September 08, 2021
Perhaps the most accommodating of inshore gamefish, red drum can be caught in just any way imaginable in Florida. A red will rise up and not so gracefully smack a topwater plug in shallow water, and is just as happy to inhale a chunk of ladyfish rigged with an egg sinker on the bottom of a channel. And there are time-tested places where anglers armed with the top lures, flies and bait can bet on redfish success. And we are talking a varied menu. Maybe the question should be: What won't a redfish eat?
Reds anywhere from “rat” to “bull” status are encountered in Florida waters of all kinds. Grassflats, oyster bars, mangrove shorelines, inlets and passes, sandy beaches, under docks and bridges, you name it. You find them where the food is, basically. Though ideally built for bottom-feeding and grubbing, a red often takes prey such as baitfish, and swimming crabs and shrimp, in the middle of the water column and even at the surface despite its underslung, inferior mouth.
There is no one best redfish bait or lure. There are a bunch of bests! But here are my Top Ten that get the job done just about anywhere you run into a red.
A live shrimp under a popping cork was central to my boyhood redfish indoctrination, and the place was Everglades City in the Ten Thousand Islands. Tossed under a mangrove creek shoreline, redfish rally for shrimp, when not beaten to the punch by mangrove snapper and sheepshead. The latter two can leave you with a bare hook. The hookup ratio is much better with ravenous redfish, but maybe you've discovered that already?
The shrimp can be hooked to stay alive by passing the point and bend through the rear of its horn, but it really matters little to a hungry redfish. A fresh-dead shrimp works just fine, threaded on the hook, or rigged Texas-style. The steady pop-pop-pop or the occasional Blurp! of the cork brings reds to the bait, which is rarely turned down. On one fine autumn day I recall at least three reds clumsily and comically attacking my cork, without noticing the shrimp at all. And that is why I will cover topwater plugs in just a bit.
Fresh shrimp come in handy, too, wherever redfish get fussy on grassflats, or around shallow oyster bars. The scent does the trick, and the best vehicles include jig heads (or fully dressed jigs) and weedless spoons. A fresh shrimp either Texas-rigged or tail- hooked is deadly when sight casting to redfish in tailing depths.
A hardy live blue-claw crab is redfish candy in many places. Blue crabs are available at most coastal bait shops and cost around a dollar each. You can harvest them yourself, but check the recreational blue crab harvest rules at www.myfwc.com.
Fiddler crabs are also a redfish delicacy, becoming an easy target when a high tide floods their marsh or shoreline habitat. In northeast Florida marsh country, fiddlers are a redfish staple, and fly tyers imitate them for good reason. High water levels caused by winds, a full moon, flood tides or combinations of all these allow redfish to feed on the excellent stock of fiddler crabs. Fiddlers crabs can be fished with a light egg sinker, splitshots or on a 1/4-ounce leadhead jig, with the hook passing through the bottom and right out the top of the shell. Don't overwork the jig—a slow, bottom-kissing retrieve is best, and you will prevent line twist that can happen with all crab baits.
A whole blue crab with a 4- to 5-inch carapace is terrific for bull reds over 30 pounds or so. Prepare the crab by removing the hard shell and the claws. Tip: Don't tear the claws off. Rather, apply pressure with your pliers at the “elbow” of the claw. Increase the pressure and the crab will sometimes “release” the claw. It's a trick I learned when I live-baited for tarpon under Florida Keys bridges at night, and the crab will live longer on the hook and not twist the line in current. Many anglers prefer circle hooks to J hooks for crabs. When a redfish takes the crab, it moves it to the rear of the throat and crushes it. Smaller slot-sized flats reds love a crab, too, and it can be the ticket to hookups when targeting hard-fished reds that have seen it all! The smallest “bonefish” crabs are great—cast them on a small heavy wire hook without weight in under 2 feet of water, and perhaps add a splitshot or two where deeper. The bait should be less than 3 inches across, and if sight fishing, lead the fish by about 3 feet and get the bait in its path.
3) Weedless Spoon
This classic spoon has probably taken more shallow-water reds than any lure. Narrowing it down, a gold spoon, whatever the brand, has long been the go-to choice. It has fallen out of favor a bit, and there may be some truth to the belief that they “don't work” as well anymore due to conditioning of redfish where fished especially hard. I can't argue it's possible, and in fact, years ago in Florida Bay, reds seemed to flare off when they saw it, so I switched to a black Johnson “Silver” Minnow. The switch worked for me on clear sunny days, perhaps because black isn't as flashy in clear water. I would also scuff the shine of my gold spoons with sandpaper to dull them. I was convinced it's the wobbling action and sound of the lure slithering through the grass that triggered the strike, not so much the shine.
There is quite an array of spoons now in comparison to when I fished the Johnsons in Florida Bay. But I still prefer the Johnson, with its wire weedguard for grassflat presentations. I prefer the 1/8-ounce size to larger sizes. The small size casts a mile, doesn't get blown off course as much in a side wind and the splashdown is lighter. You can tip the spoon with a short plastic tail if you like for increased profile, and even a thumbnail-sized dab of fresh shrimp when the fish need some “coaxing.” It won't hurt the action of the spoon that much. Do use a quality snap swivel to prevent line twist. The Silver Minnow wobbles without full revolution when retrieved slowly; it's when you crank it in a warp speed to recast that it can twist your line.
4) Skimmer Jig
The number one lure in my opinion basically due to its versatility. Whether you are fishing in a foot of water for tailing reds, or peppering deeper flats potholes, or combing a shallow, mangrove-lined shoreline, a skimmer jig is tough to beat. The redfish may take it for a shrimp, crab or baitfish, who knows? I say crab. My favorite of all times is a 1/4-ounce Gaines Wiggle Jig, and now use the 3/5- and 1/8-ounce Backbone Lure. I fish this jig pure for flats reds, but may tip it when the fish are fussy, and when cold or hot water makes them lethargic. Other than sight fishing, search-fishing in slightly deeper water can be done with those in the 1/4-ounce size. Color-wise, you can go “Earth tones” such as brown or tan to blend in over “salt-and-pepper” flats, or do an about-face and tie on a chartreuse/brown combo or something gaudier, such as hot pink/white or orange/brown. In muddy water, a black jig stands out. They all work, you just have to experiment. And a monofilament weedguard (which comes standard on Backbone Lures) help keep loose grass off the hook. A loop knot gives this lure freedom of movement.
5) Soft-Plastic Jig
Today I would venture that 90 percent of redfishers prefer plastic-tail or scented tail jigs over those dressed with bucktail or other fibers. I fish the D.O.A. CAL quite a bit, and prefer both the shad-tail and curly tail versions. Both tails are terrific, action-wise, and give off vibrations that help redfish find the food in dark or cloudy waters. The soft bodies probably cause the fish to hold them a bit longer in their mouth before you set the hook, too. The main convenience is you can switch out a tail color in seconds, other than a hair jig. The soft tail can be pierced to allow for insertion of a small rattle chamber. The trick is to match the lead head and hook length to the length of the tail. Be sure the gap between the hookpoint and body is wide enough to facilitate hookups.
I reserve these 1/4- and 3/5-ounce jigs for slightly deeper flats and channel edges, and work them along bottom with the current. Always tie this jig on your line or leader with a loop knot. The Berkley Gulp! scented tails add a strong attraction, appealing to the redfish's senses of smell and taste.
6) Soft Plastic Swimbait
This category of soft plastics is more popular now than ever, and it covers finfish, shrimp and crabs—the entire redfish food group. Swimbait mainly refers to those lifelike mullet/whitebait imitations fitted with a weighted hook. I have had success on pass and mangrove backcountry redfish with the Storm Wildeye Swim Shad, and the same type of swimbait is a great choice for catching an inshore slam. The smallest versions are light enough for flats work, the bigger ones better suited to deeper water. These ride hook-up in the water making them ideal for bottom-bumping around oyster bars or flats potholes, and most have tails designed to vibrate on a straight retrieve. As the category suggests, these swim on their own without much added manipulation from the angler.
7) Soft Plastic Jerkbait
How many thousands of these adorn tackle shop walls now? I am referring to the soft type, not the hard body jerkbait. The basic shape, the fluke, is as good as any. It has a tapered baitfish shape, 2-pronged tail that helps it swim level in the water, and even dart in and out of the water with quick twitches of the wrist on the retrieve. The Zoom 5-inch Super Fluke for example, is one I have fished a lot for reds on stingrays, staging in potholes of the flats, and tailing in the shallowest water. Like most soft jerkbaits, this bait has a recessed pocket for reverse hook rigging, where you just skin the surface of the bait where the hook exits at the rear. This bait casts well for its weight, though you can add a split shot or two on your line right at the hookeye to make it sink faster if desired. The best thing is you can twitch this lure at the surface for topwater strikes, or let it settle as deep as you need to reach the level of the fish. You can even use both methods on the same cast. Many anglers like the New Penny color though there is an array to choose from. Lengths of 3 to 5 inches are ideal for redfish.
8) Plastic Shrimp
A great search bait, or for sight casting to redfish in clear water. There are easily 10 or more manufacturers of this lure, but I have always come back to the 1/4-ounce D.O.A. Shrimp for a couple of reasons. One, it has a single hook. Two, the lead weight is embedded, where it won't snag grass. It skips on the surface well with a sidearm delivery—which I use to catch redfish under docks on the Indian River Lagoon. There are a few more realistic-looking products, but this one swims, and sinks, like a live shrimp. For clear water, try the clear/red glitter or gold glitter version; a Figi Chicken or Rootbeer/Chartreuse tail where the water is stained or muddy. For searching out reds over deeper grassflats or under docks, retrieve it with a slow swim and then use a sharp wrist snap to make it dart before allowing it to sink on a tight line. Repeat. The strike often comes as it sinks.
9) Topwater Lure
Though overlooked by many redfishers, topwater lures can bring out the aggressiveness in otherwise lethargic reds. And who can argue the thrill watching a sizable red lit up at the surface making repeated slashes before latching on?
If I had to narrow down the most effective of them, I vote for the floater/diver. My old favorite for flats reds is the venerable Creek Chub Darter, a deadly snook plug as well. The beauty of the Darter, and similar floater-divers, is that you can swim it just under the surface between rests on top. Redfish, with that inferior mouth (under the head) are a bit clumsy when rotating their bodies to engulf something floating. But they readily make their move when this lure is on the swim. And there are dozens of other choices on the market if the Darters are hard to find. To facilitate a quick release of redfish, consider mashing down the barbs on those treble hooks, or switch them out for single hooks that are similar in weight to the trebles, so that the lure's action isn't affected.
I can't name a single favorite fly for reds. I have tied and fished “many dozens” of proven patterns that take reds. How about I give you two—a crab and a shrimp/baitfish imposter?
When I'm stalking tailing redfish on the grassflats, I make a quick assessment on what the fish are doing. Tailers that are engrossed in their feeding have normally found the mother lode, and that is often small crabs. Stomach checks of the rare fish that I killed over the years often confirmed that. Though I have tied many effective crab patterns, I really like the Borski Critter Crab, which has also taken quite a few bonefish for me. It's a simple tie, with prominent mono stalk eyes. There are no elaborate legs, it is not realistic. It is an impressionistic crab. Small lead dumbbell eyes or bead chain is used for weight. A two-prong mono weedguard fends off the grass. The body is either yarn tied in laterally and clipped, or wool can be used. I tie it on either a No. 2 or 1 hook, though go to a No. 4 for skinny, skinny water.
One of the oldest patterns in the saltwater book is the Homer Rhodes Streamer, later popularized by Chico Fernandez as the Sea-Ducer. It has been a go-to for me for 40 years for redfish in shallow water. In “shrimpy” colors, it's a great impressionistic shrimp. Tie one in white with a red head, it's a finger mullet. It is 100 percent saddle hackle—the tail is comprised of 6 or so 3- to 6-inch matching hackles, some flash can be tied in, and then you palmer (wind) a couple of hackles around the hook shank to from the head. The palmered hackle suspend the fly, making it a terrific choice for grassy, shallow water. I love to cast it in tight to a busy tailer, let it settle near it and then give it a twitch once the fish looks back up. It rarely fails. To imitate baitfish , I like a red/white color combination. I tie this one with Cree hackle feathers and a little copper flash in the wing to imitate a shrimp. A mono weedguard is optional, and hook sizes range from No 2 to 2/0.