Targeting Peach State Reds

Red drum are on the Georgia coast year 'round, but not always in the same locations. Think of this as a primer on finding and catching them from spring to fall. (July 2006)

Capt. Mike Evans displays the kind of red drum that show up along the south end of the Georgia coast.
Photo by Polly Dean.

Catching red drum along the Georgia Coast is a year-round sport, but that doesn't mean it's easy: The weather has to cooperate.

On a recent trip, conditions cool and skies cloudy, we met Captain Mike Evans at Two-Way Fish Camp on the Altamaha River in Darien for a day of fishing for reds -- and we ended up 35 miles south at St. Marys!

Because of recent rains and run-off from the area's many creeks, Capt. Evans was concerned that the water would be too murky for the red drum we were to target that day. But Peach State saltwater anglers work around this obstacle on a regular basis. At Capt. Evans' suggestion, we hopped in his truck and trailered his boat south to meet up with one of his fishing buddies.

Captain John King was waiting for us at Crooked River State Park in Camden County, Georgia's southernmost coastal county. This area features fewer feeder creeks and, therefore, clearer waters along the grassy beds, making conditions more favorable for the redfish.

Born and raised in the vicinity of St. Marys and nearby Fernandina Beach, Fla., Capt. King has been an avid fisherman for as long as he can remember. Known as a local angling expert, he now shares his knowledge of fishing the St. Marys area by guiding for a number of inshore species including speckled trout, flounder, cobia and tarpon, along with redfish.

Soon we were on the water in the shadows of Crab Island, in sight of the U.S. Navy's submarine base at Kings Bay. This large island in the Hog Hammock portion of the bay was created from spoil resulting from the dredging of channels for the nuclear submarines. Following Capt. King's direction and his knowledge of the area, Capt. Evans deftly guided his boat along the Spartina grass islands and submerged shell beds.

A tide moving at a fast rate is the most productive sort for redfish action, and this morning, the current was outgoing. Sure enough, it wasn't long before my shrimp offering was seized by what I thought was a large redfish. After a brief struggle, I reeled in what turned out to be not what I'd imagined, but rather an 8 1/2-pound black drum! As the day progressed, we successfully boated a number of redfish, a few of which exceeded 28 inches. We also caught and released several specks and more black drum.

In addition to red drum, Capt. Evans guides for other inshore species such as speckled trout, flounder, shark, tarpon and mackerel. He normally fishes from Two-Way Fish Camp, which is in Darien just south of the Altamaha River bridge, but this day, his decision -- based on over 30 years of experience -- to fish farther south turned out to be a wise one.

THE GUIDE

Capt. Evans' familiarity with the southern coastal waters of Georgia comes in part from years of working in law enforcement. Mike Evans spent eight years with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources as a marine patrol officer and is now in his 19th year as a senior instructor with the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center outside of Brunswick. The training center's Marine Division provides maritime law enforcement training courses for federal as well as state and local law enforcement agencies.

Mike Evans and the other staff members provide four weeks of classroom training as well as instruction on the water. Topics covered in the curriculum include boat-handling skills, night navigation, offshore navigation, vessel intercepts and boarding, as well as extensive officer safety instruction. Students also learn methods for handling and discharging firearms on a moving vessel and coldwater survival and recovery techniques.

FLETC graduates work for government agencies such as Customs, the Border Patrol, the Secret Service and any other bureaus that require marine law enforcement missions. Demand for the FLETC Marine Training Program, in existence since 1979, has increased greatly since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

While serving in marine law enforcement with the GDNR Marine Patrol, Capt. Evans chanced to hook up with his most notable fishing client: President Jimmy Carter, who became a regular customer as a consequence of their first encounter.

As it happened, Capt. Evans was assigned to provide security on the water for the President and his angling partner as they fished on the Georgia coast during a break from Mr. Carter's Washington duties.

It was turning out to be a slow day, and President Carter's companion -- knowing that Mike Evans guided on these waters -- inquired about locations that might yield better results. When the advice panned out, Carter asked Capt. Evans to join them in their boat, but the offer was politely declined, the officer stating that he was on duty to provide security for their vessel. But the president insisted, saying that Capt. Evans' partner could handle his boat.

When the commander in chief calls, you answer! Capt. Evans acceded to fishing with the presidential party that day, and has since guided Jimmy Carter on numerous occasions in the ensuing years.

THE FISH

The red drum is sought year 'round in our coastal waters. Coppery-red, with distinct black spots near its tail, it's prized both as a challenging game fish and as delicious table fare.

Red drum spend their first three to four years in the rivers and marshes, gorging there on shrimp, crabs and baitfish. Ravenous feeders, they can in their first year grow at a rate of an inch a month. Spring fingerlings can reach 8 to 10 inches by July, and by late fall grow to a length of 16 to 18 inches. When maturity is attained, and they measure 27 to 30 inches in length, redfish move to nearshore ocean waters; spawning takes place at river inlets from late summer through the fall months.

Georgia's red drum generally don't migrate, instead living out their lives within a few miles of the sites at which they were spawned. As fish grow older and get larger, however, they do move from inshore to offshore bars and reefs.

Because of increased fishing pressure, protective measures have been taken with this species. State regulations for red drum allow only those in the 14- to 23-inch range to be kept; the creel limit is five fish per day.

THE FISHING CYCLE

Late summer on through the fall is prime time for redfishing. Large schools of 14- to 18-inch red drum can be found in this

period.

During the winter months, the reds continue as active quarry. They're larger, and less likely to school up. On cold days, seek out "black" mudflats, which are usually back in coves near feeder creeks. At midday, as the sun warms the dark mudflats, bait will be attracted to the warmer water -- and the reds will follow.

Even though any strongly moving tide is generally favorable, inshore anglers in our state usually prefer the neap tides, rather than the full-moon tides. The extreme high tides that occur during a full or new moon generally flush a lot of muddy water into the sounds, making the fishing difficult. Relatively clear water is important for inshore success.

Redfish stalk baitfish far into the grassy marshes on an incoming tide. The tails of the reds can often be seen sticking out of the shallow water as they feed on the muddy bottom, a behavior referred to as "tailing." As the tide begins to fall, look for small creek mouths to which the redfish retreat, there to lie in dropoffs, waiting in ambush for baitfish to return to deeper water.

TACKLE

Redfish are opportunistic feeders. "If they see or smell it, they will in most cases try it," Capt. Evans asserted.

Live shrimp is the primary bait. At times when shrimp are less plentiful -- usually during their spawning season -- mud minnows, pogies (a.k.a. menhaden) and small finger mullet 2 1/2 inches in length are reliable substitutes. Artificial lures can work quite successfully as well, but you must have clear water for these to function properly. Evan's favorites are spoons, suspending crankbaits, soft plastics on jigheads, and topwater lures.

Capt. Evans favors medium-action spinning gear with rods that have a fast taper. Another option: a baitcaster using 50-pound-test braided line with 10- to 15-pound-test leader. The newer braided lines are extremely thin, but the heavier poundage makes it easier to cast the line. Also, the braided line floats, the better to maneuver the float and live shrimp over the sharp oyster beds.

Because red drum so often occupy shallow waters, they're a favorite target of fly-rodders. Since the seatrout and reds were cooperating on the day we were fishing, we decided to break out the fly rods -- and we weren't disappointed: The trout took to our Clousers readily.

Seven- to 9-weight fly rods of a length of at least 9 feet are optimal here. Even when you're out for trout and small puppy drum, the advantage conferred by a heavier rod is evident when you cast into a stiff wind, or throw a heavier fly such as a Clouser. The extra backbone the 8- or 9-weights provide is helpful in less-than-ideal saltwater conditions.

Orange-and-tan or orange-and-brown are favorite color combinations for Clouser Minnows; these most likely look like either shrimp or small crabs to the reds. The standby chartreuse-and-white Clouser can yield positive outcomes, too, and other shrimp and crab imitations can fool a fish or two.

Some local fly-casters like to put rattles in their flies, declaring it to be an advantageous move in our often-murky coastal waters. Gold Spoon Flies and Lefty's Deceivers are also worth a try. Weedguards are of help on the hooks, especially when you cast onto the grassy flats.

Being on a boat with a smooth and clean casting deck is important, because such a deck offers nothing for the fly line to tangle on. It'd also be a good idea to request that the captain remove any rods from the upright holders and lay them on the bottom of the boat; no captain likes to have his personal rods "clipped" by a wayward fly line. (I speak from experience on this!)

Of course a trolling motor is necessary for easing along the banks quietly. Capt. Evans was quite adept at keeping us within fly-rod-casting range of the target areas, which can be a challenge in coastal winds.

WRAPPING IT UP

Red drum can be chased at any time of the year in most conditions on the Peach State coast. Clear water is a basic need, but other tide and temperature situations can all be overcome just by learning the patterns of the red drum in particular areas under various conditions. If it's not practical to invest the time required to master those, we're fortunate in having the option to call on experts like Capt. Mike Evans and Capt. John King, for whom fishing along the slice of salt water that is Georgia's is less a job than a way of life.

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