These two locations are noted as vacation destinations with plenty of historical significance. But for anglers, it is their fall redfish action that offers up a siren call!
The Vilano Bridge provides the backdrop as Capt. Kevin Faver and Bill Benedict display the kind of redfish that are showing up in the St. Augustine Inlet basin. Photo by Bud Reiter
By Bud Reiter
It's no secret that tourism is one of the Sunshine State's biggest industries. So, too, is sportfishing. Given the excellent weather we normally enjoy in October, this is a great month to combine both. Here's a look at two destinations that provide not only an enjoyable vacation, but also some of the best opportunities for redfish that you find anywhere in the South.
ST. AUGUSTINE America's oldest city has long been a prime tourist destination, and when it comes to sportfishing action, few locales in northeast Florida can match the variety you find here. Trout, redfish, flounder, bluefish, black drum and jack crevalle highlight the inshore action in the Intracoastal Waterway, although tarpon and the occasional snook also blast a bait or lure every now and then. A run out of the St. Augustine Inlet can put you in touch with kingfish, cobia, tarpon, big bull reds and a variety of sharks within a mile of the beach. Anglers venturing farther offshore find the full gamut of pelagic species, from marlin to dolphin, as well as a wealth of bottom fish.
It is truly a piscatorial smorgasbord, but it does require that you time not only the season, but the tides. Also, be willing to head out to where the fish are.
Fortunately, if you're visiting this October, there is an exciting fishery available for monster reds, and it's about as convenient as one could want.
"We have been catching big bull redfish from pogy pods along the beaches during the summer for the last half-dozen years," said local guide Capt. Kevin Faver, "and in the fall, we find those same big reds around the jetties at the inlet. But in 2002, they actually moved into the inlet basin itself, and the fishing was incredible. It was something that we had not seen before."
It was also incredibly convenient. In fact, some of the best action occurred a little more than 1/4 mile from the Vilano boat ramp!
Big bull reds - those in the 20- to 50-pound class - are no strangers to the First Coast, although they may have been one of its best-kept secrets in years past. During the fall months for the last 20 or so years, monster reds have surprised many an angler dangling a bait for whiting, bluefish and pompano in the surf around the jetties, or from the rock jetty walls themselves. More recently in the last six to seven years, a strong summer beach fishery for these big reds has also developed, centered on the pods of menhaden (pogies) that migrate along the First Coast shore.
What surprised many knowledgeable anglers last year, however, was the big bull reds moving inside the inlet. It was, in short, phenomenal!
"It was no trick to go just off the ramp, on the right tide, and catch a half-dozen redfish in the 20- to 40- pound class," said Faver. "For some reason, they were there in large numbers, and I have no doubt that they'll be back during the fall this year."
Some biologists think the expanding population of big breeder redfish on the First Coast dictates that they would seek to expand their range. After all, if you have a wad of 20- to 50-pound reds in a small area, some would tend to branch out and seek new food sources and territory. That appears to be, according to the best estimates from both biologists and guides, what is happening around the St. Augustine Inlet during the fall mullet run.
Just knowing the reds are in the inlet, however, is not enough. To battle what could be the biggest redfish of a lifetime, Capt. Faver offered some important tips on timing the fishing.
"These big reds show up in the inlet basin sometime around mid-September and will be there until early November," Faver noted. "The last one I caught in 2002 was on the 13th of November. They are following the annual fall mullet run. Their locations, at least for the largest concentrations of them, are fairly predictable."
The inlet basin isn't large, but there is a very diverse depth and bottom topography. The shoreline flats begin to drop off at the 5- to 6-foot depth range and then plunge to the 15- to 20-foot range fairly quickly. Near the inlet itself, depths increase to the 35- to 40-foot-plus range. Adding to this variety, there are numerous sandbars and open-water ridges scattered throughout the basin. Faver normally starts in the 15- to 20-foot-depth range, especially in those areas located near a sharp drop.
"There are a lot of holes out in that basin and a very undulating bottom," he explained, "and you can have a drop from 8 feet to 20 feet right in the middle of the channel because of that rolling bottom. I want to be in those 15- to 20-foot holes off of the drops, and not up on the ridges themselves."
Tide also plays a critical roll in this angling. There is a large volume of water moving through the inlet area, and the current at the peak of the tide can be swift.
"If you fish on the peak of the tide," Faver said, "you may have to use three or more ounces of weight to get a bait down to the bottom. I prefer to fish the last part of the outgoing tide when the current speed has begun to slack off, because you get a better bait presentation."
When it comes to bait, the captain is a firm believer in giving them what they came for.
"If the current speed allows you to fish a live mullet," he said, "that is my first choice. These big reds are following the mullet and that's what they are primarily feeding on. A live finger mullet in the 4- to 6-inch range is hard to beat, and these can normally be gotten rather easily by cast-netting in the immediate area. One important thing is to hook them upwards through the bottom of the lips and out the top, almost between the eyes. This gives the bait a natural appearance in the current. If you hook them through the back or under the tail, you will get far fewer hits from reds."
If the current is running too strongly for mullet, Faver has a back-up bait.
"These reds will eat a half a bluefish filet very quickly," he notes. "There are a lot of 'snapper' blues in the inlet during the fall mullet run, so it's not normally hard to catch some of those on a spoon or a jig, or almost any small piece of cut bait. You even pick some up on finger mullet. I keep several legal-sized blues and cut half-filet bait strips from them. They wor
k very well in a heavy current and are a good bull red bait."
When it comes to tackle, Faver avoids light gear. The use of light gear results in overly long fights, which can stress the redfish excessively. He opts for 7-foot sturdy medium/heavy-action casting rods mated with baitcasting reels spooled with a quality 20-pound monofilament line. A barrel swivel is tied onto the end of the main line, and a two-foot section of 50-pound mono is attached to that. A sliding egg sinker weighing 1 to 2 ounces - depending upon current speed - is slipped onto that leader, and another swivel is tied off below it. Another 2-foot section of 50-pound line joins that and is adorned with a 3/0 or 4/0 bronze circle hook.
"It's important to use a bronze hook, and not stainless," Faver explained. "That (circle) hook will normally catch them in the corner of the jaw, but if it gets down too far to be removed, you can just cut the line and the hook will rust out. A stainless hook will cause the fish problems, and we don't want that. These reds are far above the maximum size limit of 27 inches, so they have to be released anyway, and we want that fish to swim off in good shape."
Faver also advises additional steps to ensure the fish survives.
"You're going to have to spend some time reviving these fish, even with heavier tackle," he admonished, "or its chances of survival decrease. These are too precious a resource to waste, and no one wants to see one floating belly up. A Boga Grip is a real handy tool for that, because I can get it on his lower jaw, hang onto the tail with the other hand, and keep the fish upright while I work water over its gills. There is normally enough current in the basin so that you don't have to idle the boat along to do that. Just hold the fish's head into the current and don't let go until it starts to kick its tail. They let you know when they are ready to go, and if they are revived they swim straight down. If one does float belly up, I move over to it and give it a gentle prod in the belly. That will normally make them flip over and dart off. If not, I work him in the current some more. This is really a world-class fishery for these trophy reds, and it's worth the time it takes to preserve it."
To book a day of guided fishing for these bull redfish around St. Augustine, contact Capt. Kevin Faver at (904) 829-0027. He also hosts a Saturday morning outdoor radio show from 7 to 10 a.m. on 690 WOKV-AM out of Jacksonville.
CEDAR KEY The picturesque island community of Cedar Key sits at the end of State Road 24 in Levy County. Although it's not very large, it boasts a number of quality restaurants and craft shops that have made it a popular tourist destination. Like St. Augustine, it also offers outstanding fishing.
What sets Cedar Key apart from surrounding waters is that it actually forms an extending point jutting from the shallow backwaters of the Gulf Coast, well into the Gulf of Mexico itself. This forms a critical meeting place between lush, shallow grass and oyster flats with the deeper Gulf waters. In fact, in some places less than 2,000 yards separate 20-foot open Gulf depths from 2-foot grass flats. Dotting the area are a number of shallows replete with lush grass and oyster beds, a number of smaller keys, and an interconnecting maze of deeper cuts and channels. In that respect, it is rather unusual terrain for the Big Bend area of Florida's west coast. These conditions have not been lost upon the fish, nor on the anglers who pursue them.
"This area has always been a magnet for game fish," said veteran guide Capt. Jimmy Keith, "and if you look at a map it's not hard to see why. It's not really much different than a big grassy point sticking out into deeper water on a largemouth bass lake, and that's going to draw a lot of forage fish. The predators will be right behind them."
The piscatorial menu is almost as varied as that of St. Augustine. And much in the same way, it can be seasonal. In October, that means redfish - big schools of redfish!
"October is the month when our reds gather up into massive schools," Keith said, "and some of those schools can be incredible."
That may be an understatement. I have personally seen schools of 4- to 6-pound redfish that were 20 yards wide, 100 yards long and packed as tight as a can of sardines! Just how many fish were in that school is impossible to tell. But every cast brought a hard strike, and a half-dozen fish following the hooked one to the boat.
Best of all, this is an absolute shallow water, grass and oyster shell, lure-chunkin' paradise. You can fish bait if you want, and some do. Live finger mullet or a chunk of cut mullet on a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jighead is popular with many. But this is one of the best places in the state for wearing yourself out on reds by tossing lures on 8- to 14-pound spinning or casting gear. It's not hard to see why the area is so good.
"The entire Cedar Key area inside of Seahorse Key is one big grass flat dotted with some deeper holes and cut by a maze of channels," Keith explained. "Those big schools of reds don't have to leave the area when the tide drops out. They just drop back to a hole or a channel on the low tide and then follow the baitfish up to the island shorelines on the high tide. It's very predictable, and the tide pretty much determines where you find redfish."
Anglers who time their arrival around the last two hours of the incoming tide and the first two hours of the outgoing tide are best served by doing exactly what the reds are doing - following the baitfish right up to the Spartina grass and oyster-laden shorelines of the numerous keys. Top bets here are the west side of Snake Key, inside McCrarys Cove, the northeast side of Seahorse Key, and anywhere around Deadmans Key.
Top lures include the ubiquitous gold spoon or a jighead with plastic tail in chartreuse and red or pearl colors. Also, topwater lures produce fish if the light is dim. Bigger reds have an affinity for surface baits, and while they may lack the grace of a snook on the strike, they make up for it in their level of enthusiasm for the task. Watching a 30-inch red eat a topwater plug is worth the price of admission.
If there is a lot of oyster shell along the shoreline, however, Keith opts for a somewhat unconventional lure.
"The floating gold Rat-L-Trap is absolutely deadly on redfish over shallow oyster," he said. "It provides the same strike-producing stimulus as a gold spoon, and reds love them, but it floats at rest and won't dive more than a couple of feet on the retrieve. You can lose a lot of spoons over oyster, but it's hard to lose a Trap, because if it does hang up you just throw some slack in the line and it will normally float off."
On the bottom of the tide, savvy anglers hunt the deeper-water cuts adjacent to the keys. There are numerous potholes and deeper cuts just off these isles that provide a low-water refuge for the reds.
The same lures can work here, but hard-plastic jerkbaits that can be twitched two to four feet below the surface work best. A white with red head color pattern
can be deadly.
To book a day of guided fishing for reds around Cedar Key, contact Capt. Jimmy Keith at (352) 472-7296.
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Take your pick - east or west. You can't go wrong with either of these destinations for redfish this month.
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