Although it is January and the chill of winter has dampened the spirit of many saltwater anglers, there are still some outstanding fishing opportunities for those willing to venture into the shallows along the Golden Gulf Coast. In these waters, anglers with keen eyesight may do battle with an amazing skinny-water prowler known as the red channel bass.
Commonly referred to as spottails or redfish, red channel bass are powerful adversaries when challenged on light-tackle such as conventional spinning or baitcasting gear, and even more rewarding when pursued with a flimsy fly rod. You see, in the winter months much of the bacteria in the water dies out, thus greatly increasing water clarity in our nutrient-enriched, yet generally murky-looking waters. Now, it’s much easier to spot the hungry reds as they comb the shallow bottoms for crabs, shrimp and various other baitfish.
Unlike many other species, redfish seem to thrive in the colder months, and are quick to inhale a wide variety of offerings like jigs, spinnerbaits, top-water plugs, gold-hued spoons, and various flies pulled in front of their feeding path. Classic sights of reds in the shallows include the tips of their tails cutting through the surface, water rippling over their foreheads resembling a torpedo being propelled through the shallows, and their bronze-hued backs glistening as sun reflects off their tough scales. If the water depth is sufficient, you may see a red’s tail sticking straight up out of the water as he roots nose-first into sand or oysters. These fish may travel as a single or in pairs; however, they will sometimes school up in large groups creating a patch of nervous water as they prowl side by side throughout the shallows.
The “Eyes” Have It
To catch these winter reds an angler must take full advantage of his eyesight, and train the eyes to detect the telltale signs that reds provide to pinpoint their location. As well as their surface signs, reds rooting along the bottom will stir up mud and silt creating patches of muddy or turbid-looking water. If an angler should come upon such muddy patches, it’s a safe bet that fish are near by. Thus, making casts in the blind surrounding the murky water may help locate the feeding fish, and if not, extra attention should be paid to the waters ahead of your approach.
Of course, one of the most important pieces of gear required to spot redfish in the shallows is a quality pair of polarized sunglasses. My personal favorite for spotting reds in Mississippi’s tea-colored shallows is a pair of Costa Del Mar Wave Killer 580’s fitted with the copper-hued lens. However, my good friend and professional fishing guide Captain Todd Jones of Panama City, Florida, prefers the Costa 580’s with the green mirror lens for spotting redfish in Florida’s gin clear shallows over sand bottoms and grass beds.
Bottom line, if you intend to take sight-fishing for reds seriously, you’ll need to invest in a quality pair of polarized sunglasses. When it comes to detecting redfish milling about in skinny water, the proper lens in front of your eyes makes all the difference. Compared to the bare eye, you’ll have X-ray vision!
Reds On The Fly
Along the Gulf Coast, some of the best overall fly-fishing for the mighty redfish often occurs during the winter months, and the in-the-know long rod aficionados take advantage of this prime time angling. One of Mississippi’s leading fly-fishing guides is Captain Rick Lauman of Ocean Springs, and his expertise for catching coastal redfish often revolves around fly-fishing during the colder months.
“Generally, the redfish in Mississippi waters aren’t near as spooky as fish in other areas, and this allows a fly fisherman to go with a much shorter leader, say six feet, rather than the more traditional nine feet of leader. Since our fish are less wary, going with a shorter leader makes it easier to turn over the heavier flies used for reds, and delivers more accurate casting –– especially those quick short casts often associated with fishing our waters,” Lauman stated.
“As for flies, I suggest starting out with the larger and brighter flies in a chartreuse, white, or a light tan hue. If the bite is hard to come by, I’ll then switch to flies in more natural colors like brown, olive, and various other tan combinations. Overall, tan is a great natural color that seems to consistently produce on our reds. Although our fish aren’t that wary, you don’t want to throw over their backs, and you still need to deliver a good presentation of the fly.”
“I like to lay the fly at least two feet in front of the fish, and then let them swim to it. As the fish nears, I’ll make just a few short bumps of the fly –– no drastic long strips,” Lauman advised. “When a fish approaches and takes the fly, you want your rod tip down low to the water and pointed at the fish. Strip set to set the hook, making sure not to lift the rod until you have a solid hook up.”
Lauman continued, “A pattern consistent with big fish is that they are always on a flat that provides them access to deep water like the Sound or a channel. It seems big fish need a channel four to five feet deep near by –– a place where they can scoot off and find a comfort level and safety. I’ll also work the upwind side of ponds and shorelines with grass or oysters, looking for clear water, and a hard bottom. A falling tide is preferred, however any sort of movement will suffice, and it’s wise to be in your best spot during the first couple of hours of the tidal movement.”
Aboard Lauman’s small custom-built flats skiff you’ll find Waterworks Lamson Litespeed fly reels mounted on St. Croix Legend Elite fly rods. Having fished with his fly rods and reels, I know firsthand that these are excellent combos for this sort of angling. This equipment proved it can stand up to big reds in the shallows when, over the summer I poled Lauman upon a bruising 36-pound specimen which he easily wore down on his six-weight outfit.
Although it easily surpassed Mississippi’s existing saltwater fly-fishing record for redfish by two pounds, this large specimen won’t make the record books because Lauman refused to kill the fish. After taking the fish’s length, girth, weight on a Boga Grip, and picture documentation, the angler insisted upon releasing the magnificent red back into its watery confines. By releasing reds back into their shallow haunts –– a practice Lauman takes pride in and promotes on his boat –– he feels stocks will be there for many trips to come.
All Lauman’s reels are spooled with Scientific Angler’s 30-pound-test Gel Spun backing, and topped off with Scientific Angler’s new Redfish line, designed with a short, heavy head ideal for throwing bigger and bulkier flies to redfish. These work especially well with those aforementioned shorter leaders. For further information on fly-fishing for redfish in southern Mississippi, contact Captain Rick Lauman at (228) 365-3242 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Back to more convention styles of angling, Gary Gardner of Vancleave uses many of his bass fishing tactics and lures to catch winter redfish. Gardner concentrates his fishing efforts in Mississippi’s coastal rivers and bayous, and has learned how to consistently catch redfish from his many years of bass fishing, since bass and redfish share many of our coastal water systems.
According to Gardner, traditional bass baits such as spinnerbaits and crankbaits are deadly on winter reds. “Fishing during a falling tide is my favorite time to hunt redfish, and concentrating efforts around the mouths of ditches and sloughs when water is draining out is a sure way to find fish. I also look for large flats with some sort of deep water access near by, fishing the deeper drop-off areas during real cold periods, and working the flats during the later part of warmer days,” Gardner said.
“One of my favorite top-water baits for redfish is a Heddon Tiny Torpedo, a small bait that mimics a shrimp, and can be easily sucked in by a hungry redfish. MirrOlure Top Dogs work well too, and both of these top-water baits work extremely well in the shallows. On the cold days I also like to toss split tail grubs in either a chartreuse or smoke color. Threaded on a 3/8-ounce or 1/4-ounce jig, this type of lure works well on those cold days when areas like deep bends and areas adjacent to deep bends are holding fish.”
“Of course the lighter jig heads work best in the shallowest waters, and it’s best to go with the lightest jig head you can get away with. However, since redfish are bottom-feeders, at times you need to go with a heavier jig head to compensate for a strong current and deeper water. During the winter, I like to fish my baits as slow as possible –– just fast enough to give the bait some sort of action. Tossing baits into the shallows and then working them back down into deeper water works well for locating reds,” Gardner concluded.
Judging from the advice of Lauman and Gardner, there seem to be distinct correlations on where to find winter redfish, and better yet, reds have an appetite for a wide variety of fake baits. Of course, every angler has his or her preference when it comes to catching these red beauties, and it’s good to have a high confidence level when pursuing any specific species.
For example, a couple of my favorite fake offerings for redfish are Mr. Twister Finshad (white or chartreuse body with red fin), Norton Shad (pearl body with pink or chartreuse tail), and Cocahoe Minnows (white, purple, or chartreuse bodies with a contrasting tail in a lime, red, or white tail). To make these baits even more alluring to redfish, pinch off a small piece of fresh dead shrimp and impale it on the jig’s hook. At times, that added bit of scent and taste is all it takes to drive redfish crazy, and in conditions where water clarity is poor, the scent put out by the dead shrimp greatly increases the odds of fish locating the offering.
Although most of my winter angling for reds is conducted in the Louisiana marsh just south of Mississippi’s mainland, a similar pattern is used to locate the Cajun reds. For example, an ideal site would be at the mouth of a large bayou or lagoon on a dead low tide. Forced to relinquish the confines of the bayou or lagoon due to lack of water, reds will normally hang around the mouth of the area in order to return as soon as the tide begins to rise.
Quite often, excellent results have occurred by anchoring at the entrance of such redfish havens, and sight-fishing them as they return to the bayous or lagoons. Usually you’ll find best angling in such an area out of the wind, thus providing clearer water, a calmer surface, and overall better visibility. Besides all the more obvious signs of spotting reds in the shallows, keep a close watch for small grass shrimp showering as a reds cruise along the shore in water too deep to cause a wake. Believe me, any sort of baitfish that detects a redfish coming its way will be sure to flee in a fast and erratic manner!
A couple of other killer redfish baits include the small H&H Spinnerbaits in the LSU colors (yellow and purple), Berkley’s new 100 percent biodegradable Gulp baits in the molting shrimp models, and Yo-Zuri’s Banana Boat top-water plugs. Hey, you won’t catch winter reds by sitting here reading this article, so it’s best you head into the marsh armed with polarized sunglasses and a handful of productive baits. Good luck with your winter fishing. See you in the marsh! MWW
About The Author — Robert L. Brodie is an outdoors writer/photographer, and lifelong resident of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He is a member of the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America.