October 10, 2022
By Frank Sargeant
It's odd that we call jumbo redfish "bulls" when you consider that they are all females. Be that as it may, the best time of the year to catch one throughout the Southeast is from August through October.
The fish show up en masse around beach sloughs, passes, inlets and the deep edges of the flats as they move in from offshore waters to spawn. Hit it right and it's not uncommon to see a "redfish wave" build on the edge of the flats as a school of 20- to 30-pounders pushes along at speed looking for mullet.
At the jetties and inlets, fish to 50 pounds cruise and feed on menhaden and whatever else comes in front of them. Sometimes they actually give the water a reddish tint.
During this time of year, catching big redfish is a matter of finding the right spot—once you locate the schools, you can hardly avoid catching big fish. But, as always, finding the right spot is the trick. If you're fishing new waters, a Google Earth session is a good place to start.
Rock jetties that jut into deep water are pretty much always worth checking. So are visible sand bars, small islands or other long sand points found in or near large passes. Bridges that choke the flow of a pass are also a favorite spot for big reds to hang out as they wait in the eddies behind the groins at the edges or behind large pilings to feed. These locations are always worth several casts on the down-tide side.
While small reds may move far back into shallow flats, the adult fish less frequently do—they're more likely to be found on the first half mile of flats near any large pass or inlet. Areas where a clearly defined edge or shallow bar runs along water that quickly drops to 4 feet or more will be likely. Of course, anywhere you can see large numbers of sizeable baitfish milling around is also a blinking red light that screams, "FISH HERE!"
It is important to keep one thing in mind above all others when searching for big bulls: They are more than likely to be keyed-in on mullet and menhaden eight inches and up. It is now when these giants want big meals—and plenty of them. If you can't spot the bait on the surface, a scanning or sideview sonar can be a big plus, not only for sketching out the bait schools, but also the reds underneath them.
While there are not many lures big reds won't eat when they’re schooled tight and in feeding mode, a 3/4- to 1-ounce jig head with a triple-strong 5/0 or larger hook rigged with a 6- to 8-inch paddle-tail soft plastic like the Z-Man Mag SwimZ is pretty much a can't-miss offering. The bait's super-tough plastic will withstand multiple fish. In deeper water or high current, the head weight might need to be 2 to 3 ounces.
Big chrome spoons like the 1-ounce Huntington Drone also work well this time of year. Or, for real excitement, throw a big topwater, like the 5 1/4-inch Yo-Zuri Mag Popper, when the fish are on a jetty or bar (flatten the barbs first for easy release). Work the bait aggressively, keeping it moving and thrashing. Strikes will come close to stopping your heart, as sometimes three or four fish at once will rush the bait.
Reds sometimes run the edge of the flats looking for pinfish, crabs or anything else they can eat. Keep an eye out for a fast-moving V wake as they push water just outside the bar. Don't be shy to use your equipment to your advantage. By all means employ your trolling motor to get ahead of the fish, then let them come to you. Avoid trying to catch up with fish, as this almost always leads to spooking them.
You should attempt to stay as far back as possible while remaining at the edge of your best casting distance. Remember, keep a wide buffer zone between you and the fish.
As the reds approach, a long cast about 10 feet ahead of the lead fish with a soft-plastic jerkbait, an artificial shrimp or crab or a topwater is pretty much an instant hookup, as long as you stay at maximum range and don’t make noise in your approach. Once one of these fish is hooked, the others in the school most often will spook.
But don't panic; once you've landed your fish and released it, watch farther down the bar, as the school will often move in again and restart their feeding run. Get ahead of them once more and repeat. There are times, even when the fish are gathered in large fall schools, when they can be a bit lethargic.
At those times, "old reliable" may be a better bet: Nose-hook a live 6- to 8-inch mullet or 6-inch menhaden on a 6/0 wide-gap hook and cast where you see reds or suspect them to be. This tactic usually turns a slow day into one to remember.
Reds also feed by scent. A 2-by-3-inch chunk of fresh-cut mullet or menhaden, either fished on bottom or drifted to where you spot fish on sonar, will turn on the bite. Again, size your tackle accordingly—a 5/0 to 8/0 triple-strong circle hook will do the job and hopefully keep the fish from swallowing it too deeply.
RELEASE 'EM RIGHT
Most conservation-minded anglers use single-hook lures—jigs, spoons or topwaters with trebles replaced with large single hooks—so that the fish can be easily released. Also, don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. Twenty- to 30-pound-test braid on a stout 7- to 8-foot spinning rod or a stiff baitcasting rod is what you need to whip these fish before a shark shows up to put an end to the fight.
You'll also want a heavy-duty landing net like Frabill's Deep Knotless Conservation Net, with its 54-inch hoop depth, to control the fish at boatside. Alternatively, use a Rapala Digital Fish Gripper Scale or BogaGrip in the jaw and boost the fish by jaw and tail aboard for dehooking and photos.
Harvest of the big breeders is limited to one per year in Texas, one over 27 inches daily in Louisiana, one over 30 inches per year in Mississippi, one over 26 inches daily in Alabama, none over 27 inches in Florida, none over 23 inches in Georgia, none over 23 inches in South Carolina and none over 27 inches in North Carolina.
The goal, of course, is to keep more of the big breeders in the water, producing more baby redfish. It helps that the giant reds have coarse flesh and are not nearly as tasty as the smaller fish.
Reds are hardy, but be ready with the camera, boost your catch quickly with one hand under the head and the other under the tail and get that trophy grip-and-grin that proves you caught your biggest bull ever. Then send her back to keep the cycle going.
WHERE TO FIND THEM
Half the battle of catching a monster redfish is crossing paths with one. Here are some of the best spots to do so across the South.
One prime spot in the Lone Star state is the "big jetties" at Port O’Conner (portoconnorfishing.com), where the ship channel feeds deep water from inside Matagorda Bay into the Gulf of Mexico and bait swarms around the rock jetties. They also show up just inside the island on the south side at times. The fish can be there on any tide, but the bite is best on falling water. Live menhaden is the winning bait usually, but big swimmer-tail soft plastics on 1- to 3-ounce jigs with triple-strong hooks also get 'em.
You can pretty much throw a dart and hit great bull redfish country anywhere south of New Orleans, but Southwest Pass, easiest to reach out of Venice (venicemarina.com), is consistently the go-to spot. I've seen five miles of the river here black with mullet in fall, and big redfish don't ignore a treat like that. The only problem is there are lots of juniors with them at times. Use 8-inch mullet and up for bait to weed out the smaller fish. Nearby South Pass is also good.
Dixey Bar at the mouth of Mobile Bay is a legendary spot for bull reds. The fish are there almost year-round, but they truly swarm in fall both here and at nearby Sand Island. Large chrome spoons or big soft plastics on 1- to 3-ounce jigs are the ticket. The bite is best on the falling tide, though it can get very rough then if there's a south wind. Numerous good charter operations run out of Dauphin Island. One I like is Bobby Abruscato's A-Team Fishing Adventures (ateamfishing.com).
Florida has multiple spots, but the jetties at the mouth of the St. Mary's River on the Georgia border is hard to beat for lots of giant fish in fall, and this is the spot for a legitimate 50-pounder. The menhaden and mullet swarm here, and the fish stack up in schools of hundreds to eat them. The water is frequently murky, so a big, flashy spoon is a good offering. Or, just drift a chunk of cut mullet or menhaden to the fish under a cork. If you want to hire a charter, check out Amelia Angler Outfitters (ameliaangler.com). Another hot spot is the mouth of Pensacola Bay, where anglers sometimes hook up with giants from shore or from the public pier at Fort Pickens Beach Point.
The north tip of Cumberland Island where the Satilla and a prong of the East River flow into the Atlantic is a prime area. Sometimes the fish here are in "the hole," an 80-foot drop just outside the inlet; sometimes they move up into Jekyll Sound. The north tip of Jekyll (jekyllisland.com) is also very good, with the major arm of the East River and the Brunswick flowing into the sea. A fishing pier on the back side of the island sometimes allows shore-bound anglers to score.