Florida Anglers Are Seeing RED


If redfish weren't native to Florida waters, anglers would be pressuring the marine biologists to invent such a fish.

Properly, they should be called red drum, but just say "reds" and anyone in Florida will know what you're talking about. Reds can be caught in every coastal county of Florida. They take live, natural, and artificial baits, whether fished on the bottom, at mid-depths, or at the surface, and could care less whether you're using fly, spinning, or casting rods.

True, they don't jump, but sizable redfish make long runs and pull with a tenacity that can cramp your hands and make your shoulders hurt, while at the same time saying, "Isn't this great?" And finally, if you're hungry for fish, their flesh is firm and sweet-tasting—fried, baked, broiled, or blackened.

All but the neophytes at angling remember that redfish nearly disappeared in the mid-80's, but fisheries managers at both the state and federal level instituted conservation measures that have brought a rebirth to this important fishery. On a statewide basis, redfish are now our most dependable inshore catch.

The near-loss of this cherished fishery, followed by its joyous renascence, has given thoughtful anglers a new attitude toward these copper-clad battlers. Anglers are more willing to curb their greed, and be satisfied with one 4-pounder instead of insisting on a cooler full of juveniles.

Gamefish status and the one-fish bag limit has had another curious effect: It has created a catch-and-release fishery with three different aspects.

First, responsible anglers who catch undersized fish release them with greater care, making sure they survive to be caught again. Second, some people release fish after fish of whatever size, thinking the next one may be the big one to take home.

And most important, the assurance that reds bear no price tag encourages a growing number of anglers to release all of them, with the rationale that their value as sport is greater than their worth as food.

Redfish enter the offshore spawning population at about 30 inches, and are protected in federal waters. Those below that size are an inshore fish, hanging around oyster bars, swash channels, tidal creeks, and hard-bottom grass flats. They grow fast, and the nine-inch window in the 18- to 27-inch slot limit exposes them to harvest for less than one year. Those above and below the slot are catch-and-release all the time.

Along with bonefish, permit and tarpon, reds have prompted runaway sales of flats boats, high-tech vessels that float in eight inches of water or less. Reds, however, are not class-conscious, and those with any small boat can get to where they are.

Low tide, rather than high, is the time to fish for them. Low water pulls the fish off the shallower flats, concentrating their numbers, and also makes them visible. Boats that draw little water are great, but once you're near the fish, staking out the boat and wading is more fun.

You need polarized glasses and a wide-brimmed hat, both for better vision and for protection against the glare of the sun. When looking for fish, act like there's no water there, but merely a pane of clear fluid between you and the quarry.

Reds ghost along, gliding smoothly, stopping now and then to root a crab out of its hideyhole. This makes them tip forward, and if the fish is appreciably longer than the water's depth, its tail pops up in view. On a calm day this can be seen from several hundred feet.

In profile, the redfish's tail is squared off, reddish in color, its margin outlined in blue. Sheepshead are on the same flats, and also tail, but their caudal fins are nearly colorless, or tinged with green. Black drum show their much darker tails when feeding.

In bonefish country, tailing reds can easily be distinguished from tailing bones by the latter's widely forked tail. Much of the time you will see only the top lobe of a bonefish's tail. When reds are hungry, the entire tail is exposed, including the eye-like spot at its base.

Jim Dupre, a Gainesville-based redfish guide, says, "Sometimes reds tip up until they get vertical and then nose over, before they right themselves."

Tailing reds are feeding reds. Waste no time, and move toward them quietly. Approach no nearer than the length of your maximum cast. The redfish have probably seen dozens of boats, and from familiarity might be able to identify the manufacturer of your gold spoon, so they're not reckless. If you're wading, crouch down as you get nearer, to reduce the height of your profile.

Once a red is hooked, the others seem to lose their caution. They mill about the hooked fish, some trying to get the lure out of the mouth of the unlucky one. If the second angler can get a bait near the excited fish, a double is nearly assured.

Fly rodders use this technique deliberately. Spinning outfits can throw a spoon much farther than most anglers can toss a fly. The person with the spoon hooks the fish and brings the school closer to the boat, the fly rodder casts a streamer into their midst, and the resulting bedlam is long remembered.

Two anglers once found a school of feeding reds in the air-clear water off Crystal River. One of them had an underwater video recorder and taped the behavior of hooked and released fish in great detail.

When hooked, reds of less than 3 pounds did a lot of head-shaking and tail-twisting, and if hooked in the lower jaw scraped their chins along the bottom. Bigger redfish acted surprised when first hooked, moving about aimlessly, but as soon as they realized they were in trouble, they seemed to square their shoulders and take off on a hard run.

As their strength ebbed, they faltered and appeared to lose equilibrium, often coming toward the surface. After that, they got into head-shaking, much like the younger fish did when first hooked.

There was also a pattern in the behavior of released reds. First they dived for the shadow of the boat, even though the water was less than 3 feet deep. They rested, sometimes tilting from side to side while shock wore off. Then they darted away, always in the direction of the school. They knew right where their buddies were.

With the onset of cool weather in the fall, redfish move into tidal creeks, deep passes, and the coastal rivers. Once they enter tannin-stained water, their drab tints of red deepen to glistening coppery bronze, a color that would be inspirational to the most jaded artist. That must have been when the person who named them "redfish" first saw them. Save some film for photographing cold-weather reds; that's when they're pretty as a newly-minted penny.

No, biologists, anglers don't need a new species; they already have redfish.

Information in this article provided by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »