by Ed Lee
Those of us that pursue those pesky redfish all over the coastlines, marshes, and coastal estuaries from North Carolina to the Mexican border will understand what I mean when I say that there has never been another species of fish that is so very frustrating and yet so very joyful to pursue.
I have spent a great many years of my life learning the shallow water methods for locating and catching redfish. I can catch them on topwater, jigs, spinners, cranks, jerks, floaters, divers, live bait, soft bait, hard bait, and sometimes, no bait. But I have never seemed to be able to get the hang of catching them in water that is over 3 feet deep. That is, until I met Cole Starr from Seabrook, Texas.
Starr is the owner of Coastline Marine, a Shallow Sport dealer and custom aluminum fabricator. At Coastline, they build some of the best looking and best performing towers and t-tops found on boats anywhere. Cole has been fishing pretty much his entire life of 34 years and redfish have been his preferred target for more than 15 of those years. But, it was the discovery of a certain subset of those reds, and subsequent on-the-water research and training, that changed this angler’s methods forever.
Cole has made a lifestyle out of targeting, locating, and catching those reds that dwell in the deeper waters of Galveston Bay. He and his partner, Brent Juarez, are perennial favorites in any tournament series held in that area during the summer months and have won many of them.
“Beginning about 7-8 years ago whenever there was a tournament in Galveston we would nearly always be in the top three and we won many of them. We literally felt like we owned the tournament waters back then. But it wasn’t long before our technique for winning these tournaments got out and the competition increased dramatically. And when others came along on the madness that is the deep water reds, it sometimes got a little rowdy. But, while it may seem like an easy thing to do, the art of finding, chasing and catching these deep water redfish is something that takes years to master.”
I had the pleasure of getting in the boat with Cole for several days of instruction about this madness called the “deep water pattern”. And, let me assure you, I was schooled in more ways than one. Trying to outfish this master of the deep is an exercise in utter futility. He has a nose, literally, for this type of fishing that is second to none.
Step One - The Slick
The morning began with light breezes and bright sun. Perfect conditions for the search-and-find we were about to embark on. We loaded up and took off in Cole's Shallow Sport 24 powered by a Yamaha 250 SHO outboard. As we ran towards the first area where he expected to find fish, Cole explained to me that it is best if there is a light breeze creating a little ripple on the surface of the water to make it easier to get the first part of the search completed - finding the slicks. A slight ripple on the surface makes seeing the slick areas a lot easier because when the water is dead calm the entire surface is more mirror-like and picking out the slicks becomes much more difficult.
Slicks occur when predators are feeding on big schools of baitfish at various depths. The oils released from the remains of those unfortunate critters and the debris regurgitated by the ravaging predators floats to the surface and creates a slick spot on the surface of the water. It is these slicks that we were looking for on that perfect morning in Galveston Bay.
Step Two - The Sniff
It wasn’t long before Cole slowed the boat and came to an idle. I didn’t see anything. Certainly, I could see nothing slick on the water. I watched and learned. For about 4-5 minutes we just stood there in the tower and drifted. Then, with a deep sigh, Cole said, “I think they are right over there not too far”.
He powered up and ran about 200 yards then shut down again. This time I did indeed see something – a broad and irregular slick was spread over the surface of the water shimmering in the morning light.
“This”, Cole said, “is not where they are but where they were”.
He then explained to me that what we were looking for, at first, is the big slick and that he had found it by smelling the air and noting the direction of the wind. The distinctly “fishy” smell of the fresh slick is easily recognizable and makes finding the “big” slicks a reasonably simple task. But, it gets more complex.
Step Three - The Trail
Then Cole said, “Pop- ups, we gotta find the pop-ups”.
I’m pretty sure I had a look of utter confusion on my face because he laughed and told me that pop-ups was his term for the smaller slicks that indicate an “early” slick versus the older big slick we were looking at right then.
Once again, noting the wind direction, Cole took off in an arc that would bring us another 100 yards or so upwind. Sure enough, I began to see other slicks along the way that formed a visible trail of slicks on the water’s surface.
Once again Cole explained, “The trick is to know where they were at last. And you have to find the smaller slicks to determine the direction they are heading. Those baitfish want to be somewhere in particular and where they are going, so go the reds. The really tricky part is to figure out where it is that they ‘want’ to be. Once you know the direction they are heading, you can kind of figure out where they are going. So, I usually just watch for a while until I’m pretty sure where they are headed – towards the channel or away – and then I can get in front of them”.
Step Four - The Chase
Cole then told me that he most common mistake made by people trying to learn this technique is that they get excited and start really pushing up on the school.
“Sure they’ll catch some of em that way but what happens is that they disperse the school or push them back into the channel by pressuring them too hard and then they won’t find them again”.
He tells me over and over again that the big fail he sees by novices at this game is “pushing ‘em too hard” and “you won't see them again”. He says that these fish come out of the really deep water of the channel, spread out across the bay to locate the big baitfish pods to feed, and if they get pressured and pushed back in the channel – “they are gone!”
The right way is to be patient and follow the school for a bit until you are sure you have a direction, and possibly a destination, noted. Then, he likes to make a circuitous route to get in front of the school. When the new, very small slicks begin to pop coming at you that’s when the fun begins. Now, he can keep up with the school using the trolling motor, which won’t spook them, and it is Game On!
Step Five - The Catch
For a day of fun fishing it’s just catch and release as many of these bull reds as you can. But for tournament competition it is an entirely different process. In a tournament, the fish cannot measure over the Texas slot limit of 28 inches. Finding these fish amongst the hundreds of huge bulls is not an easy task and truly makes for a ‘hero or zero’ kind of game plan.
“Sometimes the ‘keepers’ are on top of the school, sometimes mixed in the middle, and sometimes on the bottom”, Cole told me. “You just have to use trial and error to figure out where they are. But once you find that ‘sweet spot’, you can pretty consistently catch the ones you are looking for.”
Then he added with a wistful smile, “And, maybe they are all oversized with no slots in the mix. It's a very risky business.”
He likes to use really heavy lures in the 1-2 ounce category for several reasons. The heavier lures make for longer casts which is most helpful when casting upwind or trying to get a lure on the far side of the school because sometimes the slot fish are ahead of the school and sometimes just along one side. On still other occasions they are lagging behind the school. Also, by varying the weight of the lure, he can get the lure to the bottom of the school or leave it higher in the water column when locating where the keepers are running within that particular school of reds.
Cole further explains that these are not year-round bay redfish. They are Gulf redfish. He thinks these fish come through the through the jetties about April and disperse in various sized schools and pods in the ship channel. They come up out of the channel to feed and that’s when they disperse out across the bay. They stick around until early fall when they return to the gulf waters. It is these months, May through August, that they tend to stay in the large schools. Then, come fall, they head back out to the Gulf and do whatever redfish do out there.
So, now that you have read this article, maybe you’re thinking that you can get this pattern down pretty quickly. Well, good luck with that. This is a brand and a tactic that requires long, long hours and likely years to perfect. The changing weather conditions, tides, time of day, moon phase, currents, ship channel traffic, bottom structure knowledge, baitfish patterns, and redfish temperament make this one of least dependable, most risky, and highly frustrating methods of pursuing those pesky reds.
When I asked him why every tournament angler doesn’t fish this pattern he answered with a sly smile and said,” Well, my buddy Gritter Griffin thought that way too. He worked pretty hard for a week or so learning the technique and decided to fish the deep pattern in an Elite Redfish Series event in 2015. After day one he was in second place and pretty stoked about the whole thing. BUT, on day two he came up with a big fat zero! All oversize fish that day. He knew the risk but went all in for the ‘hero or zero’ plan. That time it was a Zero. It happens far more often than you may think.”
SO, to tournament competitors I would say -Feeling frisky? Or may risky? If you have the nerve, give it a go. Just be aware that, when you do, you have a huge chance of pulling that Zero out of the box.
And, after watching Cole for a day and learning of the complexities of this kind of fishing, I would say to all the recreational anglers out there – good luck with that!