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Reds On Top

Reds On Top

Few angling experiences are as exciting as taking a fish on a topwater bait. When it comes to redfish, Pine Island Sound offers plenty of such opportunities! (July 2007)

Florida Game & Fish editor Jimmy Jacobs displays the kind of redfish that Pine Island Sound yields to topwater presentations this month.
Photo by Polly Dean.

One of the most amusing and exciting sights in inshore saltwater angling occurs when topwater baits are used for redfish. The placement of this fish's mouth is what biologists refer to as "inferior." No, it's not of lower quality! It points down, much like a bonefish's mouth.

Redfish prefer to feed down, near or on the bottom, much of the time. Because of their mouths' placement, when they come up to the surface, they often have trouble taking the bait. Hookups are somewhat less likely, but since you can see all the action, the excitement level is much higher -- so things sort of balance out.

I suspect that the majority of fishermen chasing reds use live bait. But not only are surface plugs much more exciting to use, but under the correct conditions, they are incredibly effective as well.

Pine Island Sound has one of the best fisheries in the state for reds. Capt. Rick DePaiva knows both the waters of the sound and how to catch redfish in June using surface lures.


What are the correct conditions?

"I like a low, incoming tide at that time of year," Capt. DePaiva said. "The water is cooler on that tide than at any other time. By June, that makes a big difference. Although I've caught redfish on them in the middle of the day, surface lures generally work best between first light and about 9 a.m., and again from about 4 p.m. until dark.


"I like to fish in shallow water, over flats with thick turtle grass on the bottom," he continued. "The flat needs to be surrounded by deeper water, as much as seven feet or more. The fish seem to prefer the shallow flats where they have easy access to the safety of deep water nearby."

After finding a flat, knowing when to target is also important.

"I want a low tide that measures 1.0 or less on the tide table," DePaiva noted. "That's the highest low tide on which you can still see the tailers. During June, those tides are the 'hill' tides at Boca Grande. Everyone is tarpon fishing, and you have the redfish flats pretty much to yourself. During the summer, the fish tail best on an incoming tide because of that influx of cool, oxygenated water.

"Other things I look for when picking a place to fish are active mullet and wading birds, especially great blue herons and great egrets. If conditions are right and the birds are there, it's going to be a happening time."



A plethora of surface baits are available to the saltwater spin-fisherman. We can take all those saltwater baits and roughly divide them into five basic categories.

First are the stickbaits -- a simple design exemplified by Heddon's Zara Spook. The Rebel Jumpin' Minnow, Bill Lewis's ThunderStick, Yo-Zuri's Banana Boat, and Bagley's Jumping Mullet are other excellent examples of this type of plug.

These lures cast very well, but have little if any built-in action. They depend on the angler's rod manipulation to entice the fish.

Although it takes some practice to learn the retrieve, which is a zigzagging motion known as "walking-the-dog," fishermen who master it take a lot of fish. Reds, trout, snook, and tarpon all aggressively attack these plugs.

Although conventional wisdom holds that this type of lure is best used when the wind is light and the water surface smooth, stickbaits equipped with rattles work in a good stiff chop, too.

The second type of surface plugs come equipped with propellers. These "prop" baits come in a variety of different shapes, but two of the most popular are Rhoden's Johnny Rattler and the Devil's Horse, manufactured by Smithwick. Again, these lures require some degree of angler manipulation for maximum effectiveness. Because of the noise made by propellers and internal rattles, they work well in windy conditions.

The next types are the floater-diver minnows, with models made by Rapala, Rebel, and Bomber. While not strictly surface plugs, these "jerkbaits" can be slowly twitched on top and around structure such as fallen trees or oysters in shallow water, then retrieved more rapidly for a subsurface presentation the rest of the way.

This feature makes them particularly effective around channel edges and other types of dropoffs. The greatest advantage of these lipped minnow-type plugs is that they have built-in action and are easiest to use.

Their main disadvantage is their relatively low density and high wind resistance. That makes them a poor choice on windy days or when long casts are necessary.

Next are the popper/chugger designs. Some good ones are Storm's Chug Bug, the Yo-Zuri Hydro Tiger, and the Rebel Pop-R. These lures cast a long way, and make a lot of noise -- characteristics that make them excellent baits to use when the water surface is rough.

Finally, there are some soft-plastic jerkbaits that can be used as surface baits. A lure called the Bait Buster is a mullet imitation manufactured by DOA Lures. The shallow runner sinks when at rest, but it can be retrieved right along the surface and results in explosive strikes. Furthermore, it has only one hook -- an important consideration in today's world of catch-and-release angling.

Most of the soft-plastic jerkbaits can be rigged so that they are almost completely weedless. Some of the better ones include the RipTide Flats Chub, the DOA CAL Jerk Bait, the Bass Assassin Saltwater Shad, and the Cotee Reel Magic.

Also from DOA Lures is a soft-plastic popping head that can be used with almost all soft-plastic jerkbaits, turning any of them into a weedless, single-hook popper. What a diabolically clever idea!

"I like the Rapala Skitter Walk and the Heddon Zara Spook, as far as hard baits go," Capt. DePaiva offered. "The Skitter Walk is a noisy chugger with a rattle inside. When it's choppy, it has a great deal of fish-calling power. The Zara Spook works best under slick calm conditions, when I feel I don't really even need the rattle. They both have an erratic zigzag action, and they displace water like a finger mullet would.

"When there's a lot of floating grass, I like to use soft-plastics because the gang hooks on the plugs just foul all the time," he added. "The DOA Chug Head on their 3-inch CAL Shad tail makes a great bait. It's a deadly combination that gurgles and chugs, and has the kicking tail that adds to the appeal when the fish get close to strike.

"I also like using the shallow running DOA Bait Buster. I cast it out and hold the rod tip high, reeling it just fast enough that it forms a 'V' on the surface of the water. I've had good success with redfish with that as well."


For flyfishers, there are fewer options as far as terminal tackle design goes. Here are the choices:

Sliders have a pointed face, and therefore make very little noise. Their main attraction to the fish is the wake they create on the surface. They're best used when the water is calm and very shallow -- a situation where a noisy lure would spook the fish.

Divers float at rest and dive when retrieved. The Dahlberg Diver is the best known of these flies. These are wonderful choices when the water quickly drops off from shallow to deep, in areas such as oyster bars, or on days when the fish seem reluctant to take on the surface.

You can attract the attention of redfish by popping the fly a few times, then dive it underneath with a steady retrieve. The bubble trail these flies leave seems very appealing to a wide variety of game fish.

Another trick is to use these divers on a sinking line. This gets the fly down and gives it an action achievable in no other way.

Of course, then it's not "on top." Pardon my digression.

Poppers have a blunt or concaved face and pop and gurgle when retrieved. These are my personal favorites, especially for wade-fishing when actually seeing fish is difficult due to the low sight angle to the water.

I've always felt that the more of the fish's senses you can appeal to, the better your chances of a strike. Poppers appeal to both sight and hearing, and again, are good choices when it's windy and the water is rough.

These flies are made from deer hair, plastic foam, balsa wood, cork and other materials. What you choose depends of your personal preference or what's available.

I like both deer hair and foam, but tend not to use cork and balsa. Certainly the floatability and durability of foam fly-rod lures is unmatched by any other material.


Regardless of the type of lure you prefer, here are some common tips for using them.

The first is to keep the bait moving. Redfish are not largemouth bass; they have no interest in a stationary lure. If a red follows the bait and doesn't take it, continue at a steady pace or speed up the retrieve, rather than slowing down. If you slow down, the fish usually veer off and won't take. They may not take when you speed up, either, but the odds are much better that they will.

Second, when a redfish commits to the lure, he eats it 80 to 90 percent of the time. Short strikes are almost always caused by a fouled lure, most often when the hooks have caught some floating grass or other debris.

Short of modifying the plug by changing the hook arrangement, there's nothing to be done about this, but to clean off the hooks and try again. At least you know that there's a fish out there, and that it's interested. If the problem persists, change to a single-hook soft-plastic bait.

Reds may have a hard time getting the bait in their mouth, especially when in very shallow water. Again, surface lures may not put as many fish in the boat as other types, but the visuals frequently make their use worthwhile anyway.

If there's a lot of floating grass, I find that short casts are more effective, simply because the plug doesn't have as much time to foul before you cast it again. Sometimes there's so much floating grass that you have no other choice but to use jerkbaits or subsurface bait!

Third, use a loop knot to attach the lure to the line. The loop gives the bait maximum freedom to swing and sway, especially if a shock leader is used. Never use a snap or a swivel. Not only are these pieces of hardware unnecessary, they adversely affect the action of the bait.

Next, if the water clarity permits, try to actually see some fish before beginning to cast. Look for tails, wakes, cruising fish, or best of all, fish attacking bait. It may take some time to locate them, but you can always fish harder and with a lot more confidence if you know there are fish in the area where you're casting.

Lastly, experiment some to see which plug and retrieve combination works best for you. When I fish with friends, often we'll both be throwing the same lure. One person usually outfishes the other. I think the major reason for this is minor variations in our style of retrieve: The fish just find one retrieve with that particular bait more appealing. So develop a relationship with your favorite lures. You catch more fish with them that way!

"When I see a wake," Capt. DePaiva explained, "I cast beyond the wake and retrieve in what is almost an intercept path. I want the lure to almost approach the fish. I actually want it to cross his path up in front of him a foot or so, so he can just accelerate a bit and nail it.

"If I see a group of fish tailing -- eight, 10, 12 fish -- I first see what direction they're moving in," he continued. "Our fish tend to move when they tail, and not sit in one place grubbing. Once I know where they're going, I again want the lure to intercept them, out in front of them.

I don't want it to approach them directly or come right through them, because a lot of times that will spook them. You have better success by leading them.

"I usually sight-fish for reds with these lures. But you can have good success blind-casting too. It's not just heaving it out and hoping for the best, though. You cast past sandy potholes in the grass and retrieve the bait over the hole. In June, it's still best to do this on a low incoming tide. The fish concentrate in those potholes, and it can be very effective."

Of course, some days when you have a chance to fish, you don't have a low, incoming tide.

"You can get redfish on higher tides by fishing around the mangrove islands," the captain assured. "You almost have to use soft-plastic baits for this, though. What you want to do is skip the bait up under overhanging limbs. Since Hurricane Charlie, it matters how alive the trees are. The fish like the bushes that have a lot of leaves on them, since they provide more shade.

"In general, I like lower tides for redfish. The fish ten

d to concentrate in certain areas then, making them easier to find and a lot easier to see."


There are a few other things to think about as well, such as your line.

"I like to use 10-pound Power Pro for this with a 25-pound-test fluorocarbon leader, unless I'm fishing the shoreline bushes," Capt. DePaiva went on. "Then I use a 30-pound leader. While you don't need a 25-pound leader for redfish, we have a lot of snook here, too. And you do need it for them."

In addition to the excitement of watching the fish attack the lure, there are other advantages to using surface baits for redfish. You never have to buy, catch, or handle live bait. Getting hung up on the bottom becomes a thing of the past. Catfish seldom hit surface plugs.

But what I like best is the number of other desirable species that eagerly eat a topwater bait. Seatrout of all sizes hit them with a vengeance. Snook, jacks, bluefish, tarpon, ladyfish, even mangrove snapper, have all been taken while plugging for reds.

So try for Pine Island Sound reds on top, and experience some new excitement while fishing for reds!

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