May 16, 2011
Big fall redfish in Panhandle passes.
Breeder-class reds like these are a big draw at the mouth of St. Andrew Bay in Panama City Beach.
When you hook an especially big bull red and it moves off with you in tow, that's exciting. When all three of you hook big bulls at the same time, and they move off in different directions, that's bedlam!
Mine bent me over one corner of the stern, Rick Ayers doubled over the other with his, and Capt. Chris Parker, our fishing guide, bent over the starboard rail with his, all of us grunting and heaving on the thick bowed rods as our bulls weighing up to 40 pounds stampeded in opposite directions. That's when Rick's reel bail broke with a bang!
Mono still streaked over the spooling bearing under brake pressure.
“ Switch! Take mine,” yelled Parker. Rick and Parker switched rods.
Rick's fish bulldozed an end run around my line and my bull charged under the boat. Lines crossed and sizzled. Parker grabbed me around the waist and Rick's broken bail rod passed under mine. Our taut lines suddenly uncrossed. Parker to my left now cranked hard, bringing in mono on his broken reel. Rick to starboard fought to stand up straight, under pressure from Chris' fish. My bull peeled off mono as though there was no brake, taking 30-pound-test I could hardly pull off the spool before.
Meanwhile, we three aboard Chris' 22-foot Not to Worry were dragged unceremoniously downtide past the entire fleet of 29 powerboats with their ogling crews of anglers probably wondering how three guys managed three hookups at once and where the devil were they going to wind up! More than one of those anglers with their mouths open prayed our bulls wouldn't drag us into their boats, especially those making the mistake of anchoring themselves in the middle of the ship channel. Stampeding wild bulls don't care where they go once they get rolling with a half-ton boat riding free behind them. Anchoring in the strong tide of a narrow ship's channel with heavy traffic, including a fleet of drift fishermen, is a sure recipe for disaster. But some people have to learn the hard way.
Such scenes are not new to Panhandle Florida. But now the herds of really big bulls spawning in the fall at major tidal outflows from one end of the Panhandle to the other, are healthier than ever before, thanks to Florida's efforts to protect them.
Heavy tackle is needed to subdue big fish in the deep, swift pass.
Despite our three bulls' rampaging runs, by the time we passed the fleet fishing the ship channel at Panama City, one by one we worked them up from the bottom for Parker to release. The largest were carefully brought aboard for photos, and then eased back into the water again. Parker pumped them back and forth to aerate gills until they shot out of his hand under their own power. Of our three simultaneous hookups, the largest was an over-40-pounder with the other two in the 30-pound class.
Seasonal spawning of these bulls across Panhandle Florida starts about the same time each year. Generally, it's between the end of September and the end of October, with a guaranteed time of October 15 usually the big bull day. All the action takes place near the mouth of the jetties where the male and females mate. None of the large redfish enter the bay, but their tide-borne fertilized eggs are carried in and distributed over the interior grassflats where the hatch occurs and the young are protected.
Area coastal bottom fishermen like Chris Parker are alerted to the approaching spawning action when they encounter schools of the large bulls up to five or more miles offshore near sunken bridge spans and other reefs. These encounters are generally brief as the schools move on. Supposedly the fish stage in these areas before moving into the channel for their annual mating event. When we speak of “bulls” we include both sexes.
Little is ladylike about the female of this species. Generally larger and extremely aggressive, the females are bullish in all ways including the way they fight. When you cradle their bulk for a photograph you feel the heavy load of roe carried in their bellies.
Last year Chris and his charter got into them before word got out and boats began crowding into the pass hunting them. Only two other boats were there and aware of them. Parker had four anglers that began fishing the pass on a fairly slack tide at 1:30 p.m. As the tide started falling they got into bulls immediately. When they pulled out four hours later they had caught and released 18 bull reds between 25 and 42 pounds; caught six grouper, the smallest 22 inches, the largest 27 inches, all on the 12th of October, which was the start of it for the Panama City area that season.
Oversize refish is revived and released.
Chris phoned me and three days later I joined him and Alexander City, Alabama businessman Rick Ayers at Panama City to see if we could do it again. Ayers invented a cylindrical closed-foam bumper pad for flats boat pushpoles so they wouldn't beat the fiberglass to death when being trailered. Proceeds go to a terminally ill children's support fund.
No rush to get fishing the day we were itching to get into them. No bull run action starts until the tide moves and that was scheduled for midday. Aboard Chris' 22-foot inboard we got into the pass between jetties around 10 a.m. Others were there, too, milling around. But no bowed rods meant no action. You could separate the experienced bull fighters from the inexperienced simply by looking at their rods. Anglers who knew they had to get these fish in quickly or they would run themselves to death, all used medium-heavy boat rods, and drift fished, holding boats into the current with their motors. Inexperienced anglers fished with flimsy lightweight rods and their boats were firmly anchored.
Despite local TV stations urging anglers not to anchor in this busy seaway, several either hadn't heard the requests or didn't care. Usually these anglers were fishing long, whippy rods. With their anchor rodes stretched taut in these over-50-foot depths, the chance of big fish plowing under them and causing boat collisions was very high. In fact later we saw the consequences of such an accident with peo
ple off the stern of one boat using face masks and fins trying to untangle themselves from another boat's anchor rode.
The drift procedure was to head to the seaward end of the west jetty. The fathometer told us we were at the edge of the ship channel with ledges starting in 30 feet of water and abruptly dropping straight off to 50 feet. Redfish stay on the top edge of these ledges or on the downcurrent side waiting for food to wash over on a moving tide. That's where we started the drift. As the tide picked up a couple hours after we arrived we started getting into sow-size redfish action.
Our medium-heavy boat rods were loaded with 30-pound-test mono. On it sliding free was a 4-ounce barrel lead above a swivel. End tackle was a 3-foot, 50-pound fluorocarbon leader attached to a 5/0 circle bait hook.
The hand scale is bottomed out; may as well just guess at the weight.
Live lip-hooked pinfish was our preferred bait but others were using store-bought baitfish. Artificials are also popular but the bottom is littered with hangs that quickly snag those that get too close. For the last couple years 8-inch curly tail white grubs on a heavy jighead were effective. So were heavy squidding spoons. These are fished straight up and down, jigging to indicate a struggling baitfish fluttering up off the bottom. After having caught a number of reds I switched to a $6 squidding spoon. Once down I hooked an immovable object, which ended that. Next I sent down an 8-inch curlytail jig. One bite and the tail disappeared. I went back to live bait and no more nonsense. Menhaden, dead herring and cigar minnows are alternatives. People here call anything over 15 pounds a bull redfish. Before the tide picks up, these smaller reds are usually the first hitters. But quickly the big bulls muscle in on the action. As I pumped in a husky female I saw three similar-size bronze warriors rocket around her. When the fish really pack the pass some anglers switch to the heavy squidding spoons and don't worry about waiting to reach bottom. Halfway there, jigging does the trick and you're off to the races.
Most redfish over 30 inches long are believed to be females, and of course any over 27 inches must be released, per Florida fishing regulations. (An 18-inch minimum and 1-fish bag limit also apply.) When Tampa Bay ran a redfish stocking program they found that redfish less than 30 inches long stayed in a 5-square-mile area after birth. Once they got to 27 to 30 inches they migrated offshore and never returned except to the passes to spawn. The only exception we know to this is in the Indian River Lagoon, on Florida's east coast. There, 30- to 40-pound redfish appear on those flats but this is something of a closed system with very little tidal movement in the lagoon.
Action like this is typical in October.
Our action in the cut at Panama City ran the normal gamut from small redfish to large ones as the day got later and the incoming tide increased. Single hookups soon became doubles, two of us fighting a pair of bulls simultaneously. Most of our action ended well before we reached St. Andrew Bay. And it was obvious that everyone else in that floating fleet was similarly engaged. It became evident after our first bunch of bulls that one of the best things we had going for us was circle hooks. Always they ended up in the corner of the bull's lips rather than deep down their gullets. They might appear about to fall out but that was never the case. These fish have leather lips. Pliers are usually needed to extract the hook. Part of that probably has to do with our manner of fishing. As you bounce your lead along bottom, the first indication that something is about to happen is the gentle tugs on your line. Nothing heavy or swift. But the tugs become insistent and when line moves off as though you've accidentally hooked bottom, you let it go until your rodtip is dragged underwater. Then you tighten up and give a slight nudge. After that the pressure of a heavy moving fish annoyed by your interference with his meal becomes apparent and he charges off while you hang on to the swiftly bowing rod.
Once our revived catches swam off, Parker eased us back to the head of the jetties where we got in line with the other drifters to start the ride of the bowed rods all over again.
They finally wore us out. We left the big ones still biting at 4 p.m. We had caught and released over 20 bull redfish ranging in size from 15 to over 40 pounds. In that time we had four doubles and one triple hookup. None was lost.
As far as I was concerned riding with the bulls here was a lot better than running with the bulls in Pamplona. None of us got trampled or gored and all the bulls lived to fight another day. Papa would have been proud.