by Danno Wise
(This article first appeared in Texas Parks and Wildlife June 2018)
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.
Gillnetters and commercial fishermen sought redfish to feed the blackened redfish food craze that started in the 1970s. Scarcity gave rise to the creation of the largest saltwater fishery conservation group in the country, the Coastal Conservation Association, which famously started as the Gulf Coast Conservation Association in a Houston tackle shop.
After decades of conservation, wise management and aggressive stocking programs by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, redfish are 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. There are just as many opinions on how best to do so. There’s no single path to follow to consistently tangle with redfish. As this popular gamefish has multiplied, so have the methods that 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) — they can be caught in a wide variety of ways and in different habitats. While reds can present a tactically challenging target for technically advanced anglers sight-casting on the skinny flats, they can also give a good pull for inexperienced fishermen. Along the Texas coast, anglers and guides have preferred methods and areas for targeting spottails.
Back lakes and 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.
Captain Greg Verm, a Galveston guide, 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,” Verm says. “When water is flowing out of backwater 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. 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. Although Baffin is best known as a big trout destination — and the pair still target trophy trout — they’ve begun spending 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,” Sally says, “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!”
Most people think Baffin’s water is too murky for sight-casting, but that’s not true, Sally claims.
“Our grass has really flourished and, as a result, we have some really nice, clear flats that are awesome for sight-casting,” she says.
Port Mansfield guide Captain Steve “JR” Ellis also loves to sight-cast but prefers to use a fly rod.
“Fly fishing takes sight-casting to a whole different level,” Ellis says. “It’s a more direct connection to the fish.”
Anglers can use a fly rod when wading, drifting or poling, even if the water’s not completely calm.
“It’s actually easier to see the fish with a little riffle on the surface,” he explains. “When it’s too slick, the surface of the water reflects 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 Captain 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,” Mahl says. “I’ll work my popping corks a lot more aggressively than most people do. 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 Captain 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),” McCune says. “People think you only catch trout on those baits, but redfish will eat them, too. If we sit for 10 or 15 minutes without getting bit, we’ll move. We’ll do the same thing with live shrimp.”
McCune says sometimes he fishes these baits below corks, but he prefers to freeline them, using just a leader and hook.
“If the current is strong, I’ll add a little bit of weight,” he says, “but I like to keep my rigs simple.”
While speckled trout prefer live bait, redfish aren’t quite as picky and will readily gulp down dead baits as well. Port Isabel guide Captain Andy Salinas says his main method for catching redfish is using dead bait on the bottom.
“We can almost always catch redfish using cut bait on the bottom,” Salinas says. “Whether it is ballyhoo, ladyfish or shad, redfish are attracted to those smelly, oily baits.”
Salinas says he prefers two methods: humping and anchoring up to fish potholes. Humping involves casting downwind from the boat and drifting toward the bait, then repeating the process again. This allows anglers to cover water while fishing a bottom rig.
“You won’t cover as much water when anchoring, so you need to pick a spot that is likely holding fish,” Salinas advises. “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 and 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. Captain Mike Segall, a Freeport guide, says anglers are missing out by targeting giant reds only at that time of year.
“There are bull reds at jetties all year-round,” Segall says. “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. They’re there and they’ll bite.”
Good bull red action begins as soon as the water starts warming up.
“Of course, they will be there in even greater numbers in summer and fall,” he says. “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.”
Any time of year
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, Captain Tommy Countz, a Matagorda guide, 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,” Countz says. “After a hard front knocks all the water out of West Bay, the fishing can be fantastic. With all the water gone, the redfish come out of the back lakes and get stacked up in the guts.”
Countz says that when conditions are right, there can be great redfish action 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,” he says. “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. 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.