November 30, 2022
Many of you will disagree with the title of this article. In some circles, striped bass have long held the title of “America’s fish” and they are certainly popular. When their populations were at a peak, everyone was fishing for them. In 2006, some 26 million trips were taken by recreational anglers targeting striped bass.
However, this title hasn’t kept them from peril. At one point in the mid-1980s, striped bass stocks faced almost total collapse, and now, once again face an uncertain future. Due to failing fish numbers, far fewer fly fishers are angling for them. Through the work of the American Saltwater Guides Association (ASGA), Amendment 7 of the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan was passed in 2022 with the goal of recovering these stocks.
Redfish or red drum have gone through many of these same cycles, particularly in the 1980s when a devastating demand for blackened redfish on menus throughout the Gulf States almost completely destroyed the redfish populations. Since then, great strides have been made to protect these fish, and red drum are now among the most sought-after gamefish throughout the Southern Mid-Atlantic and Gulf Coast States, with the majority of these states reserving red drum harvest strictly for recreational anglers.
As with striped bass, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission manages coastal populations of red drum, and requires states to implement recreational creel and size limits to achieve agreed-upon fishing mortality targets. A harvest moratorium, enacted in 2007, prevents any commercial harvest or sale of red drum from federal waters.
These regulations have led to a boom of giant redfish in our inshore waters, and a similar surge in fishing for them. They are abundant in U.S. waters from Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, all the way down the East Coast to the Everglades, the Florida Panhandle, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and in Texas all the way to Mexico. They are large, powerful fish that prefer to feed in shallow inshore water or else very close to the surface, making sight fishing for them an adrenaline-charged experience we all hope and dream for. Redfish roam beaches, inlets, rivers, creeks, backcountry ponds, bays, and open ocean.
They are the perfect saltwater flats quarry, and due to the fact that they are prevalent in so many U.S. states, and are so popular, I sure don’t have a problem with calling them “America’s fish” in this day and age. They are certainly a born-in-the-U.S.A. gamefish we can be proud of.
These fish can live long lives—at least 40 years—so protective regulations have an important cumulative effect. More studies are being instituted to assess stocks of four-year-and-older redfish in different states. Some areas could potentially be overfished, and these ongoing studies will hopefully shed light on problem areas within the redfish range. Because red drum are mostly recreational, very little is known about the population of fish that are larger than the slot limits. With the help of ASGA and local fishermen, we can provide scientists with the data needed to better assess redfish numbers across their entire range.
I recently had the great privilege to participate in the making of a film about redfish produced by Costa. I played a role, but the film also features experts like John Irwin, Billy Rotne, Benny Blanco, Chris Wittman, Ron Ratliff, JT Van Zandt, and David Mangum. Hooked On: Redfish highlights arguably our most iconic inshore gamefish from the north end of its native range to the south end, and includes redfish guides from the Low Country, eastern Florida, the Everglades, the Louisiana marsh, and the Texas flats. The film highlights problems redfish face, and the success stories we’ve created by learning from our past mistakes.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to target these fish throughout most of their natural range and in all of their different haunts, and that’s what this film is all about. My portion of the film was shot in my home state of Virginia, hunting open-water giants on Chesapeake Bay, where it’s not uncommon for us to cast to big schools of 40- to 70-pound reds floating on the surface. The redfish on the cover of this magazine was caught in Chesapeake Bay while we were out filming Hooked On: Redfish. We also have smaller juveniles in the creeks and flats of the Chesapeake. Moving south into the Carolinas and Georgia, you can experience many of the same opportunities. The farther south you go along their natural range the more abundant redfish become, and the opportunities become widespread in many different water types.
While redfish right now are plentiful across their entire range, water quality issues are still threatening some of the country’s premier fisheries.
Capt. Chris Wittman, cofounder of Captains for Clean Water, says his favorite game is to stalk redfish in shallow, clear water, but decades of water mismanagement, pollution, and the draining of the Everglades is harming those types of fisheries on both coasts and in Florida Bay.
“Redfish are very dependent on sea grass flats and oyster bars,” says Wittman. “Water quality issues have resulted in the loss of sea grass and oyster bars on both the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. In 2015 Florida Bay lost over 50,000 acres of sea grass due to hypersaline conditions, and today Florida Bay is still suffering from algae blooms as a result of that die-off.”
Captains for Clean Water has spent years educating the public about the importance of Everglades restoration and advocating for the cornerstone project of that restoration: the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir. The 10,500-acre storage reservoir and 6,500-acre stormwater treatment area—a manmade filter marsh—will significantly reduce polluted, nutrient-loaded Lake Okeechobee discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee watersheds and increase the flow of clean fresh water to the Everglades.
Tactics And Techniques
Redfish occupy diverse habitats, and the tactics and techniques to catch them are equally varied. One of their best attributes is that there are so many ways to catch them. There’s no way I can catalog all the different strategies here, but we can start by breaking it down into shallow- and deep-water scenarios.
Shallow-water sight fishing is definitely the most exciting. There are several tactics and techniques to consider, depending on the situation and region. Redfish can be easy to catch or technically challenging, depending where you’re targeting them, and what they are feeding on. Redfish eat a variety of food items, including shrimp, worms, crabs, and many types of baitfish from pogies (menhaden) to glass minnows and mullet. To say they are opportunistic is an understatement—pretty much anything they come across is food.
In deeper, open water, intermediate lines work well with baitfish imitations. You can work your flies over bottom structure, in deeper channels adjacent to marshes and flats, and obviously where the fish show themselves, or where you can see schools of baitfish or birds diving.
In water like this, I use baitfish imitations like Polar Changers, Finesse Changers, and Feather Changers in the right sizes and colors to match what you’re seeing in the water. Other popular baitfish imitations include Clouser Minnows, Bendback-style flies, and Kinky Muddlers.
Sometimes in deeper water, redfish gather in pods or even large schools numbering hundreds of fish. Large numbers of fish can cause competition and aggression—and unbelievable action. If you can find a school of a few hundred big redfish, you are in for a thrill.
In these situations, a floating line and topwater flies like poppers, Crease Flies, and jerkbait-style flies will cause exciting explosions. I remember one particular day on Chesapeake Bay, we located a school of big reds just floating near the surface in calm, open water without another boat in sight. There were about 1,000 fish, and they were all over 35 pounds—many of them over 50 pounds and 50 inches. It was something pulling up to a sight like that!
The anticipation of knowing what was about to happen made our hearts race, and our palms sweaty. We watched as sometimes a dozen or more fish at a time chased our flies, all trying to outrace their competition, and the chaos and excitement of multiple doubles that day is something I’ll never forget. Landing these fish in the 50-inch+ range really impresses upon you that these fish are worth saving.
As the tide pushes into the shallow marshes, redfish appetites can quickly change from mullet to shrimp and crabs. Generally, floating lines are the best choice for shallow water in the flats and marshes. When the fish move into the shallows on a flood tide, the large groups of fish disperse and you are more likely to find reds traveling alone or in small groups. They are often tailing as they root in the shallow marshes—sometimes the water is so shallow the fish are practically crawling in inches of water with their backs exposed.
This is when things can get really exciting (and tricky), as redfish often feel vulnerable in shallow water, yet their field of vision is greatly reduced. In deep water, redfish can see a mullet from 10 feet away, and they will race other redfish to eat it. But when they are feeding head-down, tail-up on crabs and shrimp in just inches of water, they can see only what’s inside a small cone in front of them. You have to place the fly on a pie plate, and do it without spooking the fish. It’s a far different game. Fly choice and casting skills become extremely critical in this situation, and the fly must land close to the fish’s snout without spooking it, and it must sink quickly into the zone where they are focusing.
Capt. David Mangum spends much of his year chasing redfish, and says that in his home waters of the Florida Panhandle, red drum have a propensity for feeding in very shallow water. “My favorite thing about redfish in my area is how they get into such skinny water,” says Mangum. “They require a very accurate cast as they move slowly—too much lead and they don’t see the fly.”
Mangum ties his own special flies for his home waters, but a good commercial version would be an unweighted Kwan with plastic beadchain eyes. The Kwan is a crabby/shrimpy imitation that works well in natural tan and a number of other colors.
JT Van Zandt makes his living targeting redfish on the endless shallow flats of the middle Texas coast. He has spent decades studying them, and adapts his fly patterns using size, shape, weight, and color to match the bait, and to perform in specific and varying conditions. The beauty of these flies is in their simplicity and functionality.
“I enjoy tying impressionistic flies using local materials,” says Van Zandt. “Coyote fur is one of my favorites—it lands softly, has a lot of movement, and holds a strong profile underwater. I use it to imitate all sorts of prey. It has a very buggy quality about it—very shrimpy, very crabby. Turkey feathers, deer hair, and red fox are also great.”
Of course, redfish are constantly moving back and forth from deeper water to the shallow marshes and flats, depending on the tides, and the movements of local baitfish populations, so you can often sight fish to them in that middle water that is 2 to 4 feet deep. It’s shallow enough that you can sight fish with floating lines, but deep enough that they’ll be in small groups and can see and aggressively react to your flies.
I remember fishing with my buddy Mike Schultz and legendary Louisiana marsh guide Greg Dini one day, feeding 20- to 30-pound redfish as they moved down a beach. We used large Game Changers and poppers, and had fish jumping over each other trying to get to our flies first. The fish crossed our lines and ran under the boat so many times, we were juggling our rods like a circus act trying to untangle ourselves. We had lots of laughs and hours of action as the fish moved along that contour.
Another reason I think redfish are “America’s fish” is that there is primetime fishing for them somewhere every month of the year. If you want to fly fish for tarpon, there is a short three-month window in the spring, steelhead fishing is good in the fall, and trout fishing is often dependent on spring/summer hatches. They all have a season.
But due to their enormous range and hardy character, you can find amazing redfish opportunities every month of the year. It’s always redfish season. You can find tropical flats fishing on the white sand Laguna Madre in Texas, you can chase giant bull reds in the summer in Pamlico Sound and Abermarle Sound, you can paddle Florida’s no-motor zone—10,600 acres of water nestled in Florida’s Banana River Aquatic Preserve—in the winter and spring, and in the middle of winter, you can chase huge numbers of redfish in and around the Mississippi River Delta. Mardi Gras isn’t the only reason people head to New Orleans.
Because catching reds is good when it’s 90 degrees and also when it’s 50 degrees, buying the right fly line can be tricky. Scientific Anglers Amplitude Smooth Redfish Warm and Amplitude Smooth Redfish Cold are essentially the same taper but one has a Tropi-Core inside and a hard saltwater coating on the outside, so the line stays slick and castable when the deck of the skiff is 90+ degrees. The Redfish Cold version stays supple without coils even when you are running to the flats wearing every jacket you own. It’s the only species-specific line I know of with a hot and a cold version, which says a lot about how tough and widespread redfish are. You don’t see any “Tarpon Cold” or “Trout Tropical” fly lines out there.
On the flats, the best rods are 9-foot 7- or 8-weights. I use the TFO A2X series. A smooth large-arbor reel is always important, and it’s nice to carry high-functioning tools, but redfish aren’t known for their long, blistering runs. Your leader doesn’t have to be complicated either. A simple 9-foot leader tapered to 20-pound-test works in most situations.
In deeper bays and open water, the fish size and tactics change, so you need to use 9- or 10-weight rods to cast larger baitfish imitations, and deal with larger fish that are commonly 36+ inches and more than 20 pounds. In open water, use an intermediate line, or something like a Sonar Titan Int /Sink 3 / Sink 5 helps you get down into the feeding zone. For larger fish in open water, I build my own three-piece leaders, or with sinking lines I use a straight piece of 30-pound-test fluorocarbon. With these bigger fish, the reel becomes more important. I really like having something with a large diameter so I can pick up line quickly when the fish swims toward me.
Redfish will eat just about anything that crosses their path like crabs, shrimp, worms, and all types of minnows, so your fly selection needs to be equally diverse and weighted for all different water depths. When sight fishing to tailing redfish, crab patterns are a good choice—that’s what they are often looking for in shallow water. Dave Skok’s Strong Arm Merkin, the Flexo Crab, Kung Fu Crab, and a traditional Merkin will all catch reds.
Shrimp flies are another important shallow-water tool, and just as many crab flies were first conceived as permit flies, many of the most effective shrimp imitations are bonefish flies. The Gotcha, Borski Bonefish Slider, Crafty Shrimp, Spawning Shrimp, and Chicone’s Disc Shrimp—and the previously mentioned Kwan—have all fooled many redfish.
In slightly deeper water and with bigger fish, I prefer my own Shrimp Changer, which can draw some attention from a distance. I love to see how these fish react to them. It’s quite amusing to see their reaction, they absolutely lose their minds when they see it.
I have been chasing striped bass and redfish most of my adult life and have seen the ups and downs both fish have endured. Both fish face an uncertain future, and I want my kids and my grandkids to see the kind of fishing I’ve enjoyed. I have taken steps to protect these fish by working to support the American Saltwater Guides Association and Captains for Clean Water. Let’s not wait until a low point to protect these fish, let’s protect the great fishery we have today.
No matter where you live in the country, redfish should be near the top of your bucket list. They offer constant opportunities to see how they react to your flies and your presentation, and you quickly gain insight on how to feed the fish because there’s so much interaction and feedback between you and the fish. There is a lot to gain from opening up your world to pursuing redfish on fly.
Blane Chocklett guides for trout, smallmouths, muskies, and stripers. He’s a Fly Fisherman field editor, and his most recent story was “Muskie Hunter” in the Oct-Nov-Dec 2021 issue. He is the author of Game Changer: Tying Flies that Look & Swim Like the Real Thing (Headwater Books, 2020). blanechocklett.com / Instagram: @blanechocklettfishing