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Puppy Play

North Carolina marshes abound with spunky juvenile redfish

Puppy Play
The expansive marsh habitat of North Carolina's sounds offer prime habitat for juvenile, "puppy drum." (David A. Brown photo)

Fall finds surf fishermen lining North Carolina's Outer Banks for the famed surf run of jumbo redfish. Exciting, no doubt, but this beach fishery can be hit-or-miss. Meanwhile, the Tarheel State's vast backwater system offers a predictable year-round fishery for juvenile reds that locals call "puppy drum."

Red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus) grow up in the protected interior waters and then move offshore when they mature at about 30 inches. Until then, they roam the shallow edges of intracoastal sounds separating the Carolina mainland from its barrier islands. North-to-south, the major sounds are Currituck, Albemarle and Pamlico. Roanoke and Croatan Sound flank historic Roanoke Island at the north end, while Core and Bogue sounds lay north and south of Cape Lookout.

Numerous arteries from major rivers to tricking creeks feed into these waterways. The constant flow delivers abundant nutrients, which foster a rich diversity of habitat abounding with forage. North Carolina's mostly turbid backwaters comprise muddy banks, sprawling oyster bars, shell mounds and vast acreage of swaying marsh grass. Areas near the inlets get the most briny influence, but the adaptive redfish can handle a range of salinity - even purely fresh water.

Chris Elliott, who guides out of Morehead City, finds backwater reds a generally cooperative quarry. Seasonal hot spots and "community holes" tend to attract a lot of attention, but with such expansive habitat, the North Carolina backwaters offer plenty of space for anglers to spread out. That means less concentrated pressure.

"Most of our redfish are user-friendly," Elliott said. "They're not too spooky, so you don't really have to worry about putting the stealth on them. It doesn't hurt to be (quiet), but you can just about bang them on the head with your bait."

Elliott typically targets redfish along grassy edges skirted by oyster bars. This mix of hard edges and vegetation provides a smorgasbord of crustaceans, invertebrates and baitfish. On high tides, reds often push far into the grass to feed. Look for wakes, boils and the occasional tailer. Working random spots will turn up redfish, but spotting indigenous forage bodes well for anglers.

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"A big key to finding these fish is finding the shrimp," Elliott said. "Shrimp is not so good for bait because of all the pinfish. They will pick your hook clean."

With a good pair of polarized glasses and a hat to further block sun glare, you'll have no problem spotting shrimp when they flip at the surface, along with schools of juvenile menhaden and finger mullet - all popular redfish meals. Birds also lead fishermen to shrimp and baitfish as they hover near the surface to pick off easy meals when feeding reds drive the forage topside.

An effective rig for Carolina backwaters comprises a 1/4-ounce jig head baited with cut mullet and suspended under a popping cork. Jerking the cork across the surface creates a fish-attracting commotion, while floating the bait helps avoid bottom snags.

Along grassy shorelines, Elliott looks for cuts, sloughs and little coves where open water juts deep within the marsh. Floating baits around the mouths of such spots is a good bet for picking off reds moving in and out with the tides. Elliott also probes these portals with soft plastic jerk baits, beetlespins and topwater plugs.

Puppy drum generally like feeding in shallow environments, so proceed with caution when chasing the spot-tailed juniors through their skinny abode. When late fall cold fronts signal winter's approach, reds will stick close to deeper, stable water, so adjust accordingly.

At any size, a red drum brings plenty of fight to the engagement. These fish have no teeth and their fleshy mouth holds a hook firmly, so just let them take the bait and then come tight with a high hook set. Keep the rod bent, let your opponent run 'til he's tired and just make sure you keep your line clear of oyster reefs, pilings and any other entanglements.

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