August: Tops For Carolina's Topwater Redfish

August: Tops For Carolina's Topwater Redfish

Red drum numbers have increased over the last 10 years in North Carolina, and more anglers are discovering the excitement of catching reds on topwater lures.

Capt. Jeff Cronk nets a redfish caught by Capt. Rick Patterson. The fish fell for a walk-the-dog topwater lure fished on a calm day in a tidal creek.
Photo by Mike Marsh.

The water was still as glass and nearly as clear. The sun was low in the morning sky, showing yellow-white through the haze near Hammock's Beach State Park.

"Mullet are everywhere," Capt. Rick Patterson said. "Wherever there are mullet, redfish are nearby."

Mullet schools navigated in and out of the grass at flood tide. Suddenly, a squadron of the small, shiny baitfish leaped, showering back to the water like shards of a broken mirror. A big shape lurched from below, disrupting the school as if someone were flailing a sodden burlap oyster bag against the water.

"There's a big redfish," he said. "Let's see if we can catch him."

Patterson used a trolling motor to ease his boat within casting range. For the lures he uses, walk-the-dog topwater lures similar to the topwater lures that freshwater bass anglers use for largemouth bass, that distance was well beyond 100 feet. He shot one of the big floating lures in the direction of the savaged mullet. The lure landed just beyond the big boil and he instantly began his retrieve.

A follow-up cast got attention. A small pod of redfish pursued the lure, competing over which fish would eat it. They followed the lure several yards until one struck, missed, struck again and stuck. The drag screeched and Patterson shouted, "Fish on!"

Soon a big redfish lay exhausted beside the boat. The fish was 30 inches long and weighed about 8 pounds.

"I fished bass tournaments until I caught my first red drum on a topwater plug," he said. "It changed my life. You're using the same lures and techniques, but you're catching huge fish that pull harder than any freshwater bass."

Capt. Jeff Cronk often fishes with Patterson. Cronk has always lived near Swansboro and knows the waters like the back of his hand.

"We catch reds almost everywhere," Cronk said. "They're in the surf, sounds and rivers. But these tidal creeks no one ever thinks about are just awesome because they're full of reds between 16 and 30 inches long. You might even hook a 36-incher. If you do, you've got all the fish you can handle on a light rod."

Most professional anglers and guides use baitcasting rigs for topwater fishing. But a spinning rig works nearly as well. A baitcaster allows a more precise presentation for landing the lure near a point of grass or just beyond a tailing fish.

The most important piece of gear, however, is the rod. Imparting just the right action to a big spook- or dog-type lure demands a certain rhythm. Many anglers have rods they will use for nothing except a walk-the-dog lure. It takes a stiff tip to impart just the right twitch to make the lure alternate back and forth. The sense of feel it takes to make it work the lure properly is different for each angler.

"A walk-the-dog lure is unique because it doesn't have any action other than what you give it," Cronk said. "I know one fisherman who works a topwater lure incredibly slow. He twitches it and lets it sit until the ripples die away, then twitches it again. I don't have that much patience. But when he gets a strike, the fish nearly always finds the hook. He doesn't pull the lure out of the fish's mouth."

Indeed, pulling the lure away from the fish is what costs most anglers a hookup with redfish. Red drum follow the lure, appearing to examine it, looking for something different that makes it appetizing. With most saltwater anglers' propensity to "drop back" a lure to a following fish, they make their biggest mistake when they stop the lure.

"You have to keep the lure coming and never vary the retrieve if you see fish following," Patterson said. "Stop the lure and he's gone. If he strikes it, the suction sometimes pulls the lure under without the fish having the hooks in his mouth. If you set the hook without feeling the fish, you'll pull it away and you may not interest that fish again."

There are plenty of other surface lures that will interest a red drum. On days when the fish are way back in the grass and very aggressive, topwater buzzbaits will turn the fish on. A gold or silver spoon with a pork or plastic trailer worked to the surface and allowed to sink to just beneath the surface is another good bet. A weedless spoon won't hang in the grass and has the added attraction of being able to sink a bit when it comes across an open hole. Floating poppers can turn the trick when the fish are back deep in the grass where a walk-the-dog lure would become hopelessly stuck. Floating soft plastics imitating worms and baitfish work well when the fish are in the grass.

There are certain things that must come together for a good topwater trip for redfish. The first is the weather. A calm day, with the sun at the angler's back or overhead, is always preferred. Calm days and a good sun position allow good visibility so anglers can spot fish, baitfish and see their lures are working properly. Windy days make it difficult to see fish or fish activity and make it more difficult to work a topwater lure properly.

As the tide ebbs, the fish move to edges of the grass, then to the deeper water areas of the creek beds and navigation channels.

Patterson's favorite low-tide redfish places are flats lining the edges of the Intracoastal Waterway. As the tide fell, he moved his boat to an area of open water, explaining how he found the low-tide haunts of the same redfish he had been catching in the marshes during high tide.

"The waters around Swansboro are filled with big redfish," Patterson said. "I fish way up into Queen's Creek, all over Bogue Sound and all along the islands and marshes on either side of the Intracoastal Waterway. The redfish might be anywhere. The key to finding them is to find the bait and the structure. Once you find those two elements, the redfish are going to be there. You might not be able to get them to bite. But they're there."

"We fish a lot of shallow areas where it can be hard to get into unless you know the water well," Cronk said. "Cow Channel, all around Hammocks Beach State Park, in West Channel, and in Bear Creek, there's some excellent fishing. There are tons of little feeder creeks and coves in these places that hold plenty of redfish. Sometimes, you can just cruise around in the backwaters u

sing your trolling motor until you spot the fish. The best way to get to know the water is to check the places out at low tide to find the channels and then return at higher tides to fish. You can also just follow the tide as it comes up, then work your way back out as it falls."

When actually fishing the shallows, the best tactic is to fish the higher tide stages. During rising tide, the fish congregate along the edges of the grassbeds. As the grassbeds fill with water during the flood tide, the fish move into the grass and can often be seen disturbing the water or poking their dorsal fins and tailfins out of the water as they feed on baitfish and crustaceans.

"When they get back in the grass, it can be hard to approach close enough to catch them," Patterson said. "We use some different lures when the fish are back deeper in the grass," Patterson said. "You might be able catch a puppy drum on any lure that resembles a mullet."

Patterson was a professional bass fisherman before moving to the coast from Burlington, N.C. He quickly learned to apply what he had learned while bass fishing to saltwater environments.

"If you can cast it, it will catch a red drum," he said. "Sometimes we use live baits, but only as a last resort. Anything that will catch a bass will also catch a red drum. I'd rather use a scented soft bait like a Berkley Gulp! shrimp lure than a live shrimp because you have to re-bait too often when you're using the real thing. I like using buzzbaits when the fish are back in the grass. The lure rides on top of the grass and doesn't hang up and really draws some aggressive strikes."


Contact Capt. Rick Patterson, Cape Crusader Charters at (252) 342-1513 or Capt. Jeff Cronk, Fish'n 4 Life Charters at (910) 326-7512 or (336) 558-5697.


Other lures Patterson uses include Redfish Magic spinnerbaits and Top Dog Zara Spook and Skitterwalk series topwater lures. He prefers lure colors in orange, chartreuse or white. For spinnerbaits, he prefers gold blade styles. He also uses shallow-running stick baits, jerkbaits and bucktail jigs or leadhead jigs with soft-plastic trailers. He has used in-line spinnerbaits, such as the Terminator. But he prefers conventional spinnerbaits or topwater buzzbaits.

"I like the Strike King 1/4-ounce buzzbait," he said. "I add a 3/0 trailer hook because with red drum you get so many short strikes. I put the hook eye of the trailer hook on the bend of the hook on the buzzbait and put on a piece of surgical tubing to hold it in place. Without the trailer hook, fishing a buzzbait can be very frustrating."

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