Saturday, October 23, 2021

Winter of Reds
By Jerry Gibbs

Forget those copper colored apparitions you may have stalked over flooded spartina grass or sandy flats in balmy weather—fish that squirt away like scalded cats if your double-haul and heavy breathing so much as rock the boat.

The blood-boiler redfish of fall and winter are something else in attitude and size, a far cry from the 16-to 18-inch youngsters so loved by fair-weather and cooler-focused anglers eyeing their next redfish on the grill. What I want to tell you about are those other fish, reds in the high 20s to 30s—pounds, that is. They’re called bulls, for good reason.

Fly fishers focus on bull redfish along a golden crescent of coast encompassing Florida’s Pensacola Bay, the Alabama Gulf beaches and islands, the mouth of the Mississippi River at Venice, Louisiana, and westward to that state’s Biloxi Marsh.

It works like this: Sometime in early autumn great numbers of mature redfish move to deeper Gulf water to spawn, often near barrier island passes. The males exercise a muscle alongside their swim bladders producing a vibrating, drumming sound (that’s why they’re officially called drum) to attract the ladies. When the females show up a nighttime orgy occurs, during which eggs are spewed and fertilized. Invariably the spawn occurs on a big incoming tide, the fertilized eggs then drifting toward and into bays and estuaries where the larva will morph into juveniles.

Sex satiated, the adults are now hungry. Gradually they move inshore where massive schools of menhaden (pogies) are shifting and weaving from one bay to another where mullet also gather. The hapless forage is greeted by legions of giant redfish that in my mind are grinning like evil cheshire cats before they pounce on their prey. This is what we’ve waited for.

The timing of this event in each of the areas along the crescent of Gulf coast varies slightly with weather. Schools of big reds may show as early as late October. November and December are prime in all areas. And, if you can handle and cherry-pick the weather, January works, too. Wind can influence your success. Around Pensacola and along the Alabama beaches a north wind is fine—you can work the inshore and the inside barrier beaches. Not so in Louisiana where marshes reach out to the weather. Here, a north and northwest wind is bad.

Come spring—March and April—the giant aggregations of mature reds are generally fractured, and anglers focus on small groups or individuals that work grass or sand flats, inner sandbars, and marsh shorelines. In these situations, you can sometimes see them coming; with enough water clarity, cruisers at a distance and “crawlers” in extreme shallows with their backs exposed. They’ll be bright, lit up, and wanting to eat. Just for variety, you could glom onto a cousin to the red, the black drum. No confusing the fight of those brutes. Unlike the reds, black drum bulldog toward bottom and hammer it out, using their girth and weight, which can easily top 30 pounds. I think they’re also pretty ugly. But to each their own. This is good sport, hunting these fish in mostly shallow water, but it’s not what people really look for in the fall/winter bull redfish run. It’s those early winter schools off the beaches, and even in the deeper bays, that get anglers so worked up.

In Pensacola Bay—with apologies to Pamplona—they call this style of fishing “the running of the bulls.” Indeed it is, with aggregates of fish surfacing, thrashing and eating, while adrenalin-crazed anglers run and gun in their boats, hooking up, then putting fish down, then doing it all over again.

Along the Redneck Riviera of Alabama beaches, like Perdido, Orange, and Gulf Shores, to the mouth of Mobile Bay, often close in but also out to two miles offshore, in 15-to 60 feet of water, especially when the wind lays and the sun is out, the big redfish come up. Clusters of aerobic pelicans give them away.

When I fished with guide Dan Kolenich, he would point, slicing his arm around in a near 360 degree circle—birds ahead, birds to the side and behind—and slow motor toward the nearest flock. Then the surface would rip, clear water glowing with a copper color, then turning belly-white as an entire school of reds broke the surface, humping down on menhaden. All we had to do was throw into the mess; in those situations it’s near impossible not to hook up. We’d fight and land a fish, then look ahead. As far as you could see, beneath other circles of wheeling and diving pelicans, we saw dozens of schools, meaning hundreds, possibly thousands of bull reds ripping the surface in a swath of water the size of a football field. This is no exaggeration.

While all of this is happening, possibly while you are releasing a fish or hooking up again, the sky could crack with a roar you literally can feel in your chest. On certain days the Blue Angel jets from Pensacola Naval Air Station perform their incredible aerobatics, sometimes triggering paraffin-oil vaporized smoke trails looking like spermatozoa squiggles on a microscope slide. One time, the pilots were amusing themselves, I’m sure, using our boat as a pivot point before thundering surface-skimming passes that turned the water to froth from terrified, fleeing redfish. We soon took exception to those Angel antics.

Fast-moving flies in a variety of patterns, and in colors ranging from bright gold to purple-black, are good choices when targeting running schools. Big fish that are hunting in a slightly more sedate manner are prime targets for large poppers—often the largest you can throw. There’s a funny popper story from Moe (Monique) Newman, co-owner with her husband Eric of Journey South Outfitters in Venice, Louisiana. The go-to “meat” technique for non-fly anglers targeting slot redfish and trout wherever the fish swim is this: A popping cork with a leader-strung jig below. On a day that she set up some novice clients with such rigs, larger reds began noshing on the floats. Instinctively, Moe rummaged for a lure to emulate the corks. What she had was a big Shimano Pop Orca plug meant for tuna. The bull reds crushed it. The rest is history as they say. It ushered in the increasing use of truly large poppers where traditionally streamer-style bait patterns were the flies of choice.

Those massive schools of redfish eventually break up, but winter bull reds are still to be targeted—individually, or in small groups. Protected slick surfaces, tight along marsh shorelines near deeper water, are prime target areas. So are small ponds and larger lakes back in the marshes. These pockets are connected by channels and bayous, and at times the fish hunt those constricted places. With any kind of decent visibility you’ll be rewarded with the excitement of true sight fishing for these thick-shouldered creatures. You could see nervous water or breaks from feeding fish at some distance, or you might lock in on the slow approach of a cruiser or two, closing in time with your heart beat. Or your sighted fish may appear from nowhere, reddish-copper apparitions suddenly materializing in the brownish-olive water. When that happens there’s no time for refined casting. It’s a situation of throw-it-out-now, fast and hard, sometimes slapping your subsurface fly or popper so close ahead of the traveling fish you’ll be sure you’ve spooked them. But these are redfish—more times than not, they’ll eat.

Close-range or distance spotting, sight fishing doesn’t always work. Clouded water and/or a choppy surface switches the game to one of blind casting to key ambush areas.Think of those constricted areas between ponds and lakes. Think of points with circling currents, small pockets or larger cuts in shorelines. You may also need to wear yourself out hammering shorelines where wind pushes forage that’s on the bulls’ menu. That wind varies from manageable to the point where, in tandem with big tides, it pushes water from back marsh ponds and lakes and makes access basically impossible.

I’ve hit this winter bull red fishing when air temps were near 70, the sun was strong and the breeze like a soft kiss. And then, sometimes overnight, things can turn ugly: The sun goes, the sky spits freezing rain or sleet and gives rise to thoughts of fetal-like curling around a jug of something stronger than herbal tea.

Masks and snowmobile suits over multiple insulating layers become the dress code. But if you can get to the right places, even for the shorter fishing sessions your body can stand, the big reds are likely there and prone to eat. And what if it’s just too bad, too brutal, just impossible to fish? Believe it, there’s other stuff you can do.

This crescent of the Southeast U.S. coast is a dream of succulent eating—oysters, shrimp, crabs, gumbos, boudin sausages, smokey ribs . . . . Even in the smaller villages there’ll be an assortment of watering holes that are sure to please, many with the kind of live music—blues, zydeco, rock, jazz—that’ll put bad weather out of mind. Even with weather that passes as bad in this part of the Deep South, it’s going to turn good again. And even if it takes a while to do so, fishing in the cold is a darned sight better than digging out from another multiple-feet-deep winter snowstorm in the North.

Rods and Lines

A 9-weight rod is the workhorse of choice, though 8 and 10-weights have their places. Floating lines handle most situations, but don’t be without an intermediate taper. A fast-sink configuration for off-shore windy conditions might also find use.

Flies

Large saltwater streamer patterns (in light, dark and flash-heavy ties), along with big poppers, work well on bull redfish. Remember, these fish are primarily eating good-size menhaden or mullet, thus patterns with heads of water-pushing bucktail, wool, or synthetic material (think giant muddlers) are good.

A Few Favorite Patterns:

Capt. Dan Kolenich’s simple go-to streamer is a more subtle pattern. It’s tied on a 1/0 hook. It has a yellow chenille collar and wing of multiple layers of gold Flashabou that flare like confetti between strips. Depending on water depth, these flies will be rigged with either bead chain or even heavier eyes.

A local Alabama favorite is the Geaumeau (pronounced go-mo) named for a folklore creature that gives kids nightmares, a swamp horror with heads at front and tail reducing it to chronic constipation. The fly is a meaty streamer of chartreuse flash, Estaz head, white rabbit-strip tail. A commercial version should be available from Deep South Outfitters in Birmingham, Alabama https://www.fishdso.com

A black/purple Redfish Destroyer Shrimp Fly—weighted—with a weed guard is popular for subsurface Louisiana marsh fishing. One version is sold by Steelie Brothers Fly Co., steeliebrosflyco.com, and you should definitely check their selection of big poppers—Big Head Gray/White; Swamp Monster; Purple Ice Mega Double Barrel Popper—all tied on 6/0 or 7/0 hooks.

Eateries and Watering Holes

Pensacola, Florida

Gulf Coast Brewery (has cigar lounge)

The Fish House (nightly live music)

 

Fairhope, Alabama

McSharry’s Irish Pub (serves the best Guinness pour in the Southeast. Weekend Fiddle & Flute Sessions)

Master Joes

Dragon Fly

Buck’s Diner

 

Venice, Louisiana

The Den—has music

Bayous Club

Hartt’s Old Cypress Bar

 

New Orleans, Louisiana

Just throw a blind cast and you’ll find something good

 

Houma, Louisiana (for those fishing out of Cocodrie and Dulac)

1921—for great seafood

Boxer & The Barrell (good tunes with the Duke restaurant next door)

Big Mike’s BBQ Smokehouse

A-Bear’s Cafe

Bayou Delight Restaurant

Photography by

Jerry Gibbs

Carmen Causey

Daniel Favato

Gil Greenberg