By Danno Wise
Red drum, more commonly known as redfish, have always been a popular target species among anglers along the Texas coast. In fact, at one time, their popularity almost did them in – and at the same time led to their resurgence. As gillnetters and commercial fishermen raked the bays for fish to feed the blackened redfish craze which began in the 1970s, they became so scarce they actually gave rise to largest saltwater fishery conservation group in the country (Coastal Conservation Association, which famously started as Gulf Coast Conservation Association in a Houston tackle shop). However, after decades of conservation, outstanding management and aggressive stocking programs by Texas Parks & Wildlife, redfish are beyond plentiful in every bay in Texas.
In large part due to the mystique surrounding this bronze beauty, it seems as if everyone wants to catch redfish. And, it seems, there are just as many opinions on how best to do so. But, in reality, there is no single path which must be followed in order to consistently tangle with spot tails. In fact, as this popular gamefish has multiplied, so have the methods in which anglers have perfected to catch them.
As a result, the common question of “How do I catch a redfish?” can hardly be answered in a single sentence. But, that’s one of the great things about the official State Saltwater Fish of Texas (as designated by the 82nd legislature of the State of Texas) -- they can be caught in a wide variety of ways and in a variety of different habitats. While reds can present a tactically challenging target to technically advance anglers sight-casting on the skinny flats, they can also give a good pull for inexperienced fishermen and ‘bait soakers.’ Indeed, throughout the Texas coast, anglers and guides have their preferred methods and areas for targeting spot tails.
Back Lakes & Marshes
The Texas coast is peppered with back lakes, marshes and bayous. These small offshoots from the main bays are particularly prominent along the Middle and Upper Texas Coasts. Although they are relatively small bodies of water, they can hold a surprising amount of redfish.
Galveston guide Capt. Greg Verm says he spends as much time as possible looking for redfish in these backwater areas.
“Our back lakes and bayous are loaded with reds beginning in spring,” said Verm. “It’s hard to beat a popping cork and live shrimp back there. But, can also use artificial shrimp under corks. And, jigs and topwaters also work well.
“When water is flowing out of back water areas, fish will stack up in front of the drains and fishing can be phenomenal. Really, the back lakes hold fish throughout the year, but spring and fall are particularly good.”
Fishing the flats for redfish is as iconic as it gets for Texas coastal fishermen. However, again, there is no one right way to catch redfish in shallow bay waters. Quite honestly, there is a myriad of methods that can be used to capture spot tails in “skinny” water and it usually just comes down to personal preference.
Sight-casting with artificial lures is the preferred method for Baffin Bay husband and wife guide team Captains Aubrey and Sally Black. They don’t get to fish together often, but when they do, they work efficiently, helping each other sight fish to cast to. And, although Baffin is best known as a big trout destination – and the pair still target trophy trout – they have begun spending more and more time chasing what Sally refers to as the “Ghosts of Baffin Bay”.
“Our fish don’t leave like they do in most other bays,” said Sally. “So, we end up catching some really big redfish in shallow water. That’s what makes fishing for reds in Baffin so cool. There are not many places where you can catch fish in the upper 30- to mid-40-inch range in a foot or two of water. But, you can here!
“And, you can sight-cast to them. Most people think Baffin has dirty water all the time. But, that’s not true. Our grass has really flourished and, as a result, we have some really nice, clear flats that are awesome for sight-casting.”
Port Mansfield guide Capt. Steve “JR” Ellis also loves to sight cast, but likes doing it with a fly rod in hand all the more.
“I’ve always liked sight-casting, but fly fishing takes it to whole different level,” said Ellis. “It is a much more direct connection to the fish. And, redfish absolutely love small poppers and shrimp patterns. You can use a fly rod whether you are wading, drifting or poling.
“People think it has to be completely calm to sight-cast, but in fact it is actually easier to see the fish with a little riffle on the surface. When it is too slick, the surface of the water reflects like and makes it hard to see beneath. When there is a little riffle or even a slight chop, you can use the face (front) of the wavelets like windows to see down into the water. So, while you do want it to be kind of calm for fly casting, you do want some wind to help you see the fish.”
Of course, not all anglers who use artificial lures are sight-fishing. Laguna Vista guide Capt. Mike Mahl likes to power drift the flats using popping corks with artificial lures pinned beneath.
“I like to cover a lot of water when I’m fishing for reds,” said Mahl. “When I’m drifting the flats, I’m usually throwing a popping cork with a 20-inch leader and some sort of soft-plastic beneath it. I’ll work my popping corks a lot more aggressively than most people do. I keep it moving pretty fast and pop it quite a bit. I also like to make long casts to cover a lot of water. A lot of times, I’ll hook a fish at the end of a long cast, so I use braided line (less stretch) to help set the hook.”
While many flats fishermen choose to target redfish with artificial lures and flies, just as many (or more) employ natural baits in various manners.
One such individual is Rockport guide Capt. Scott McCune. Even Hurricane Harvey, which destroyed McCune’s home and ranch, couldn’t dampen this former rodeo competitor’s enthusiasm for fishing. His natural zeal is on full display as the ‘Saltwater Cowboy’ and his pair of retrievers – Kona and Trigger – explore the bays surrounding Rockport in search of redfish.
“I’ll target redfish with live croaker and piggies (pinfish),” said McCune. “People think you only catch trout on those baits. Yes, we do catch a lot of trout on croaker and piggies, but redfish will eat them, too. I’ll freeline those baits on the flats – in potholes and along channel edges – and it usually doesn’t take long to know if fish are in the area. If we sit for 10 or 15 minutes without getting bit, we’ll move. We just keep moving until we find the fish. We’ll do the same thing with live shrimp.
“There are times, we’ll fish these baits below corks. But I prefer to freeline them – using just a leader and hook. If the current is strong, I’ll add a little bit of weight. But I like to keep my rigs simple.”
Whereas speckled trout are known to give preference to live bait, redfish aren’t quite as picky and will readily gulp down dead baits as well. Port Isabel guide Capt. Andy Salinas his main method for catching redfish is using dead bait on bottom.
“We can almost always catch redfish using cut bait on the bottom,” said Salinas. “Whether it is ballyhoo, ladyfish or shad, redfish are attracted to those smelly, oily baits. The two methods I use are humping and anchoring up to fish potholes.
“Humping involves casting downwind from boat and drifting to bait, then repeating the process again. This allows you to still cover water while fishing a bottom rig. You won’t cover as much water when anchoring, so need to pick a spot that is likely holding fish. In either instance, the key is to look for baitfish activity or wakes or schools of redfish to let you know fish are in the area. Then, just let the scent of the bait draw them in.”
Surf & Jetties
One of the more fabled annual angling events – the bull redfish run – makes the surf and jetties popular venues among redfish hunters during late summer and fall. However, Freeport guide Capt. Mike Segall says fishermen are missing out by only targeting these giant reds at that time of year.
“There are bull reds at jetties all year around,” said Segall. “During winter and early spring, you'll find those bull reds in 28 to 40 feet of water. We just fish for them with sardines on bottom. There are there and they’ll bite.
"People really don't think about fishing those bull reds much during spring, but we'll have some really good bull red action as soon as the water starts warming up. Those fish are there - big fish. You just have to go after 'em.
“Of course, they will be there in even greater numbers in summer and fall. We’ll fish for them pretty much the same way throughout the year, except in summer and fall we’ll also see schools near the surface at times, which makes them much easier to target.”
It is also worth mentioning that there is no “season” – legal or otherwise – for catching redfish. While spring through fall are the most common times for fishermen to target reds, they can be caught throughout the winter as well. In fact, Matagorda guide Capt. Tommy Countz says some of his finest days have come in the dead of winter.
“One of my favorite things to do during winter is to run to West Matagorda Bay and look for redfish,” said Countz. “After a good, hard front knocks all the water out of West Bay, the fishing can be fantastic. With all the water gone, the redfish have to come out of the back lakes and they get stacked up in the guts. We’ll wade and cast into those guts with soft plastic jigs or spoons.
“When the conditions are right, we'll have some of the best redfish action of the year in December and January. There are times in West Bay during December, when you can stand in one spot and catch redfish until you get tired of it. I’ve seen it happen.”
So, regardless of season, time, place or method used, redfish remain the most highly sought-after species among inshore anglers in Texas. And, since fishermen can target them throughout the year and use a variety of methods to catch them, it makes chasing redfish an exciting, ever-evolving game of cat and mouse.
(this story originally appeared in Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine)