January 02, 2024
After the first cold front of winter blows through, redfish often vacate their usual haunts. Indeed, any time the water temperature falls outside the redfish's preferred range of 70 to 90 degrees, these inshore marauders search for more comfortable locations to set up camp. So, where do reds go when the water approaches that lower limit, and how can you catch them? Let’s have a look.
UP THE CREEK
Creeks and coastal rivers that run out of an estuary into coastal bays are often black-water flows, meaning they contain decomposing organic material that provides a dark tint as the water flows through and out of soils.
These dark waters soak up heat quicker than clear or muddy water. Reds often travel well up these creeks and settle into rock-bound or oyster-lined holes to wait out chilly weather.
The creeks often flow through large needlerush grass marshes, winding for miles before emptying into the bays. These wind-protected shallows are made for canoe and kayak fishing, so any time you find a likely looking creek, don’t hesitate to follow it as far inland as your hull allows you to go. You may find a secret hotspot that no one else has discovered.
Google is your best friend when it comes to exploring coastal creeks. Use the satellite view to explore estuarine puzzles like the South Brunswick River on Georgia’s coast or the Cooper River near Charleston, S.C. In the vast marsh between Florida’s Crystal and Homosassa rivers, you’ll see dozens and dozens of likely spots in the twisting, winding waterways branching off the main rivers.
Holes often form where there’s a sharp bend, and also where a smaller creek dumps into a larger creek. If there are oyster bars, docks or rock outcrops in these spots, so much the better.
Just remember, if you go up one of these little creeks on an incoming tide, you have to get back out while there’s still enough water to float your boat over the shallowest passages on the outgoing water. Rest assured, spending an icy night deep in a saltmarsh waiting for a rising tide is no picnic, even if the fish are biting.
PASSES AND JETTIES
Passes and jetties can produce winter reds because the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean are generally warmer than the bays in winter. The bite is likely to be best on an incoming tide, when the warm water floods in around the rocks and pilings. The fish you’ll find in these areas are often adults 30 inches and up, so use your “big boy” tackle. This should include a 4000-size spinning reel; a 7-foot, medium-heavy rod; and 30-pound-test braid plus 40-pound-test fluorocarbon leader with a 5/0 wide-gap hook for the bait. Add enough weight to hold bottom in the tide flow, starting with at least an ounce.
Bridges across major bays abound throughout redfish country, and they’re always a good option in winter when fish get hard to find. Big bridges over deep water are particularly good spots to find “bull” or adult reds—those over 28 inches long and 4-plus years old. Of course, in most states these spawners are catch-and-release-only, but battling them is great sport.
The large concrete pilings and buttresses on which bridges are built create eddies in the tides flowing through them. These are natural feeding lanes for redfish where they can hang just out of the current behind the obstruction and pick off crabs, shrimp and baitfish drifting by.
The best action on the bridges is usually on strong tide movements around new and full moons, particularly in areas with modest tides like most of Florida. The stronger tides farther north along the Atlantic Coast can be very productive, even during the neap tide periods. Reds tend to congregate consistently around certain pilings on any given bridge, so it pays to check the entire span with sonar before you drop a bait. Once you know the favored pilings, you can often find fish on them trip after trip until seasons change.
During winter, grass flats won’t hold reds in the numbers found there from spring through fall. However, if there are potholes, runouts or sloughs through the grass, these can be refuges for reds that are hanging up on the flats to catch the sun during the warmer hours of the day. Anywhere you find water of 3 feet or more is likely to be a hotspot, so approach these areas slowly and quietly and make long casts into them to connect.
When a frosty night is followed by a bright, sunny morning, backcountry reds sometimes move into protected bays with very shallow water over black mud or dark grass bottoms. I’ve seen them so shallow that their backs are exposed, soaking up sun like Midwestern tourists on a tropical beach. For these cold-blooded fish, it’s the only way to warm up. Of course, in this situation, the fish are extremely spooky, and the shallow water makes it easy for them to see an angler at a distance. Catching these fish requires exceptional stealth, keeping a low profile (kayakers and SUP anglers have an advantage) while making long casts with lightweight baits. For this duty, you’ll probably want a 2500-series spinning reel; 7-foot, medium-light rod; and 10-pound-test braid with a length of 20-pound-test mono or fluoro leader.
Unweighted live shrimp are the best offering, but soft-plastic imitations like the D.O.A. Shrimp or Vudu Shrimp also score if the presentation is just right. The best bet is to place the lure at least 6 feet from the nearest fish, let it sit motionless for a full minute, then begin to ease it very slowly along bottom.
Winter reds are often too lethargic to chase down a spoon, a jerkbait or a topwater like they do in April and May. The best bet in water where you’re fishing blind is often a chunk of cut fish or crab. This tactic put out lots of scent that can travel many yards from its location when the tide is moving, bringing fish to your bait. These are fish you’d never know were there if you fished the area with jigs or other artificials.
Fishing with natural bait takes an attitude adjustment if you’re used to throwing lures; the bite rarely comes immediately or even in the first five minutes. The scent dispersal takes time, and you’ll want to give a nice oily chunk of mullet, shad or bluefish as much as 30 minutes to lure a fish in. Keep in mind these fish are coming from down-tide so it can take some time to draw them to your bait. You can usually buy fresh mullet at bait shops all winter, and blues are easy to catch on small spoons in early winter and again in the earliest part of spring in much of the Southeast.
Manmade scented baits can also be effective in winter, and they’re sometimes much easier to come by than the real thing. Berkley’s Gulp! Alive! peeler crab imitations are particularly effective. A great combo is the head of a Berkley Gulp! Shrimp cut off and reversed on a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce jig head so that the “whiskers” trail out behind the hook. This rig delivers both the appearance and the scent that winter fish want. It also works when slid across potholes in the creeks and around the bridge pilings, though you may have to go up to a 1/2-ounce head there to get down to where the fish are.
Fishing where slot-size reds are most likely, a 2-inch chunk of cut bait is about right, fished on a 3/0 to 4/0 circle hook, medium spinning tackle, 15-pound-test braid and a 20-pound-test leader. Add just enough weight to hold bottom—large split shot may be enough in shallow water. The circle hook will prevent gut-hooking fish you don’t want to or can’t keep, including oversized fish.
Artificial lures also have their place. One of the best is a Slick Lure on a 5/0 EWG weighted hook. This lure does a great job of imitating a dying shad or mullet. Two sharp jerks followed by a pause to let it sink, repeated steadily, does the job. The Z-Man Scented PaddlerZ is also deadly when fished on a jig head or an EWG weighted hook. Around bridges and jetties, a sinking lure like the 6 3/4-inch Daiwa Salt Pro jerkbait can also be effective for jumbos.
SCORE YOUR OWN
- Fresh bait is best for maximizing your catch rate.
There’s no question that live or freshly cut bait often ups your redfish odds in winter when the fish tend to be somewhat lethargic about chasing artificials. Blue crabs are one of the best redfish attractors, and they are usually available if the daytime temp remains in the upper 50s and 60s. This is common around the Gulf States and on the Atlantic Coast as far north as South Carolina, except after fronts. They’re easily caught by throwing a chicken neck on a string into any of the back bays where there’s good tide flow. Once out, let it soak 20 minutes, then slowly pull it in and net the crab that’s happily gnawing it. Another option is a wire basket trap.
There is usually an assortment of live bait—butterfish, pinfish and mullet, especially—under the larger bridges on coastal passes throughout the winter. They’re typically at depths of 10 feet or more, so you need a heavily weighted cast net and the ability to throw it to round them up. Find them on sonar when in a boat, rather than throwing blind.
If you’re not a cast-netter, you can often catch enough bait for a day on the water by using a Sabiki rig. This is a string of small flies, available at most coastal bait shops, designed to catch an assortment of bait-sized fish. Drop the rig with a 2-ounce sinker at the terminal end right next to bridge pilings, twitch it slightly and reel up when you start to feel action. Pretty much any small fish 3- to 5-inches long makes a good bait. Pinfish traps set in holes in tidal creeks or around bridges also do the job. Buy them at coastal bait shops, and bait with cut mullet.