Redfish inhabit inshore and offshore waters along the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Key West, and throughout the Gulf of Mexico. They are aggressive and hard fighting. They can strip line off reels and make your muscles ache from retrieving their massive, strong bodies and make your heart pound from excitement. They have a life span that can exceed forty years. In Florida waters, they can exceed 45” and weight more than 51lbs. These big fish are known as “bull reds”. The Mosquito Lagoon and Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s east coast are the only place where redfish live their entire lives inshore. This gives an angler great opportunities to catch a trophy-sized redfish twelve months a year. The only other locations that rival the shallow-water fishing for redfish we have here are in Louisiana, the Carolinas, and Texas.
If you want to find these bull reds, they don’t just appear; you have to look for them like any other fish.. You will seldom find bull reds schooling with slot-sized (18”-27”) redfish. They prefer deeper water - 18” to 3’ -, and like to cruise along drop-offs going into 4’ – 5’. I have found them in many areas in the Mosquito Lagoon like Middle Flat, Whale Tail, Beacon 42, Haulover Canal, Tiger Shoals, and Georges Bar. All of the northern Indian River Lagoon seems to hold these bull reds on the east and west banks, and then south of the Max Brewer Memorial Parkway on the east bank all the way down to the 528 Causeway. The Banana River “No Motor Zone” has schools, but not as large as in other areas. The farthest south location, Sebastian Inlet, holds bull reds as well. I have caught them on the adjacent flats as they come through the inlet. However, this article is about flats fishing, not inlet fishing.
Since my favorite method of fishing for bull redfish is sight fishing from a kayak, I prefer to use one that is stable enough to stand. I love to see the fish, cast to it, hook up, and retrieve the fish, all while standing. There are two preferred kayaks in my fleet: the Native Watercraft “Ultimate 14.5”, and “Slayer Propel 13”. I choose either depending on the distance, depth of water I need to cover to get to the fish, and wind speed. Both are rigged with rod holders and anchor trolleys. I carry an Aqua Bound “Surge Carbon” paddle, and a paddle push pole, regardless of which kayak I choose, to help me propel myself over the grass flats. The paddle pole gives me better control of the kayak, and I believe it to be quieter then standing and pushing and splashing water while paddling.
I am a fish log keeper. I have entered location information about when and where I have seen and landed these beauties. There are some schools that tend to visit the same area at the same time each year. These massive fish will not always stay in the same locations for a long period of time, but may remain for a day or two and then move. There was one amazing school that held 45” – 50” bull redfish that stayed in one location for over a month. When word got out to the local guides, they put so much pressure on them that they have not returned. When I find them, I like to land one and then leave them alone for the next day. I have found that the less stress put on a school, the longer they stay.
To locate the bull reds, slowly paddle or pole over the grass flats at the edge of the drop-offs. Keep an eye out for any movement at the surface of the water, for tails or backs breaking the water’s surface as they are feeding, any wakes, or bait busting out. Obviously a calm, windless day would be best for locating them. Redfish feed head down, poking at grass, shells, sand, and rocks along the bottom.
Redfish feed in shallow water, on the flats. Like many other fish, they tend to spook very easily if you get too close to them. To be successful, one must practice patience, accurate casts, stealth, and slowness - something I call P.A.S.S. Here are a few suggestions on how to get within casting distance without disturbing them much:
1. Use wind to your advantage. Note the direction. Stop any movement of your kayak and just drifting for a few seconds. Although you want to get within casting distance, you don't want to be on top of them. Once you establish which way you will drift, you can figure out a good place to set your anchor. Try to avoid making any wavelets, as I believe the fish can detect the water movement.
2. Anchoring upwind from where you see the fish feeding will give you the opportunity to cast from a greater distance. Slowly lower your anchor into the water as quietly as possible, or use your stakeout pole.
3. If you spook out the redfish, watch where they go. Never take your eye off them. If you haven't spooked them off the flat, they will usually push only a few hundred yards. Once they settle down, you will get another opportunity at them.
Now that you have gotten into position, casting skills become a factor. You will want to make sure you do not cast with a “plop”, or near/into the school, or this will be your first and last cast to these fish. Your presentation should be quiet, and the cast should be 5’ – 10’ past the school, outside of where you see the wake or the tails. Your bait or lure should be retrieved very slowly, towards the school. Make sure your line does not go through the middle of the school, or they may feel the line and spook.
Once you think you are close, let the bait sit on the bottom. Chances are a fish will pick it up. You can also move it ever so slowly, mimicking a crab or shrimp on the bottom. Do not jerk the bait too hard or you will spook the fish. If this happens, cast in front of the fish and in the direction they’re moving, right into their path. This is area is called the “strike zone”. With any luck, one of the reds may pick it up. I have spooked a school towards me. By casting behind them as they move towards me, I retrieve my lure faster than they are moving and through the school. As it speeds past them, one will usually inhale it. I assume it looks to them like a fleeing baitfish or shrimp.
Redfish feed by smell as well as sight. This is why live bait or scented artificial lures work the best, or plastics smothered in a scented gel. If using an artificial, make sure it looks like a bait that would be normally found in the area - “match the hatch”.
Redfish’s diets change, depending on the time of the year. They will eat everything from small baitfish to small crustaceans, shrimp, or crabs. During their spawning months, especially when the air and water temperatures start to fall, their feeding patterns change. They begin to gorge themselves and will often eat large pieces of cut bait, such as ladyfish or mullet, and crabmeat. Their core temperature lowers and they do not to eat as often.
When using cut bait or live shrimp, I like to rig it on a 4/0 - 5/0 circle hook tied to a 2’ – 3’ length of 20lb – 30lb fluorocarbon leader, no sinker needed. For artificials, I will use a smaller lure like the 12 Fathom “Fat Sam” mullet or a “Buzz Tail” where I cut off some of the body to make it shorter. Colors vary from time to time, but my favorites are Glow Shrimp, Arkansas Glow and New Penny, rigged on a 1/16oz or non-weighted Edje Joe weedless hook. You really do not need anything heavier. I prefer 2500 - 3000 series reels spooled with 10lb - 20lb braid, and I like using a medium-heavy fast tip 6lb -15lb Bull Bay Mini-SenZi Kayak Rod. This will let you get the fish to your kayak pretty fast if you are not going for a “Florida Sleigh Ride”. I go heavier on tackle in warmer months to shorten up the fight. The longer the fight, the more stress is put on the fish and more potential for it to perish.
Once you feel the redfish pick up the bait, wait for it to give a steady pull before setting the hook. This is done by pulling the rod tip up quickly, and keeping it up as you feel tension on the line. Bull redfish usually don't slam the bait. They simply suck the bait into their mouth and swim away, which causes the slow and steady pull. When you keep the rod tip pointed straight up, you are keeping slack out of the line. But beware: the redfish could be swimming towards you, causing more slack in the line. If this happens, continue reeling fast until you feel the tension again, then slow it down a bit but keep the rod pointing up. If you are using cut bait, be aware that that bait may travel up your braided line while fighting the fish. Other fish may get excited in the frenzy and go after that bait. With one chomp of their abrasive mouths on the line, they can cut right through your braided line and you can lose that trophy fish.
The goal is to have the fish tire itself out and slowly float towards your kayak. Never rush it; you will end up with a broken line, or the fish will spit the hook, or worse yet break your rod. These larger fish play an important role in species reproduction, so you don't want to stress them to the point that they die.
Once you have tired the redfish and brought it to the kayak, use a lip holding tool like the Fish Grip or Boga-Grip to secure it. Remove the hook with the fish in the water. Prepare your measuring device and your camera (you want that glory shot!). Once ready, measure, lift the fish by the belly, supporting its weight, and hold it horizontally with both hands - not vertically - take the photo, and put the fish back in the water as soon as possible. If at all possible, get out of the kayak and take the picture of fish while lifting from the water. Never lift with the grips.
Before releasing, make sure the fish is completely revived by holding it by the tail and moving the body back and forth to get water back in the gills. You will know when it is ready to go when it decides to kick out of your grip. Special care must be taken to revive them after a long fight in warm waters. It may take over fifteen minutes to nurse it back. This beautiful fish gave you great pleasure when you landed it; it would be a terrible feeling if it didn’t survive. Please do your part in helping our breeders survive for next generations to be able to enjoy “Catching the Thrill” and taking a “Florida Sleigh Ride”.