Fall Action For Merritt Island Reds

As the summer heat abates, the shallows of the lagoon system around this east coast hotspot come alive with hungry redfish. Here's how to put a few of them on the end of your line!

The IRL is home to a unique breeding population of inshore bull redfish that often reach 40-pound weights.
Photo by Capt. Rodney Smith

Beyond a wide, shallow grassy flat surrounded by deeper blackish water, a threesome of sleek skiffs was moving in on a colossal school of 40-inch-plus redfish that were lolly-gagging on the north Indian River Lagoon's smooth surface. With the guide standing perched atop his poling platform, the lead boat crept slowly within casting distance. The captain then crouched low as he pointed out the massive bunch of finning fish to his two clients on the bow of the skiff. They saw the fish and their excitement was obvious. Their baits softly entered the water and within moments both their rods were bowed and their reels' drags screaming.

Each year, when weather permits, this scenario plays out along the Banana River, Indian River and Mosquito lagoons. Anglers from all over the world come to these lagoons to experience some of our planet's best shallow-water sight-fishing for large red drum. Places like Titusville, Cocoa Beach, Oak Hill and New Smyrna Beach have earned places on the maps of serious redfish anglers.

Most coastal areas have their own nicknames for our favorite inshore catches. Red drum are referred to as bull reds, puppy drum or spottails, but on the Indian River Lagoon, they are simply called redfish.

Their coppery red bodies have earned them their name. However, their most obvious characteristic markings are the black spots located just before the tail fin.

Reds are one of the more recognized fishes in Florida. They are hard fighters and good eating up until they reach about 10 to 15 pounds. The flesh of the larger ones tends to be coarse and strong tasting.

The Indian River Lagoon (IRL) system is composed of the Banana River Lagoon, Mosquito Lagoon and Indian River Lagoon. This system parallels Florida's east-central coast. Its midpoint is located in proximity of Melbourne. From there, it runs north and south for nearly 80 miles each way. The average depth in the IRL system is less than 3 feet, excluding manmade channels and dredged holes.

There are nearly 4,315 different species of life found in the region, including 1,350 plants, 2,956 animals and 310 birds. Additionally, over 700 salt- and freshwater fish species live in these shallow-water lagoons, rivers, creeks and connecting waterways of the IRL system. Thirty-six of these species are classified endangered.

Most important to anglers, the IRL system is inhabited by a mosaic of predatory fishes, including tarpon, grouper, snapper, snook, spotted seatrout and, of course, redfish.

One of the reasons the IRL system is so bountiful is because it is geographically positioned in a transitional area between the temperate and tropical zones. The IRL system has five different inlets to the ocean at Ponce De Leon, Sebastian, Fort Pierce, St. Lucie and Jupiter inlets. This allows tropical species to enter the southern inlets from the nearby Gulf Stream, while the more temperate species, like red drum, enter from the north.

From midsummer to mid-fall, the IRL region typically receives copious rainfall from weather systems approaching from the tropics. October is usually transitional -- a warm, comfortable period sprinkled with hints of the cooler weather about to arrive. Summer's frequent thunderstorms slowly start to fade away as October's days become shorter. The steady, balmy southeast winds of summer slowly shift to a more predominant northeasterly direction as the "Bermuda High" begins to move away. This is the same high-pressure system that each summer usually keeps Florida safe from any cooler weather.

By fall, water levels around the IRL are generally at their highest points, especially by the time October's full moon arrives. These higher water levels have an impact on our redfish angling along the IRL. While on one hand, they limit the days anglers can locate the large schools on the flats; on the other hand, it usually makes the shorelines more accessible for redfish to hunt for crabs, shrimp and finger mullet.

The collision of warm tropical air from the south and cooler air moving down from the north and west during these months produces a predictable flow of strong northeast and east winds. During the fall fishing, wind-protected areas are often an important factor to consider when hunting for redfish. Smart anglers become quickly familiar with protected areas that hold redfish feeding grounds from year to year during these windy conditions.

As the water level rises, the eastern shorelines along the Indian River, Banana River and Mosquito lagoons become places to target when baitfish and redfish begin moving into areas that have been dry for months. In turn, anglers have more opportunities to sight-cast to fish roaming in very shallow water along the shore that is sheltered from brisk east winds.

At this time of year -- usually sometime between July and October -- heavy rains lift water levels in the lagoon's mosquito retention areas as well. Overflow pipes located along the shore of the lagoon start to flow as water spills out of the mosquito control canals. Under these conditions redfish, snook, tarpon and other game fish position themselves in the overflow pipes' currents to ambush baitfish being flushed out of the retention areas. At times, this can be an amazing event as the fish feed in a wild fury. Before heading to these overflow pipes, though, you need all the conditions to be aligned perfectly for this spectacular fishing to take place.

Redfish are not considered picky eaters. Anglers catch them on every bait imaginable, lug worms to sand fleas. One night I actually witnessed two anglers fishing from Sebastian Inlet's north jetty hook the same fat 30-inch redfish on both their lines. This fish ate a stinky piece of squid on one guy's hook and a chuck of mullet on the other angler's rig. However, I have also seen redfish by the hundreds turn their tails and scurry away from perfectly presented flies, lures, jigs and cut or live baits.

Back 15 years ago, I recall asking a popular redfish guide where he had been catching his fish.

"Everywhere!" was his off-the-cuff remark.

I must admit it sometimes seems that our redfish angling is so good that you could catch one in your neighbor's backyard pool. Truthfully, there are many vastly different areas one can focus attention on to catch redfish. However, understanding the intricacies of where reds will be at particular

times of year and under certain weather and seasonal conditions should be a priority for anglers concerned with increasing their fishing-to-catching ratio.

It is by far easier to catch redfish under most conditions with live or cut bait. Reds are primarily bottom feeders and depend strongly on their sense of smell. So if you just want to catch a redfish, start by using cut ladyfish, mullet or pinfish on the bottom. Redfish frequent inlets, edges of channels, shallow grass flats, oyster or clam beds and mangrove shorelines. When water temperatures drop below 65 degrees, they often head for warmer or protected waters. But unlike snook and tarpon, they survive frosty conditions.

When using cut bait for redfish, try a medium spinning rod rigged with 12- to 15-pound-test line, and a 12- to 18-inch, 30-pound mono or fluorocarbon leader. Top the rig with a 3/0 to 5/0 circle hook. Use a little weight to keep the bait on the bottom.

After a redfish picks up the bait, you only need to wait a few moments before taking up the slack line, pointing the rod's tip to the fish and start reeling fast as you slowly lift your rod. This should set the circle hook. When the fish begins to take drag, let it run! This setup also works when using live finger mullet or shrimp. This is a method I prefer using under windy or low-light conditions or during cold weather.

In shallow water, redfish can be challenging foes to sight-cast with either a fly rod or spinning tackle. They may not be as difficult to stalk as bonefish or as an elusive trophy as a permit, but still they provide a nice moving target that usually eats a well-presented offering quicker than either bonefish or permit.

Captain Tom Van Horn regularly guides his redfish charters during the fall on the north Indian River Lagoon and Mosquito Lagoon.

"Redfish fishing is comparable to hunting," he offered. "You know the fish are on the flats. It is just a matter of reading the conditions, locating your prey and putting your clients in the right position with the right tackle for an honest shot at catching the fish.

"I'm basically talking about finding schools of big redfish -- fish over 40 inches long, the brood stock, a breeding population of redfish," the captain added. "One of the reasons these fish school together is for breeding purposes."

When he is focusing on these larger, spawning redfish, Capt. Van Horn tries to limit his charters to one trophy fish per person.

"I don't want to put any more pressure on these fish than necessary," he pointed out.

For many years, marine scientists agreed that red drum did their spawning offshore in the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. But a handful of guides and anglers believed that the majority of our IRL system redfish did not head offshore to spawn, but did their act of procreation in the deeper waters of our lagoons. It was only very recently that marine biologists recognized this inshore breeding phenomenon was specific to only our IRL system.

With regard to targeting these fish, Capt. Van Horn is right. Locating 18- to 27-inch, slot-sized redfish is a matter of hunting for areas where these size fish roam in search of an easy meal. If you are fishing shorelines, keep an eye out for points, pockets and passes, all of which are excellent ambush positions and usually draw redfish. When you fish docks, keep your bait or lure close to the structure for best results. Using a braided line and heavy drag helps keep the small to mid-sized redfish from cutting your line on the barnacle-covered pilings.

According to Capt. Van Horn, there is an important rule to follow when targeting these reds.

"These fish may be easy to catch under optimum conditions," he noted. "But this fishery can receive a load of pressure and these fish become conditioned to the sounds of trolling motors and boats running the flats. They become very spooked if you don't make the right presentation. Poling the boat, being quiet and making the right cast is imperative for catching good numbers of trophy redfish."

Fishing from or near the jetties at Ponce De Leon Inlet, Port Canaveral or Sebastian inlets during the fall mullet run guarantees you better chances at hooking a bragging-sized redfish. During the fall season, live mullet is usually the first bait of choice in these areas. But for a change, you may want to use a whole or half of a blue crab or a live pigfish. Redfish love crabs and there are not many game fish that turn down a frisky pigfish.

Jigging is another method of catching redfish, and works particularly well at Sebastian Inlet during the fall season. Either buy or tie yourself a handful of red-and-white or chartreuse bucktails weighing between 1/2 to 2 ounces. The jig's weight should depend on the speed of the inlet's current and the depth of water you are fishing. You must get your jig close to the bottom for the best results. Whether casting from shore or off a boat, you need to keep constant contact with the jig while keeping the slack out of the line. As you reel in your jig, give it a light tug every third revolution of the reel handle. When you get a strike, set the hook immediately.

There is also an assortment of plastic baits that you can rig on a bare jighead that effectively catch redfish under most circumstances. I prefer plastic baits in root beer, chartreuse or motor oil colors. One of the advantages plastic trailers have over bucktails is that it is easy to slip a rattle onto a plastic bait. Three things attract redfish -- sight, sound and smell. With this kind of rig, you appeal to two of those senses.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
After a long career as a fishing guide in the Indian River Lagoon system, Capt. Rodney Smith of Satellite Beach is now the editor of Costal Angler Magazine, a pblication that promotes the "use and not abuse of the Indian River Lagoon.

Captain Mark Wright guides clients for redfish on the Indian River and Mosquito lagoons. While recently fishing with Mark, I noticed a couple of things about the way he approached hunting redfish. He did not use his trolling motor while stalking the redfish, though he did use it to get into position to pole an area. Once he found feeding fish, he worked the area thoroughly.

While fishing each flat, he read the area like a map, explaining how the fish fed along the edge of grass lines, or how they used potholes as ambush points. It was easy to see he put a lot of thought into his fishing.

There are a couple of things you can do to increase your redfish odds. You can study the tides, moon phrases and weather patterns. You can practice your casting in your back yard. Such things may help, but there is no substitute for spending time on the water fishing the Indian River Lagoon system learning its diverse and bountiful habitat.

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