July 31, 2020
By Larry Larsen
Most inshore anglers who chase tarpon, snook, sea-trout and redfish always hope to catch some that are significantly larger than average. We go where there are good fisheries for our target species, maybe fish deeper and (with the exception of tarpon) use bigger baits to tempt the monsters. We also often rely heavily on luck.
Giant bull redfish, however, are unique. We can sight-fish for them and land colossal catches in clear, fairly shallow waters. As such, enormous reds are on a lot of anglers’ bucket lists, and the portion of the Intracoastal Waterway that spans central Florida’s east coast is the prime spot. Luck is on our side here, as the area has an abundance of "buffalo" redfish in the 40- to 60-pound range, and its flats present relatively clear water for sighting schools of them. In fact, New Smyrna Beach is known as the Redfish Capital of the World.
From Ponce de León Inlet just north of the city southward past Oak Hill and Scottsmoor to Port St. John near Cocoa Beach, anglers can find productive grass flats in the Mosquito Lagoon, Indian River, Banana River and smaller tributaries off the Indian River Lagoon. Making New Smyrna Beach a barrier island, the Indian River Lagoon has 35 miles of shoreline alone along which to chase redfish (sometimes called red drum in other states).
I was fortunate enough to check outsize redfish off my bucket list several years ago in the Indian River Lagoon. Giant reds were roaming grass flats while I was out with friend and guide Shawn Foster. We were scanning the flats for the telltale signs, nervous water and large wakes, when we spotted a small mountain of red in the 3-foot shallows in front of the boat. The school of redfish was moving slowly along the flat, rooting out crabs and unaware of our presence until one of the monsters inhaled my jig and soft-plastic fluke.
I set the hook and the water erupted, my fish tearing off in one direction and the majority of the school heading the other. My light spinning rod bent double as the red protested his indifference to the fight. The struggle lasted about 20 minutes before Shawn slid a net under the exhausted monster, and I held the 49-inch fish high with both arms to admire. We took a girth measurement and estimated the bull to weigh 45 pounds!
Ten minutes later, Shawn noticed more buffaloes roaming the edge of the flat and we moved on them. We took one fish during each of the next four approaches we made on the schools of reds. In the following two hours, we caught and released fish of 27, 35 and 37 pounds, plus another giant weighing 45. Five redfish averaging almost 44 inches and 38 pounds do not, I repeat not, make up an unusual catch from the Intracoastal Waterway running through Volusia and Brevard counties.
These are truly the top waters in the world for catching giant bull redfish, according to captains Bill and Bobby Fisher of Fisher’s Lagoon Charters based in New Smyrna Beach. The two guides are brothers who have fished the Mosquito Lagoon and Indian River areas for more than 45 years. Bob’s largest redfish was around 60 pounds and was caught in the summer on a live pigfish in the Indian River near the Route 406 bridge. He chased that fish half a mile and fought it for 45 minutes before he landed it. Bill’s largest red weighed about 50 pounds and took a mud minnow hooked on a double-tail jig near the Park Avenue launch ramp.
It was during the winter when I recently wet a line with the brothers. Since water temperatures were cooler, we focused on redfish in a couple of areas that had some depth and current, along with high boat traffic. The good thing about chasing redfish in boat-busy areas such as canals, cuts, narrow channels and along inlet jetties is the fish don’t scatter when boats approach, as reds are apt to do on shallower, more remote flats. That makes concentrations of fish easier to locate and target since they don’t normally run from such activity.
We pulled into the channel near the Manatee Zone sign at Haulover Canal, set our anchor and tossed out three lively baitfish. Bobby’s was struck almost immediately, but his hook didn’t connect. One more big red took another of our baits before the action slowed. We relocated inside the canal on the channel side, near a wall of overhanging mangroves and a coquina rock ridge that paralleled the drop. We put out a live croaker, a live mullet and what Bill calls a "talking head" mullet, one with its forward propulsion (tail) strategically removed. The captain says that baitfish presentation is his "secret" weapon.
Only a few minutes had passed when Bob again set the hook and had a battle on his hands. About 20 minutes later, he pulled a giant into Bill’s waiting net. The brothers estimated the 44-inch red to weigh around 40 pounds before taking a couple of photos and releasing it. The fish was a nice one, but Bob noted that he had recently taken a client fishing near our location and she had caught a 55-inch red with a 33-inch girth.
Intracoastal Hot Spots
Few know the area as well as the two U.S. Coast Guard-licensed captains, who have seemingly covered every square inch of water between Ponce Inlet and Cocoa Beach. This is an extensive stretch of water with innumerable places to find redfish, but Bill and Bob suggested some hot spots.
Numerous creeks and bays throughout the Indian River and its lagoon south of Ponce de León Inlet all contain good numbers of redfish, but few are over 20 pounds. One way to find a giant, though, is to fish the outgoing tide at the inlet from the rocks along the north side of its entrance to the end of the jetty. Just south of the inlet is the U.S. Coast Guard Station, and at the north end of the bay past where the Coast Guard keeps its boats, you’ll notice a point of land. Due west of that point and a small bay is a ridge of coquina rock, which is also excellent for big bull redfish.
Two causeway bridges (North and South) span the Indian River at New Smyrna Beach, and fishing directly under them between the center spans can be excellent for giant redfish. One-quarter mile south of the South Causeway bridge in the center of the Indian River North channel, between the manatee signs, is another prime spot.
About a half-mile south from the Park Avenue ramp is Dick’s Cut, which lies in the Intracoastal Waterway between the Indian River North head and Governor’s Cut. Drift the areas of current on an outgoing tide then head south and fish from the entrance to the Blue Hole westward. In front of the legendary Boston Whaler Boat Company docks is a 15-foot-deep hole that also produces giant reds at times, according to Bill.
One of the prime areas in Mosquito Lagoon to locate schools of bull reds is the northwest end of George’s Bar. Be on the lookout for fish that come out of the deep water. Just outside of the Beacon 42 Boat Ramp on the east side of the channel is a sand bar that also attracts big reds. Farther south is Haulover Canal that connects Mosquito Lagoon to the head of the Indian River, and the entire canal may hold giant redfish. The only water flow in the canal, though, is a result of wind action. South and east of Haulover Canal at the south end of Mosquito Lagoon is Whale’s Tail (named for its look on the map). Large schools of bull redfish patrol the open-water flats west of there.
Once you go through Haulover Canal, head north to the flats to locate schools of bulls. To the south, big reds are often caught along the NASA Causeway and under the causeway bridge. In general, you can locate giant reds along most of the bridges (automobile and railroad) across the Intracoastal Waterway. Fish will be concentrated around bridge "fenders," horizontal boards nailed to the pilings to control boat traffic and current through the deepest passage under the spans.
In April and through the summer, prime times on the grass flats, redfish are abundant but the giants in 2 1/2 to 5 feet of water are sometimes skittish. They will quickly move away from an approaching electric trolling motor or boat hull that’s slapping small waves. Calm conditions are great for locating reds, but you must approach them carefully. If the winds are up and blowing across the flats, the fish aren’t as easy to see. The angler is often very close to the fish when he locates them. It can be more difficult to catch the bulls in these conditions.
Prepare for Battle
If you hook up with a giant red near the deep pilings in a channel, around a rock ridge or under a bridge, you’ll need quick reflexes and heavy tackle with a tight drag. You’ll have maybe three seconds to move the fish away from the barnacle-laden structure. Even on the flats, Bill and Bob use 4000-series (or larger) spinning reels matched with 8-foot medium-heavy or heavy rods, 40-pound-test braid, and 40- or 50-pound-test low-stretch leaders. Their favorite leader material is Trik Fish abrasion-resistant fluorocarbon.
For their lively baitfish, the captains employ 7/0 "J" hooks, worm hooks and circle hooks, depending on their clients’ experience and the size of the bait. They catch most of their live bait on hook and line prior to taking out clients. The baitfish are usually about 6 to 8 inches in length, but sometimes the guides will employ fresh cut bait or crab. The primo cut baits for giant redfish, according to the brothers, are ladyfish, tuna, skinny jenny and pigfish.
While the brothers have had some memorable days of catching 100 or more midsize reds on the flats, one stands out in both of their minds. They took a couple of clients to Black Point on the Indian River near Haulover Canal, and they experienced three straight hours of solid action. They caught and released 90 giants, each weighing 30 to 40 pounds, on live pinfish and grub-tail jigs.
"While most schools of giants will take off after you catch one or two fish, this one stuck around," Bill noted. "Every time we brought one to the boat, there would be two or three following the hooked fish!"
Indian River Trip Planner
Anglers bringing their own boats to the Indian River and Mosquito Lagoon area can launch from several ramps, including those located at the North Causeway, Park Avenue, River Breeze Park (just south of the ranger station on State Road A1A), Beacon 42 (off Kennedy Parkway), Bair’s Cove Road (on Haulover Canal) and Biolab Road (south of Haulover Canal). Additionally, there are at least five canoe and kayak launch facilities, and a half dozen full-service marinas in the area. Several bait-and-tackle shops serve the New Smyrna Beach area, and some carry bait.
To book a trip with Fisher’s Lagoon Charters, contact Captain Bill Fisher at 386-212-3009 or Captain Bob Fisher at 386-290-0786, or visit fisherslagooncharters.com. Bob runs a 19-foot Spyder center-console rig with a 115-horsepower outboard that has a 7-inch draft, while Bill has an 18-foot Bossman Skimmer powered by a 90-horsepower outboard. Both boats have 24-volt trolling motors, Power Pole shallow-water anchors and four aerated bait wells that hold about 100 gallons total.
There is plenty for family members to do in New Smyrna Beach when they’re not on the water fishing. Of course, the 17-mile-long white-sand beach is the area’s top attraction; it is truly one of the best on the East Coast. Visitors can surf North Beach, view wildlife along the undeveloped Canaveral National Seashore, and paddleboard and kayak almost anywhere. The area offers inshore and offshore boating, and even scuba diving on offshore reefs. Numerous trails, parks and preserves are found along the area’s barrier islands. The Mary McLeod Bethune Beach Park is a traffic-free beach that lies between the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian River Lagoon.
Learn about the rich biodiversity of the Indian River Lagoon at the Marine Discovery Center. Take a sunset walk through the Canal Street Historic District, or visit Florida’s tallest lighthouse at the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse and Museum. For some of the best seafood you have ever eaten, grab a table at Blackbeard’s Inn in New Smyrna Beach. SpringHill Suites by Marriott, on Flagler Avenue, offers convenient, comfortable accommodations right on the beach.
For general information on the area, check out the New Smyrna Beach Area Visitors Bureau at visitNSBFL.com. You’ll also find an overview of the area’s fishing opportunities at the site.