Rounding Up The Bulls

You don't need a cow pony for this roundup. But to handle the bull redfish on the Magnolia State coast, you're going to need some seriously stout fishing tackle! (August 2006)

Big redfish can show up very close to the shore along the Mississippi barrier islands.
Photo by Robert L. Brodie.

Sometime back in the early 1970s, a curious phenomenon swept the Gulf of Mexico off the Mississippi coast: Anglers -- specifically those aboard the Magnolia State's charter boat fleet -- learned how to catch bull redfish from the massive schools that prowled outside Mississippi's barrier islands.

After a while, everyone, recreational anglers included, had picked up on the tactics needed to catch the big bronzeback bruisers. Coinciding with that era of no limits -- and around the same time, was the blackened redfish craze, which hit restaurants like a Gulf hurricane. Diner demand for the redfish fillets created incredible pressure on the stock of spawners, and commercial boats deploying purse-seines and gill nets boats got in on the action, catching fish by the hundreds in one sitting. The large schools dwindled even faster.

By the '80s, bull red numbers had plummeted. Realizing the severe damage done to the stocks, state and federal legislation was passed to protect both offshore breeders and the smaller fish maturing inshore.

With netting banned and strict creel limits enforced for hook-and-line anglers, the fish have made a noticeable comeback over the years. Now those big schools of fish can once again be seen turning the water red as they rise to the surface and erupt into pods of baitfish.

It was an ugly way to learn a lesson, but at least it made it evident that, through proper management, fish stocks can be brought back from over fishing. Today Mississippi anglers are only allowed three redfish per angler per day with a minimum length of 18 inches, and, to reduce the pressure on big spawners, only one fish can be more than 30 inches long.

SLOW-TROLLING

The most exciting among the various methods for catching bull redfish is slow-trolling. Beginning in August and September, massive schools of these fish begin to concentrate outside Mississippi's barrier islands and off the north end of the Chandeleur Islands. The urge to spawn triggers this annual ritual, and for anglers who spend the time trolling in these regions, the rewards can be incredible once fish are located.

The Mississippi charter fleet is again out in the Gulf of Mexico, looking for these redfish. Today, however, they don't damage the schools, as they did in the past. The fleet works as a team in order to locate the schools. Once they are found, the news is quickly passed on via VHF radio. If you see a number of boats suddenly steaming toward a specific area, odds are good that a school of bull redfish has been rounded up.

At times, fish may be spotted simply swimming along just beneath the surface with water pushing over their foreheads, or they may be smashing bait on the surface. Those targets may be schools of Spanish mackerel, bonito, red minnows and blue runners, (commonly referred to as "hardtails").

Once baitfish or the redfish themselves are spotted, you want to avoid trolling through the middle of them, instead making a large circle along their outer edge, thus swinging the trailing lines through the activity. Going right through the fish usually sends them down and scatters the school. By not disturbing the main feeding frenzy, you stand a greater chance of the reds staying on the surface, where you can keep track of them.

Be particularly aware that when fish are located, and you know they're near, under, or behind the boat, you need to slow down to near-idle and let the baits sink. When approached, the reds quite often sound, and to get the spoons down to the fish you have to reduce speed to let the trolling leads pull the lures deeper.

However, when the speed is reduced, the action of the spoons is also hampered. To restore lifelike action to the spoon, remove the rod from its holder and work the tip up and down, thus causing the spoon to flutter quickly forward and then to wobble slowly downward. The rapid forward movement of the lure usually excites the fish, and then, on the fall, the red takes a swipe at it.

During such action, it's smart to have someone always keeping a close watch on the depthfinder, as pods of reds often register on the screen. That provides information on how deep they are and what sort of adjustment is needed in trolling speed and trolling weights in order to get the lines down to the fish.

RIGGING UP FOR TROLLING

Trolling for offshore redfish requires some stout tackle. For example, my tackle consists of 4/0 Penn Special Senators and Shimano TLD 25s spooled with 50- to 80-pound-test fluorocarbon line. The rods are 6-foot medium-action stand-up models, which make for relatively lightweight rigs that still enable you to whip big Gulf bulls easily.

For terminal tackle, tie a heavy-duty non-shiny snap swivel to the end of the line. This enables you to snap on trolling leads or planers needed to carry the spoons down to the redfish below. As for planers, sizes No. 2 or 3 are best for these deep diving devices. Besides planers, heavy trolling leads in 8- to 16-ounce sizes make excellent options for pulling large spoons into the Gulf's depths. These can be attached singly or in tandem using double-ended snaps.

Next comes the leader and lure, which is usually a spoon. To create the leader, go with 15-feet of clear 100-pound-test monofilament line. On one end attach a heavy-duty snap swivel, which will connect to the back end of the trolling weight or planer. Finally, on the free end of the leader, you tie on the lure.

A wide variety of shiny, wobbling spoons will entice bull redfish. However, anglers cite a handful of such baits as time-tested fish-catchers. Among these deadly metal wobblers are Drone Spoons in sizes No. 3 1/2 to 4; Tony Acetta Pet Spoons in No. 18 and No. 19; and Clark Diamond Jig Spoons in sizes No. 3 through 6.

Be aware that spoons as small as a No. 3 Clark will fool big reds, but they must be rigged on lighter leader material such as 50-pound test. Using heavier leaders can take the action out of the lighter baits. And since they have small hooks, it's important to keep a loose drag for when a big fish strikes and begins ripping off line.

Another bonus of these lures when you're searching for offshore redfish: Dragging a couple of them can attract Spanish mackerel and bonito. Besides being fun to catch, as mentioned earlier, bull reds feed on these fish, so you're also practicing a f

orm of chumming by getting them near your boat!

SHOTGUN RIGS

Many anglers keep "shotgun" rigs at the ready in case the opportunity arises for casting to surface-feeding redfish. Shotgun rigs usually consist of 30-pound-class spinning or baitcast setups. If fish are running fast or tend to sound before the boat can get trolling line through the schools, a shotgun rig enables you to cast to the fish from a fair distance away.

Plus, shotgun rigs give you a chance to battle these Gulf gamesters on much lighter tackle. Bull redfish can be incredible adversaries on lighter gear, and in deep water they will sound, obliging you to work them back up slowly from the depths.

If the fish are working bait like crabs or red minnows on the top, big, noisy surface plugs provoke exciting surface strikes. Since the big surface lures are adorned with multiple treble hooks, make sure to handle them with care when casting, bringing a thrashing fish onboard, or even when setting a hook near the boat. Treble hooks flying through the air can be quite dangerous projectiles.

If topwater plugs aren't your bag, tie on a deep sinking jig. Jigs are extremely effective too, because they can cover the whole water spectrum from the surface to the Gulf's sandy floor.

When a school of reds suddenly disappears from the surface, cast to their location and let the jig free fall through the depths, making it possible for the jig to get within range of fish lurking anywhere in the water column and draw arm-jolting strikes as it free-falls or is jigged up from below.

In the jig department, numerous fast sinkers will fool these offshore bulls; either a 4-ounce SPRO Bucktail Jig or a 5-ounce Snapper Slapper Jig is an excellent choice.

ANCHOR UP

AND BOTTOM-FISH

For an alternative method of catching big bulls, go to bottom-fishing. This stationary form of angling can be quite relaxing -- at least until a big red finds your bait soaking on the bottom. According to Biloxi's Capt. Steve West, one of Mississippi's noted light-tackle guides, there are plenty of options for bottom-fishing for bull reds.

"Mississippi's barrier islands offer plenty of sites to fish for bull reds, especially all of the isle's major points where deep-water dropoffs run along bars," he offered. "However, most of my bottom fishing is done in Camille Cut, located between the east end of West Ship Island and the west end of east Ship Island.

"For bait I'll use chunks of mullet, big pogies cut in half, half of a big crab, and chunks of ladyfish. Some time back I used ladyfish for bottom fishing and had extremely good success on reds. So now I'll save some of the ladyfish we catch and freeze them for bottom fishing trips.

"I like a big Carolina rig, and use just enough weight to keep the bait on the bottom," he added. "I'll slip the weight on the main line, tie on a black barrel swivel, and then tie on 4 to 5 feet of 100-pound-test monofilament leader material. I like to finish off with a 7/0 circle hook. Circle hooks have a tendency to hook fish in the corner of the mouth, and that makes them excellent for practicing catch-and-release.

"For me, the best times to fish are during a rising or falling tide, but if the tide starts to run too strong, I may have to reanchor behind a point to get out of the strong flow.

"Bottom-fishing in Swash Channel and the deep-water dropoffs near the grassbeds west of the west end of Horn Island are prime bull red sites too," Capt. West concluded. "These bigger fish work their way up and down these bars looking for a meal of crabs, and will travel as a single or sometimes in schools."

REDS ON THE FLY

For the long-rod aficionado, coming face to face with these mature redfish churning on the surface can be a knee-knocking experience. Imagine 20- to 30-pound redfish so thick that they look as if you could walk across their bronze backs -- and you're standing there with a flimsy fly rod in your hand. Although priceless moments like that don't happen every day, anglers who do their homework and keep up with the reds offshore activities can readily experience such enjoyable panic.

However, if you do pursue offshore redfish with fly tackle, you'll need a rod with some real backbone. For this reason, it'd be prudent to gear up with a 10- to 12-weight outfit. Load the reels with a couple of hundred yards of 30-pound-test backing, and go with a fly line equipped with a sinking tip.

The size of the tippet can vary, but a 20-pound tippet works well; a much stronger shock tippet may be added to prevent fraying at the hook area. Remember that you're not fishing for these fish on a shallow flat, but in deep water, say 30 to 45 feet, and they will have to be pumped up from the depths after they decide to dive down. A selection of flies should include big Deceivers, Clousers and Saltwater Poppers, as well as shrimp and crab imitations.

HOTSPOTS & FINAL NOTES

A couple of areas that seem to attract schools of offshore late-season bull reds: the shoals on the west side of the Ship Island Channel, west of West Ship Island; the waters south of Swash Channel, between East Ship Island and Horn Island; the waters outside Camille Cut; and the waters south of West Ship Island, along the Ship Island Channel. At times it can be hard to locate redfish in the vast waters of the open Gulf, so you may have to depend on information on the VHF radio, or look for concentrations of charter boat working a specific area.

Also, a good pair of binoculars will aid in spotting baitfish, redfish and other game fish feeding on the surface, as well as flocks of gulls and terns working over the water. Be aware that you can catch redfish in federal waters, but they have to be released alive and safe. The federal boundary runs approximate 3 miles outside Mississippi's barrier islands, as well as off the Chandeleur Islands so always be aware of your location.

Although August and September are prime months for locating these big offshore bull redfish, it's always prudent to practice catch-and-release to preserve future stocks of these gorgeous, hard-fighting creatures. Always make sure to keep a camera on board so a few quick pictures can be taken of your catch. Then, release your redfish back into the Gulf of Mexico so it can continue to procreate and fight another day. Hey: Keep it safe -- and I'll see you in the Gulf.

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