Crankin’ For Rip-Rap Redfish

From now until June, big reds will be stacked on the rocks, smashing crankbaits and wearing anglers' arms out.

Ron Brooks | April 1, 2007

Jim Pierce of Middleburg, Fla. with a red fish that weighed about 12 pounds. The fish chased down a crankbait fished on the rocks.

At the mouth of the St. Marys River on the Florida-Georgia border, a wide dredged channel runs east into the ocean for about a mile. It is a deep channel, one that allows part of our nuclear submarine fleet access to their port at Kings Bay. On the north and south of the channel, jetties built of huge rocks and boulders jut almost a mile into the Atlantic. The jetties
protect the channel to keep wave and tidal action from filling it in with sand. These jetties play an important role for the Navy and shipping interests.

For Peach State anglers, these jetties play another important role. That role has nothing to do with national defense, but it has everything to do with catching fish.

The jetties are a man-made habitat for almost every species of saltwater fish that thrive along the Georgia coast. At some point in the year, you can find every variety of inshore and coastal fish in or around the jetties. Water from Cumberland Sound enters and leaves with the tides past the jetties, and fish move with those tidal changes.

Right now the red drum are active along the rocks, and they can be caught in a variety of ways. Anglers can use live shrimp under a deep float, or soak a blue crab bait on the bottom and catch some reds. Cut bait also works on the bottom from time to time. But the bait of choice for some of us to catch big reds at this time of year is artificial bait — a crankbait to be exact.

The rip-rap on a dam protects the shoreline from erosion while it also provides a habitat for bass. These jetties work the same way, protecting the channel while providing excellent habitat for fish. In fact, the jetties provide a year-round home to many fish.

We took a trip to the St. Marys jetties in late March to find some red drum and see whether they were still interested in our crankbaits. In years past we caught a number of big reds in the spring and summer, so we thought they should be there again as spring approaches. We were right!

The long rock jetties at the mouth of the St. Marys River provide excellent cover for redfish and a wide variety of other fish. The reds will hold on this rip-rap until the hot weather of summer.

We launched at the St. Marys city dock, a lightly used facility compared to other launch sites. The bait shop there has changed hands and can now reliably be counted on for any last-minute bait or tackle needs. In the past, the shop was often closed for no apparent reason.

My partner on this day was Jim Pierce, an avid freshwater crankbait angler from Middleburg, Fla. We headed out the St. Marys River and straight out the Cumberland Sound. You will need to watch the left or north edge of the channel and stay close to markers until you get about halfway out the inlet. There, is a large sand bar on that edge that is hidden at high tide.

First, we chose the north jetty on our left on the way out, and began our fishing about 500 yards from the end of the rocks. The wind was light out of the southwest, so both north and south jetties were equally calm. Sometimes wind direction will dictate whether we fish, the north or the south set of rocks.

We began chunking Bandit 300 crankbaits, one in an all-red color, and one in a chartreuse/yellow color. These baits are designed to run about 8 feet deep, and we were cranking them down from the rocks back to the boat.

The most productive baits the day the author fished were Bill Norman Deep Little Ns in Tennesse (top), and Smokey Joe color patterns (bottom). Note the fish-straightened hooks.

The jetties are simply a pile of rocks, albeit huge rocks, that come up from the bottom in an almost pyramid shape. In other words, when you see the edge of the rocks on the water, you need to realize that they continue down at an angle. Right up against the rocks, the water may be 3 feet deep. Out a ways from the rocks, the depth has gradually increased to, in our case, about 30 feet. These depth differences are where lure selection plays a critical role — but more on that later.

We worked our way out toward the end of the jetties, passing a couple of boats that were anchored and bottom- fishing on the edge of the deeper water. They were after the huge black drum that are currently coming into the inlet — but that’s a trip for another day.

At what appears to be the end of the jetties, the rock pile actually continues east — under the surface — for another several hundred yards. If you plan to go around the jetty, make sure you run east well past the visible end of the rocks.

The red drum on the right bottomed-out scales but was estimated at more than 20 pounds. The other fish weighed in the teens. Jim Pierce caught the fish on standard freshwater bass tackle.

We fished the “invisible” rip-rap for another 100 yards and then crossed to the north side. As we made our way back toward the rocks, this time on the opposite side, the tide was running out. On an outgoing tide, water runs east out the mouth of the inlet and then north. So, as we fished, the water was coming across that invisible rip-rap, headed right at us. We used our trolling motor to keep the boat positioned, but anchoring could have worked just as well.

At this point we need to understand the habits of these red drum. They like current, but they hate to fight current. They will often gather or school in a location that provides them protection from the current, and yet allows them to use the current to ambush food. They will find undercuts and eddies where the current runs over them or around them. They will take a position, much like a brook trout in a steam, in the slack water right behind a big rock as the current moves around the rock and past them. You need to keep that picture in mind as you fish.

We continued to throw the Bandit baits but could not raise a strike. Because of the current, and because we wanted to get a little deeper, we switched to a Norman’s Deep Little N bait. I had the Smokey Joe color; Jim had a Tennessee Shad. These baits run down to 12 feet, and gave us a better shot at provoking a strike from a red hidden behind a rock on the bottom.

It only took about three casts as we came back around with the trolling motor and worked those north “invisible” rocks again. The deeper- running bait did the trick. I hooked up with a really big red. As he came to the surface and boiled an area about 5 feet in diameter, he quickly showed me the two mistakes I had made. I fought him for about a minute before bringing an empty crankbait back to the boat.

The mistakes? First of all, I had too much drag. We were fishing with Shimano Curado 100s on Fenwick Venture rods. These are my standard crankbait rods when I fish for bass. They are spooled with 12-lb. Stren. This first fish would easily approach 20 pounds, and he literally had his way with me.

The second mistake was with the baits. As I lifted the bait out of the water, and inspected it, I could have kicked myself. Both the front and back trebles were straightened. The standard hooks just weren’t designed for fish like this!

With no heavy-gauge hooks in the boat, I bent my hooks back, adjusted my drag, and then Jim grunted. He looked at me, grinned and said, “This one is full-growed,” as a big red ran line off his reel like he didn’t know he was hooked.

As I turned the boat to head after him, I got bit, and we had a double. The problem was, one fish was headed east and one was headed west!

Mine ended up being smaller, and I was able to get him to the boat. Jim picked up the net with one hand as he held his doubled-over rod in the other and tried to net my fish. (Reminder to me — get a bigger net!) The fish was too big for the net, so I got out my Boga Grip and lipped him into the boat. At that point Jim had little line left on his reel.

We had to go after and follow Jim’s fish around for about 15 minutes before we got him to the boat. He bottomed out the 15-lb. scale on the Boga Grip. We estimated that he was over 20 pounds. After reviving both fish for a few minutes, they both swam away unharmed by the experience. These fish fight to absolute exhaustion — so make sure you revive them before releasing them.

We headed back to the same location, about 200 yards off the end of the rocks, and began casting again.

Bang— bang — another double hookup. This time we managed to boat both fish and gripped each one for pictures before they were released.

Fighting yet another big red, Jim likened our tackle to “shooting bears with BB guns.” His arms were getting tired from fighting the heavy fish — as were mine. But we could almost catch a fish at will on the rocks — all the way up to the change of tides. When the tide changed and began running in, the catching stopped. Notice I didn’t say the fish quit biting. The current changed, and those fish moved to another location where they could get the same protection. But at this point, my trolling motor batteries were almost gone, so we had to give them up.

The author with a red that weighed about 12 pounds and was a handful on 12-lb. test line. Standard wire hooks that come on most crankbaits won’t hold these hard-fighting fish.

I should mention that we did have one angler close to us fishing with live shrimp under a float. Small sea bass and bait stealers were all he managed to catch in the hours that we were catching our big red drum, many of them almost from under his boat!

We headed to the jetty edge on the way in, pitched a couple of fiddler crabs on jig heads up against the rocks and in short order caught some sheepshead to take home for dinner –— but that is also another story for another day.

Things to keep in mind as you head for the jetties:

• Watch the weather. Seas can kick up quickly and heavy swells will push
your boat into the rocks if you lose power.

• Keep that mental picture of the bottom. We fished the last half of the outgoing tide and had steady action for almost three hours because we cranked the baits past holding fish.

• Take a variety of crankbaits that will run a variety of depths. Colors don’t seem to matter as much as depth and glitter. The Norman crankbaits had the glitter finish that the fish liked.

• Crank slow, and stop-and-go. We got more hits on a stopped bait than a moving bait.

• Watch the water depth. The area we fished ran from about 12 feet deep on top of the “invisible” rocks down to about 20 feet along the edge. We positioned the boat in the deep water and cranked down that slope.

• If you hang on a rock, move the boat over and behind the bait, and it will easily come free. Hanging a rock is not a bad thing — it means your bait is getting down to the fish.

• Be ready to change baits according to the water depth. You want a bait that runs a few feet off the bottom. In this situation, red drum are not surface feeding.

• Change the hooks on your crankbaits! Get some good heavy-gauge trebles and replace the wire hooks.

• Stay safe. If you plan to anchor, use a jetty anchor — one made with a pipe and rebar. The rebar bends as you pull a hung anchor free. Standard anchors will usually be lost when hung in the rocks.

• There is a slot limit on redfish. Fish below 14 inches and above 23 inches total length must be released. You may keep five fish that measure in the slot between 14 and 23 inches in length.

• Lastly — watch out for submerged rocks. Close to the jetty, some rocks are just under the surface. You can sink a boat in a heartbeat if wave action pounds the boat on top of one.

In April, most days are perfect for fishing the jetties at St. Marys. The March winds have died and the hot summer days have yet to arrive. The fish are stacked up on the rip-rap. The big red drum are more than cooperative. And, crankbaiting the St. Marys rip-rap for big redfish on light tackle is more fun than any one person should have!

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