How to Catch Redfish

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How to Catch Redfish
How to Catch Redfish

Interested in catching redfish?

I’m sure you are. Anyone that has been saltwater fishing has heard of redfish, also known as red drum. Charter boat captains, other fishermen, and fishing show hosts all seem to target redfish for two reasons:

They’re fun to catch and taste great.

Don’t let the years of fishing experience those captains have intimidate you – catching redfish isn’t as hard as you probably think, but it does require strategy. I’d say that redfish are a fairly easy fish to catch from a purely technical perspective because they just aren’t that picky. The amount of planning and strategy required to consistently find redfish makes up for the relative ease of catching them.

Anyway, this article will cover everything you need to know about catching redfish. I will mostly focus on strategy and planning as that is where most of the challenge in catching redfish lies. But don’t worry, I’ll cover bait, tackle, and other pertinent information.

Redfish Habitat

Redfish are an inshore fish. You rarely find them more than a few miles from shore. And almost always in shallower water (under 20 feet). Here are some of the areas that you will frequently find redfish. I’ll also include how to find these areas, which is just as important.

Structure

Despite their larger size, redfish do have predators. The biggest predator of redfish?

Bottlenose dolphins.

Due to that, redfish will often congregate in areas with some amount of structure. Dolphins are big and struggle to swim around structure. Plus, most of the baitfish redfish prey on inhabit the same structure.

You will frequently find redfish near the following structures:

  • Docks
  • Jetties
  • Mangroves
  • Bridges
  • Oyster bars
  • Canal locks (it’s usually illegal to fish locks, but the area surrounding them is usually full of redfish and snook)

In my experience, oyster bars are the best structure for catching redfish. You still find redfish on most structures, though. The best structure for you simply depends on your location.

Try out all the locations until you find a good one. Redfish tend to congregate in the same area every day.

Grass Flats

Shallow grass flats are, in my opinion, the best place to catch redfish. I personally enjoy it because you can spot cast redfish cruising the flats.

You do have to know the right location on a grass flat, though. Fishing near the mangroves works great if there are mangroves. My favorite location is fishing a channel that cuts through a grass flat. The channels serve as a highway for the bigger fish.

Tip: Cast behind a stingray swimming the flats. They kick up the sand, which sends bait into the water. Redfish (and snook) know this, so they will often follow a stingray.

Tides

Tides mostly impacts the redfish on the flats. As you probably guessed, redfish exit the flats during low tide and enter the flats during high tide. During low tide, you will often find redfish schooling in deep basins on the outskirts of the flats. The water is cooler, and they don’t really have anywhere else to go. They might even get trapped in certain areas during low tide.

If you can find one of those deep basins, then that is very good. It’s extremely easy to catch them because of the sheer number of redfish in such a small area.

High tide is a little more difficult for redfish because the big schools break into smaller groups or even individual redfish. For this reason, I recommend anchoring on a feeder channel (or creek) as the tide comes in.

Redfish will come in with the tide, which makes it very easy to catch them on those channels. Once all the redfish have come in with the tide, you can normally find redfish in the previously exposed area. You’ll simply have to do more searching for them.

Finding Redfish

Now that you know the best redfish spots, you have to find the spots. Fortunately, satellite imagery is freely available on Google. I recommend using Google Earth to search for oyster bars, channels through the flats, and submerged structures (rocks, sunken boats, brain coral, etc.). Doing that will give you a good idea of where to look before you even leave the house.

Things are different on the water, though. If it’s low tide, then make a mental note of the area you see birds feeding in the sand or grass. Those areas are almost always the same areas that redfish will feed during high tide.

Also, follow the birds and baitfish. Diving birds, shining fish, or jumping baitfish (other than mullet) are a good indicator that there is a predator, or a whole school of predators, in the area. You definitely want to check that area out for redfish.

One last thing, redfish will tail. This means you will see their tail pop out of the water for a few seconds. If you see that, then you’re in luck because redfish are feeding in the area. You will normally see tailing redfish on the shallow flats during high tide.

Catching Redfish in the Winter

Redfish feed all year, so it’s easy to catch them in the winter. In fact, you will often catch bigger redfish in the winter. There are a few things you should know to maximize your winter success.

Deep Water

Redfish will go to deeper water in the evening, night, and morning for a much more stable water temperature. Fish the lower part of the water column in channels until the water warms up.

Redfish will eventually make their way to the flats when the water warms up. You will often see them swimming from the channels into the flats.

Further Upstream

Redfish go upstream for the same reason they go to deeper water: more temperate water.

And yes, redfish do not need salt water to survive. They can live perfectly fine in 100% freshwater. You will often find redfish very far upstream in the winter, which sometimes surprises freshwater fishermen.

The same concept applies upstream as it does in the flats. Deeper water in the morning; shallower water in the afternoon.

Bait for Catching Redfish

Redfish aren’t picky eaters (unlike snook), so you can use pretty much any live bait, cut bait, or lure that mimicks live bait to catch redfish. However, there are some baits that redfish prefer. This section will cover those baits.

Live Bait

The majority of saltwater fishermen use either live bait or cut bait ( live bait that died in the bait bucket). As I mentioned earlier, redfish aren’t picky eaters. The best live bait simply depends on the area you fish for redfish.

In other words, redfish eat what they are familiar with. If there are a lot of pinfish, then you should use live pinfish as bait. Here are some of the most common live baits you can use to catch redfish:

  • Shrimp
  • Pinfish (smaller is better)
  • Blue crabs
  • Grunts
  • Any minnow-type fish
  • Finger mullet
  • Really, any small fish (or crustacean) you find on the flats will work. Just make sure it’s legal to harvest it!

In my experience, bull redfish love blue crabs. I like to rip off the legs and hook the live blue crab through the back. Blue crabs are a little difficult to catch without a trap, though. Netting the occasional blue crab that floats by will work. It’s not consistent, but it does work.

How to hook live bait for redfish?

Hook live bait near the front when fishing a strong current. And hook the bait through the tail when fishing in a lighter current. Tail hooking allows the fish to naturally swim towards the structure you are fishing, which should draw the redfish out.

As for hook size, just use a circle hook in proportion to the bait that you use. A shrimp or minnow will require a smaller hook than a pinfish or finger mullet.

Do I need to use a weight with live bait?

No. You want the baitfish, or crab, to move naturally in the water. A weight may also spook the fish.

Cut Bait

Personally, cut bait isn’t my top choice for redfish. It’s messy and has a tendency to attract catfish, sharks, and every bait stealer in the area. Despite the drawbacks of cut bait, It does work pretty well for redfish. And cut bait even has some advantages. You don’t need a live well and you can use way more variety of bait. Here are my favorite cut baits:

  • Mullet.
  • Ladyfish.
  • Pinfish.
  • Blue crabs.

Cut mullet, in my experience, works great for catching redfish. And it’s easy to catch mullet in a cast net. If you don’t know how to throw a cast net, then you aren’t going to catch mullet.

Ladyfish also work well, but you can’t cast net ladyfish because they’re way too fast. I normally stumble upon ladyfish randomly. Keep in mind that sharks love ladyfish, so you might lose your hook a few times.

Cut blue crabs also work well for slot redfish. Simply cut the blue crab in half, discard the top of the shell, remove the meat, and attach it to your hook. It’s fast, easy, and bait stealers won’t run off with your bait.

Finally, redfish will hit cut pinfish. It’s not nearly as profitable as cut mullet or ladyfish, but it does work. Use the pinfish too big to hook as cut bait.

Note: I don’t recommend using previously frozen cut bait. It smells different in the water and it doesn’t stay on the hook. Fresh is best.

How to bait cut bait for redfish?

You want a decently sized circle hook and piece of bait when using cut bait. I recommend using 2”-4” sized chunks (2” for small redfish; 3”+ for bull redfish) with the backbone in. The bigger pieces of bait should discourage bait stealers and catfish. You still have to deal with crabs, though.

  • Fish head is a great cut bait. Catfish won’t steal it. And it’s easy to hook.
  • Don’t use the tail. It’s hard to cast, and a lot smaller.
  • Don’t bury the hook. Simply hook it through the muscle and out through the skin. The skin does a pretty good job of holding the hook in place.

Lures

The type of lure that a redfish will hit really depends on the habitat that you are fishing in. Shallow water and deep water will require different types of lures. Here are my recommendations for each habitat:

Shallow Water (0-5 feet)

In shallow water, you want to focus on staying at the top of the water column. You really shouldn’t fish off the bottom in shallow water. Also, make sure to rig these as weedless if you are in an area with a lot of floating grass.

  • Soft plastic baits without a jighead. A jighead drops too fast – simply use a small hook.
  • Spoons (weedless or regular, but weedless works best)
  • Plugs
Deep Water (5+ feet)

Deeper water gives you a little more flexibility with the lures that you can use. Most of the options for shallow water will also work good, not great, for deeper water. Here are some types of lures that work great in deeper water:

  • Plastics on weighted jigheads. The exact weight depends on the current. More current means more weight.
  • Crankbaits.
  • Weedless bucktail jigs work especially well in deep water. You can even add a soft plastic for an even better presentation.

Now, if I had to pick one lure to use for redfish, it would be a soft plastic lure. They work in any depth (with or without a jighead) and work great for catching redfish. The one downside is they require a little more work than cut bait or live bait. Of course, fishing for bait isn’t necessary, which will save an hour of your time.

Cast Nets

It is legal in some locations (ex. Florida at the time of writing) to use a cast net to catch a catfish. It’s not a reliable way to catch redfish, but it does work. Redfish aren’t really that difficult to cast net because they aren’t expecting aerial predators. A fast 8-foot cast net should work fine for catching redfish.

Please check your local laws before cast netting a redfish. It is not legal in all jurisdictions. Some counties or fisheries may have laws prohibiting cast netting for redfish.

Spearing

It is legal in most jurisdictions (but not Florida) to spear, gig, or snatch a redfish. But please check your local laws before doing so as the penalties for breaking this law can be harsh.

I’ve never even heard of anyone gigging for redfish, but it does happen on occasion if the circumstances are right. Most people will gig for flounder or frogs, not redfish.

Best Tackle for Redfish

Line

The type of line to use for redfish boils down to mono or braid.

Personally, I use braid for redfish. 10 to 15 pound braid works fine for weak current and shallow flats. The problem with heavier braid is that the casting performance takes a major hit, which is pretty important when flats fishing or fishing in weak currents. Don’t worry, even bull reds in shallow flats shouldn’t break off your line.

If you fish in an area with a strong current and lots of structure, then you should use 20 to 30 pound braid. I don’t recommend braid stronger than that because it’s just too stiff for effective casting for redfish.

Leader or no leader?

Redfish don’t have a sharp mouth, which means you don’t need a strong leader. I recommend a 10 pound leader on the flats if there is a weak current. Up that to 20 pounds if there is a current or some other minor structure.

If you are fishing a heavy current with a big structure (ex. a jetty), then you should use a 50-60 pound leader. That might sound heavy, but fighting a redfish off a jetty is tough and risky – all it takes is the line grazing a barnacle-covered rock!

Rod and Reel

The combo you use depends on two factors: current and bait.

If you’re fishing in heavy current with natural bait (cut or live), you should use medium tackle. The fish are bigger, hit harder, and casting accuracy isn’t as important.

Light current or artificial bait will require a lightweight pole. It’s easier to cast, and you don’t the extra strength. You can even use a high-quality lightweight pole to catch bull reds or tarpon. Fishing poles are durable.

Hooks

I recommend using a circle hook when using live or cut bait. The hook automatically sets, which means that you will gut hook way less redfish. This is especially important because you can’t keep smaller redfish.

Catching Redfish – Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some frequently asked questions about redfish.

Do I need a boat or kayak to catch redfish?

No. You can catch slot redfish from piers, docks, or beaches. Remember, redfish are an inshore fish that love structure. Structure is frequently found in easily accessible locations, which means a boat is not necessary. With that in mind, a boat or kayak makes it so much easier to catch redfish. But it’s not required.

All that is required to catch redfish is knowing where to find them and what type of bait to use. If you use artificial lures, you should know how to use those, too.

What is a slot redfish?

A slot redfish refers to a redfish that is in the legal slot to harvest. In most states, this is about 15” or 16” to 27”.

A redfish over 27” is referred to as a “bull red.” A redfish smaller than the slot is referred to as a “rat red,” but that is a less frequently used term.

Do polarized sunglasses help for flats fishing?

Yes. Polarized sunglasses help for any type of sight fishing. It’s much more difficult to flats fish without polarized sunglasses. In fact, charter boat captains strongly encourage all clients to wear polarized sunglasses.

You simply won’t see fish without polarized sunglasses. And if you can’t see fish, you won’t know where to cast.

Are redfish strong fighters?

Yes, redfish will put up a strong fight. They don’t jump like tarpon or run like jack, but they are a very strong, stubborn fighter. Most redfish will fight the entire time.

Do redfish have worms?

Redfish might have worms. All bull reds will have worms, which is why most anglers don’t even bother keeping them. Smaller redfish don’t usually have that many worms, though.

It’s important to note that saltwater parasites die in humans, so you won’t get any of the parasites that you see in redfish. The worms still look gross, and the vast majority of anglers throw the filet in the water if they see too many worms.

Final Thoughts

That covers it for catching redfish. Redfish are one of the most sought after saltwater game fish for a reason – they’re entertaining!

They are surprisingly simple to catch once you know the proper locations and bait, though. Redfish aren’t nearly as difficult to catch as bonefish or even snook.

A live pinfish, or properly fished soft plastic, will usually attract nearby redfish. It’s more about location than anything else. This basic strategy might not work for bull reds, but beginners can still sometimes luck their way into catching a large redfish.

And that’s part of what makes catching redfish so entertaining. You really don’t know if you will catch a bull red or a rat redfish. Plus, catching a redfish requires a large amount of strategy and planning with tides, currents, flats, and channels.

All in all, they’re one of the most entertaining saltwater fish you can catch. And they taste great.

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