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September 21, 2007

Bull Run

The bull reds are coming. To make sure you're prepared, we found the best techniques, tackle and places to go. All you need to do is set the hook - and hang on.

'GOON SQUAD
Skittish red drum challenge light-tackle anglers in Florida backwaters.

Capt. Mike Hakala hugs a 27-pound red from Mosquito Lagoon.
Photo: Dave Lear

No place is more ideal for bragging-size bull reds than Florida's Mosquito and upper Indian River Lagoons. Portions of these shallow estuaries, located some 20-odd miles between Titusville and New Smyrna Beach on the state's eastern coast, hold large schools of bull reds year-round. Biologists suspect these fish are permanent residents and actually spawn within the shallow water systems. Better still, their movement is predictable, and these large drum can be handled on lighter tackle because of the wide-open flats. Captain Mike Hakala, a lure maker and professional guide based in New Smyrna Beach, has fished for lagoon bulls for more than a dozen years.

Trip Planner
To book a lagoon trip with Captain Mike Hakala or to order some of his guide-tested spoons and other lures, call (386) 428-8530, or visit www.floridaysfishing.com.

"Our schools are very territorial," Hakala says. "In late September and October they move into slightly deeper water to spawn, but as a rule they stick pretty close to their favorite flats. Those might only be 225 yards total. If you don't know the exact location of flats that historically hold fish, look for the edge of a shallow, foot-deep grass bed with a distinct roll-down line where the grass meets the sand three or four feet below. The fish swim back and forth along these transition points."

BULL FIGHTS

Lagoon Cheat Sheet
1. Learn the preferred habitat for lagoon bulls and be watchful on the water. The presence of schools is often tipped off by wakes as the fish swim down the flats.
2.
Excessive noise will spook lagoon bulls. If a school moves out of range, the best tactic is to anchor quietly and wait for them to swim back into casting distance.
3.
Don't cut in front of other boats as they stalk a school; always come in behind. Often two boats at each end of a flat can bounce a school between each other.
4.
Communication is key when fishing a school of bulls near other boats. Don't be afraid to say something, and perhaps help both boats optimize their catch.
5.
When using circle hooks wait until you feel the strike, point the rod at the fish to allow time for the hook to turn. Once the fish takes drag, raise the rod tip and fight normally.

Lagoon reds range from 33 inches to well over 50 inches in length and the schools average 100 to 150 fish each. Opportunistic feeders, these reds have a diet consisting mainly of pinfish in the warmer months, but they'll also readily slurp down finger mullet, shrimp and crabs. Hakala says these schools get pressure nearly every day of the year, weather permitting, so although they are accustomed to boat traffic, they still spook easily.

If you happen to be the first boat to encounter a school and can make a cast before they detect your presence, they will eat a well-placed lure or fly. Hakala has had success with his own pink Mylar gold spoons and soft-plastic 1/2-ounce pearl jigs, but once one fish is hooked the others become much more wary.

Hakala's go-to offering when the fish are nervous is a dead finger mullet soaked on the bottom. Even when the school is swimming by in a panic, at least one fish will always pick up this bait. "They don't get real picky when there's a free meal in front of them," he says.

MAKING THE CAST

A live pinfish is deadly bull bait.
Photo: Toshbrown.com

With the open expanse and the absence of rocks or other line-busting structure, lagoon fish can be landed on relatively light tackle. In fact, the husband-and-wife angling team of George and Elizabeth Hogan still holds the men's two- and four-pound and women's six-pound-line records set in the mid-1990s with fish weighing 41 pounds, eight ounces; 52 pounds, 5 ounces and 43 pounds, 8 ounces, respectively. During my own outing with Hakala a few years ago, I quickly outfought a 44-inch, 27-pound bull on 12-pound spinning tackle.

"You don't need really stout gear because of the open water," Hakala said. "And if it does look like you might get spooled you can always chase them by boat. You do need something light enough to make extra long casts, however. Sixty feet or better is the norm around here."

Red-Hot Lagoons
  • GEORGE'S BAR, MOSQUITO LAGOON, FLORIDA Located at the north end of Mosquito Lagoon, this bar is the closest to Eldora and the Cape Canaveral National Seashore.
  • TIGER SHOALS, MOSQUITO LAGOON, FLORIDA Look for fish on the eastern dropoff in four feet of water at this expansive grass flat in the middle of Mosquito Lagoon.
  • WHATLE TAIL, MOSQUITO LAGOON, FLORIDA Schools typically congregate on the "fluke" end of this bar, located on the southern end of Mosquito Lagoon.
  • RAILROAD TRESTLE, INDIAN RIVER INLET, FLORIDA The deeper dredge holes often hold plenty of fish near this railroad trestle that spans the Indian River Lagoon.
  • HEAD, INDIAN RIVER LAGOON, FLORIDA Roaming schools of bulls can be found in the extreme upper end of the lagoon during the fall spawning season.
  • His typical setup is an eight- to 17-pound, medium-action spinning rod with a limber tip for long casts. He loads his reels with ten- or 12-pound braided line, with a short doubled section tied with a Bimini twist. A three-foot section of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader is added using a double uni-knot - a single uni connects a 1/0 to 4/0 circle hook, depending on the size of the bait. Hakala prefers larger circle hooks, which allow enough gap to ensure the hook latches into the fish's jaw hinge.

    "The circle hooks are healthier on the fish, and I also urge my clients to apply as much heat as possible during the fight," he said. "Even though these bulls are fairly hardy, they are all outside the slot limit (18 to 27 inches), so I want to get them to the boat and released as quickly as possible. I'm sure there is some mortality with all the pressure, but overall the lagoon stocks are in very good shape."

    Trailered skiffs are the primary means for chasing lagoon bulls. Their low profile and poling ease help anglers get out in front of schools quickly and quietly. Electric trolling motors will work at times, but the noise often puts the fish on alert.

    Angling courtesy is another important factor for success. With communication and mutual respect, two boats can both get in on the lagoon bull rodeo.

    "This is such a special fishery we've all got to do what we can to preserve it." Hakala says. "After all, where else can you go and catch monster bulls day in and day out on such light line? There's no other place like this in the world."

    SURF CITY
    Hit the beaches of North Carolina for spot-on action with channel bass.

    Whenever Dan Willard is not managing the Red Drum Tackle Shop in Buxton, North Carolina, he's likely nearby at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore surf-casting for giant red drum. Willard has been targeting bulls since he moved to the Outer Banks 18 years ago, and his best catch to date measured 50 inches (estimated to weigh 50 pounds). Fish with strong shoulders are the standard in these parts, and 16 of the top 20 International Game Fish Association red drum salt water line-class records were caught in the region. That includes the all-tackle mark of 94 pounds, two ounces set in Avon by David Deuel in 1984.

    Trip Planner
    For a current fishing report or to gear up for your own Outer Banks surf battles, stop in and see Dan Willard at the Red Drum Tackle Shop in Buxton; (252) 995-5414; www.reddrumtackle.com.

    Willard says North Carolina's bull roundup generally begins in September as the first wave of mullet start leaving Pamlico Sound. October is the prime month for finger-mullet action around Buxton Point and Hatteras and Ocracoke Inlets, plus there is another big spurt in November as bigger mullet exit Chesapeake Bay and move south. Once the surf water temperature dips into the lower 50-degree range, the season is pretty much over along the Outer Banks.

    THE RIGHT RIG
    Because of the potential size of Outer Banks fish, the rugged conditions and the need for long-distance casting, Willard's standard arsenal consists of a 12-foot surf rod capable of launching up to 14 ounces of lead and bait matched to a 15- to 20-pound-class conventional or spinning reel. Driving is permitted on the beach in designated areas, so most anglers carry several rod-and-reel combos in their vehicles to match various conditions.

    Large bulls invade the surf in big numbers in the fall.
    Photo: Bob McNally

    "When the surf and current aren't running too hard, you can gear down to lighter outfits," Willard says. "But when it's so calm you only need five ounces of lead, the bite's probably not going to happen."

    Willard spools his reels with bright-colored 17-pound-test monofilament line for distance casting and sport. Using an improved blood knot, he adds a 15-foot section of 40- to 60-pound mono shock leader - long enough for a couple wraps on the reel spool and a short rod-tip trailer for casting. A fishfinder weight rig slides on the shock leader, followed by a barrel swivel with a uni-knot connection.

    To complete the rig, he ties a two- to six-inch piece of 100-pound bite leader to the swivel using a uni-knot, and to that he crimps a 14/0 Mustad commercial-grade, wide-gap circle hook. By keeping the bite leader so short, Willard minimizes the helicopter effect for maximum casting distance. The bulls typically cruise within 100 yards of the shore.

    "I normally start off with an eight-ounce pyramid weight on the fishfinder and adjust accordingly," Willard says. "Pyramids hold better than egg sinkers in our rough surf. You want to cast the bait into rips where the water is breaking over the shoal and then walk it down the beach as it tumbles slowly along in the current. Once you move beyond the drop-off and into slack water, you wind your line in, walk back up the beach and start over.

    MULLET MANIA

    Surf Cheat Sheet
    1. Use the freshest mullet you can find for bait, preferably castnetted just before you start fishing. Keep several fresh head sections in a bait box on your belt for quick access.
    2. Actively tend your line. Cast out and walk down the beach as the rig tumbles along the bottom with the current. Keep parallel with the bait to avoid entanglement with other anglers.
    3. Know where your line is at all times. Use high-visibility line to keep track of it during the day or night. At night, carry a flashlight to spotlight your line.
    4. As you retrieve your line at the end of the loop down the beach, check for nicks and abrasion, especially around the fishfinder rig. Replace when necessary.
    5. Blacktip sharks, some up to six feet long, are common bycatch during the fall run. To safely remove hooks from sharks, carry a pair of long needlenose pliers.

    "Bulls bite best when two conditions are present - clear water and strong current. In clear water, the finger mullet pack tight against the beach to avoid predators. If the water is dirty, they scatter offshore and the reds have a harder time finding them. Likewise, with less current the finger mullet are able to move more easily, but in swift water the drum have the advantage."

    Bulls can be caught during the day, but the optimum times to fish are an hour or two before sunrise and sunset, with the evening bite the best.

    Bulls key on the large numbers of finger mullet in the fall, although lures will also work on occasion during the spring and summer months. "When you go to a burger joint you don't order fried chicken," Willard says. After castnetting live mullet beforehand, Willard keeps several fresh fingerlings in a bait box that he wears on his belt. He prefers about a six-inch fish, which he cuts in half to yield more scent and uses the head section, hooking it through both jaws.

    "A striped bass will eat a chunk of bait that's three days old, but a drum won't touch it unless it's fresh," Willard says. "I usually change out every 15 minutes or so."

    BEACH RULES

    Red-Hot Beaches
  • CAPE HATTERAS, NORTH CAROLINA The white-water rips on the north side of Buxton Point are where the giant Outer Banks bulls like to lurk.
  • PORTSMITH ISLAND, NORTH CAROLINA The action here can be incredible, but accessibility is definitely an issue with very limited ferry service to the island.
  • ASSATEAGUE ISLAND, MARYLAND/VIRGINA From clams to spot to eels, when the bulls come through during the fall, they'll crush just about anything in the Assateague surf.
  • OCRACOKE INLET, NORTH CAROLINA This is a good place to target the spring-run bulls from April until the first of June. Schools are more active after dark as the boat traffic decreases.
  • ISLE OF PALMS AND SURROUNDING BARRIER ISLANDS, SOUTH CAROLINA When wave action churns up crabs on the sandbars, huge reds are there to collect. Getting onto most of the barrier islands requires a boat.
  • When the bulls are running hard along the beach, it's not uncommon to find 300 anglers along the favorite spots. Because of the congestion, use caution to keep from getting tangled. Anglers should stay abreast of their lines as they walk the beach, and most avoid using braided line since the light diameter braid tends to blow and tangle more easily than monofilament.

    "Most of the newcomers will sit back and watch awhile to see how things are done, to learn the ropes before they get caught up in the middle," Willard says.

    After a bull is hooked, the secret to landing him is to let the fish run out of the swift water and away from the crowd. With their broad tails and overall strength, bulls frequently position themselves broadside in the current and won't budge. The average fight time lasts 15 to 20 minutes. Instead of trying to horse the fish in and possibly break the line, Willard says the best way to land bulls is to keep the rod tip up and let the fish get surfed in by a wave after it tires.

    North Carolina regulations allow the harvest of one drum between 18 and 27 inches, so the giant bulls are all strictly catch-and-release. That suits Willard just fine.

    "We may see ten fish or we may see 300 fish in a bite. I've caught up to 15 in an evening, and I've also been out there and haven't gotten a nibble when others are catching fish all around me. So I'm always happy to catch just one, because these are truly trophy fish."

    PASS PLAY
    Red drum pile into passes throughout the Gulf.

    Allan Davis has now retired twice, first as a helicopter pilot and colonel in the United States Marine Corps, and more recently as the undisputed king of bull redfishing in Pensacola Pass, Florida. His angling legacy won't soon be forgotten, however. In a span of 30 years Davis made nearly 1,000 trips to this Panhandle inlet, and during that time he and his guests caught an incredible 5,017 bull reds and tagged more than 3,000 of them. Davis's personal best was a 45 1/2-pounder, and more than 40 of his tagged fish have been recaptured to date. During one of the several trips we made together over the years, I asked him how he got started.

    Trip Planner
    Captain Basil Yelverton of Gulf Breeze, Florida, has taken up Davis's mantle by specializing in Pensacola Pass bull red trips in the fall. For more information or to schedule a charter, give him a call at (850) 934-3292, or visit www.gulfbreezeguideservice.com.

    "In the late '60s, early '70s, you'd go out there, incoming or outgoing tide, and you'd drift with pinfish on the bottom," Davis said. "One night we got out there and we couldn't get in line. There were so many boats it was just ridiculous. My brother said, ¿¿Let's go over there and anchor on that bar, out of the way.'

    "So we went over, anchored and caught bulls one after the other. I went back the next night and caught more. When I went back the third night I looked around and I was covered. Everyone else had quit drifting and were anchored around that bar. I guess I stumbled on to something."

    MUMS
    That particular bar happens to be on the Fort Pickens side of the pass during the fall run, when ravenous bulls ambush schools of bait as they leave the area bays and bayous en route to the Gulf of Mexico. By the mid-'80s, Davis had perfected his angling battle plan and added something else to his arsenal - tags.

    Big bulls make a habit of running the passes.
    Photo: DavidJSams.com

    "Corbett Davis, Jr. (no relation) told me about tagging bull reds, so I decided to try it myself." Davis says. "I kept track of every tagged fish since 1985. I also have records of the total number of fish caught since 1974, so I have years of records for bull reds in the same place, same time, same bait, same gear. I think I've gotten a pretty good handle on what's happening at this particular spot."

    Davis would start fishing for bulls in late August or early September, and continue on into December, weather permitting, with October and November being the peak months. His first order of business always entailed a short search for live bait in one of the many brackish bayous off Pensacola Bay. Palm-size spots or menhaden were his favorite baits for bulls, and he always carried packages of frozen menhaden to use as a backup. Davis calls spots mums, "because when people ask what I was using, I'd always say, ¿¿Mums - mum's the word.'"

    Pass Cheat Sheet
    1. Live spots or menhaden (or alewives as they are known locally) are the top fall baits for bull reds in Gulf passes. They can be castnetted in backwater bayous off the main bays.
    2. Hook live baits in the upper tail behind the dorsal fin. This not only forces the bait to swim downward, but it also allows for a dropback, giving the bulls a chance to crush the bait.
    3. Get in anchoring position in the late afternoon before the sun goes down. This allows time to adjust according to tidal conditions and get everything set before the first run begins.
    4. Use a beverage can or recycled milk jug to ladle frothy water from the live well over the side. The oils from menhaden and other bait act as a chum to draw the fish into the spread.
    5. If the fish are not biting, try casting baits parallel to the beach and let them bounce along with the current. The sound from the tumbling sinker will attract fish into range of the baits.

    Davis preferred to set up before sunset, inside the channel markers on the Pickens side of the pass, with the anchor firmly entrenched on the hard, sandy bar. He tried fishing the western side of the pass beyond the prominent rock jetty, but found the fish there to be consistently smaller.

    Pensacola Pass bulls get larger as the season continues. In September and early October, the fish average 12 to 14 pounds. By late October that average has increased to 20 to 22 pounds, while the fish captured around Thanksgiving typically bulk out at close to 30 pounds.

    Davis used four rods for his bull fights: two seven-foot boat rods with roller-guide tips and level-wind reels and a pair of nine-foot spinning rods with large-capacity reels. The conventional outfits were spooled with 40-pound-test monofilament line. An eight-ounce egg sinker, 25 inches of 100-pound leader and an 8/0 or 9/0 barbless J-hook complete the terminal tackle. The spinners were slightly downsized with 30-pound mono and six-ounce egg sinkers. The two conventional rods were cast short (sometimes only 25 feet behind the boat, depending on the tide), with one set of baits atop the sandbar, while the spinnerbaits were positioned long so they rested in the adjacent rip. This system ensures total coverage by depth and distance.

    Over the years, Davis discovered that one or two scout fish preceded schools of bulls. Fast and furious action usually followed within 30 minutes.

    Red-Hot Passes
  • ST. GEORGE ISLAND/BOB SIKES CUT, FLORIDA Use sonar to locate sand humps parallel to the West Jetty and fish large menhaden or pinfish on the lee side of the humps during moving tides.
  • PENSACOLA PASS, FLORIDA Bayou Texar, Bayou Chico and Hoffman Bayou typically hold menhaden in the autumn months.
  • FORT MORGAN POINT, ALABAMA Launch at Perdido Pass for the quickest access to this Lower Alabama bullpen.
  • SOUTHWEST PASS JETTIES, LOUSIANA Make sure you have a heavy anchor for this spot. Commercial traffic is heavy and boat wakes can be problematic for undersized ground tackle.
  • GALVESTON ISLAND, TEXAS Look for clear water and soak fresh mullet to capitalize on big bull action at this Lone Star location.
  • "The best action was often right at dusk," Davis says. "If I didn't get a strike by 7 p.m., I'd pack up and go home.

    Davis caught fish in all types of weather and on all moon phases. The action before a front is typically better than afterward, however. The key to success is moving water in proximity to where the fish actually make their run. For an incoming tide, Davis would position his baits down the bar on the edge of the drop-off and deeper. For an outgoing tide, the baits were all on top of the bar. When the water temperatures dropped in late November and December, he would position his baits deeper into the channel to take advantage of the more stable water temperatures.

    When the pass bite is on, the action can be nonstop with numerous multiple hookups. "One night, we got down to the pass, used up all my tags and it wasn't even six o'clock yet," Davis said. "We ended up going back to the ramp, got more tags and ran back down there. We ended up tagging 31 redfish that night."

    Davis's best night ever was on October 9, 1995, when he and his crew tagged an incredible 61 bull reds.

    "You've got to go, set up and fish by trial and error, and then adjust accordingly," Davis advises. "Remember, the best time to chase bull reds is anytime you can go."

    Red Drum
    (a.k.a. redfish, channel bass, spot-tail) Sciaenops ocellatus

    Although the redfish has sharp eyesight, it relies most heavily on its sense of smell when foraging for food, which can sometimes make artificial lures less effective than bait.
    Crushers With a steady diet of hard-shelled critters, such as crabs, shrimp and mollusks, the redfish uses the powerful crushers in the rear of its throat to crack open its prey. Because its mouth is not always tough enough to break apart these foods, a red will suck a bait or lure directly into the back of its throat without chewing.
    Mouth The mouth of a redfish is positioned on the un-derside of its head and points downward when open-ed. While this is a typical characteristic of scavenger species that comb the bottom, the red is a predator that hunts for its food.
    Gill Rakers Short, widely spaced gill rakers are consistent with the large prey that comprises the diet of the redfish and prevent forage from escaping through the gills as it is swallowed.
    Air Bladder The redfish vibrates its air bladder to produce a drumming sound, which it mostly does during the mating season to attract a mate. Of all the Atlantic croaker species, the redfish drums the loudest.
    World Record The current IGFA world-record redfish was caught in 1984 off Avon, North Carolina, and weighed 94 pounds, 2 ounces. Considering the long lifespan of the redfish, the world-record fish could have been more than 20 years old.
    Eye Spot The distinctive spot, or spots, on the tail of a redfish confuses larger predators and helps it escape when attacked. Predators that attack their prey head-first mistake the spot for an eye and attack the redfish from the rear, allowing the redfish to pull free and dart away. Many redfish have numerous spots, but those with no spots at all are extremely rare.
    Coloration The redfish's coloration is determined by the clarity of the water in which it lives. Generally, the more clear the water, the brighter the red coloring in the fish. Coloration can range anywhere from pale-silver with blue hues, to light copper, to deep orange-red. The color of a redfish may also fluctuate around the time of spawning.