. Seek out sections where the grass is sparse or broken, which allows the fish to more easily enter and also provides better areas for casting to them.

When fishing in the grass, you have two options that can work. One is to toss a weedless soft-plastic jerkbait. The other, surprisingly, is a 3/8-ounce spinnerbait. Of course, do not expect to always get that spinnerbait back out of the vegetation.

"You want to throw that spinnerbait inside the grass," Holleman notes. "In areas where the grass is really thick, the fish will be right on the edge of the grass."

This is a situation in which you can employ lipped diving lures, but use caution. You do not want a bait that is going to dive more than two to three feet. Also avoid suspending lures, because they get hung up on the oyster bars for sure.

FIRST OF THE FALLING TIDE

When the first of the falling tide arrives, it is time to relocate to creek mouths where the water is running out of the tributaries, flushing food into the open water. During this period, you can throw topwater lures or bounce a 1/4-ounce jig with a plastic trailer along the bottom.

"If it's a wide creek mouth, you want to throw the topwater or the jig on either side of the mouth," Holleman says. "The mouth of the creek will probably have an eddy, and you want to throw there too. If it's really skinny, they'll be right in the middle."

MID-FALLING TIDE

The mid-falling tide is a lot like the mid-incoming phase of the water movement. It is optimal for throwing topwater plugs on top of the oyster mounds before they go dry. This is arguably the second-best tide phase during which you can expect to catch quality fish on topwater baits.

"I feel like the mid-falling tide phase is my best opportunity to get a big one, because all the bait is flushing out of the creek and the big fish are waiting there to ambush bait," Holleman says.

LETS GO FISHING

To book a day of guided redfish angling in the Jacksonville area, contact Capt. Chris Hollerman, at Blue Cyclone Inland Adventures. The telephone number is (904) 704-6174. You can also visit his website at,

www.fishjacksonville.com.

 

BAIT

Many anglers choose to fish natural baits rather than artificials. Each method can be effective, yet they differ tremendously. Mullet, crabs and shrimp are the most abundant forms of forage in the summer months. For that reason, the redfish key in on each of them.

When using mullet, you should fish the edges of the banks pretty much through all tides. Holleman uses a float with a 3-foot leader of 20-pound fluorocarbon and a split shot three inches above the hook. Hook sizes vary. Match your hook size with the size of the bait you are using.

When fishing a live mullet, it is best to lip-hook it between a nostril and an eye socket. If you do this, they tend to swim a little deeper and closer to the bottom. On high tide, fish the mullet on the edge of the grass. During low tide, cast to the edges of the oyster mounds or on top of mud flats.

Blue crabs are the most effective bait to employ on the main body of the Intracoastal Waterway. Larger crabs traditionally are not

fished whole.

To maximize the crab, peel the shell off and split the crab up. Sometimes half of the crab is used, while other times a quarter works better.

"You are working the shallow banks. Redfish are generally in the shallowest available water when you are talking about fishing the Intracoastal waters," Holleman offers.

During a dead low tide and the first of the incoming tide, you want to throw the crab up on the shallow flats. As with the soft plastics, try to give the red plenty of room, tossing the bait in front and letting the fish come to it.

"At high tide, I look for where the grass is broken up and I throw it there and wait for the reds to come pick it up," Holleman adds.

With shrimp -- the most common forage in the system -- it makes sense to use them for bait. Shrimp are often fished on jigheads. These are cast and slowly retrieved, rather than letting them sit and waiting for a bite.

"What we generally do is thread a live shrimp on a jighead and cast it like we're fishing a jig," Holleman describes. "We fish a jig-and-shrimp in low water when the oyster bars are exposed."

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