Going After Big Red

Why do millions of anglers chase redfish? Because they're one of the gamest inshore saltwater species you can fish for.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Imagine a time when Gulf redfish prowled the salt from North Carolina, around Florida, and all the way to South Texas. The deep, golden schools of reds covered acres of water as the aggressive fish patrolled inshore flats, grass beds, channel edges, and oyster bars.

That time is now.

The redfish, one of the greatest light- and medium-tackle saltwater gamefish in the South Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, attracts millions of fishermen of all persuasions. The fish, also known as channel bass or red drum, can be taken on heavy bait rigs in the pounding surf, on jigs and other lures in channels and inlets, and on flies in the grassy flats. They grow to tremendous proportions-the world record, taken in North Carolina in 1984, weighed 94 pounds 2 ounces-but a 5-pound redfish on an 8-weight fly rod or a 12-pound-test spinning outfit will put up a dogged, determined fight that you won't always win.

Luckily, anglers can still take advantage of this fine fishery. This wasn't always the case; in fact, redfish were once in trouble-big trouble.

The Redfish Battle
The Gulf of Mexico red drum fishery nearly collapsed-twice in the past quarter century-because of brazen, unapologetic commercial overharvest. Reds demonstrated remarkable resilience to that adversity, however, and responded positively to conservationists' efforts on their behalf.

About 20 years ago, almost two dozen Texans met in a Houston tackle shop to discuss commercial abuses in local waters and map out a solution. Veteran Field & Stream contributing editor Bob Brister, an avid sport fisherman as well as a shotgunning expert, was at that meeting. (Brister's September 1981 story in Field & Stream, "Winning the War on Netters," was among the first to shed national light on the dangers to redfish.) He was there, too, four years later, when the fledgling Gulf Coast Conservation Association (now the Coastal Conservation Association, or CCA; 713-626-4222) broke word that a GCCA-backed bill to grant gamefish status to reds had been signed into state law. Gill nets and other devastating gear types would no longer be allowed for redfish harvest.

Conservationists helped redfish again in the early 1980s, when a recipe for seared or "blackened" redfish by New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme became popular in thousands of restaurants, creating a huge demand for spawning-class reds. It was only when spotter planes and purse seines had nearly wiped out critical brood stocks, fish as old as 30 years, that federal managers listened to conservationists' pleas and enacted rules to shut down that relentless haul.

Strict recreational limits and severely restricted commercial harvest have helped the redfish recover. The creation of hatcheries-built with help and generous financial support from CCA-to supplement natural production also aided the cause. In Texas, two such facilities produce 30 million-plus redfish fingerlings and many times more fry every year for release in state water. Many are lost to predators. Some, within a few short years, are caught by sportsmen. A few reach full maturity and find their way eventually into the open Gulf, where they become integral parts of this ongoing success story.

Following are updates on the major redfish fisheries in the U.S.

Texas
The 10-gallon brag along Texas' 700-plus miles of coastline is that you "can't throw a rock without hitting a redfish." Bold talk. Make that rock a live shrimp, however, and you might have a chance-fishing has been that good.

While all of the state's major bay systems, inlets, and Gulf beaches can be highly productive, Texas boasts three classic shallow-water venues. From north to south (and with due respect for "fishy" water around every other launch ramp from the Sabine River to the Rio Grande), they are Port O'Connor, Rockport, and Port Mansfield.

Look hard enough, and you can find deep holes and channels at any of these three ports, but the majority of fishing for reds at each takes place over traditional, grassy flats or along protected shorelines where scattered oyster shell interrupts expanses of pale-sand bottom. Wading, drifting, and poling are equally effective, although locals have developed a strong preference for getting out of the boat and stalking these hard-fighting fish on foot.

Overall, redfish action usually is better in the morning hours, before wind whips up a chop and clutters the surface with lure-snagging strands of grass.

Soft plastics and gold spoons are the foundation on which every redfish tackle box is built. Any color plastic might draw fire, but a half dozen each of strawberry/white and pearl/chartreuse tails-with an appropriate stash of 1¿¿4- and 1¿¿8-ounce jigheads-will suffice often as not.

Alongside the spoons and jigs in most boxes now rest as many floating plugs, such as the Top Dog, Super Spook, Ghost, Chug Bug, and Spittin' Image. Surface lures didn't see much redfish duty in , Texas boasts three classic shallow-water venues. From north to south (and with due respect for "fishy" water around every other launch ramp from the Sabine River to the Rio Grande), they are Port O'Connor, Rockport, and Port Mansfield.

Look hard enough, and you can find deep holes and channels at any of these three ports, but the majority of fishing for reds at each takes place over traditional, grassy flats or along protected shorelines where scattered oyster shell interrupts expanses of pale-sand bottom. Wading, drifting, and poling are equally effective, although locals have developed a strong preference for getting out of the boat and stalking these hard-fighting fish on foot.

Overall, redfish action usually is better in the morning hours, before wind whips up a chop and clutters the surface with lure-snagging strands of grass.

Soft plastics and gold spoons are the foundation on which every redfish tackle box is built. Any color plastic might draw fire, but a half dozen each of strawberry/white and pearl/chartreuse tails-with an appropriate stash of 1¿¿4- and 1¿¿8-ounce jigheads-will suffice often as not.

Alongside the spoons and jigs in most boxes now rest as many floating plugs, such as the Top Dog, Super Spook, Ghost, Chug Bug, and Spittin' Image. Surface lures didn't see much redfish duty in