Here’s one fish that seems to enjoy the fun as much as the fishermen do.
A shaft of bright morning sunlight shattered into sparks as it struck the glistening tail of a redfish waving in air above the foot-deep flat. The range was fairly long, but I somehow tossed out a decent cast, plopping the weedless spoon on line with the target and well beyond it. Holding my rod high to keep the line from disturbing the surface, I cranked slowly and brought the shimmying lure within an inch of the emergent tail. Since the fish was standing on its head, that was also as close as I could come to its mouth.
My next cast was more impatient but no less accurate, and it reaped the same results. By the time I completed the identical procedure yet again, the little boat was sitting only 10 feet away from that still-beckoning tail, which already had been exposed to the sun for so long that it risked getting cancer.
As a last resort, I pinned a live shrimp to the bare hook of another spinning outfit and, with my right arm extended full-length, lowered what I knew to be an irresistible bait straight down alongside that dancing tail on a collision course with the end that eats. I closed the bail and waited. And waited some more. And, finally, I had to accept the obvious: My irresistible bait had met an imperturbable object.
Somewhere down there–beneath a foot of water, three or four inches of skimpy grass and an unfathomable depth of Florida Bay ooze–some sort of tasty creature, probably a tiny crab, had managed to burrow itself to safety. No telling how deep that redfish had stuck his snoot into the mud to grub for the elusive prize, but it certainly was deep enough to blot out all cognizance of anything at higher elevations. I was not a stranger to redfish strategies.
I almost caught that redfish anyway. One more stroke of the pole brought the bow of my skiff close enough for me to kneel down and grab his teasing tail with my good right hand. For a moment, he was mine, but those things are not only stubborn, they’re slippery. At least I made the tail go back under the water where it belonged.
Every angler has his own idea about which species is the gamest. In my view, there isn’t any contest. It’s the redfish.
Now, if any of you supporters of such also-rans as marlin, dolphin, kingfish and tarpon are beginning to choke on your own indignation, I beg you to go back and reread the opening episode, which is one of only many examples of how game the redfish really is.
The redfish is the gamest fish of all, for the simple reason that it knows how to play the most games–and the most entertaining games to boot–although the poor fishermen may not enjoy them until much later. All good fish will keep you guessing, but redfish seem to keep themselves guessing, too. The tricks they play and the performances they put on always seem to be spontaneous–as much a surprise to the redfish as to you. For example, I have known redfish to be disappointed at getting off the hook. On more than one occasion, I have had my lure pull out after having fought redfish with fully bent rod for up to perhaps a minute, and then watched in amazement as the perplexed fish looked around for the missing spoon or jig, spotted it and rushed forth to grab it once more. Can you think of any other fish so willing to play the angler’s game?
Redfish make up the rules of their little games as they go along, and if the fisherman is playing by a different set of rules–too bad.
Last summer I boated to the end of a spoil island off Crystal River on Florida’s Northwest Coast, with only one goal in mind and a proven game plan in place for reaching it.
I wanted to tangle myself up with a redfish considerably bigger than the 27-inch maximum keeper size. Three local experts had explained to me exactly how it must be done in that particular spot: You anchor up just off the edge of the channel, hook a good-size pinfish below a float, and wait. All three informants had–separately–told me exactly the same thing, so how could I doubt it?
The only thing I planned to do differently was catch my bait on the spot. I had been out there before and knew that pinfish abounded along a bar only a few yards away from the designated redfish ambush point. I threaded an inch-long plastic grub to the No. 8 gold hook of a 1/32-ounce crappie jig, and tied it to the 4-pound line of my ultralight spinning outfit.
That rig is my personal pet pinfish killer, but that day it never got the chance to do its designated job. On my first cast, it disappeared down the maw of a redfish which, considering my skimpy weaponry, seemed monstrous. I didn’t have time to clock the ensuing battle, but it must have raged for a good 15 minutes or so–prolonged nearly as much, I’m sure, by my wishy-washy tactics as by the size and strength of the fish.
That redfish, which proved to be 35 inches long, had decided–without consulting the opposition–to rewrite the standard scenario, cutting out the part about the pinfish and the float, and eliminating one whole act of a game plan that had long been adhered to as gospel by all the regulars who fish that area.
Of course, it is never a bombshell when an oversize redfish goes for an undersize bait or, conversely, when a little one attacks a baitfish whose body is bulkier than its own. But I could scarcely believe that a redfish so large would even be able to notice a lure so tiny, much less take an interest in eating it.
Anyway, the incident helped drag up memories of one of the oldest myths about redfish, which is that they cannot see too well–or, rather, barely at all. Forty years or so ago, I used to adhere staunchly to the “expert” advice that redfish are so blind they need a seeing-eye dogfish to find a natural bait, let alone an artificial lure. If you are going to catch more than an occasional red on a jig, the old-timers would say, then you’d better have a piece of shrimp stuck to the jig.
That’s because a redfish can smell a piece of shrimp a mile away, the speaking expert would always add, whereas he can see–maybe it should be “feel?”–a bare jig only if it brushes his nose.
A corollary to that advice, equally ingrained in the angling mind at the time, was that redfish do not respond in the same way–in fact, seldom respond at all–to pieces of cut finfish. If you want to catch redfish, “they” would say, you must fish with baits made of shellfish–shrimp or fiddler crabs or pieces of blue crab. And, if you don’t have shrimp, save yourself the trouble of cutting up mullet strips to tip your jigs with.
That was the standing advice and I accepted it for much too long. Finally, however, the crust of legend was eroded away by a series of incidents that the “good nose, no eyes” gurus would consider shocking.
Once, while wading the calm, clear water of a pass near Marco Island on Florida’s Southwest Gulf C
oast, I spotted a snook and shot a MirrOlure in its direction. Unfortunately, the plug landed right on top of its intended victim, causing it to flee in the opposite direction, leaving behind a muddy trail. Fortunately, though, something else spotted the lure. It was a big redfish that I didn’t see until it started barreling toward the bait–from at least 20 feet away.
Had that redfish been chasing some old plug outof my tackle box, I might have conceded the possibility that it had picked up the scent of long-dead shrimp. The target of its attack, however, was not only brand new, but also had been thoroughly scrubbed that very morning by many strikeless retrieves along the sandy bottom.
The truth hit me like a bullet! Redfish, by golly, apparently can see as well as the next predator. Subsequent experiments–the kind of experiments an angler never complains about performing–quickly proved beyond any doubt that the presence or absence of a tip of natural bait makes little difference in the number of redfish hooked. The crowning proof came on a trip with the late Capt. Andy McLean out of Chokoloskee one fall morning on low tide.
Andy put down his anchor at the edge of a channel off Turtle Key, where–it turned out–an immense school of small redfish was apparently biding time until higher water would permit them to explore the adjacent shell bars. Using a bare bucktail jig, I hooked redfish on 27 consecutive casts, landing and releasing nearly all of them. The other angler aboard fished with tips of shrimp on the same kind of jig, but caught only 15 reds. The episode, of course, didn’t prove that redfish prefer their lures to be untainted by bait. The difference in our scores was due simply to the fact that I was able to work faster.
None of this is meant to dissuade the potluck caster from tipping his jigs with shrimp. The poor eyesight once attributed to the redfish turned out to be a myth, but his keen sense of smell was, and remains, a fact that anglers can use to their advantage. Tip your jig and you might double your chances by allowing two sharp senses to play a part in tracking it down. Besides, there definitely are fish that vastly prefer a tipped jig to a plain one–sheepshead and snapper being prominent among them. As for redfish, let it be said again that the tip can’t hurt and it might help–as witness the fact that many a red has been caught on a tipped jig allowed to rest on the bottom.
That’s one “retrieve” a bare jig cannot match in effectiveness, and it underlines the favorite game of the redfish, which is eating–not just eating to sustain life, as all fish and men must do, but eating apparently for sheer gourmet pleasure, and sometimes just for fun. Anglers often marvel at how many different baits and lures a snook or a bass will take–provided, of course, that the timing is right and the fish’s pangs of hunger are running rampant. But those storied species are downright picky compared to redfish. Can you imagine a really big bass or snook daintily picking up a pea-size piece of shrimp from the bottom? Of course not. But a big redfish will do it as quickly as he will sample a whole blue crab, a fat pinfish, a hefty topwater plug or a tiny crappie jig.
The food, or assumed food, that a redfish most likes to play with is a topwater plug. It’s obvious from one glance at his small, underslung mouth that a redfish is not going to make his living by plucking morsels from the surface, but nothing seems to give him more kicks than batting around a dancing floater. If he should luck out and get one of the hooks in his mouth on the first try, it often is a disappointment to both him and the angler. But that seldom happens. When a red goes after a topwater lure, it usually touches off a string of hits and misses that can last longer than the first retrieve.
To cite only the most recent of many similar incidents, a keeper-size red roared after my Ratlure not long ago, batting it out of the water on his first approach and then almost keeping it in the air like a volleyball on his next two attempts. I maintained a slow retrieve all the while, and the final near miss occurred right beside the boat. But that wasn’t the end of it.
I tossed the plug to the same spot. Having apparently rushed back there in hopes of finding it again, the red triumphantly resumed his assault. Both of us, I guess, thought we had won the game when he finally got the thing in his mouth about halfway through the second retrieve. When it comes to vertical feeding, the redfish is far better suited to doing it head-down than head-up.
Because reds are so easily attracted to surface commotion, a popping cork rig baited with shrimp used to be the No. 1 redfish attractor. One small problem with it was that the fish often attacked the cork instead of the hook–which anglers were prone to put down as another example of poor eyesight. But eyesight had nothing to do with it. Just give him a little time and he would get around to eating everything out there–cork, bait, the works.
Although still widely used for a variety of fish, the popping cork has gradually moved aside among redfish fanatics in favor of artificial lures. The reason is no big secret. Where quantity once ruled a redfisherman’s thinking, the emphasis now is on quality of the experience.
Many anglers are only now discovering that fishing is a game, but the redfish knew it all along. FS
First Published in Florida Sportsman Magazine, November, 1996.