Marsh Redfish On Bass Tactics

Throw spinnerbaits and flukes for shallow Georgia redfish.

Capt. Bert Deener | January 19, 2005

The author, Capt. Bert Deener, with a big red caught on a Thunder-Spin, a new prototype redfish spinnerbait that will be on the market soon.

Georgia is both blessed and cursed with its thousands of acres of marshes. We are blessed by the abundance of fish living in the sinuous rivers and creeks winding through the marshes and cursed by the nasty little sand gnats that thrive there. This month, the little curses will be almost non-existent due to cold weather, so we will have only blessings. The rivers, creeks, and mud flats will be full of copper-colored blessings in the form of redfish.

Redfish are available from Savannah to St. Marys. It just takes time on the water to find their haunts. To help me narrow the search, I met Nate Grahl on Thanksgiving weekend, and he shared some of the fine redfishing to which he has become accustomed. Nate, a University of Georgia graduate, now works for a forest products company in Fernandina Beach, Fla., and he lives in St. Marys. He hails from northern Wisconsin where he grew up chasing everything from trout to muskies, but now he frequently slips out to Crooked River chasing the elusive redfish that cruise the flats.

Earlier in the month we had canceled two trips due to cold fronts and forecasts of windy conditions. We were both hoping that this third time would be a charm. I met Nate well before sunrise so that we could get one of the few parking spots at the Harriet’s Bluff boat ramp. The landing at Crooked River State Park is still under construction, even though the original completion date was slated for the end of August. We were fortunate to launch his boat and get the last parking spot at Harriet’s Bluff. We arrived well before his preferred last half of the outgoing tide, so we decided to try a few spots for seatrout until conditions were right to fish the flats.

We eased his 14-foot Lund v-hull boat off plane and idled toward the grass line. With the trolling motor, we slowly worked several shell-laden grass lines as the tide continued to rise. I threw my standard artificial offering for trout, an Equalizer Junior float with a 24-inch leader and a 1/4-oz. jighead impaling a four-inch Saltwater Assassin sea shad. The trout did not cooperate, which is uncharacteristic of a late-fall excursion. The water temperature was 63 degrees, in the range where the trout should have fed well, although the water temperature had dropped 10 degrees during the previous two days. Perhaps our minds and our concentration were not on catching trout, but looking forward to trying for the larger, stronger redfish. Whatever the reason, during our two-hour attempt at trout, we managed only one undersized trout and another nice fish that pulled off. Although I was afraid that our lack of success with trout was a bad omen for the redfishing still to come, Nate appeared unfazed with the lack of trout activity. As the tide began to ebb, we moved to Nate’s honey hole and began to cast for redfish.

“The tide is still much too high right now. When it gets about half-tide, things will begin to get interesting,” Nate said.

When we arrived on his favorite mud flat, four other boats were fishing the area, presumably for trout. Boats disappeared one by one as the ebbing tide began to expose the tops of the oyster-shell mounds. What seemed to be open water dotted with grass patches just a half-hour before now became a navigational nightmare.

“When chasing redfish around oyster mounds, you can’t be emotionally attached to your trolling motor or boat,” Nate said.

Equipment can definitely take a beating when maneuvering around the shallow oyster-shell mounds. Nate prefers Minn Kota to other brand trolling motors, as their spring mount allows the shaft to flex instead of bend if he hits a shell mound or other hard structure. He prefers a small aluminum boat because it allows him to stay in the shallows long after the large fiberglass boats have left. You could see that Nate was getting serious as the water continued to drop.

I about cracked up when he remarked, “I’m not here to have a good time, I’m here to catch fish.”

As he moved into position for one of his favorite stretches of shoreline, he described his hotspot. The area before us had several small creeks, each of which drained the salt marsh. The flat was peppered with oyster-shell mounds that rose a foot or two above the mud. Our boat was situated over a mud flat covered by about a foot of water. We were a long cast from the grass. About 100 feet offshore, the water depth dropped to about two feet before tapering off into deeper water. During the last half of the ebb tide, the redfish move off the grass flats where they feed at high tide and move out of the small feeder creeks to the flats and then eventually, deeper water.

“The fish will show up as the water drops below the grass line,” Nate said.

And show up they did. Throwing a prototype Thunder-Spin redfish spinnerbait, I drew first blood. About 10 feet from the grass I noticed a single baitfish flip. With an underhand roll cast, I put the spinnerbait near the baitfish in hopes that it left the water because of being chased. After a few cranks, the rod loaded. The fish fought with typical redfish fervor and came boatside after spooking several of its compadres during the fight. After snapping a couple of photos, a measuring board confirmed our suspicions that this one was too large to keep, so back it went back. (There is a slot limit on redfish in Georgia — only fish between 14 and 23 inches may be kept.)

Only a couple of casts later, Nate convinced another hungry redfish that his Saltwater Assassin five-inch shad was a real mullet. That battle lasted several minutes before a 30-inch redfish was posing for photographs. Moments later, another oversized redfish inhaled my Thunder-Spin and fought valiantly. During that initial “flush” that lasted only about a half-hour, we saw several dozen fish, caught three, and missed a couple of others. At times a half-dozen redfish were slashing at schools of mullet attempting to vacate the flats. We likely could have hooked up with several more big redfish had we not spent time taking photographs.

After the bulk of the redfish left the feeder creeks, they spread out over the shallow mud flats chasing baitfish. At that point, Nate switched into stalking mode. We used his trolling motor to move along the flat, casting between shell mounds and at any surface commotion. Frequently a fleeing baitfish betrayed a redfish location. One redfish was in such shallow water that we actually saw its wake as it traversed the flat. Nate flung a gold Johnson Silver Minnow spoon and connected with the 29-inch red.

Nate Grahl, a transplant to the Georgia coast via UGA and before that northern Wisconsin, hoists a 30-inch redfish caught in mid-December during a trip to a marsh on the southern Georgia coast.

As we stowed equipment in preparation for the boat ride to the ramp, we reflected on the day. We had caught three redfish during the initial flush and three more while stalking the flats. The fish ranged in size from 26 to 30 inches, with the largest weighing 9-lbs., 6-ozs. During the last few hours of the ebb tide, we landed a total of about 50 pounds of redfish. We brought back an empty fish cooler, a couple of disks full of photographs, and an intense desire to go again.

“I love anything that resembles bass fishing, and this is it… the tackle, the lures,” proclaimed Nate.

Both Nate and I come from bass-fishing backgrounds, so we were in our element casting lures on bass-sized tackle to the hard-fighting redfish. Wherever he fishes for redfish, Nate’s go-to bait is an electric chicken colored Saltwater Assassin five-inch shad. This bait accounted for Nate’s biggest redfish of the day, a 30-incher. He rigs the bait Texas-style with a 5/0 Gamakatsu or Daiichi round-bend worm hook and fishes it unweighted. His favorite presentation is to cast the bait to a likely location and retrieve it with a twitch-twitch-pause cadence.

“If the bait is spiraling when you work it, the ‘death spiral’ as I call it, then reel it in and re-rig it or get a new lure, as the fish won’t hit it like that. You want it to work from side to side in a darting motion,” Nate said.

He also caught one fish on a gold Johnson Silver Minnow spoon tipped with a double-tail plastic trailer in Irish whiskey color. His presentation with this bait includes a simple, straight retrieve with occasional pauses.

Four of our six redfish of the day were caught using a prototype spinnerbait manufactured by Precision Tackle, the same company that produces Cajun Thunder floats. The bait will be on the market in early 2005 under the name Thunder-Spin. The business-end of the bait consists of a four-inch Saltwater Assassin sea shad attached to a Saltwater Assassin springlock jighead. The large, gold Colorado blade thumps on the retrieve, imparting a lifelike swimming action to the sea shad. Nate and I both caught fish with the bait and were very impressed with how effectively this new bait triggers strikes while efficiently working around underwater obstacles. We caught fish using a straight retrieve as well as pausing the bait to let it flutter.

Nate chooses medium-action St. Croix Avid series spinning rods with a fast taper to whip redfish, while I use medium-heavy baitcasting rods. When you are flinging unweighted plastics and small spoons, spinning gear allows longer casts. Nate prefers to spool his reel with 20-lb. test Power Pro braided line, as he has fewer breakoffs when the line contacts shell during a long fight. Baitcasting outfits, such as the Offshore Angler Extreme rods in seven-foot medium-heavy action, are perfect for making long casts with the Thunder-Spin while still allowing you to apply pressure to turn fighting fish away from shell mounds.

We were very fortunate the day we fished that the wind did not kick up. It was actually calmer than forecasted, which aided our boat handling. On windy days, the rippled surface makes it difficult to locate shell mounds or redfish boils. The wind can also muddy the water, making it more difficult for a redfish to locate your offering. The other concern on windy days is reaching your fishing spot safely. If there is only small, protected water between the ramp and your fishing area, a small aluminum jon boat, such as the Lund from which we fished, works well. If you have to cross open water to get to your spot, a larger fiberglass model, such as a Nitro Bay Boat, is much safer, drier, and more comfortable. If you have a tunnel-hull model, you will be able to run in much shallower water than a standard hull, so you can still get to shallow redfish.

Redfish hangouts are not confined to the southern portion of the Peach State coast. To get the lowdown on redfishing the northern part of our coast, I talked with a friend and fellow redfish angler, Capt. Tim Barrett. Tim typically targets redfish on the outgoing tide as the fish pull off the grass flats. He takes a slightly different approach from Nate, in that he finds areas where large, shallow embayments drain into a creek and fishes a narrow spot in that creek.

“I like to find where the creek width narrows so that the fish are concentrated,” he said. “In this type spot, the redfish must come by you as the tide falls. At times I see schools containing hundreds of redfish.”

While Tim targets the fish as they leave the flats, he has friends who have been successful in the same spots on the flood tide as the redfish move back up onto the flats. Tim’s favorite lures are Saltwater Assassin sea shads fished on a 1/4- or 3/8-oz. jighead. His color choices include hues of reds and golds, with red-gold shiner being his most consistent color.

If you have a hard time releasing a fish that is oversized, do not fish for redfish in January. Most of the fish will be over the maximum size of 23 inches, thus they must be released. If getting your string stretched is what you are after, analyze a good map of your favorite backwaters, hitch up the boat, hop into your snowsuit, and partake of some January copper-colored blessings.

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