A Three-Way Plan To Catch Georgia’s Coastal Reds
Spud Woodward weighs in on catching redfish in the fall.
October is one of the best periods of the year for redfish along the Georgia coast. According to Spud Woodward, the director of the Coastal Resources Division of the Georgia DNR, the life cycle of the red drum provides three varied angling opportunities during the fall.
“There are three distinct populations of redfish in the area around the Golden Isles during October,” said Spud. “And each of those populations offers options to boat these beautiful fish.”
And Spud should know. He has been with the DNR since 1987 and spent much of his early career as a research biologist involved in developing the conservation measures for red drum (redfish). So you might say he is well acquainted with the species. Spud makes his home near the southeast Georgia coast and has been fishing the area for much of his life.
“The once-threatened red drum population in Georgia has responded very well to conservation efforts, and now the fishery is as good as most in the country,” said Spud.
Although the controls were largely unpopular in the early days, without that effort our local fishery would be severely diminished.
The three categories of fish that are available in the fall include yearling fish from the previous year’s spawn, 2- to 3-year-old fish that are well into the 14- to 23-inch slot limit and big bull reds of 25 pounds or more. These three populations are found at different locations among the barrier islands, and anglers focus their technique on which of the three they are targeting.
Most people are familiar with are the yearling fish as they are abundant in the marsh and very accessible. Redfish spawn during late summer and into early fall. They spend the winter in the estuary and begin putting on weight in the spring. By September and October, anglers are starting to catch fish that are right around the 14-inch minimum length limit. These yearling fish tend to overlap in the same areas as spotted seatrout, along the edge of the marsh or over the prolific oyster reefs.
If you are specifically targeting reds, however, you’ll find them showing up at the same creekmouth or same oyster bed every year. They are creatures of habit.
Fishing tends to be best at the lower stages of the tide (last two hours of outgoing and first two hours of incoming), and at times you can see large schools of them, tightly bunched, in the shallow water. And the fish feed aggressively.
“When you find a good school, it isn’t unusual to catch 30 to 40 fish from one spot,” said Spud. “This tendency drove the establishment of some of the bag-limit regulations. Entire schools were being decimated by eager anglers, and the reds were more than cooperative.”
The current bag limit on redfish is five per day between 14 and 23 inches.
The yearlings hang out in very shallow water and will take both live and artificial bait. Live finger mullet, mud minnows, shrimp or even small pieces of cutbait offered under a slip-float rig with a very short leader (12 to 16 inches) will generally produce very well. Allow the float to drift along a creekmouth or over an oyster bed in 12 to 20 inches of water, and make sure you stay close to the structure.
Spud often fishes artificial baits as well. His go-to bait for redfish is a chartreuse Berkeley Gulp Swimming Minnow in a 3- to 4-inch size. He offers the minnow on a 1/8- to 1/4-oz. jig head.
“I use just enough weight to make the cast and not dig in to the bottom,” said Spud. “These fish are holding over a shell bottom, so you will lose tackle.”
Make your leader short to prevent the bait from getting your main line into the shells. Break-offs are frequent, so Spud keeps four or five rods rigged and at the ready. He doesn’t want to waste time re-rigging while the action is hot. His tackle of choice is a medium-action spinning reel mounted on a 7-foot rod and spooled with 30-lb. test Spiderwire braid for the main line and 20-lb. test fluorocarbon for the leader. Small thin-wire circle hooks 1/0 to 2/0 work well, but the fish are generally feeding so aggressively that they will often get even the circle hooks down deep.
Two- to 3-year-old Fish
By the time the reds have reached 2 years old, they are in the 20-inch-plus range. At that size and bigger, they begin to forage in the flooded marsh, especially when there are flood tides. This flooded marsh activity represents one of the few chances in the area to sight fish for feeding reds.
“When the tides reach the 7-foot range, there is enough water on the marsh surface to allow the reds to move in and feed on fiddler crabs and other crustaceans,” said Spud. “Anglers need a shallow draft vessel to get to the fish, like a kayak or flats boat, but a new option, the stand-up paddle board, is becoming increasingly popular since the angler is standing above the surface of the water and has better opportunity to see the feeding fish.
“On the north side of the Jekyll Island Causeway, the bottom is firm enough that an angler can wade along the marsh, but in most cases a shallow draft watercraft is essential.”
Whatever option you choose, stealth is the key in this type of fishing. So keep noise to a minimum as you slip along the marsh. Move along slowly, and look for signs of feeding fish (tails up out of the water or splashing in the marsh), and make a cast in front of the direction they are travelling. Put the cast several feet in front of the fish, so you don’t spook them. The scent from the bait will usually attract the fish, but if they seem to be ignoring it, a slight twitch will often help.
Spud uses the same tackle he uses for the yearlings, but the terminal tackle in this case is a Berkeley Gulp Bait (shrimp or crab pattern) rigged to be weedless—like a soft plastic jerkbait. He adds a small pinch-on weight to the hook shaft to make the rig easier to cast, but he’ll use as little weight as he can get away with. The hook is attached to a 12- to 18-inch fluorocarbon leader, and the leader and braid are connected with a back-to-back uniknot, so there is no swivel or clasp on the terminal rig that will hang up in the grass. Natural chunk bait mullet or crab will also work. Once the fish takes the bait, get your rod tip as high as you can to keep as much line out of the water as possible.
There are plenty of places all over the marsh that offer good sight fishing opportunities. Some of Spuds favorites include the marsh around the Torras Causeway and also in the vicinity of Lanier Island.
“The most important factor is the tide,” said Spud. “Tides of about 7 feet are about right. At 8 feet or more there is too much water in the marsh to be able to see the fish.”
There is about a three-hour window on each high-tide cycle that is fishable. When the tide starts to fall, back off to nearby oyster beds in deeper water, and wait for the fish to come out to you.
By the middle of September, the third class of reds starts to show up on sandbars near the mouth of the sound. Bull reds show up in large numbers and feed voraciously on bait as it is swept into the current. These big fish line up on shoals and sandbars, both inside the estuary and off the beach at the inlets. The big reds are usually sitting in shallow water waiting for bait to be swept by in the rips along the edge of the bar. If you are boat fishing, anchor on the up-current side of the bar so you can place your bait near the edge on the down-current side.
For this action, Spud uses either heavy-spinning outfits or level-wind outfits like the Ambassadeur 7000. In either case, they are spooled with 50-lb. test Spiderwire braid.
The terminal rig is a 12-inch piece of 60-lb. mono for a leader. Spud snells a circle hook on the end of the leader and puts a crimp on the leader about 5 inches above the hook. He slides on an egg sinker (about 2 ounces) and a bead and finishes the leader off with a double overhand knot to create a loop that can be attached to a snap swivel on the main line.
“The crimp on the leader and the weight help to keep the fish from taking the bait too deep,” said Spud. “When they feel the weight on their face, they usually don’t swallow any deeper.”
Circle hook sizes vary by supplier and type, so Spud describes the best size as one that has at least a half-inch gap between the point and the shank. It is also important to have a straight circle hook, with no offset of the point, because the big redfish gulp the baits very aggressively, and an offset hook point is more likely to deep hook a fish than one that is in line with the shank.
Spud prefers fresh bait to frozen.
“I think fresh bait makes a huge difference, and I try to catch it fresh the same day and keep it alive on board,” said Spud. “That way I have the option to fish it live or chunk it; either way it is fresh.”
His baits of choice include menhaden, mullet and crab.
As far as locations are concerned, there are some bars directly east of St. Simons called the 72-degree bar and the 90-degree bar that are usually very good, according to Spud.
There is also a bar that runs parallel to the shipping channel between the shipping channel and the north end of Jekyll Island.
“The bar starts inside the sound and runs offshore for between a half mile and a mile,” said Spud. “It has been very productive for the last couple of years, and it has the advantage that it is a little more sheltered than some of the others.”
Gould’s Inlet on the south end of Jekyll is a great place to fish from the shore. Use the East Beach access, and you can get bull reds right off the beach.
One request from Spud: When you catch a big red, try and land it with a net and don’t let it hang vertically from a Boca grip when you are taking that photo of a lifetime. These fish are heavy, and you can do severe damage to the jaw if they aren’t handled properly. Always hold the fish horizontally, supported from below. Since bull reds are greater than 23 inches, they must be released. Take your photo and quickly get it back in the water.
When the water temperature moves below 65 degrees, the fish will move back offshore.
There is plenty of redfish action on the Georgia coast this fall. If you aren’t well equipped or you would like some guidance, most of the local guides are well acquainted with the habits of these fish and can put you on some action.
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