by Chris Christian
If there’s an easier place to catch reds in the fall, it would have to be a hatchery.
Every time I launch at Cedar Key during the fall, I expect to see it. I don’t always, but when I do it still amazes me.
Today I found what I was looking for not three miles from the ramp: a river of bronze flowing steadily across a crystalline, 4-foot-deep grassflat. The school of reds was at least 30 feet wide, 100 feet long and they were packed tight together. Sight fishing doesn’t get much easier than that.
What makes scenes like this so common in this corner of Florida? Geography seems to play a big role. Cedar Key differs in this respect from other fishing holes in the Big Bend. It’s basically a huge point jutting from the shallow backwaters to the Gulf of Mexico. In some places, not even 2,000 yards separates 15-foot-plus Gulf water from a 2-foot flat. You don’t find that kind of terrain in many areas of the Big Bend, and it’s not much different than a long point on a freshwater lake. That makes it a magnet for a variety of gamefish species much of the year.
October is my favorite time to visit Cedar Key. It’s when redfish gang up in large schools, often within five miles of the ramp. Once those reds settle in, they don’t leave the immediate area. They don’t have to.
The entire Cedar Key area inside Seahorse Key is nothing more than one big grassflat, dotted with a few small keys, and interspersed with deeper holes and a maze of channels. On rising water, reds follow baitfish up onto the flats or to the oyster and spartina grass edges of the keys, but they don’t have to leave when the tide bottoms out. They just drop back to the nearest pothole or channel where they await the next flood tide.
Anglers who time their arrival around the last two hours of the flood and the first two hours of the ebb tide will find reds shallow. They’ll be roaming right up to the grass lines and oyster mounds on many of the smaller keys, with Rattlesnake, Snake (the west side is best) and Deadman’s Keys, as well as the inside of McCrary Cove, being top spots to try.
You don’t normally find large schools on these shorelines—it’s mostly singles and smaller pods—but there can be plenty of them. If it’s early and late in the day (or overcast) a topwater plug is often my first choice. Watching a 30-inch red assault a surface bait is worth the price of admission, and you also have an excellent chance of taking some big trout, which will be right up on the grasslines with the reds.
Plastic-tail jigs are another top choice, with a combo of red/chartreuse being a proven producer. So, too, are the newer saltwater spinnerbaits, particularly ones with a safety-pin gold spinner over a soft-plastic jig. If the water is high and the fish are in the spartina, spinnerbaits are more weedless than a jig, and reds eat them just as well.
A gold Johnson spoon is also effective, but if you’re working around oyster bars you can leave a lot of them on the bottom. A better bet over shell is a 1⁄2-ounce floating gold Rat-L-Trap. Veteran guide Jimmy Keith introduced me to this lure a decade ago and it has become a favorite of mine for reds around shallow oysters. This lure will run about two feet deep on a steady retrieve and has the same redfish-mesmerizing characteristics as the spoon, but it floats at rest. When oysters attack you can just throw some slack in the line and it will float free. Over extremely shallow oyster you can dig it down to just tick the top with a stop and go retrieve, and the reds love it.
Pounding the banks is a good way to spend the top hours of the tide, especially during dim light periods, but you’ll be fishing for smaller groups of fish. If you want to stay up to your belt buckle in reds, you need to find the large roaming schools. The top spot for that is the big grassflat between the east side of Seahorse Key and the west side of Deadman’s Key.
This is a big area, and during the 20 years I’ve been fishing it I seldom see more than a couple of boats out in the middle of it; most anglers stick around the shallows on Deadman or Seahorse Keys. But, that open flat can hold some massive schools of reds.
Finding them can take a bit of time. If you’re running a flats skiff with a poling platform and a trolling motor on the bow, you’ve got the most efficient means to do it, since the trolling motor can cover a lot of water while the angler on the poling platform has excellent visibility. If you don’t see the big bronze flash of a couple hundred reds, then the “push” or the feeding splashes that school will make in shallow water should show.
Once you find a school, you can stay with them for awhile. If you don’t charge into them, they’re going to continue to wander and feed. You can pick fish off the edges, and then go back to the school. If you do spook them, stick around the area, because they usually regroup fairly close to where they spooked.
One of my favorite rigs in this situation is a rattling cork with an 18-inch leader sporting a 1⁄4-ounce plastic-tail jig. I can toss this a long way on a 7-foot spinning rod, lay it right in front of the school, and when they get to it, a couple of twitches virtually guarantees a hookup. If I’m really feeling sporty I’ll trail a 1⁄16-ounce jig behind a topwater plug. They’ll hit one or the other, and sometimes both, which can makes things real interesting.
They’ll also whack jigs, spoons, topwater plugs, jerkbaits or just about anything else you’d care to throw. Reds stacked that tightly are very competitive.
Anglers who opt for a fly rod don’t always have it that easy. If you approach fish cautiously you’ll earn a hookup, but the resulting close-range commotion may spook the school enough that it’ll take a long time for them to regroup.
Veteran guide Jim Dupre found a solution to this problem. As he showed me over a decade ago, you don’t have to bring your angler to the school—you can just pull a pod of redfish off of the school and bring them to your angler.
The procedure was simple: Take a 7-foot spinning rod spooled with light line (6- or 8-pound mono, or an even smaller diameter in
braid), add a 1⁄2-ounce gold spoon without a hook, and toss it from a distance at any school of reds sighted. Reel the spoon at a smooth and steady pace, keeping it within a foot or so of the surface, and you can count on some reds trying to kill it. Since the spoon has no hook, about all they can do is bang at it—but they will follow it.
You might have only three or four fish follow the spoon teaser, or maybe a dozen. Either way, every one of them is trying to kill that spoon and the angler on the “teasing rod” will feel every bump and bang.
Keep the spoon within a foot or so of the surface so you can see the fish clearly. When that pod of fish gets within range of the fly rodder, just drop the rodtip, yank hard, and send the spoon flying over the boat.
The end result is a pod of reds, close to the boat, fired up and looking to crush the first edible-size thing they see.
A surface hair bug or popper is an eminently suitable substitute, although any streamer pattern will do.
Dupre saved his spoons that had been through the wringer so many times that the hooks were shot, but any 1⁄2- to 3⁄4-ounce gold spoon should work if the hook is removed. And, his teasing technique was not limited to those schools he could see. There were times when surface chop made visibility so poor that the tactic du jour was to simply fling the spoon as far as you could in likely areas—and reel it steadily—and when you felt the bangs and taps of the reds you knew you had found a school.
Just how big those fish will be, comes under the heading of “it depends.” On one of my recent trips I was into a school whose members all ran between 26 and 32 inches. They definitely school by size, and if you’re not happy with what you’ve found, go find a different school. There can be several roaming the flats at the same time.
Given that some of the most productive areas are just minutes from the ramp, it’s not hard to see red at Cedar Key during the fall.
Low Tide Works, Too!
The most active reds in Cedar Key will be found on the flood tide, but with only two tides a day you can’t always count on catching it when the opportunity to fish arises. Getting there on a low tide doesn’t mean you can’t catch reds. You just have to shift tactics.
Low water will drop the reds back to deeper holes until the next flood and there are a number of good areas within a mile, or less, of the flats they roam best on high water. The area immediately inside the northeast corner of Seahorse Key is riddled with deeper potholes, and Deadman’s Channel runs along the north side of Deadman’s Key, brushes the southern end of North Key, and extends well outward to the west. Both are right next to where the reds roam on high water and traditionally hold them on the bottom end of the tide.
While lures usually get the nod on the flood tide, many prefer bait (live or cut) during low water, since the fish are not quite as active. Live finger mullet are great if you can find them, but many local experts catch plenty of reds on cut mullet chunks or strips or blue crab chunks.
The Seahorse Key potholes are easy to fish. Pin a finger mullet (or a mullet strip or chunk) on a 1⁄4-ounce jighead and work each hole as you come to it. If it’s holding reds you’ll know fairly quickly.
The channel is a much bigger area and I prefer to ease along it with the trolling motor, watching the depthfinder to stay right on the hardest drop, while dragging a jig/mullet behind me. Once the first red is hooked, I can drop the anchor and soak baits to get into the rest of the school.