Daylight savings time heralds changes in the approach to inshore fishing in the Big Bend. Water temperatures are rising, and while there are variations from year to year, it’s easier to find fish. The flats populate with grass, followed by pinfish; whitebait begin to migrate through the area and bring with them the pelagics, kingfish, Spanish mackerel and cobia. Mullet move inshore as well. This spring has been pretty much according to form, with one exception: the trout are a little bit delayed in getting onto the flats. Some are still holed up in creeks, and some in deeper water, but things will normalize later this month. Redfishing has been excellent. In fact, fishing with Doug Barrett, I had probably my best redfishing day ever in our area. Working a shoreline with lots of mullet, we happened upon a school and over two hours, caught 17 upper-slot redfish. At one point, we caught 8 on 8 consecutive casts. The fish didn’t move more than 25 feet over that period of time, which was unusual. Most of the time, after catching several fish, the school will move off. We used exclusively suspending plugs, either a Mirrodine XL or a Live Target suspending scaled sardine. It’s also worth noting that we fished for at least two hours before finding the school and caught only one or two trout, so knowing where and how to look for schools can make or break your day.
Redfish school throughout the year, but most reliably in the spring and fall. They school by size, but in the spring, almost all schools hold slot-sized fish. In the fall, most fish are schooling in preparation for their migration offshore as adults, never to return to the shallows, so a lot more overslot fish are caught in the fall. Locating schools of redfish is a challenge for me. There are several guides in our area that are experts; I would not put myself in that category, but I’m learning every time I go out. But there are basics that can help you have a better chance of finding some schools.
Redfish schools move in and out with the tide. On lower tides they will hold offshore, favoring water at least two to four feet in depth. As tides come in, so do the redfish. Occasionally you will come upon a school of redfish rapidly moving. This is a challenge as well. It’s very hard to get in front of them without spooking them with your motor. If you can run way outside of them and place your boat where you think they are headed, sometimes that works, but it’s amazing the amount of time they just disappear when they get just outside of casting distance. Stealth is very important. Additionally, schools that are moving rapidly are less interested in eating and more interested in moving, but if you can get plugs to them, you will likely connect. When schools are simply moving in and out with the tide, they are usually in a feeding mood. Traditionally, looking for “nervous water” is one way of locating schools, but you can be fooled by wind rips on the surface, or schools of mullet. The non-traditional way of finding schools is to run very shallow through areas that are suspected of holding schools, spooking them and noting where they are. Then after coming off plane, the school will settle down and you can move toward them. The preponderance of “tower boats”, shallow running boats with tall towers, are made specifically for this purpose. Personally, this isn’t my style of fishing, but even though I don’t fish in this manner, I not infrequently will come across schools while running and I will take advantage of that. Always keep your eyes on the water while you’re running in prospective areas. And when I say “move toward them”, I mean doing your best to arrange a drift taking wind conditions into account that will enable you to drift into the fish, or where you think they are. Trolling motors, if run consistently and very quietly, may work, but if you use a kicker, the school will likely move off. Pay attention to the wind and use it well.
What are prospective areas? Well, in some ways there are no shortcuts for this information. Either hiring a guide or, even better, spending lots of time on the water learning locations are the only ways. There are spots that seem to attract schools of redfish on a regular basis. Most of the time these are areas near creek mouths or near rocky structure that becomes covered with rock grass (sargassum) during the spring and summer. Areas that regularly hold mullet are always worth a try. And there are some places where I regularly catch fish that I cannot decipher…I have no idea why there are fish there, but they produce regularly. As I said, there aren’t any shortcuts (since nobody is likely to give you specific GPS numbers), so spend time on the water, and watch the water carefully. Keep scanning the surface, look for flashes and tails showing up in very shallow water. On higher tides, fish the shorelines as the fish move up into the grass to find crabs.
Luckily, not all redfish hang in schools, and there are usually plenty of solitary or pairs of fish to be caught, so keep casting. While I almost always use plugs, either suspending lures like the LIve Target sardines, Mirrodines or Catch 2000 plugs, or topwaters like the Rapala Skitterwalk or the Heddon Superspook Junior, sometimes I get desperate. During one large tournament, we fished all day and caught nothing competitive. With an hour left I finally threw out a pinfish filet near a shoreline under a float. Five minutes later we had a tournament fish in the boat. Unfortunately it was really ALMOST a tournament fish….it was just overslot. Happens a lot to me during tournaments. You also don’t have to restrict yourself to a few plugs. One of the best redfishermen in our area only uses jigs and soft tails. Gold spoons are the classic, but I only use them in heavy grass, along with unweighted soft jerk baits. When redfish are hungry, they are not picky eaters.
I love catching redfish. For many years I almost considered them bycatch when I was trout fishing. No more; now it’s more the other way around. And our area is one of the best places on earth (outside of Louisiana, anyway) to catch good numbers of quality fish. Making redfish a gamefish and removing it from the marketplace has resulted in a rebound of this fishery that everyone in the Big Bend should appreciate…and enjoy!