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Fishing the Fall Redfish Run

Make a date for the fall redfish run on Florida’s northern Gulf Coast.

Anglers wrapped in colorful cold weather garb lined the concrete rails of what once was the Bryant Patton Bridge linking Eastpoint on the mainland to St. George Island. Today, on the island, the old bridge is a popular fishing pier that juts half a mile into the bay. Across Apalachicola Bay on the mainland side, its opposite end is also six-tenths of a mile long. Everything else, including spans and 6,500 feet of rubble, are now artificial reefs.

On the island pier a dozen or more Florida State University students were having the time of their lives. Most intently stared at the waters while cradling fishing rods. Behind them in mid-highway, an industrious fellow was grilling hamburgers, hotdogs and brats.

Below, the choppy coffee-and-cream colored waters of Apalachicola Bay moved fast as the tide flowed out. No one talked much. Everyone watched their taut lines. That’s when the big redfish struck.

The fish never announced its intentions in a slam-bang manner. It simply inhaled the succulent chunk of cutbait it found on the bottom and continued swimming against the strong current. Scenting more food it searched the mud for another morsel.

Far above it on the concrete fishing pier an angler felt the slight tug. He waited until he felt it again and then he struck.

The 20-pound-test mono twanged taut, the angler heaved back on the white finger-thick glass rod and the foraging bull redfish felt for the first time the sudden surge of resistance.

With that the fish turned and bolted off into the muddy waters of the bay. The battle was on!

This was not the first big fish encounter that I saw on this brisk October Saturday.

I had arrived a couple hours earlier just as a group of young men clustered around one of their members who clutched a deeply bent rod at the very beginning of the bridge. The rod was handed from one to another down off the bridge to the riprap of jagged granite beneath it. Then they were at the rusted steel bulkhead lying down and reaching toward the water with a too short-handled net.

Just out of reach a large redfish thrashed. Above him the catcher clutched the line and slowly lifted. Abruptly, a loud gasp and groan told the story.

“Knot pulled out,” breathed the catcher, but something in his voice told me he wasn’t that displeased.

“Can’t keep the big ones,” he shrugged. “Fish was a good 40 inches.” The group trooped enthusiastically back up atop the bridge.

A half-hour later they were doing it again. This time the line broke.

“That’s okay,” said the angler. “He was too big.”

And that’s the way it went. In the next three hours the scene repeated itself but no one really cared. It was one of those perfect fall fishing days and that’s what they had all come to enjoy. Catching fish wasn’t as important as just being there and trying.

“Hey!” someone shouted. “The brats and burgers are ready!”

Along St. George Island’s sturdy pier, anglers have been meeting their matches with finny competition ever since it came into being. Next door, a brand new white concrete Bryant Patton Bridge soars gracefully against the blue skyline across the bay. Completed in 2004, the same year the old bridge became fishing piers, it immediately became popular with fishermen. Interestingly, the old bridge which included a fishable causeway still retains this structure. But you need a boat to reach it. The causeway separates the two piers and stands by itself in the middle of the bay like a well buttressed concrete island, shrubs, palms and grassy knolls still in place. It was always a bird rookery. Adults raised their young so haphazardly beside passing traffic that signs were posted asking motorists to slow down for low flying birds and wobbly winged fledglings. Motorists never minded in the least.

But now the rookery is isolated on its own natural island enjoying all the solidarity it deserves. Boaters visit but are asked to respect the community living there. I understand there has not been a single traffic casualty among that population since the causeway was disconnected from civilization. How nice.

Especially since October is redfishing time and the causeway always attracted many anglers then. But this time of year anglers from here west to the Alabama state line are always hunting these bronze-backs.

Wherever bays provide fishy entries from the Gulf, October means action aplenty. Even land-based anglers get into it. Local tackle shops know where the action is, ask them. Around Cape San Blas, redfishing right off the beach is a long-standing tradition. St. George Island’s east end, part of the State Park, has always been a hot spot—but due to shifting sands, you’ll want to check with the park office for accessibility (850-927-2111). Other good redfishing spots are the exposed oyster bars opposite the boat launching ramp at St. George Island State Park. You can wade there, but you can reach the shell piles easier with a boat.

At Panama City’s St. Andrews State Park anglers catch redfish off both the Gulf and bay piers. Action also occurs off the jetty but the unevenness of rocks makes this a treacherous undertaking for those not too fleet of foot.

Sandy Point beside the ship channel is also occasionally good for reds, especially when the bull reds come in to mate at the cut. Same is true fishing from the jetties beside Bob Sikes Cut at the west end of St. George Island, though beach access is only to those who live or rent in that area

Coastal piers across the Panhandle sometimes harbor redfish. Beneath the bathhouse partway out the concrete Dan Russell Pier at Panama City Beach is said to be a good spot. One angler did well with large redfish using 1⁄2- to 3⁄4-ounce rootbeer-colored plastic shrimp.

David Bakerman of Jacksonville found hungry reds while fishing under the H
ighland View Bridge at Port St. Joe at tide change. Similar action takes place around Gulf and bay structures. Reason: October waters are cooling, bait is abundant and when the tides move, the reds feed.

Boat anglers get into schools of these fish big time. Panhandle guide Capt. Scott Lindsey and his son Jeremy fishing flats one year on October 29 reported to me that, “We must have seen over a hundred fish in less than one foot of water. Between the two of us we caught (boated) and released over 25 reds, and lost no telling how many.” Scott said a friend of his had been going out and catching 15 to 20 every time using white and red plastic grubs. So it goes in Red October.

On the particularly pleasant Saturday that I was on the St. George pier, a growing number of anglers arrived as the afternoon warmed and the tide quickened. Foraging fish whetted their appetites thanks to a pair of tied off green plastic 5-gallon chum pots riding the chop under the pier.

Above them the group of Florida State students was spaced along the rail, facing the outgoing tide with a variety of fishing rods, many too light for bull reds.

The important thing was that one of them knew something about what they were doing, even though many of the others didn’t. But he saw to it that they had the proper bait well-hooked on their circle hooks.

“No, no, no,” he admonished one red-haired woman. “Not the head. You don’t want a head.”

He properly hooked on a succulent shrimp tail section for her. As she marched back to her place with rod in one hand and baited hook in the other, I murmured to her with a grin, “The things we learn.”

“Um, um,” she shook her head, resolutely. Minutes later she shrieked as she excitedly fought in a whiting about the length of her hand.

The whole group whooped in praise and rushed her with cameras for a photograph. Then the fish was carefully unhooked by one of the men and eased back into the coffee-colored waters. Her day was made and she had a digital picture to prove it. She gleefully showed it to me on the shaded back of her camera monitor.

“Just goes to prove that tails are better than heads,” I laughed. “Oh yes!” she smiled happily, and hurried off to get another tail from the fellow in charge of bait cutting.

Meanwhile the fellow with the rampaging red was slowly working his way toward shore through a small crowd of fishermen who generously made way for him by reeling in their lines and praising his efforts.

No cars are allowed on the St. George Island piers. The county takes care of maintenance and although there are no lights on it you may fish it 24 hours a day. A dozen or so parking places are at the beginning of it. Serious fishermen pull their wheeled rocket-launchers holding rigged rods, tackle boxes, chairs, umbrellas, bait buckets, snacks, drinks and fish coolers out as far as they care to go. I noticed no one at the end of the pier. Serious fishermen go with extra long-handled nets for the riprap. Bull nets work from the pier for big fish. Bait and tackle shops are nearby.

Finally, the three young fellows who were leading their catch toward shore were down on the riprap trying to reach the thrashing red with a too-short handled net again. Laying flat on their stomachs they reached but failed. Then, one of them dropped the net and it disappeared in the brown waters.

The catcher decided there had to be a better way. Just down the riprap a rusted steel beam bent out and down to the water. On this the determined angler went, almost reaching his red thrashing outside the arm he stood on, but never quite getting to the fish. Then the catch was brought around the beam and into a cul-de-sac where the young man bent low, scooped, and his right hand came up clamped inside the red’s gill cover.

The triumphant trio climbed back atop the pier with their bronze beauty. If I ever saw a team effort, this was it. They posed proudly with their catch.

“Good luck,” I said.

“You too,” they grinned.

The three shouldered their trophy back out the pier into more excited compliments, squeals of excitement, and a flurry of photographs. At least they got pictures of their big trophy before they released it.

The fall day had turned golden. It had been good on the pier. Everyone caught fish. Everyone was smiling. As I turned to walk back to my car, I heard again the jubilant call behind me,

“Hey guys, more burgers and dogs are ready!”

I had to smile.

Your Favorite Fish

Florida anglers routinely rate red drum (more commonly called redfish) at the top of the popularity list.

The recovery of spawning stocks in the Gulf of Mexico can be directly attributed to the de-commercialization of the species in federal and most state waters. During the 1980s, millions of pounds of breeding-size redfish were netted in huge purse seines, destined for the now-infamous “blackened redfish” dish featured at many restaurants of that era.

Bag limit in Florida state waters is one per person per day; the size limit, no less than 18 inches, no more than 27 inches. No possession of redfish landed in federal waters (beyond 9 miles from shore on the Florida Gulf Coast, 3 miles on the Atlantic side). State residents fishing from shore, and most anglers paying to fish on piers, do not need a fishing license.

FS