Clear-water techniques and baits that trick largemouth bass in highlands reservoirs are just about perfect for doing battle with redfish along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.
My maiden cast in Mississippi stuck a 30-pound class redfish, establishing a high standard that revealed one of the Magnolia State’s most-overlooked delights.
I was fishing out of Bay St. Louis with Capt. Sonny Schindler of Shore Thing Charters, along with my son, Matthew, Tommy Akin of Nashville, Tenn., and Mike Jones of Vicksburg. Akin and Jones organized the trip on behalf of the Mississippi Department of Tourism.
Frankly, I’d never given much thought to fishing Mississippi’s coast. I’ve had some great inshore and offshore trips all across the Gulf, and although I covered Alabama’s saltwater scene for Outdoor Life in the late 1990s, I was never asked to write about Mississippi’s part in this genre.
“Fishing is huge here,” Jones said. “Everybody does it, but they don’t promote it.”
We met the affable and loquacious Schindler at 5 a.m. on a warm summer morning, just as the sky was brightening on the sunrise side of the Gulf. As we reached the mouth of the bayou at the bay, Schindler idled his engine and said a short prayer. He requested success for all the other fishermen and for safety from rain, wind, lightning, waterspouts, “and all that other bad stuff.” Finally, he requested plenty of hard-pulling, edible fish. With that, he put the visor back on his head and throttled down his big outboard for a long ride into the waves.
We stopped at a short, thin mud spit amid a vast expanse of open water. In the distance, on a larger island, were the ruins of an old hunting and fishing camp.
“You need to take a picture of this,” Schindler said, pointing to the sliver of mud. “This used to cover several hundred acres. This is all that’s left, and soon it’ll be gone, too.”
Schindler talked wistfully about wade-fishing the marsh when he was in high school and college. It has eroded away, as has much of the marsh at the mouth of the Mississippi River delta. Current poured through a gap between the island and a submerged reef. Most of our group used light spinning outfits with tandem Strike King Redfish Magic swimbaits on reels spooled with braid tied to a swivel, tied to heavy monofilament.
Mine was the only one that did not have a tandem rig. Instead, it featured a 1/4-ounce ball jig with a pumpkinseed/red flake curlytail grub — a basic shaky head setup that bass anglers use in highland reservoirs across the country.
My first cast was parallel to the boat. I let the lure hit the bottom and retrieved it by lifting it off the bottom, letting it fall and reeling in the slack, the same technique I use to catch smallmouth and Kentucky bass under bluffs in clear, highland streams and in the famous White River system of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. I was very comfortable with the technique, but the product was considerably more substantial than usual.
Quickly, a big fish slammed the rig and took off like a sprint car.
It stripped line off the spool while the drag hummed. I handed the rod to Matthew. It was his first time fishing in the salt, and I wanted him to experience a different class of fish than any he had encountered before.
“What are you grinnin’ at?” Akin asked, amused at Matt’s adolescent exuberance over his precariously arced rod. Matt’s smile was so broad that the corners of his mouth practically stretched around his neck.
“I’ll bet that’s a great big bull red,” Schindler said.
It took about 20 minutes, but Matt finally maneuvered the fish into Schindler’s net. It was indeed a big bull red, about 35 pounds. After taking some photos, we released it.
Schindler suddenly seemed disquieted.
“Did you get that on the first cast?” he asked.
“Sure did,” I replied with unrestrained joy. “That bait scarcely touched bottom when that fish scooped it up and.…”
“Wow. I mean, I don’t like to get one on the first cast,” Schindler said, pulling back his visor and rubbing his forehead fretfully. “It’s kind of like, you know, bad luck.”
“If a 35-pound bull red is bad luck, it’s a darned sight better than the good luck I’ve had lately,” I said. “Besides, it’s too late to worry about that now.”
Schindler laughed, relaxed and got back to business, which on this particular morning was very brisk.
The place was a shallow, shell key that had once been marsh, but it had been reduced to open water by encroaching salt. Even so, it was still fertile and teemed with food, making it very attractive to big redfish.
It was the bass technique that captivated me the most, however. Years of reading redfishing accounts had deceived me into believing that catching reds was a highly specialized pursuit. In reality, it is actually very simple. If you fish for black bass in freshwater, you already have almost everything you need. The main requirements include a medium-action or medium-heavy bass rod with a slow tip and at least a 2500 series spinning rod with small-diameter, heavy line, an ample selection of soft-plastic lures and an assortment of jigheads. The translation is almost directly linear. The difference is that current influences redfish feeding behavior a lot more than it does bass. If you’re in the right place on a tide or in wind-whipped waters, you stand an excellent chance of encountering redfish.
My favorite method for pursuing redfish happens to be my favorite method for pursuing big largemouth bass on highland reservoirs: fishing from a kayak. It is a simple art that I learned from Morgan Promnitz, director of fishing business development for Hobie. Using pedal-drive Hobie Pro Angler 14 kayaks, we stalked the shorelines at the tail of an incoming tide, casting swimbaits to redfish feeding along the the outside edges of shoreline cover. Again, the tackle was the same as I use for casting to largemouth bass in similar situations.
Bait selection is equally simple. I primarily use Redfish Assassin swimbaits, 4-inch Gulp shrimp and D.O.A. shrimp. These are subtle variations of the same swimbaits we use for bass when fishing clear lakes, and although we don’t use those particular brands or styles for bass, I have no doubt they would work. The tapered paddletails create exaggerated actions that are irresistible to sight-feeding fish in clear, shoreline water. They also allow you to cover a lot of water from multiple angles while pedaling or paddling stealthily along a bank.
For shallow water, I throw swimbaits on jigs no heavier than 1/4-ounce. Often, 1/8-ounce is sufficient, because the baits themselves are heavy enough to allow for effortless casting. A 1/8-ounce head falls slowly, allowing you to reel slowly if the situation requires it. The presentation is very similar to a shaky head technique. Let the rig touch bottom and then retrieve it by bouncing it with short rod strokes while reeling in slack line. With scented baits like Gulp, I let them sit longer than I do with unscented baits, just as I do when fishing Gulp Alive and Powerbaits for bass on shaky heads.
Slack, mid-day tides are the most-challenging times to catch redfish, and this is when clear-water, sight-fishing bass techniques come to the forefront. When the water is still, big, moss-backed reds often hunker among rocks, sand or mud on the shady sides of jetties, revetments and breakwaters. You can see them with good, polarized sunglasses. This is important, because you have to keep your boat or kayak a good distance outboard of a lazing fish. Pinpoint his position and cast so that you can soak and bounce the bait close enough to the fish to make a run at it with a minimal expense in energy.
Unlike sight-fishing for bedding bass, a redfish won’t pick a shrimp up by the tail and carry it away from a bed. A redfish goes for the kill every time.
Finally, my favorite method for catching redfish in clear water is with topwater plugs. As with bass in clear reservoirs, redfish often can’t resist a cigar-type topwater plug in current or in windy chop. The MirrOlure She Dog is a traditional favorite, but my favorite is the Boing Boinger in “real herring” or “sickly shad” colors. Boing topwaters feature an interior titanium rod with a clapper on the end. Using a walk-the-dog motion, the rod flexes and slaps the clapper against the interior walls, creating a much louder thump than you get with similar baits that have only rattles. You hear the thumps from a long distance, and so do fish. When redfish are in a mood to strike on the surface, they will find and attack the Boinger.
When the weather gets hot and sticky, these tactics will help you maximize your fun chasing redfish in the Mississippi salt.
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