Species spotlight: Redfish

Capt. Ronnie Daniels shows off a bull red caught while fishing the Biloxi Marsh. (Picture by Brian Cope)

The red drum is found almost everywhere and revered in most places

Red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus), commonly referred to as redfish, are one of the most-popular species of saltwater fish throughout the Southeast. Their range extends from Maine down the east coast and around the Gulf of Mexico.

Redfish are strong fighters when hooked, and anglers catch them in a variety of ways. Live and cut shrimp and baitfish options are popular. Artificial lures like soft-plastic shrimp, grubs and swimbaits are good choices. Redfish will even bite topwater lures on occasion. And crabs — either live or cut up — entice numerous bites. Spoons and spinners are great options as well.

Redfish have elongated bodies with coppery red overtones on their otherwise silver bodies, with white bellies. Depending on water quality, redfish can appear bright orange or almost white with slight tints of red. They almost always have a characteristic black spot on their tails. Some have more than one spot, and some even have spots along the sides of their bodies as well. On very rare occasions, a redfish will have no spots.

Very adaptable

These are schooling fish, and during winter, redfish up to between three and five years old gang up in very tight schools in inshore waters, while older redfish — often referred to as bull redfish — head offshore to deeper waters. From spring through fall, the bulls come back inshore, and the tight schools of younger fish become much more loosely concentrated.

While naturally a saltwater species, redfish tolerate brackish water very well and can even live in freshwater as long as certain other water-quality conditions are met. Redfish have been successfully stocked in freshwater lakes in Texas, and other states have taken steps to do the same. They are among the most adaptable saltwater gamefish, tolerating extreme weather and water conditions.

Across their range, redfish are known by several different names: red drum, channel bass, spot-tail bass, spot-tails, reds and redfish. Along the Gulf Coast, some anglers call them poisson rouge. Small ones are often called puppy drum or rat reds, and very large ones are known as bull redfish, bull drum or old drum.

Big spawners

Most female redfish reach sexual maturity by age six, but some reach that stage in three years. Males usually mature around two years old. After reaching sexual maturity, redfish spawn for the rest of their lives, usually beginning in the summer and lasting through fall.

During a spawning season, a single female redfish can produce as many as 40 million eggs. Their spawning period is about half that of spotted seatrout, but they outproduce that species by a long shot.

The “drum” part of the red drum name comes from the fish’s ability to make a drumming sound by manipulating their air bladders, a common way of calling to other redfish during the spawn.

Laura Burch, 14, caught a nice 28-pound redfish.

Redfish have a distinct enough look that they are rarely mistaken for other species. However, when very small, they are sometimes misidentified as whiting, aka kingfish or sea mullet, which do not have spots but otherwise resemble small reds.


These fish can live very long lives. A redfish in Texas was known to be 37 years old, and in recent years, an angler in the Carolinas caught a redfish that had been tagged 21 years earlier.

Mississippi’s state record weighed 52 pounds, 2 ounces, and was caught by Antonio Rubio on May 26, 2016.

The world record redfish, caught in the surf at Avon on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, weighed 94 pounds, 2 ounces, and was caught by David Deuel in November 1984.

It is no long possible to break the state record for redfish in most states because these fish are managed with slot limits. The maximum sizes anglers are allowed to keep are too small to challenge for a state or world record.

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