March 10, 2016
By Florida Sportsman
By Ed Mashburn
Cold, clear water and some of Florida's best sight-fishing.
It's like this: water is clear emerald, beaches are blazing white, the air is brisk and cool, and the winter sun creates a dark shadow on the sandy bottom where a fishing skiff floats over the second bar just off the beach.
An angler at the bow gazes intently toward the beach, and his partner in the back stands on a short, elevated platform and scans the water also. They are looking for very subtle signs. Then the angler in front stands bolt upright and says, “There they are. Coming this way—a school of reds!” With that, he makes a long cast well ahead of the slowly approaching shadow which is a school of bull redfish.
When the redfish reach the spot where the angler's jig has dropped to the bottom, the angler hops the jig, and what happens next makes normally sane and rational people go just a little bit crazy. The angler's rod bends way over, his reel makes a sound like it is in pain, and the line rips through the clear water as a very strong fish realizes that she'd rather be somewhere else than right here. After a spirited struggle with lots of strong runs and some powerful head shaking, a yard-long redfish lies at boat side. The angler removes the hook, admires the big redfish, makes sure she's recovered from the struggle, and then releases her back to her home in the Gulf.
Then he smiles at his partner and says, “Your turn. I'm tired.”
And these anglers will do this sort of thing all day long, again and again. This is what sight fishing for big redfish on the beaches of Northwest Florida is like.
The end of summer means a lot of things on the Northwest Coast of Florida. Crowds of summer visitors thin out, birds migrate here from the cold North, and a special kind of fishing gets really, really good.
Captain Pat Dineen (Flyliner Charters 850-376-0400 email@example.com) has guided anglers for many years on the Gulf Coast and he says, “The schools of big redfish start to form up right off the beaches in fall, and they continue to be on the beaches all winter. By May each spring, the big schools break up and the big reds go deep in the Gulf or up in the bays for the summer. They just spread out.”
For anglers, sightfishing in the fall and winter means that they will be working water that is as clear as it ever gets—optimum conditions for the seeing the fish. Also, in winter when those sharp cold fronts bring strong north winds, the immediate areas just off the beaches are often totally flat—no surf, no wind chop, just super clear water with a glass-like surface. These conditions are perfect for sightfishing redfish.
Reading the Beach
When it comes to locating the schools of big reds—these redfish commonly weigh 20 pounds and sometimes much more—it helps to cut down on the chase territory. After all, there are many miles of beaches in Northwest Florida, and the reds might be at any point along the beach.
It is necessary to understand the general “lay of the land” when it comes to searching for redfish. In Northwest Florida, most beaches have two sandbars which lie out from the surf zone. The first bar is fairly close to the dry sand—usually no more than 20 yards out. A trough of deeper water may stretch for a hundred yards or so, and then there is a second, deeper bar. Both the bars and the trough are usually easy to see in the bright winter light. The trough will usually be a darker color of green which indicates
the deeper water. This trough is where the big schools of redfish will usually be found.
When it comes to the seeing part of this kind of fishing, it helps to know what to look for. If the school of reds is a tight school—really packed close together, it will look like a dark blob, a shadow on the bottom. However, this shadow will be moving. If the reds are up on the first bar as they sometimes are when chasing prey, individual fish can be seen clearly in the transparent water.
Dineen tells us, “Good places to start a bull redfish sightfishing trip are just east or west of the major passes here—Destin Pass and Pensacola Pass. The big reds will often be within a quarter mile of the passes. They like to hang out in somewhat deeper pools. Look for pinch-points on the beach. These bars, which form at various locations along the beach, create deeper water on one side of the point, and these can be very good places to find the reds schooled up.”
A final bit of advice from Dineen when it comes to finding the big reds on the beaches: “When you find the bull reds in a certain spot, they'll often be found again even on other days very close to that same spot. Some places on the beach just seem to always have schools of reds close by, so keep working these places.”
Rigging for Success
A great thing about the fall and winter bull redfish sightfishing game is that rigging up is not overly complex. Of course, these reds are brutally strong fish, and this is no place for cheap tackle, but a couple of set-ups per angler should be plenty for most trips.
A 4000 or 5000 series spinning reel with a good rod, six feet long or longer, is good for long distance casting. Twenty pound test line is good, and a 30-pound fluorocarbon leader is plenty. We're fishing
open water here, and there's just not much for a hooked bull red to tangle an angler's line in.
What is crucial is that the reel's drag works well. When a big redfish is hooked, it runs, and then it runs, and then almost always, it runs a bit more. If a reel's drag is not functioning well, at some point in this hard-pulling process, the drag will catch, and the line will break, and the angler will either cry or cuss- maybe both. Make sure the reel's drag is up to the task.
Selecting lures for these fall and winter beach redfish is easy. Go simple. There are few lures simpler than a jig, and some ¼- to 1-ounce jigheads with a few packets of various-colored soft plastic bodies takes care of most sightfishing situations. Jigs can be cast a long way, and this is crucial when sightfishing these crystal-clear waters. Color doesn't make a lot of difference to these packs of ravenous feeding redfish, but I like to always have a flash of white or silver on my jigs. The hooks on jigs used for bull reds must be strong and sharp. Cheap hooks will be straightened out and big fish will be lost. Get jigs with good hooks.
When one of those miracle days happens and everything goes right and multiple hookups and many caught fish occur, it is a good idea to pinch the barb of the jig's hook down so unhooking the big reds can be done quicker and easier with less stress to the big breeder fish.
Dineen advises us about another way to catch the beach reds in winter. He says, “Sometimes a topwater lure works well on these schooling bulls. These reds will come up from six-foot deep water to smash a topwater plug. Topwater lures seem to work best in flat water conditions— a slight north wind or no wind at all. Any heavy topwater plugs will work—if they can be cast a long distance.”
Approaching the Schools
There's something very important for anglers who want the best and most consistent results on the winter massive redfish. Keep your distance!
Dineen is adamant about this. “Don't push the school!” he says. “Stay off from the fish. If the fish get nervous and start to move off, you're too close.”
He continues: “Just shut the motor down and drift if possible. Use the steering wheel and the shut-off motor to help control the boat's drift. Try not to leave the motor running and bumping into and out of gear. Use the trolling motor, or better yet, just drift. If you run up on the school, they'll swim away.”
For best results, anglers should try to stay just within casting distance of the school of reds—no closer. Since jigs—the most commonly used lures for these beach reds—can be cast a long way, anglers can work a school of feeding reds and stay well away from them.
Finally, when working a school of beach reds, try to cast to the edges of the school, not the middle. Casting in the middle of the school is a good way to spook them. By working the edges of the school and staying a good distance off, it is possible for several fish to be caught out of single school.
The important point, class? That's right—stay a distance away and don't pressure the schools of fish.
There are some things that anglers can do to make their fishing time catching these mega-reds on the beaches even better. First, good polarized sunglasses make seeing the fish so they can be cast to much easier. This kind of fishing is like hunting. It's visual. It is always more fun to see the fish and then to see the bite.
This kind of beach fishing doesn't even require a boat. Many big reds are caught by beach anglers who walk up and down the gentle surf line looking out into the trough area between the bars for the shadow of a school of redfish. The same gear and the same lures work well for beach anglers as for boat anglers. Some beach casters even go so far as to bring step-ladders to the beach to elevate their point of view to better see the reds as they cruise through.
Beach anglers who enjoy walking on the sand can cover a lot of territory in a morning's stroll, and it is often possible to find a school or two of big reds within easy casting distance of the beach. Just carry along a rod and small tackle box of lures, and see what you can see and catch.
As a final thought for Northwest Florida sightfishing anglers who love to see and catch these hard-pullers: Treat them right. Try to shoot photos of the fish in the water. They are much better supported by the water than when they are lifted up. If you must lift the fish from the water, try to support the middle part of the fish—that big belly—with your arm. Don't let the big fish sag down out of its natural shape. Also, there's no reason to use treble hook lures when fishing for these big reds. A strong, sharp single hook is much better for the fish, and much easier for the angler to remove for the next battle with another beach bruiser. FS
First published Florida Sportsman January 2015