They call it the fight-or-flight response. It’s what happens in elementary school when the fourth-grader who can shave pins you to your locker just for kicks. Your brain tells your body to start swinging or running, and it greases the wheels with a shot of adrenaline that would give a Holstein the jitters. Fish, even the very biggest ones, usually don’t have what it takes to trigger this jolt of energy and sheer terror in me, but right now I’m shaking so much I can barely stand. A redfish the likes of which I can’t even imagine just pulled all but the last few yards of braid from my spool then popped off my bait, which had been as long as my hand.
A 25 mph southeast wind is throwing all of the Gulf of Mexico at me along this deep rock jetty off Venice, Louisiana, and clouds of panicked baitfish are whipping the surface to a froth.
Three casts later, my lure is fluttering back down to bottom when I feel a tap. Before I can reel up the slack to set the hook, the fish has already pulled it out to get to me. Fifty yards of line evaporate off my spool, and suddenly I remember the problem with the fight or flight response: it doesn’t always help you. Sometimes the bully just gives you a black eye.
Now I’m really shaking.
When the tremendous runs finally stop, the monster sulks below the boat, dragging me into 10-minute tug-of-wars. I pull for all I’m worth, but the fish doesn’t budge. The heavy stick that seemed like overkill 20 minutes ago is bent to its breaking point.
My calf and forearm muscles are quivering by the time I start gaining line, but it still feels like a week before I can make out a torpedo shape closing on the boat. At first, the fish is all white belly as it rolls over just off the gunnel. “It’s a shark,” I gasp. Then it turns, exposing a back covered with scales that look like new pennies. I forget to breathe.
The bull redfish seems cartoonishly big as we hoist it aboard, lay it across the 30-inch cooler and watch a foot’s-worth of head and tail sag off both ends.
Months have passed since that fish turned my forearms to jelly, but I can’t go a day without thinking about it. If you want the same kind of experience, I’ve got good news for you. Guides and biologists from North Carolina to Texas are reporting red numbers at or well above historic levels.
And whether you’re looking to go toe-to-toe with bulls the size of your neighbor’s black Lab, or want to sightfish keeper-size reds for the grill, it’s hard to pick a bad spot. The following destinations will give you the best opportunities for both.
Tell someone in the know that you’ve fished reds in Louisiana, and they’ll probably huff and say that you’ve been spoiled forever. Rightly so. I fished out of Venice in September and was floored by what I saw: huge expanses of skinny water marsh habitat, tons of inshore reds ranging from 2 to 10 pounds, and an offshore fishery teeming with bull reds over 30. In fact, I caught the big dude on the first page of this article off the jetties off Southwest Pass.
Louisiana Marine Fisheries Division biologist Harry Blanchet says the stock is in generally good shape statewide. Fishing peaks from mid-September through mid-November, when baitfish and reds begin moving out of marsh ponds and to deeper bayous, oyster reefs and shoals. Bulls will be offshore.
Beware: although fishing can be great on the fringes of that time period, both carry the risk of tough weather. Sep-tember is dicey because of increased chances of tropical storm systems and November can bring tough cold fronts.
According to Blanchet, top spots include St. Bernard Parish just south of Lake Borgne, the Biloxi marshes, Terrebonne Parish, Calcasieu Lake area, Barataria Bay, and Grand Isle, which offers surf fishing opportunities.
Anglers can keep five reds a day between 16 and 27 inches, and if you’re fishing with a guide, a nonresident three-day license is just $5. For the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries, call (225) 765-2800.
For guiding in the Venice Area, call Reel Peace Charters at (504) 534-2278, or contact Cajun Fishing Adventures at (985) 785-9833.
Georgia offers the best of both worlds for redfish addicts—tons of keeper-size reds coupled with some of the most liberal bag limits in the nation, five fish between 14 and 23 inches per person, per day. Plus, you still have tremendous opportunities for numbers of bull reds ranging from 20 to 40 pounds!
Even better, recent population sampling by Georgia biologists shows numbers of young-of-the-year as well as bull reds are increasing.
“On our reefs, 20 to 30 fish days of bulls averaging 20 to 40 pounds are common,” says Assistant Director of Georgia’s Coastal Resources Division Spud Woodward. “That sounds like a fish story, but I have the numbers to back it up!”
Top spots for juvenile fish include tidal estuaries around Brunswick and Golden Isles. Fishing over marshes is a hot pattern—consult tidal predictions and plan a trip around a 7 1/2- to 8-foot tide.
“Artificials have really come into their own here. Baits like Berkley Gulp! have revitalized redfishing in Georgia,” says Woodward.
Look for bulls off the state’s 11 barrier islands. Jeckyll Island State Park and St. Simons Island allow good access and opportunities.
A nonresident seven-day license costs $7; a season is $24. Call (912) 264-7218.
You’ll find awesome fishing for both slot fish and bulls all along the Lone Star coast. According to biologist surveys numbers are at or near record levels.
Top spots include Port O’Connor, Rockport, Port Isabel and South Padre Island. It’s a year-round fishery, but action peaks August through September, when bulls enter the passes to spawn, and again in mid-March.
Sightfishermen looking to target tailing reds should concentrate on the coastline south of Port O’Connor.
Texas has a three-fish daily bag, with a 20-inch minimum and a 28-inch maximum, although anglers may take home one fish over 28.
The state has tried to loosen up limits, but overwhelming response from conservation-minded anglers has stopped the efforts, which is testament to the strong catch-and-release mentality.
“We’ve been seeing really strong recruitment,” says Texas’ Coastal Fisheries Division Science Director Mark Fisher. “The fish are still responding to the reduction in harvest from when the state banned commercial fishing in 1981.”
Nonresident one-day license is $15; a season is $60. Call the Texas Parks & Wildlife Division, (800) 792-1112.
Florida offers excellent fishing in many areas along its expansive coastline. Red numbers are up and the fishing is great, according to biologists.
It wasn’t always so. The state had active gillnetting operations running through the 1980s, and by the early ’90s, the fishery bottomed out.
The state closed the fishery and stocks rebounded rapidly. Today, Florida balances a huge demand for redfish with the stock’s ability to maintain itself, imposing a one-fish daily limit and an 18- to 27-inch slot.
Mosquito Lagoon, near Titusville, offers one of Florida’s best fisheries. Sandwiched between the Merritt Islands National Wildlife Refuge, John F. Kennedy Space Center and Canaveral National Seashore, Mosquito not only offers excellent habitat for redfish ranging from young of the year to 30-pound bulls, but its natural setting is a rare sanctuary in a state being transformed into one big strip-mall.
Another unique feature that plays well into a redfish angler’s hand is that because of its minimal tides and relative inaccessibility to the open ocean, Mosquito Lagoon redfish spend their entire lives there, whereas reds in other areas move offshore when they reach sexual maturity at age 5. As a result, giant bulls swim in relative close proximity to numbers of 18 to 27 inchers.
Longtime guide and NAFC friend Capt. Larry Fowler says November through April offers best fishing for keeper-size slot fish and sightfishing. “We catch reds out of 200-fish schools in four feet of water,” he says. “We can track them visually from 100 yards away and there will be so many fish that you’ll see fins bobbing out of the water at that distance.”
May through August is Mosquito’s peak time for bulls, which go 20 to 30 pounds. “We literally catch 30 pounders every day during that period.”
To plan a trip, call Fowler at (888) 257-8863. A three-day nonresident license costs $17; a seven-day is $30.
The Palmetto State’s red fishery is coming off three poor year classes, but the fishing is still hot, says senior marine scientist Charlie Wenner.
Top spots for keeper reds include Cape Romain, Mother Norton Shoals, Deveaux Bank and the Paris Island Marine Station Flats. Bull hunters, check out Cape Romain, as well as Bull Island, the Winyah Bay jetties, Dynamite Hole near Charles-town Harbor, Folly Beach and Stono Inlet.
Because of the complexity of the marsh areas, Wenner recommends that nonresident anglers coming to fish inshore areas get a guide. The money you’ll spend will be well worth it.
Call (843) 953-9300.
North Carolina is in the process of reviewing its redfish management plan, so a more complete picture of the fishery should be available soon, but a recent stock assessment shows that the redfish recruitment rate is near the goal level of 40 percent. According to biologists and anglers, fishing is as good as it’s been in years.
Fifteen to 20-fish days are fairly common statewide, and anglers who want to target trophy bulls will find solid odds. In summer you’ll find giants between 50 and 60 pounds in Pamlico Sound, where 15 to 20-fish nights aren’t uncommon.
In fall, fish migrate to coastal inlets, such as Drum, Ocracoke and Crystal. They also show up along the beaches, making reds accessible to shore anglers. A solid northeast wind allows for good fishing from the shoreline piers, as fish moving down from Virginia waters slide along the wind-blown shores.
As waters continue to cool, the fish will move into deeper water off the beaches and overwinter, then head back in as waters warm in spring.
Note: North Carolina required a saltwater license for the first time ever in 2007. A nonresident 10-day goes for $10, and a season is $30. Call (800) 682-2632.