Pros’ Tips for Finding Big Bulls Off the Carolinas and Virginia**
By Ric Burnley
You never know where or when, but if you run into a school of monster red drum along the mid-Atlantic coast, you’d better be ready.
Anglers fishing from the Chesapeake Bay to South Carolina shores have a shot at seeing big reds from late spring to early fall. But with miles of coast and acres of ocean, locating the fish when they school at the surface becomes a true guessing game.
Narrow the Choices
Alpha predators in open water cover a lot of ground. An angler who stalks them must do the same. Certain factors can slightly narrow the field. “Look for temperature breaks, structure and bait,” says Virginia Beach captain Ben Shepherd (757-621-5094; www.aboveaveragesportfishing.com).
But even in a prime location, catching drum on the surface can be a crapshoot. “Something turns them on — it could be tide change, bait, wind,” says Capt. Aaron Beatson (252-256-8083; www.cobiakiller.com), who runs out of Oregon Inlet, North Carolina. “You’ll look around for six hours, and all of a sudden, they’ll appear from nowhere.”
Shepherd, Beatson and Charleston, South Carolina, captain Tucker Blythe (843-670-8629; www.charlestoncustomcharters.com) love to find big schools of menhaden. “We’ll spot gannets dropping and haul ass,” says Blythe. Shepherd says big reds have a diverse palate, descending on any victims that cross their path — whether anchovies, shrimp or even crabs.
Beatson says low light — at dawn or dusk — seems to bring the fish to the surface. In the Chesapeake Bay, Shepherd likes moving current. “It must be easier for the drum to swim on the surface than fight the current down below,” he says.
If the drum don’t surface, that doesn’t mean they aren’t nearby. Blythe watches the fish finder; when he marks fish, he drops jigs.
Pick a Plan
Once the guides arrive at a likely area, they set up a game plan. “I zigzag back and forth in the drums’ preferred depth,” says Blythe. On any given day, that preference changes, but when Blythe finds reds at a certain depth, they usually linger.
To improve his odds, Beatson stays away from the crowds. Boat activity can make the fish submerge or leave the area, he says. However, he might watch the fringe of a fleet in case a school pops up just outside the commotion.
Weather can play a big role too. A little chop can make drum easier to spot, Shepherd says. Rough water also makes it easier to sneak up on the fish. Lacking perfect conditions, the guides look for other signs such as diving birds or busting fish. “You might luck out and run over them,” says Shepherd, “or you can see them pushing water when it’s calm.”
When drum do pop up, they stick out like a sore thumb. “The school looks like a big red blob on the surface,” says Beatson. Each guide boasts about seeing schools of 100, 200, and even 400 to 500 fish.
Traveling in a huge group might make the fish easy to spot, but it also works to the fish’s advantage. If one member of the group spooks, the whole bunch bolts. All three guides stress stealth: “Don’t change the rpm of the motor, and try to stay just inside casting distance,” says Shepherd.
Beatson adds: “Try to head them off at an angle. Don’t T-bone the school.”
Once in range, the guides instruct their anglers to cast in front of and just past the school, and then retrieve the lure just fast enough to keep it on the surface. If the fish scatter and dive, open the bail and let the lure sink.
If the fish disappear, don’t give up: Chances are, they’ll pop up again nearby. “Keep traveling in the direction the school was moving, and you’ll see them again,” says Beatson.
Beef for Bulls
Sturdy tackle can subdue the fish quickly for a healthy release and keep anglers close to the school. Pros use a 7½-foot or longer, heavy-action spinning rod and matching reel spooled with 50-pound braid and 12 inches of 80-pound fluorocarbon leader.
The fish eagerly scarf a 2- to 3-ounce jig or bucktail with a 10- to 13-inch Hogy tail or an 8- to 12-inch topwater popper. Beatson’s favorite weapon is a 3-ounce gold Hopkins spoon with a yellow feather.
Once the redfish is hooked, it usually charges back to the group. If the hooked red swims away, assign one person to watch the school.
Whenever anglers encounter big reds on the surface, they can potentially catch epic numbers of fish. “We had a day when we caught 12 big reds on fly,” says Blythe. Beatson recalls, “We’ve chased schools for miles, hooking one double after another.”
But Shepherd really puts this fishery into perspective: “If I told you about my best day, you’d call me a liar.”
About the Author Fishing offshore, inshore and from shore, Ric Burnley covers the mid-Atlantic for his website www.fishcrazy.info.
How Experts Find Big Schools of Trophy Reds on Top from Northern Gulf Bays to Beaches and Beyond
By Doug Olander
Some northern Gulf guides chase ’em in warm weather. Some guides just chase ’em when it’s cold. Lots of guides and anglers in these waters don’t chase ’em at all.
And the latter are missing out, because bull reds aggregate in hungry schools pretty much all year for those who know where and how to look for ’em.
Two experts who know those things quite well offer insight into how they successfully target these 15- to 40-pound blitzkriegers.
Red Tide When It’s Cold
If you were to look for Capt. Clif Jones (www.shallowmindedoutfitters.com) from roughly mid-October into March, odds are good you’d find him wherever big-redfish schools were patrolling.
And that, says the guide — based in Orange Beach, Alabama — can be anywhere from inside Mobile and Pensacola bays to the passes and up to several miles off the beaches. (Jones recently gave up a larger offshore boat for a nimble skiff; his 19-foot East Cape Skiff Vantage gives him the speed to run and gun looking for reds anywhere from the bays’ shallows to offshore, well beyond the beaches, weather cooperating.)
Jones has been putting anglers in the middle of some of the Gulf’s wildest action for many years. (Indeed, this author has been there and done that with him, and the action proved spectacular.) The great majority of the time, he does so by keying in on diving birds.
“Sometimes in December or January on a slick-calm day, we’ll find fish without birds over them, just swimming at the surface,” he says, but mostly it’s about the birds.
What the reds are feeding on is largely determined seasonally, with the small anchovies — known in the northern Gulf as “red minnows” — abundant from sometime in October through December, though these may be found most of the year. They’re followed by big schools of pogies (menhaden), and by February or March, threadfins and sardines a little farther out, off the beach.
Find the fish and it’s a light-tackle angler’s dream. That’s especially true for fly-rodders, who now comprise about 75 percent of Jones’ clientele.
Otherwise, it’s all about lures, notably topwaters or jigs. “We don’t bother with bait,” Jones says. “We don’t need it.”
Surprisingly, if anything, this fishery seems to have gotten more productive in recent years, according to the guide. “We run into giant schools,” he says.
Another surprise: There just isn’t that much competition, especially in winter. It’s not unusual for Jones to be parked on one of those giant schools and be the only boat around.
Red Tide When It’s Warm
Another northern Gulf guide who looks for schooling bulls is Scott Simpson (www.myweb.cableone.net/captscott). He runs the Stamas 25-foot center-console Impulsive out of Long Beach (Mississippi) Harbor.
But for Simpson, it’s a spring and summer show.
Although he might start looking for them as early as mid-February, Simpson says his best luck for big surface schools of reds starts at some point in May, and shortly after that, things usually settle into full swing.
“During June through October, we find the larger schools of reds on the surface, generally in the area from three nautical miles south of the islands — Cat, Ship, Horn, Petit Bois — all the way to the islands themselves,” Simpson says. If you had to pick a month to encounter a red tide, Simpson would highly recommend August: “That seems to be the peak for finding reds on the surface in Mississippi waters.”
The reds might show in as little as three feet of water to more than 30. But wherever he’s running, like Jones, he keys in on diving birds. “We find the reds by looking for small, black diving terns feeding on small balls of red minnows, as well as any type of surface-feeding activity. Likely as not, the first predators to be seen are Spanish mackerel. But even if you’re spotting only mackerel feeding on the red minnows, take heart: “Often, redfish will be just below or just behind,” says Simpson.
“While cruising at 20 to 25 knots, I instruct customers to keep a constant lookout for any surface activity from bait or diving birds,” Simpson advises, adding that in the area he expects to see reds, he’ll run parallel search patterns, much like the Coast Guard uses as its search protocol.
Once a feeding frenzy is sighted, Simpson motors to within 20 or 30 yards and kills the engines just as anglers start casting Yo-Zuri Surface Bulls or other large poppers into the melee. Doing this last summer paid off for Simpson, who at times had perhaps 200 reds in the 25- to 40-pound range surrounding the boat.
Simpson points out that, especially in summer, surface activity where bait is being pounded can also mean tarpon, large sharks, big jacks, bonito (little tunny) and cobia.
Though Mississippi law allows one red measuring more than 30 inches per angler, the guide “highly recommends catch-and-release” on larger redfish. “These are our breeding stock,” he adds.
Double Your Pleasure
Monster Reds Await Anglers Inshore and Offshore on Florida’s East Coast
By Mike Mazur
Florida’s Space Coast might be most famous for space-shuttle launches and NASA tours, but wise anglers know another type of rocket lurks in the waterways around this large peninsula bordering the Atlantic Ocean.
Here’s a hint: They’re red rockets.
Each year, bull redfish amass on the surface throughout the Cape Canaveral region, providing ample opportunity for anglers looking to score trophies on top. But there’s a catch: The “red tides” here don’t come in a one-size-fits-all package. Instead — to the delight of anglers — they’re encountered in both nearshore and inshore environments.
The most celebrated red-tide fishery here involves big schools of redfish that swarm throughout the Indian River Lagoon System, a network of interconnected rivers and lagoons that weave around Kennedy Space Center and its surroundings.
While redfish commonly school on the surface all year, they begin to cluster more tightly and in greater numbers as water temperatures heat up in late summer. These fish are big too, in the 15- to 40-pound-plus range.
“It’s generally good from August through October,” says Capt. Scott MacCalla (321-795-9259; www.redfishonfly.com). “We get a big influx of finfish — especially mullet and pogies — and the redfish transition over from shrimp and crabs. The warmer the water gets, the more aggressive the fish become.”
Guides cruise the Indian River, as well as nearby Mosquito Lagoon and the Banana River, looking for signs of reds on the surface. Calm conditions and clean water help them to spot the schools, which push wakes, fin and sometimes blow up bait on the surface.
Once a school is spotted, the stalking game starts.
“You’ve got to sneak up on them with a trolling motor or push pole, and cast past them,” says Capt. Troy Perez (321-268-1194; www.troyperez.com), who was among the first to put this fishery on the map more than 20 years ago. “Some days they’ll eat whatever you throw, but they’ve gotten tougher over the years.”
Perez says that at times the fish take only live or dead bait, but they can usually be coaxed into hitting soft-plastic swimbaits and plugs, such as Rapala X-Raps and MirrOlure MirrOdines.
Since redfish more than 27 inches must be released in Florida, MacCalla likes medium-heavy spinning gear with 20-pound braid and 40-pound shock leaders to minimize stress on the fish. Most important, he replaces damaging trebles on his plugs with single J hooks.
Another lesser-known Space Coast red tide erupts around the same time, August through November, in the open waters of the Atlantic. These schools are not as finicky as their inshore brethren, but they’re much more difficult to find. The trade-off, however, can make the search worthwhile.
“We’ve caught up to 40 on fly in one day,” says MacCalla. “If you can find them, they’re usually very easy to catch, and they’re all big. I caught one on a piece of beef jerky once!”
While that tactic might not be the preferred method, virtually any lure or bait tossed into these schools will be annihilated. But first you’ve got to find them.
To do that, two things are required — extremely calm conditions and excellent sun. The reds usually show up along the eastern edge of the shoals off Cape Canaveral, an expansive area several miles northeast of the inlet at Port Canaveral.
“When you find them, you’ll know it,” chuckles MacCalla. “Just huge masses of orange water.”
These redfish are often encountered accidentally by anglers looking for cobia, Perez says. MacCalla agrees. “It’s funny,” he says, “a lot of people know about these fish, but they’ll run right by them. They’re looking for other fish to put in the cooler.”
All the more for you.