July 29, 2021
Redfish are one of the top targets for saltwater anglers from the Carolinas down to Florida and around the Gulf of Mexico to Texas. They rival spotted seatrout in popularity among inshore fishermen due in part to the fact that they are plentiful and hard-fighting, and catching one is not particularly difficult.
On the other hand, if you want to tangle with a big "bull" redfish, that is a completely different game. We’re talking about reds that top 20 pounds and can push the 50-pound mark. Targeting these brutes—which, despite the “bull” moniker, are all females—calls for different tactics, gear and mindset.
The "when" part of the equation can be a bit nebulous. Smaller redfish are available almost year-round. On the other hand, most bull reds become ocean dwellers as they age and follow a migratory pattern along the coasts. In simplified terms, they move north in the summer and south in the winter.
For the destinations we’ll be talking about, with a couple of exceptions, that means that spring, summer and into fall are the prime times for the giant reds. But, of course, prevailing weather patterns can shift that a bit earlier or push it back later.
Here’s a look at areas in five states that are good bets for putting a bull redfish on your life list of lunkers taken.
NORTH CAROLINA | THE OUTER BANKS
This region is synonymous with big red drum, which the North Carolina legislature named the official state saltwater fish in 1971, and one of the most popular and effective ways of targeting them here is by surfcasting. From Carova Beach at the Virginia border, south to Cape Point at Hatteras, targeting bull reds from the sand is an annual affair. Beginning in August and lasting through November, the bulls are on the beaches here, often within 30 feet of the shore.
Tangling with these fish is not a finesse sport. You need stout rods, strong drags and big terminal tackle. A major reason for using the heavy gear is to lessen the stress on the fish, since you must release any that are over 27 inches. Prolonging the fight by using light tackle can kill a fish or weaken it to the point it can’t avoid sharks or porpoises. Using circle hooks is also advised.
The other reason for going heavy is the fish can be really big. Back in 1984, David Deuel was fishing from the beach at Avon on Hatteras Island when a fish picked up his cut-bait offering. When he landed the red drum, he set both the North Carolina state record and the world record with a 94.2-pound redfish. Reds here regularly top the 40-pound mark, with some pushing up to 60 pounds.
One particularly well-known area for reds is Cape Point, where the Hatteras Island shore turns west sharply. Getting to this spot requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a permit from the National Park Service to drive on the sand, or a walk of more than a mile from the nearest parking area.
GEORGIA | ST. SIMONS ISLAND
The migration of bull redfish passes through Georgia’s coastal waters twice each year, in April and May and again in October and November. Virtually any place along the Peach State coast from Savannah south to the St. Mary’s River, where the mouths of rivers or sounds open onto the Atlantic, can hold these beasts. One of the best spots is the Hampton River at the northern end of St. Simons Island. Fishing here requires a boat, since many of these fish remain in the sand troughs just off the river’s mouth, while others move up into deeper areas on the lower portion of the stream itself. Cut bait fished on the bottom accounts for most of the bull reds taken along the Georgia coast.
As to the size of the fish you might encounter here, state records don’t really tell the tale. All reds of more than 23 inches must be released, so the state records are basically frozen in a time before that regulation was put in place.
Interestingly, both the men’s and women’s records were set on the same day from the same boat. Back in 1986, Richard and Sandra Price were fishing with legendary Savannah charter Capt. Judy Helmey (missjudycharters.com) aboard the Miss Judy II. That day, Richard boated a red weighing 47 pounds, 7 ounces, while Sandra caught one tipping the scales at 38 pounds, 13 1/2 ounces. Undoubtedly, bigger ones have been caught since but were released prior to certification.
FLORIDA | INDIAN RIVER LAGOON COMPLEX
Situated near the midpoint of Florida’s Atlantic Coast, the connected Banana, Indian and Mosquito lagoons offer an exception to the rules when it comes to giant redfish. Running roughly from New Smyrna Beach in the north down to Melbourne in the south, these waters are home to a year-round, non-migratory population of bull reds in the 30- to 40-pound range. Like their migratory cousins, it is not unusual to encounter them moving about in large schools.
Because they are in shallower water and often can be sight-cast to, these big reds are susceptible to artificial lures and even fly fishing. My first bull red on an artificial lure came on a trip with Capt. Mike Hakala on the Mosquito Lagoon. Staked out along a sand bar paralleling a shallow channel, the pod of reds was clearly visible and pushing a sizeable wake in our direction. A soft plastic bait on a jig hook dropped in front of the school was scooped up by one of the lead fish, which turned out to be a "little" 20-pounder.
My fish, of course, was dwarfed by the Florida state record of 52 pounds, 5 ounces. That one was caught at Cocoa in 1996 by George E. Hogan, Jr. It’s another frozen record, since all reds of more than 27 inches taken in Florida today must be immediately released.
LOUSIANA | PLAQUEMINES PARISH
Plaquemines Parish dangles to the southeast of New Orleans along the Mississippi River, jutting out into the Gulf of Mexico. To both sides of the river levees are marshes, lakes and bayous that teem with redfish. From West Pointe à la Hache southward to the end of the road at Venice, this is another place where giant reds show up in shallow water.
The other great thing about Pelican State redfish is they have a reputation for being as dumb as rocks. When compared with their cousins in other areas, it seems they are oblivious to the presence of boats or anglers.
Targeting giant reds in this region can be with cut bait, artificial lures or flies. In fact, a red estimated to weigh 65 pounds, boated back in January at Venice, was hooked on a Strike King Redfish Magic Glass Minnow fished under a popping cork. Capt. Mike Frenette (laredfish.com) guided Atlanta dentist Darrel Gilbert to that bull red. Had they killed the fish (which would have been legal because Louisiana anglers can keep one red per day of more than 27 inches), it would have bested the state record of 61 pounds caught by David Weber back in June of 1992.
TEXAS | THE PASSES
The long coastline of the Lone Star State provides several options for tangling with big red drum. And, as with Florida, it is not just a spring and fall fishery. The largest recorded red taken inshore here was a 44-pounder caught i by Russell Janacek in June, 2010. He was fishing in Galveston Bay, using a live croaker for bait.
The varied habitats where bull reds show up is another facet of Texas angling. The lagoons and sounds inside the barrier islands offer fly anglers shots at fish in the 30- to 40-pound range. Candace Kern was fly casting on Matagorda Bay in August of 2019 when she caught a 41 1/2-pound redfish.
Surfcasters target similarly sized fish off the beaches near the many passes cutting through the Texas barrier isles. A couple of popular beaches for this action are Matagorda Beach near Port O’Connor and Port Aransas Beach near Corpus Christi. Live sardines and croakers are popular baits for this action.
For the largest redfish along the Texas coast, heading out into the Gulf of Mexico seems to be the ticket. Artie Longron caught the state record bull red on just such a venture back in 2000, when he boated a 59 1/2-pound monster.
Guide Contact Information
The Outer Banks
Capt. Richard Andrews | Tar-Pam Guide Service
St. Simons Island
Capt. Greg Hildreth | Hildreth Charters
Capt. David Edens | Fly Cast Charters
Indian River Lagoon
Capt. Nate Lemmon | Florida Sight Fishing
Capt. Ryan Lambert | Cajun Fishing Adventures
Capt. Joe Mendez | Corpus Christi Fishing Guides