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Natural Baits For Red Drum

Natural Baits For Red Drum

The vacation season is in full swing on the Georgia coast, so it's time for some saltwater fishing. If you're targeting red drum, here's what you need to know to catch a few. (July 2008)

Capt. Greg Hildreth shows off a red drum taken along the edge of the marsh grass.
Photo by Capt. Spud Woodward.

Summertime is recognized as the high season for deep-sea fishing in coastal Georgia. Seas are usually calm, and schools of migratory game fish like king mackerel, amberjack and barracuda invade our offshore waters.

However, the months of July and August also offer great inshore fishing for species like redfish. Savvy anglers find these bronze brawlers ready, willing and able to bend a rod even during the hottest times of the year. Natural bait is abundant during the summer, and reds have a hard time passing up the local cuisine.

Compared to many other saltwater game fish, juvenile reds travel very little during the early years of life. Scientific tagging studies have supported many anglers' suspicions: Marked redfish are often captured within a mile of the release location, even after they've been at large for a couple of years. The good news is locations that produced redfish back in the autumn are just as likely to hold fish during the summer.

In the angling jargon of coastal Georgia, a prime fishing location is called a "drop" -- which, I suppose, refers to the simple act of dropping bait in the water, hoping that some cooperative fish will take the offering.

With over 3,400 miles of tidal shoreline, coastal Georgia has plenty of potential fishing drops: natural features such as the mouths of tidal creeks, oyster shell mounds, and the points of marsh islands, and artificial features such as boat wrecks, dock and bridge pilings, mounds of ballast stones, and rock jetties scattered throughout the Georgia coast. All of these have the potential to hold summertime redfish.

Capt. Greg Hildreth guides anglers to redfish, speckled trout, tripletail and other coastal Georgia favorites in the waters near his home in Brunswick. Over the course of a year, he fishes for reds from the uppermost waters in the St. Simons estuary all the way down to the Atlantic Ocean.


"During the summer, I concentrate my efforts in the lower part of the estuary, in an area we refer to as the sound," Hildreth said. "Dozens of creeks connect this large area of open water to the marsh. I look for reds at the mouths of these creeks and oyster shell mounds found just off the edge of the marsh grass."

Most anglers prefer to target reds on the last of the ebbing tide and the first couple of hours of the flooding tide, since the fish are concentrated, and the fish-holding structure is visible. Reds can often be seen in water so shallow that they create a visible wake when they chase prey. A shrimp skipping across the surface or a panicked mullet is also a good sign that redfish are in the vicinity.

When lurking in the shallows, reds are highly sensitive to boat noise. After a winter and spring spent avoiding ravenous bottlenose dolphins and hungry fish-eating birds, it's easy to understand why. They don't mind the sound of other fish feeding, but the splash of an anchor can ruin that spot for the rest of the tide.

Saltwater trolling motors really help anglers get close to the fish quietly. My Minn-Kota Riptide trolling motor allows me to work a stretch of shoreline with minimal disturbance, putting me in casting range of fish that would spook at the sound of an outboard engine. When I find a concentration of fish, I simply ease the anchor into the water and work the spot until it no longer produces.

Coastal Georgia has the highest tidal range of any area in the southeastern United States -- 6 to 9 feet, twice a day. The greater the difference between low and high tide, the more likely coastal waters will be turbid. Fortunately, redfish's keen senses of smell and taste enable them to feed effectively even in murky waters. So don't be turned off just because the water clarity isn't up to standards for speckled trout fishing. Best of all, when the tide rises over 7 feet, redfish push into the flooded marsh grass, offering a sight-fishing opportunity as exciting as anything in the angling world.

"During the winter, I target large schools of reds on the mudflats," Hildreth said. "These schools break up in the spring, and reds go back to feeding on the flooded marsh. By July, flooded-marsh fishing is going full speed. I put one or two anglers in my flats skiff and pole quietly into the grass as soon as the boat will float. It's not uncommon to see dozens of tailing reds, and to have shots at half of what we see. The fish average over 20 inches, so they're a blast on light tackle or fly rod."

It takes a combination of fish sense and experience to separate the scenery from the productive fishing spots. Fortunately, you can take a shortcut to some of this local knowledge: The University of Georgia Marine Extension Service has produced a series of five fishing charts that pinpoint the location of productive fishing areas in all the coastal counties.

Get a bunch of fish biologists together and you'll hear someone say "opportunistic omnivore" when the discussion turns to redfish feeding habits. Redfish will consume just about anything that its olfactory senses recognize as food. Diet studies of juvenile redfish show that marsh crabs top the list of reds' stomach contents, but shrimp, several species of fish, and a smorgasbord of other animal life have also been found in the digestive tract of reds. Recently, a photo of a small, rat-like nutria removed from a redfish caught in Mississippi made the rounds on e-mail, and I've personally seen sand dollars in the stomach of a redfish caught from a barrier-island sandbar.

While it might seem as if you could catch a redfish on a sock dipped in sardine oil, veteran anglers will tell you that it just ain't that simple. Redfish, like all other fish, can be painfully discriminating at times, turning their copper-colored noses up at the tastiest morsel. Yet when compared to most of their kin, reds can be taken on a variety of natural baits -- provided they're rigged correctly and fished in productive areas.

By July, tidal creeks hold good numbers of bait-size brown shrimp and a few bait-size white shrimp produced from the early spring spawn. Fortunately, redfish don't discriminate between the two species. When live shrimp are "in season," you can fill your well in two ways -- catch your own or visit a state-licensed live-bait dealer.

In periods of abundance, live bait shrimp sell for $12 to $15 a quart. The price might seem high, but remember: You're paying for convenience

, and the privilege of not having to waste fishing time to locate shrimp. The number of baits per quart varies depending on shrimp size, but if you're getting good bait-size shrimp (about 4 inches long), you typically have three or four dozen.

You can opt to catch your own bait shrimp, but this, too, will cost you some time and money. A 3/8-inch-mesh monofilament cast net priced at less than $75 and 30 minutes in the right spot will usually provide all the live shrimp needed for a daylong trip. Plus, the cast net is a useful tool for catching baitfish such as finger mullet and menhaden. No self-respecting inshore angler should leave the dock without a cast net on board. Check the current edition of the Georgia Sport Fishing Regulations booklet for information on the regulations for bait-shrimp harvesting.

Besides shrimp, "mud minnows" -- the generic name for several species of hardy baitfish found in abundance throughout Georgia's estuaries -- make a prime summer redfish bait. Averaging about 3 inches long, they're caught with a cast net or a wire trap baited with fish heads, cat food or some other attractant.

Minnow traps are inexpensive -- about $10 -- and require little skill to use effectively. Simply find a small saltwater creek, bait your trap and drop it in the water using an attached hand line. The most productive time for catching mud minnows is around low tide, when they concentrate in creek channels or tide pools.

At the few marinas that sell "pollywogs" (as mud minnows are called by the folks around Savannah), these baitfish go for $3.25 per dozen -- so spending a few bucks for a trap is a good investment.

The several species of small crabs found in the coastal marshes can be deadly bait for redfish, but catching them does require a bit of ingenuity. Fiddler crabs are found on the high marsh in colonies of hundreds, if not thousands. You can chase them around, trying to catch one at a time, or you can lay a trap for them: Dig a hole and drop in a small bucket or can; the fiddlers can be herded toward the hole, and several will fall into the bucket. The efficiency of this operation can be improved by using a wooden device in the shape of a "V" with the hole situated at the base of the "V." This device will funnel the panicked crabs into your waiting container. Just be sure to cover the hole once you've caught your supply.

Once you get your live bait, keeping it frisky in the summer heat can be a challenge. Insulated bucket-type bait keepers work well to keep the shrimp, mud minnows and finger mullet. A product from Marine Metal Products called the "Shrimp and Crab Saver" features a plastic mesh insert that allows the shrimp to hang on the sides and not crowd up on the bottom. Ice in a sealed plastic bag can be added to the baitwell to cool the water without changing the salinity. Just be careful not to change the temperature too dramatically, as this is likely to stress the bait fatally. Crabs can be kept alive in a bucket containing a small amount of water; replace the water periodically to keep the crabs from overheating.

Anglers fishing from a vessel equipped with a baitwell plumbed to provide a constant flow of seawater have the optimal setup for keeping shrimp and more fragile baitfish such as menhaden alive and frisky. These days, many saltwater fishing boats leave the factory with flow-through or recirculating baitwells or both. You can even buy an aftermarket oxygen injection system to boost the carrying capacity of these baitwells. My Pathfinder has two flow-through baitwells -- a 15-gallon at the bow and a lighted 40-gallon at the stern -- in addition to a 40-gallon release well for the catch.

Regardless of the size and type of your bait life-support system, don't overcrowd it. Last, but not least, keep extra bait dip nets onboard; even shrimp in small containers can be hard to catch with your hand.

For at least a half-century, anglers have relied on the depth-adjustable slip-float for fishing the extreme tidal range of coastal Georgia. This terminal tackle is typically mated to a 7-foot casting rod combined with a revolving-spool reel. While this combo still claims its share of redfish, many anglers now opt for rattling floats.

When jerked sharply with the tip of the rod, this combination of wire, beads and a Styrofoam float mimics the sound produced by saltwater game fish feeding on shrimp, mullet and other prey. Unlike the conventional slip-float rig, it works great when fished on spinning tackle -- an appealing feature for anglers who're intimidated by casting reels. Originally designed to impart action to soft plastics and other artificial lures, the rattling float is a highly effective way to present live bait to redfish foraging in shallow waters.

Although most manufacturers produce models with built-in weight, they still prove a bit light for long-distance casting. Being able to put bait on target at distance makes the difference between success and frustration when targeting spooky shallow-water reds. Happily, two modifications that you can make to the standard rattling float will add weight without negatively affecting performance.

In one, you attach one of the 1/4- and 1/2-ounce oval or cigar-shaped weights fitted with swivels at both ends (they're sold at many tackle shops) to the bottom swivel of the rattling float with a stainless-steel split ring. The other method involves bullet-shaped crimp-on weights such as those made by Water Gremlin; using a pair of pliers, these you simply crimp onto the wire part of the float just above the bottom swivel. If you want to lighten up the presentation, simply remove the weight.

The length of leader between the float and hook must match the depth fished at, and so requires periodic adjustment as the tide rises or falls. I keep a few leaders made up in various lengths in sealable plastic bags to minimize rigging time. Breaking strength of the leader is a matter of personal choice, but I use 15-pound-test fluorocarbon both for its abrasion resistance and low visibility.

When rigging for live shrimp or small baitfish like mud minnows, I use a thin-wire circle hook like the Eagle Claw L787 model, or a wide-bend hook such as the Eagle Claw L141. Hooks in a 1/0 size or smaller work with most redfish baits. The hook goes through the head of the shrimp just behind the horn and in front of the dark spot. I pinch a small split shot about halfway up the length of the leader to help keep the shrimp down in the water.

Sometimes I use a red or chartreuse 1/8-ounce jighead in lieu of a conventional hook and the weighted leader. Shrimp can be hooked as mentioned before or just forward of the tail. If I'm using a baitfish, I take the point of the hook through the top lip or just in front of the tail. The two methods of hooking create different action, and I alternate until I find the method that draws strikes. The use of a jighead adds a bit of color to the bait and slows it down, making it appear appealingly vulnerable to predators. Plus, it makes it easy to switch from natural bait to soft plastics.

A Carolina rig works for redfish, and will produce a bonus catch of other bottom-huggers such as black drum and flounder. But be warned: You'll probably lose some terminal t

ackle to the oyster shells and other structure that make such great fish habitat. I thread the main line through a 3/4-ounce egg sinker and a plastic bead before finishing it with a 30-pound-test barrel swivel. A 24-inch length of 15-pound fluorocarbon makes the connection between swivel and a thin-wire circle hook. Cast to the outside of structure and work it slowly across the bottom. Mud minnows, finger mullet and crabs are appropriate baits for this presentation. Hook the baitfish through the upper lip and the crab through one of the leg holes.

Every July 4th, fireworks illuminate the night sky over coastal Georgia as patriotic citizens pay tribute to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Back in the marshes, hungry redfish send showers of shrimp and baitfish into the air in a piscatorial variation of fireworks. Yeah, it may be just instinct -- but it almost seems like these redfish are having a celebration of their own. Grab your tackle and join them.

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