by Ron Brooks
Redfish, red drum, puppy drum, red bass, channel bass, or spottail bass, whatever you call them, these coastal marauders spell plenty of great year round fishing for the Georgia angler savvy enough to follow their habits.
Spottails are members of the drum family, a family name that comes from the drumming sounds they make with their air bladders. Many people don’t know that the spotted seatrout is also a member of this family.
Red drum can be found along the entire Georgia coast, from the St. Mary’s River to the Savannah River and everywhere in between. But exactly where along the coast they will be and how you fish for them is dependent on what time of year you fish. Reds follow a definite cycle during breeding, brooding and growing.
Knowledge of this life cycle coupled with a like knowledge of the Georgia coastal geography can help you catch fish all year long.
The entire coast of Georgia is comprised of salt marshes divided by hundreds of small creeks, rivers, shallow mud flats, and oyster bars. Protecting these marshes are the barrier islands. Often as high as thirty feet above sea level, these barrier islands were created by thousands of years of sand-pounding surf building up the beaches. Jekyll, St. Simons, Sapelo and the many other barrier islands offer this marsh protection.
To understand the life cycle of this fish, you must understand that red drum don’t reach sexual maturity until they are at least five years old. They will be from twenty-seven to thirty inches in length and weigh over fifteen pounds at this stage in their life.
Many people think that the red drum needs brackish or freshwater in which to breed. While they do need this backwater, it is not for breeding, but for brooding.
From July through September, large fish migrate offshore out of the cuts and inlets to breed. Large females may spawn several times during these months, broadcasting several million eggs into the water for the accompanying males to fertilize. Huge schools of drum have been sighted offshore just under the water surface by surveillance aircraft during these breeding periods. This large-schooling habit during the breeding season, and relative ease of detection have made them easy targets for commercial net boats in the past, causing devastation to future populations.
Life begins for a red drum well off the coast where the eggs hatch from August through October. The hatchings begin to grow immediately, and larval stages of the fish can be found in and around the beaches near cuts through the barrier islands.
Tidal currents take the growing larvae far back into the marsh creeks and rivers. For the first winter of life, they will remain in the marsh, relatively protected from predator fish. The following spring and summer they will make their way to the lower reaches of the rivers and sounds.
At this stage of life and for the next three to four years, the red drum will remain within these estuarine waters, feeding mainly on shrimp and crabs, and growing to maturity. It is during this period in their life that the majority of fish are caught by hook and line.
Mature fish over fifteen pounds will make their way out of the sounds, through the cuts, and into the ocean waters. There they form large schools of adult fish.
These facts explain why the largest red drum caught each year are ocean going, generally caught by a surf fisherman. They also explain why so many small fish are found back in the tidal creeks and estuaries.
Given all this great information, let’s see how we can use it to catch more fish throughout the year.
Fall fishing for red drum can be some of the most productive fishing, particularly for the larger brood fish. The breeding cycle has been completed and large fish are roaming the surf looking for food. Huge schools of baitfish, including mullet and menhaden are found migrating south along the beaches to escape the coming cold weather.
Bluefish schools will be right with the baitfish, gorging themselves at every chance as they turn the water to a froth. Pay attention to the bluefish, because not only are they fun to catch, they are accompanied by big red drum.
It is not uncommon for a drum to chase and eat baitfish, but in relatively deep water, the drum have a harder time catching the baitfish. Drum are primarily bottom feeders, able to move from side to side quickly in pursuit of prey. But baitfish in deeper water can move vertically, something the drum has trouble doing.
What the big drum have learned to do is follow the bluefish and look for the leftovers. Pieces of baitfish cut up by the sharp teeth of the blues drift to the bottom where the big reds are scavenging.
This is the time of year to have some good, fresh, cut bait on the bottom. From the beach, cast well beyond the baitfish so your bait can reach the bottom without getting nailed by a bluefish. Slowly move your bait back toward the beach so that it is on the bottom below the baitfish, and wait for the bite. Often the strike with this type of fishing is a vicious one, followed by a long, strong run.
Dont be surprised if you pick up a few nice flounder with this method, because they have developed the same symbiotic relationship with the bluefish. On one recent trip to the north end of Jekyll Islands shore, flounder were seen beaching themselves to escape the overzealous feeding frenzy of the bluefish! Surf anglers were gleefully picking up four and five pound flounder as fast as they could!
Fall fishing in the creeks and rivers means staying closer to the sounds and away from the backwaters. Last year’s brood will have made the move from the creeks to the bay and sound waters. Look for oyster bars, hard bottom, and anywhere the current cuts around a point or island. These are natural areas for the drum to congregate, and they can easily be caught on shrimp, small crabs, mud minnows, or artificial baits. Float a live shrimp just off the bottom with the current and let the bait move through the point or cut. Remember, the smaller fish need to be released, so handle them with care.
Look for any of the beaches of the barrier islands to use this surf fishing method. Reds will be on all of them that have baitfish migrating cross them.
Winter can be the most difficult time to find red drum, but they can be caught when you locate them. The smaller brood fish spending their first winter in the creeks are particularly susceptible to temperature extremes. Sudden cold fronts can kill small fish if they do not move to warmer water quickly.
Look for fish during the middle of the day, in shallow water that is being warmed by the sun. Often an entire school comprised of hundreds of fish can be found in one shallow sound. And it is literally possible to catch every single fish. So, again, take care of your catch and practice an easy release. Lower reaches of the Ogeechee, Canoochee, Altamaha, and St. Marys Rivers all have creeks and feeder creeks that will hold fish during the middle of the day.
Creek mouths that empty into a sound, and deep water cuts in the larger sounds leading to the ocean will hold the larger fish. Anchor in the deep water cut and fish the edge where it comes up to shallow water. These fish seldom run the middle of a cut. They will move with the tide along the edge of a cut, more often than not in a single file line that can total over a hundred fish.
Fish right on the bottom using blue crabs for bait. Small ones with a shell diameter no more than two inches can be used whole. Larger ones need to be halved or quartered. Bring a landing net, because fish in these cuts can reach fifty pounds!
Not many anglers make it out on a cold winter day, so you can have the entire sound to yourself! St Andrews, St.Simons, Altamaha, Doboy, Sapelo, St. Catherines, Ossabow, and Wassaw Sounds all have some deep-water channels and cuts that will hold fish during the winter.
By spring, the water has warmed and brood fish have reached ten to twelve inches in length. Back in the creeks and marshes, these fish can be caught in the same places day after day on an outgoing tide. They have learned to move with the tide to the deeper creek waters to avoid being stranded in a shallow pool. This habit has them passing the same cut or point, and moving in the same channels tide after tide. When the tide changes and begins to rise, they will again move back into the creeks.
Schools of red drum will generally segregate by size. When you begin catching small fish, you can be assured that the entire school will look like they came out of the same mold. So if you are looking for larger fish, you will need to find a different school, perhaps in a different creek.
Try this. At dead low tide, locate a creek you can navigate, and identify the surrounding bottom structure that is out of the water. Make notes on channels, oyster bars and cuts. If you know where you can take your boat on a high tide without fear of being left high and dry on the low tide, you can successfully navigate the creeks and find the fish.
The creek you locate with this method needs to be “alive”. That is, it needs to show signs of baitfish and other activity. These signs are a sure bet that the junior red drum will be moving in that particular creek. Creeks with pure mud bottoms that end up on pure mud flats and that have no signs of shellfish or baitfish can be eliminated, because the drum simply will not be there. Look for the oyster bars and hard shell bottoms.
Fish the areas where small feeder creeks empty into larger creeks. Start at the head of a larger creek, and as the tide falls, move out with it, fishing each feeder creek along the way.
In this situation, use a quarter ounce jig head tipped with a tail hooked live shrimp, or a lip hooked mud minnow. Cast up into the feeder creek, and work the jig back with the tidal flow just off the bottom. An occasional flounder adds variety and great table topping to this method!
Try the waters of the St Marys, Altamaha, and Savannah River basins to find the deeper creeks. Don’t be afraid to ask at local bait shops which creeks are navigable at low tide.
The larger red drum are still out on the deep cuts to the ocean, preparing to make the move offshore for breeding. The same winter bottom fishing techniques will work here until the weather warms. At that point, the fish will begin moving offshore to breed.
Summertime fishing for red drum means following the baitfish. Just as seatrout school and follow baitfish with the movement of the tides, so do the red drum. You won’t catch as many fish over 27 inches during the summer months inshore, because those fish have matured to breeding status and will be offshore doing their biological duties.
Fish up to fifteen pounds can be caught in the sounds and creeks that hold bait. They will move with the tide and can be caught on an outgoing tide.
Use the same quarter ounce jig heads with shrimp or mud minnows, casting up into the feeder creeks. Deeper channel fish can still be caught bottom fishing in the sounds, but most of the fish are following food into the creeks and rivers.
Live shrimp under a float will work well where you have a deep outside bend in a creek. As the drum move out with the tide, they stay in the deeper water because that is where most of the tidal flow occurs. Put the shrimp just off the bottom under the float, and let it drift with the tide. Expect some seatrout mixed in with drum when using with this method.
For artificial lures, try a swim tail grub on a jig head. Pinks and reds are the best colors, imitating shrimp. In shallow water, red drum will occasionally hit a top water plug, like a Dalton Special. Streamers are the ticket for taking drum on fly in these conditions. Just make sure you strip fast enough to keep the fly moving naturally with the tidal current.
Just about any creek going through any marsh area from Saint Marys to Savannah has the potential to hold fish. The key is finding the tidal flows that are carrying bait. The fish will be right behind and under the bait.
Summer is usually the time we experience more rain than any other time of year. Younger fish in the headwaters of the creeks are vulnerable to severe salinity changes, and heavy freshwater runoff from rain can hurt the population.
Red drum can truly be caught at any time of the year. They are relatively easy to catch, and we have lots of anglers fishing for them, more very year. If we are to continue to have replenishable stocks of red drum for future years, we must pay strict attention to the conservation efforts that the Georgia DNR Coastal Resources Division has put in place. The fact that these fish don’t reach breeding maturity until five years of age means that we must make sure we return to the water unharmed the majority of the smaller fish we catch.
According to John Pafford, Biologist in charge of inshore finfish research with the DNR Coastal Resources Division, over two million red drum have been harvested in Georgia waters over the past ten years by recreational anglers. Recent samplings of large red drum reflect the low numbers of juvenile fish that are reaching reproductive size. Most of the adults sampled were between twelve and twenty-five years of age. In fact, the ideal sampling would show most fish in the four to twelve year age bracket. The lack of fish in this lower bracket means that we may be harvesting too many fish before they reach breeding potential.
So, it’s up to us. While we have a tremendous red drum fishery and we prohibit harvest of breeder fish over twenty-seven inches in length, we need to be very careful with the smaller fish we catch. Take your five fish limit, and enjoy the catch and release resource. But be sure to carefully handle the smaller fish when you release them. And if it’s table fare you are after, consider practicing catch and release on the red drum while you keep the few seatrout and flounder that are always mixed in with them. It will help preserve the resource for future generations.