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I’ve always viewed red drum—a.k.a. redfish—as the largemouth bass of saltwater. If you compare the two closely, the similarities are staggering. One of the key reasons largemouths are hailed as America’s favorite gamefish is because of availability. From tiny farm ponds to vast reservoirs, rivers to creeks, no matter where you live, you can find a bass. Although the range of the redfish isn’t quite as expansive because they need salt, they thrive on the Atlantic Coast from Maryland to the tip of Florida, and throughout the entire Gulf Coast from the west side of Florida around to the Texas-Mexico border. And, just like largemouth bass, they can be found in a wide range of water depths and types—from deep inshore waters to skinny flats to small tidal creeks miles inland from the Gulf or ocean. Furthermore, you can be successful at redfish fishing regardless of skill level and budget. A redfish hunt can be as hardcore and dialed in or as simple and relaxing as you want to make it.
If, as an example, you want to see a 30-plus-pound redfish smash a topwater lure, that quest might require getting on a boat, heading offshore and timing your redfish fishing to certain bite windows and migration patterns. However, you can also catch a 30-plus-pounder on a piece of cut bait while you’re redfish fishing from a lawn chair on the beach if you know where to go and when. Smaller redfish routinely hammer lures you’ve likely already got in your tackle box, especially if you frequently chase largemouth bass. They’ll also slurp a live or dead bait under a bobber, making smaller drum excellent targets for kids. There are, of course, a few major differences between redfish and largemouths. A redfish will fight 10 times harder than a bass of the same size and weight. Also, while plenty of folks take bass home for the table, a grilled redfish fillet smothered in Cajun seasoning is a thousand times tastier—at least in my opinion. So, whether you’re eager to just get started at redfish fishing or you’re for a few pointers to ramp up your success with them, this breakdown of the basics will get you seeing red in a hurry.
Redfish Behavior and Habitat
The places where you’ll find redfish and how they feed varies by the size of the fish. In fact, devout redfish anglers tend to break them down by size classes when referring to them. “Puppy drum” are redfish measuring approximately 24 inches or less. Fish measuring 24 to 36 inches don’t have a nickname that I’m aware of, but redfish 36 inches or bigger are classified as “bull reds.” What’s critical to understand about redfish in general is that they move around a lot, so while bulls live slightly offshore and along oceanfront beaches, as a rule, mid-sized redfish live inshore and in vast bay or marsh systems. Puppy drum tend to hang in shallow rivers, creek, channels, and flats further inland.
That said, there are certain times of year you can find bulls where the puppies live. It’s the spawning runs that bring giants into protected waters for a time during the fall months. They famously flood into Chesapeake Bay, the beaches of the Outer Banks, and into Florida’s coastal rivers to name a few hot spots. During non-spawning periods, successful redfish fishing for bulls usually requires getting a little farther off the beach via a boat, or by fishing vast systems like the Louisiana Delta or Texas’s Laguna Madre where there are plenty of inlets that allows the giants to move from shallow to deep water quickly.
Regardless of fish size, however, they’re feeding habits are similar, and the wide range of forage they eat and how they eat it is what makes them such great targets. Redfish combine the scenting ability of catfish with the predator hunting ability of striped bass. So, they’ll happily chase down a fast-moving lure when they’re feeding on live shrimp or baitfish, and if they’re rooting on the bottom, they’ll sniff out a hunk of mullet or menhaden in no time. When redfish fishing for bulls, you might cast out an entire fish head to entice them; for puppy drum, a small piece of shrimp will get it done. The bottom line is that having a handle on the average size of the redfish you’re most likely to encounter is critical, because there’s not exactly one perfect tackle set up for every caliber of redfish.
Gearing Up for Redfish Fishing, By Size
In recommending outfits for redfish fishing, I’m focusing on spinning rods and reels. While many redfish anglers—particularly in the South—prefer baitcasting gear, it’s my belief that more people gravitate to spinning gear across most of this fish’s range. Still, the rod, reel, and line specifications I note for spinning gear could be easily applied to baitcasting gear if that’s your preference. My aim is to provide options that will allow you to straddle the line effectively between redfish size classes.
Gear for Small to Medium Redfish
- Range: 12 to 28 inches
Redfish in this size class are typically going to be encountered in shallower water, often less than 2 feet deep. Likewise, while anglers with boats have no problem getting on these smaller reds, these fish are generally the most accessible by foot anglers, whether they’re fishing from docks or bulkheads, or wading in back bays and tidal creeks. The objective with redfish fishing gear here is using components that can handle the sporty runs even these smaller fish provide without overpowering them or making it more difficult to deliver the smaller lures and baits you’ll want to throw. A 7-foot rod with light to medium/light power is ideal for this class of fish. Rods built specifically for inshore saltwater fishing will also provide the sensitivity to detect light bites and the backbone to handle the fight. A reel with a quality drag in the 4000 or 5000 size range works well, and for smaller redfish, I like to spool up with 20-pound braided line. Adding a 15- to 20-pound fluorocarbon leader gets the job done whether you’re fishing a swimbait or small piece of natural bait.
Gear for Medium to Large Redfish
- Range: 28 to 36 inches
The power and speed of a redfish in this size class is miles above the little guys, especially if you encounter them in shallow water where they have to run away from you instead of being able to dive down. Redfish fishing in this range generally requires slightly bigger and heavier lures. Likewise, you may have to employ heavier weights for more casting distance or to keep larger baits glued to the bottom. A 7- or 7.5-foot spinning rod built for inshore fishing is still ideal, but you’ll want to bump up to a model with medium/heavy power. A smooth drag becomes critical with redfish this size, so make sure you purchase a reel with solid guts that will hold at least 250 yards of 30- to 40-pound braided line. Given the fighting ability of these fish and the roughness of their mouths, I recommended at least 20-pound fluorocarbon for your leader, though 30- or 40-pound is often a safer option.
Gear for Bull Redfish
- Range: 36 inches plus
A true bull redfish is in a class of its own in terms of strength and fighting ability. They just don’t quit, and if you’re in shallow water, they can peel off 50 yards of line of in seconds. Stepping up to a 7.5- to 8-foot rod provides more leverage for heavy bulls, and you’ll definitely want to make sure the rod’s power carries a “heavy” rating. Forty-pound braided line is safe for bull redfish fishing, but 50-pound is perfectly acceptable if you want a little extra insurance. If you’re throwing lures, 30- to 40-pound fluorocarbon leader is fine, though if you’re soaking big baits on the bottom, you may step up to 50-pound. It’s also worth pointing out that surf fishing for bull reds in the fall is a major draw along the Eastern Seaboard. If you plan to attack from the beach, you’ll want a 10- to 12-foot surf rod not only capable for muscling these brutes, but also to cast heavy sinkers and baits as far as possible. Regardless of rod length, you’ll want a reel that holds at least 300 yards of braid and has a silky-smooth drag you trust to take the heat when fishing for bull redfish.
Top and Lures for Redfish Fishing
I could practically write an entire book on lures and baits for redfish fishing. The more time you spend chasing them, the more you’re likely to home in on specific offerings that work where you fish. But to give you a starting point, I’m focusing on baits and lures that work across their range and, most important, are scale-able. In other words, all you have to do is tailor these baits and lure styles to the size of the reds you’re targeting, and drags will scream.
Pre-weighted soft-plastic swimbaits like the Storm WildEye Swim Shad or Tsunami Swim Shad are, in my opinion, the most versatile redfish fishing lures around. They come in every size and color, so they’ll mimic almost any baitfish species in your area. They can be cast and retrieved, jigged, and even fished under a popping cork—a bobber with a scooped head that you chug along the surface to attract reds to the lure or bait hanging below. As redfish are often found in stained water, the vibration emitted by a swimbaits thumping paddle tail is a huge advantage.
Lures that “walk” from side to side across the surface, clacking and rattling away as they move, can draw in shallow-water reds from a mile away. Heddon’s Saltwater Spook Jr. is a great option for small to medium inland reds, while the larger Heddon Saltwater Chug’n Spook calls up the bulls in deeper water.
In grassy, weedy bays and creeks, it’s hard to beat a Johnson Silver Minnow Spoon. These classics are light a weedless, and they can be fished in a steady retrieve or allowed to flutter to the bottom in deeper water and jigged back. In gold or silver, they’re match everything from threadfin shad, to pilchards, to peanut bunker, to a baby croakers. Though a Silver Minnow is strong enough to handle the fight of a bull red, larger Krocodile Spoons or Kastmaster Spoons are more favored in deeper water or from the beach where the weight of the metal is an advantage for gaining casting distance.
Best Baits for Redfish Fishing
Without a doubt, there is no more universal bait for redfish of all sizes than fresh shrimp. Even north of the Carolinas, where shrimp are not found in abundance inshore, redfish will still slurp up this crustacean.
These long, cigar-shaped baitfish live in inshore waters, bays, marshes, and coastal rivers throughout the redfish’s range. Though they can be found frozen in tackle shops along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts, fresh mullet is always better if you can net it or find it for sale. For smaller reds, a mullet head or chunk is all you need to release their pungent aroma into the water. For bull reds, a whole freshly dead mullet usually doesn’t last long on the bottom when big redfish are around.
These oil-rich baitfish are often called “bunker” in the north and “pogies” in the south, and they’re a killer redfish bait in any size. Juvenile “peanut” bunker are terrific for smaller redfish when fished live or cut into chunks and soaked on the bottom. Adult pogies, which can measure 12 inches or longer, are the premier cut bait for bull reds in the surf, particularly from the Carolinas north. Here too, however, fresh is always preferred over frozen, even though frozen menhaden is readily available in bait shops.
Using a Fishfinder Rig for Redfish Fishing
Similar to the aforementioned lures which are available in a wide range of sizes to accommodate any caliber of redfish, a fishfinder rig can be tailored to any situation or fish size when using bait, from soaking shrimp off a back bay dock to heaving a whole menhaden head into the surf. The rig starts with a sinker slide, which gets threaded onto your main line and features a clip to hold the weight. (Some anglers skip the slide, as in the video above, but I prefer to have it.) After threading on the slide, you tie a barrel swivel to the end of the main line. To the opposite end of the swivel you tie your leader and finish the rig with a hook.
All of these components can be scaled up or down. As an example, for puppy drum you might use a 20-pound leader, a size 2/0 circle hook, and a 1-ounce bank sinker. If you’re redfishing fishing for bulls in the surf, you might opt for an 8/0 circle hook, 50-pound leader, and a 6-ounce pyramid sinker, which is designed to firmly plant in soft sand. Regardless of fish size or scenario, a fishfinder rig is designed to let the fish pick up the bait and move off with it without instantly feeling the resistance of the weight.
Top Redfish Fishing Locations
Once again, the range of the redfish is so vast that you don’t need to put yourself in a famous destination to find success. However, if you’re looking to hit the road and do some redfish fishing in a prime spot, consider one of these locations.
Outer Banks, North Carolina
In the fall, bull redfish migrate from offshore into Pamlico Sound and the inlets along the Outer Banks. During this time, they can be caught in the surf or in the back bay. Even if you miss the big fish, there are always plenty of small to medium reds in the inland waters around the outer banks.
Mississippi Delta, Louisiana
The vast Mississippi Delta at the southern end of Louisiana is arguably the best redfish destination in the entire country. Opportunities with fish for redfish in almost every size class are available year practically year-round. If you don’t have a boat, foot fishing opportunites are more limited, but it’s worth spending the money on a charter to go redfish fishing out of towns like Venice or Port Sulphur.
Lower Laguna Madre, Texas
This vast bay system is famous for its wade fishing. Acres and acres of shallow flats create the perfect feeding habit for reds, and you can catch them throughout most of the year. For the best access, use a boat to cover some ground, but hop and wade the quieter flats away from easy public access.
Though reds are available year-round in the Florida Panhandle, the fall months see a push of monster bulls into Pensacola Bay. The fish can be so plentiful that it looks like a wall of copper coming at you when they’re pushing bait across a shallow flat.
Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston gets a push of migratory bull reds in the fall, but the backwaters here are also loaded with small to medium-size redfish year-round. Whether chasing them on foot or running a boat, if light tackle redfish fishing is what you’re after, Charleston is your destination.