by Grant Alvis
Redfish, Puppy Drum, Spot Tails, Pups or Reds. Whatever you call them one thing remains the same, everyone loves to catch them! Once Mid-April arrives the thought on many of Virginia’s inshore anglers minds is catching these hard fighting fish. Redfish arrive in the Chesapeake in the Spring each year and head south out of the Bay in late Fall to early Winter with a few fish hanging around in the marshes and inlets all year long. My favorite way to target these fish is on a fly rod but I will cover that in another post. For now, I will be touching on some of my most effective ways to target redfish on spinning and casting gear.
First, you need to know where to start looking. Redfish prefer to cruise the shallow flats and marshes in search of crabs, shrimp, finger mullet, bunker, mud minnows and whatever else they can get their mouth on. Most of the first few miles of Virginias tidal rivers (where they meet the bay) will hold Reds, but it’s not rare for Reds to be caught well up river. Bass fishermen often catch a few each year in the Chickahominy River just off of the James. I wouldn’t recommend going looking for them this far inland though. My favorite places to fish for them is in the salt marshes around Mobjack Bay. Mobjack is known for having a massive population of Redfish throughout the season and it would be pretty hard to pound the grass lines in any random area and not catch at least one.
Mobjack is a large area but it can be easy to rule out areas to look for these fish. Yes, drum love grass flats, and Mobjack is full of them…(miles and miles of them). I prefer to look for the flats that are close to a channel edge. I have found over the years that I seem to catch more and larger Reds around a flat with quick access to deeper water, especially on a falling tide. As the tide drops they can forage for food easily on the flat and if they get scared or the water drops too low they can retreat to the channel and wait out the low water. Although it is not rare to see reds practically belly crawling through inches of water munching on crabs.
Sometimes you are in a location that has nothing but 3-5 foot deep grass flats. No problem, there are Redfish there too. The easiest way to locate them in these areas is to look for the sand pockets in the grass. The drum use these grass pockets as ambush points where they sit and wait for bait to swim over the grass and be exposed. In a location like this you basically must hop from one pocket to the next and it can be frustrating but very rewarding as well. In all these situations I prefer a falling tide, but fish can be caught on an incoming tide as well.
Now that you know where to look, you probably want to know what to throw. The good news is Reds aren’t too picky. They will take a variety of baits from soft plastics of many styles and colors to modified saltwater spinnerbaits and buzzbaits to hardbaits such as MirroLures and Bomber’s Badonkadonk. Redfish aren’t shy about topwater either, even though it can be hilarious watching them head butt a bait 3 or 4 times before finally getting hooked. I will talk about each bait in the way that I find it most appropriately used.
When you arrive in a new location, you should first be thinking about covering some water, a good bait to do this with would be a swimbait like a Salt Water Assassin 4” paddle tail or a Gulp Alive 4” Pogy. I prefer to put the SWA on a 3/0, 1/8oz. keel weighted swimbait hook if there is a lot of grass for a more weedless presentation. I put the Pogy on a Jig head when I am fishing grass lines and channel edges. With both of these baits I do a combination of a swim and hop retrieve. I like to swim the bait 3-5 feet or so and them allow it to hop on the bottom for about the same distance and then repeat. This is a medium speed retrieve and Reds love it!
Another good bait for searching for Reds is the very popular Redfish Magic Spinnerbaits. I cast these long distances and cover area on the flats, either slow roll them or speed it up, but I have found that a steady retrieve with only a very few pops thrown in tends to work wonders. For these baits I prefer to use a 6’6” or 7’0” medium action rod with a fast tip and a 2500 size reel spooled with 10-15lb. braid with a 10-15 pound fluorocarbon leader. The fast tip allows for a more sensitive feel because a lot of the strikes are not bone crushingly hard. Some strikes can be a simple sip and just feel like weight on the end of the line.
Fishing Feeder Creeks:
A lot of the bays and rivers Reds tend to inhabit have many feeder creeks coming into them with many being wide enough to paddle into and fish both sides comfortably. These creeks are always best on high tide due to how shallow they tend to be. In these areas I really enjoy fishing a popping cork. A popping cork is a cupped cork that slides up and down a wire. I buy the Billy Bay Clacking Popping Corks which have two brass beads that produce a little louder sound. The cork is tied to the main line and a leader is tied below about 16-24” in length depending on the depth of the water (you don’t want your bait to be on the bottom). Tie a light jig head to the leader and slide on your favorite soft plastic.
I like to use a Gulp 3” Swimming Mullet or Shrimp. If the water holds a lot of Croakers, Bluefish, or other bait stealers I like to use the Z-Man ShrimpZ with Pro-Cure scent. The Pro-Cure is just as strong of a scent but the Z- Man baits have elastic plastic, so they can handle the abuse. Once the cork is rigged, I prefer to cast it tight against the grass and let it sit for a few seconds, then pop the cork 2 or 3 times then let it sit for a few seconds again. However you like to retrieve the cork I STRONGLY recommend you keep a rhythm with it. Fish can hone in on a sound a lot better when it is repetitive. Only after you have a small strike do you stop the cadence and add just a slight pop. This can trigger the fish to engulf the bait.
I like to use a 7’0” Med Heavy Spinning Rod with a very fast action and a 2500 size reel spooled with 20lb. braid. I opt for the Med Heavy because of the extra backbone needed to set a popping cork. Since the cork is cupped and under the water when you set the hook, that produces a lot of drag and thus requires a little bit more backbone. This bait basically must be thrown on a spinning rod because of how it flies through the air, it topples end over end and pulls line unevenly, basically making it impossible for you throw it on a bait caster without backlashing.
Another very successful bait for these creeks is a Gulp Shrimp on a jig head dragged on the bottom. In the very small creeks sometimes a cork can be too much commotion and a softer slower retrieve can be better. Basically, fish the shrimp as if you were fishing a shakey head for Bass with a slow drag and a hop here and there.
Since there is so much floating and loose grass in these areas, I tend to throw a weedless Swimbait or Jerkshad. I like a 7’0” medium spinning rod with a fast action and a 2500 size reel with 15 lb braid. I use a 10-14 pound fluorocarbon leader and I tend to swim lures more across grass just to keep it above the grass and just barely clipping the tops. This allows the bait to barely move some grass around and catch the attention of any fish nearby. Be prepared, the hits when on grass flats can be vicious! This is because there are so many places for the bait to hide, they don’t want it to get away. They will often practically rip the rod out of your hand.
Oyster Bars and Rip Rap:
Reds tend to congregate around oyster bars and rocks throughout the tides due to the amount of food. Not just oysters and crabs, these locations offer protection for many species of baitfish and the Reds like to patrol them. This is where I pull out the larger baits. These locations tend to hold mullet and Bunker. Due to these being two of the largest baits the Reds eat in the bay, I like to throw larger hardbaits like Mirrorlures or Paul Browns. I throw them on a 7’0 Medium casting rod with a moderate action with 20 lb braid and a long 12 lb fluorocarbon leader. The moderate action of the rod allows me to not over-work the bait and with the treble hooks it helps not to tear them out of the fish’s mouth as they headshake. I like to slow retrieve them after letting them sink with a heartbeat thumping retrieve. Most of the hits will be brutal and will be on the fall in between pops.
Redfish love structure for everything from protection to an ambush point and docks offer them just that. I usually only use two baits when fishing docks - the popping cork around the edges to try and pull fish out and a Gulp Swimming Mullet on a jig head pitched under the dock and slowly pulled out to imitate an escaping baitfish. Be sure to bump up a rod size to be able to pull these fish out of the structure because they will try their hardest to turn tail and get into the dock and as soon as your braid rubs the barnacles, you will be broken off.
Occasionally I am lucky enough to stumble upon a school of Reds chasing bait. In this case I am going to take advantage and catch them on the most fun way possible – TOPWATER! I like to throw either a Mirromullet or a Zara Spook Junior. These are both walking baits which tend to be a retrieve that Reds just can’t resist. I like to throw these on the same set-up as my MirroLures, a moderate action casting rod to allow me not to over work the bait. Also that moderate action allows you not to rip the hooks out of their mouth in the hookset. Cast the bait about 5-10 feet in front of the fish as they swim along and work it across the school. You will get blown up on then wait until you feel weight - then set. Whatever you do, DO NOT set the hook before you feel the weight of the fish because chances are the fish doesn’t have it completely in its mouth.
So, as you can see, these fish can be in a bunch of different places, they have a very diverse diet and they can be spread out. This doesn’t mean they are hard to catch. It just might take some time to get your bearings and figure these fish out. I hope I have been able to give you a good foundation to start your search. In my opinion of all the summer species that flood the bay, the Redfish are by far the most rewarding. The effort you put in will directly affect the output. These fish are eager to please, and I can assure you as soon as you get one on your line, you will catch the Redfish Fever like many Virginia anglers do!