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Running of the Bulls: Fly Fishing for Winter Redfish in the Mississippi River Delta

How red drum react to the fly is all part of the fun and a learning experience every time you slip into the marshlands.

Running of the Bulls: Fly Fishing for Winter Redfish in the Mississippi River Delta

Even under cloudy skies with slightly murky water it’s easy to spot winter bulls. They often move in large groups, and single fish show themselves with an aura of color in the water. (Jay Nichols photo)

Redfish stocks were at one time seriously depleted due to their unprecedented appearance on restaurant menus across the country, but on October 20, 2007, President George W. Bush by executive order made redfish a federally protected gamefish, and populations have since then been continuously increasing.

Redfish are typically found in inlets, channels, canals, and shallow estuaries. Also called red drum, Sciaenops ocellatus get their names from the dark red on their back that fades into a white/silver belly. Some scientists believe the tail spots are a defense against predators which encourages an attack on the tail instead of the head and vital organs. When in distress or during spring spawning season, red drum make a deep croaking or thrumming sound.

Redfish are native to the southern Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastal waters in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, but the Delta region is the epicenter of their habitat, and widely considered the best fishing for numbers of big bulls in the country. While fishing in Louisiana can be productive year-round, the big bull season is during the late fall and winter months of November through February.

Redfish disperse into the reedy shallows during the summer when water levels are high. In the fall and winter, decreasing water levels and temperatures cause shoals of big redfish to concentrate in deeper water like channels and canals instead of hard-to-fish estuary ponds and grassy backwaters. When you see these large groups or a beefy solo redfish moving toward you, your hands begin to sweat and tremble, and your heart pounds with anticipation. It's like the Pamplona Running of the Bulls except in this case, you do want to make contact.

During the winter, redfish feed on a variety of foods like shrimp, mullet, menhaden, shad, and glass minnows. While you can enjoy clear skies and calm conditions this time of year, much of the time you'll battle the elements. Stormy skies can still deliver great visual opportunities in the marsh if you focus on lanes or windows of visibility that allow you to clearly see into heavy chop. The bright orange, gold, or copper colors of these fish provide great contrast and "pop" in the water compared to reflective fish like bonefish, which can be difficult to spot in poor light.

Fly Fishing for Winter Redfish in the Mississippi River Delta
In morning and late afternoon light, you’ll look for pushes of water to indicate moving fish. Cast well in front of the wake to make sure the fish sees your fly. (Jay Nichols photo)

Where the mighty Mississippi River empties into the ocean, mud and silt have poured into the ocean over millions of years to create the most extensive saltwater wetlands (marshes) in the United States. Historically, these coastal marshes were constantly being created and eroded by seasonal flood events, creating a stable environment for redfish and everything they feed upon. Unfortunately, to reduce flooding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has for decades tried to control and tame the Mississippi and as a result the river no longer provides the constant silt input that created the Delta in the first place. Dams, canals, and other developments throughout the watershed are now creating a loss of 25 square miles of shallow marshland per year.

Even though the losses are massive, there are still huge tracts of saltwater marshes in the region. And since the fish group together this time of year, and do not spread out, it's vitally important to fish the right areas.

"As with all tidal species, we use tide, wind, water temperature, wind direction, and most importantly water clarity as the traits that we look for on a daily basis when we decide to fish a specific area," says Capt. Greg Moon of Louisiana Fly Fishing Charters. "We move around a lot to locate the areas that give us the best combination of these factors. On both sides of the Mississippi River you can have days or weeks when the conditions are more favorable than the other side. From Venice to Hopedale, Port Sulfur, or East Pointe la Hache, it's not uncommon if you are in one specific area to run 30-plus miles to another area and look for other conditions that are favorable."

Rigging for Redfish

A saltwater 8- to 10-weight rod with serious lifting power, and a smooth large-arbor reel that slows and shortens the initial run of a big redfish is important. The saltwater environment is tough on tackle so you need good gear, but redfish aren't known for blistering runs, high-flying tarpon leaps, or uncommon stamina. I like to overload my rod by one line weight when I'm redfishing and use a 10-weight line on a 9-weight rod to help me load the rod quickly for close casts in bad weather. You'll find yourself making "Oh shit!" surprise casts close to the boat much of the time in overcast weather.

Redfish leaders are simple with one goal: to turn over a heavy fly in a the wind and play a tough game of tug-of-war. Short, three-part, 6- to 8-foot leaders with 30-pound-test tippets are standard.

Fly Fishing for Winter Redfish in the Mississippi River Delta
Redfish aren’t known for high-flying leaps or long, blistering runs, but the saltwater environment is harsh and corrosive, and demands durable, hard-working gear. (Jay Nichols photo)

Heavy flies that sink quickly ensure that the fish actually see the fly when you make a presentation. Tungsten cones, skulls, and eyes can plunge 1/0 and #2 flies like the Clouser Minnow (black, chartreuse/white, pink/white) or Barr's Meat Whistle (black, black/purple) to the marsh bottom. Both flies swim with the hook point up like a jig. This helps prevent snags on oysters, vegetation, and rocks.

Ben Paschal of Laguna Madre Outfitters takes his operation to the Louisiana marshes in the fall and winter and says, "The fish are usually not selective and will hit almost any well-presented fly. It's most important to use a fly that you can see so you know where the fly is in relation to the target. A properly weighted fly is also more important than color.


Dark colors like black and purple are great because usually they show up better in murkier water. Chartreuse and purple/yellow is another one that shows up well in off-color water. If we are fishing really clear water, I still throw the standard blacks, purples, and yellows, but might be more prone to switch to a white or cream fly depending on the mood of the fish."

On a lighter note, flies like Lefty's Bendback (lime/grizzly, red/white, black/purple) and Craven's Flip Flop both have a slow sink rate to stay in front of suspended red drum longer. They also make a softer landing and are less likely to snag the bottom in shallow water.

When fishing unweighted flies, Capt. Greg Moon goes big: "I like to throw big flies in the winter months. I use a bunch of 3/0 large-profile flies that are unweighted and swim high in the water. That usually gets the big fish to smash them. I like something they can feel and see and forces them to eat."

Most of what redfish eat is subsurface but they will rise to surface flies and of course, that's what everyone wants to see. When reds are feeding hard, they are not afraid to rise and attack escaping prey. A 3/0 Rainy's Inshore Popper (white, green/yellow, red/white), 2/0 Gurgler (white, blue/white, red/orange, purple), or a Lefty's Popper (red, green, yellow, white) are all good choices. Size and function are both far more important than color.

"The fish are not selective when it comes to popper color. Something with a lot of "pop," that casts well, has a large hook, and is durable is what I'm concerned about," says Paschal. Beyond the pattern, it takes a little practice to carefully draw slack from the line so you can pop the fly with adequate force to make the fish look up.

The Setup

Weather and tide play a major role in how you deliver the mail to redfish. Winter conditions supply low water with less algae so you can more easily see the fish. Whether you have clouds, wind, or sun you can find sight-fishing opportunities if you know the terrain. The marsh is a network of nooks and crannies that supply endless wind shields and protected areas for fish hunting.

Fly Fishing for Winter Redfish in the Mississippi River Delta
In the winter, redfish tend to gather in groups rather than spread throughout the marshes, so it’s important to be at the right place at the right tide. (Photo courtesy of Journey South Outfitters)

Capt. Eric Newman, owner of Journey South Outfitters, says, "The tide is the key for all saltwater fish," but you can't take advantage of the tide without experience and deep local knowledge. "Some areas you can fish on high tide, and there are other spots that only become fishable on low tide," says Newman. A good guide keeps you moving through different areas as the tide progresses so you are always in the best spot.

A big part of sight fishing is knowing what to look for, so ask your guide exactly what he expects or hopes to see. "Most bull redfish you find during the winter months are either laid up or moving slowly," says Paschal. "You'll also find tailing fish, backing fish, fish pushing wakes, and floaters that are just hovering in the water. Every day has different conditions, visibility, and fish behavior, so on some days the fish are extremely easy to see, and on other days we just see color."

I've had days with Paschal where you can't actually see the fish, all you see is a faint copper glow in the water or just the whites of their fins. One thing you've got on your side is the size of the fish. Little fish are hard to spot in poor light, but these big bulls are impossible to miss even in poor lighting. Floaters that ride high in the water make it even easier.

You see them and instantly think "Wow!"

If you have dirtier water and bad glare, wakes and pushes become your focus. A wake appears well behind a moving fish so you'll have to lead a wake more than you would if you could see the fish itself. Like a quarterback throwing a pass to a receiver on a crossing route, try to anticipate the speed of a moving fish and lead the fish while casting slightly across its path. If you lead it too much, the fish could change direction, you'll swim the fly past the point of interception, or else you'll have to wait on the fish and risk snagging your fly on the bottom. Timing and accuracy is critical.

Some reds crush the fly as soon as they see it, others are more cautious and follow. When the fish are hesitant, strip hard a few times to speed up the fly. Predators don't like to see prey escape that's why you walk slowly away from a grizzly bear. If the fish is still reluctant, pause and drop the fly so it looks like an easy injured meal.

Watching these giant fish and how they react to the fly is all part of the fun and a learning experience every time you slip into the marshlands. If you've never tried the salt, it's a great place to get a taste. If you are a seasoned veteran, this is a time and place where you can target some of the largest redfish on the planet, and get lost in a wilderness our grandchildren might not get to see.

Landon Mayer is a Colorado-based guide and author of several books including 101 Trout Tips: A Guide’s Secrets, Tactics, and Techniques (Stackpole Books, Headwater Books, 2015).

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