Offshore For Giant Reds
Capt. Judy Helmey has 50 years fishing experience and now teaches GON readers how to locate and catch big bull drum in March.
Wassaw Sound is grumpy.
Its muttering is clearly audible as the boat sloshes slowly and heavily eastward toward the rising sun and open water. From the looks of things, we’re not going to be seeing much of that sun. Beyond the headland, its trees swaying, the sea and dull gray clouds appear, somewhere far, far out there, to merge. This is not exactly a pleasure cruise upcoming.
Capt. Judy Helmey—who always seems to be wearing a smile, even while she’s on the phone—has entertained me for weeks with stories surrounding catches of my favorite saltwater fish: the red. Or red drum. Or redfish, channel bass, spottail bass, spot… Call it what you will, but you’ll know one when you see it. Or feel it.
For now, the feeling is more apprehension than anything else. Judy, her cousin, Deidra Helmey Jeffcoat, and I have set our sights on an artificial reef some 20 miles from the dock, but the weather is at its February worst. Fortunately, I have utmost confidence in Judy to get us there. Uh, and back.
Miss Judy Charters is so much more than a boat trip on a big body of water. You’ll likely learn a lot about fishing, inshore or offshore, such as the best times to target your favorite species of fish throughout the year. You can book a spot either on a boat or in one of Judy’s fishing clinics at MissJudyCharters.com. Or call (912) 897-4921 or (912) 897-2478. Judy runs a first-class organization from her base on the water at 202 Wilmington Island Road in Savannah, with Deidra by her side.
“Deidra has been working with us for over 17 years in the office and as a captain on the boats,” Judy said. “She works with Capt. Ken Kennickell on his boat ‘Obsession’ and also runs it for him. She has done so much to bring Miss Judy Charters into the computer age and has been a grand asset as a charter captain. She now has become involved with fisheries, standing on the mackerel advisory panel, and is trying to make a difference. She really offers some vital information from all her time on the water.”
As for Judy, I think there’s saltwater in her veins. She started fishing at 5 years of age with her father, coastal fishing patriarch Capt. Sherman I. Helmey. She was drafted into it, of sorts, when too many folks showed up to fish one day! At 14, she took her first unscheduled paying charter, following her dad 10 miles offshore.
“On that day I was a very proud captain, but not yet old enough to get my license, so I became the illegal captain,” said Judy. “As of my last birthday, on Nov. 13, I have logged in and posted 50 years behind the helm taking customers fishing! And I love my job. People talk about retirement, but I make a living doing what I love. Why the heck should I retire?”
Understood! Then let’s get back to what Judy loves to do, which is take people like me fishing.
Things were already dicey, and there was a big, bad and even windier cold front on the way. (More on that On The Back Page). But I had faith in my captain. There was no way she was going to put her customers, or herself and crew, in danger just to say we went out and gave it a big ol’ try.
The wind is blowing 20 knots, and the seas are running 5 to 7. So, at 6-2, I’m occasionally looking UP at waves. The radio forecaster is telling us of the small craft advisory in effect for the coast, but fortunately Judy’s craft is not all that small. It’s a custom-built 31-footer, powered by a 430-hp Yanmar diesel engine. The rig will scat, only not on a day like this. And every day is a different day. There is very seldom a constant, predictable pattern for catching fish.
“Every day, I have to size things up to see if, where and how we can catch what our customers want to catch,” said Judy. “Even a small part of the ocean is still a mighty big body of water, and you have to really stay on top of things to know if the fish have moved—in or out, if they’re migratory—within that area. Too, things happen fast out here. Wind and storms can come up out of nowhere; you have to stay on your toes.”
For instance, in our pre-fishing talks, Judy and I had discussed a unique rig, including a popping cork with no weight, that she uses to catch reds. But with 5 to 7, you can forget fish seeing anything popping on this water.
Our first stop is at a submerged wreck some 12 or so miles out. In howling wind, the trick is for Judy to circle the boat directly over it, eyes never leaving the fish-finder, and yell to us when to drop double-rigged chunks of bait—straight down. Black sea bass immediately cooperate in grand fashion, and I watch Deidra hauling in two at a time before we’re blown off the spot and circle in again. More fish, quickly, and we could eventually fill the coolers. But it’s not close to what I came for: one species of fish in water as far as one can see in any direction.
“Give me a minute,” Judy muses. “They’re not here, so I’m going to have to figure out Plan B,” and she discusses it with Deidra.
They quickly come to a conclusion on a change of location and tactics, and we begin to chug away. While bouncing the waves, I pepper Judy with questions.
The reels are Penn 116 Senators, 60-lb. test main line, 80-lb. leaders, with enough weight to quickly get them down. Think 8-inch bricks. The bait? Half-thumb-sized chunks of squid on 4/0 hooks.
“You know how everybody says everything eats shrimp? Well, everything eats squid, too, and it stays on the hook better. Plus, it’s tough enough that you can use it over and over,” said Judy.
We’re going redfish hunting, but first we’re going bird hunting. Captains sometimes look for baitfish commotion on the ocean surface, or oil that emanates from schools of such fish, but with this water it’s hard to tell where the sea stops and the clouds begin. But the gannet can find their dinner when no one else can, and these amazing, fun-to-watch birds dive like missiles into the schools. Deidra spots a group—gorgeous in white and black with yellowish heads, and wingspans up to 6 feet—and off we go.
There are two baited lines, two baits each, trolling behind the boat as Judy slows nearing the artificial reef, where probably a dozen or so birds are resting on the water, others swirling overhead. As we settle and the squid drops, there comes a “WHAM!” that rattles the entire railing.
Pandemonium breaks out as Deidra, who you can bet knows her business, grabs the rod from its holder and passes it to me. Forget holding on! All three of us are of the opinion that not one but two reds have pounded the baits on the same rod at the same time.
But as quickly as they came, they leave. The good thing, however, is that Plan B worked: we found the fish.
On the instant, I spooled down another Senator, felt the weight hit bottom and locked in the reel handle. Within seconds, the buffeting wind, heaving waves and the cold seawater spray became things of the past.
Reds don’t do finesse, and this one absolutely pounded that squid! If you’re a fisherman, you understand: the first feel, that initial jolt to your forearms, was worth the trip.
Fighting a redfish is a lot of hold-on-and-hope. Superb equipment helps, but in the end, it’s you on one end and a powerful fish on the other. You’re happy; he’s not, and proving it. A Penn Senator comes equipped with star drag, and it’s very likely you’ll need to use it, adjusting back and forth from tight to looser then to tighter and maybe back again. It’s a feel thing, and just because the fish is taking line, that’s not all bad. Beats popping it!
Getting right down to it, the true joy is in the next few minutes of our adversarial relationship. I love redfish, although they don’t seem to appreciate me very much. But as Judy is presently cackling to the fish, “We just want to borrow you for a little while…”
Slowly hoist the rod, then crank the reel as the rod is lowered. Never try to move the fish with the reel, because that’s the rod’s job. It gains line on the way up, to be cranked in by the reel on the way down. While this is going on, your thumb should be in contact with the star in case the fish suddenly decides that he wants to go to Key West and screams off in that direction.
I’m in no hurry. This is what I came for. The longer and harder he fights, the better the memory. In too few minutes, maybe five, Deidra nets a 33-inch redfish. It’s quickly measured, tagged and eased back into the water.
But not as impressed as I am a few minutes later, after we’ve circled the boat and come back across the reef at precisely the same angle. Judy spots the school of fish on the finder screen and yells, “Drop it right there!”And when I do, here we go again. This fish is even bigger and meaner.
It’s a longer, harder fight, and it probably looked like I was playing one-handed piano with the star drag. That was one ticked-off redfish!
He’s now a 38-inch redfish sporting a slender yellow tag and likely the same bad attitude. Before his noggin got re-splashed, I promised to come back and find him once he grows another foot and reaches my personal goal of 50 inches.
But at that moment, we all shared a glance—and knew. The fish were there. If we could but stay a little longer, there’s always that chance of a 50-incher with a craving for squid passing 50 feet below. But it was getting rough. ROUGH rough. And according to the forecast, gale force winds were headed our way within a couple of hours.
As a postscript, during that call back I mentioned earlier, Judy said, “Baby (and everybody is Baby, including you the first time you see that Judy Helmey smile) an hour after we got off the boat, the wind was 35 knots and you could add 4 to 5 feet to the sea we had.”
No, thanks, Baby. I have a particular passion for reds, but not enough of one to go swimming with them 20 miles offshore in 50 feet of frigid seawater. As March brings us what is hopefully some slightly more settled weather, maybe those gorgeous reds will move in a little closer. But don’t forget: each day is a different day.
Best to call Judy. She’ll know where they are.
Using The Proper Circle Hook
Considering that all reds longer than 23 inches must be released, anglers who are targeting these big reds should use hooks that will allow for easy hook removal.
“Lots of people use circle hooks when fishing natural baits for big reds,” said Spud Woodward, director for DNR’s Coastal Resources Division. “This a good thing when the hooks are used properly, resulting in hookset at the hinge (or corner) of the jaw. However, some anglers feel they need to use offset circle hooks (point of the hook slightly out of alignment with the hook shank) in order to maximize the opportunity for a successful hookset. In the case of reds, which often aggressively gulp down the bait, use of offset circle hooks will often result in undesirable deep hooking as the point of the hook embeds itself in the soft tissues of fish’s throat.
Offshore Redfish in March… How It’s Done
If you’re looking to catch big reds in March, the first order of business is to get offshore and find 28 to 35 feet of water. Generally speaking, think 4 or so miles off the barrier islands: Tybee, Wassaw, St. Catherines and Ossabaw.
What you’re looking for are rips, formed when two currents run together to form a dancing, boiling tide line in the ocean. There will be a multitude of things—debris, weeds, marsh grass, cups, bottles, etc.,—that get pushed into and held in place. These rips can be quite long and are clearly visible for some distance. With the floating, foaming cover, baitfish feel protected and tend to gang up underneath. Ocean predators, like big bull reds, appreciate that. Once you’ve found the rip, it may be necessary to follow the line until you find the feeding reds.
Remember that ocean birds, like the gannet, are your eyes in the sky. Don’t just find the birds; watch them. If smaller birds are hitting the water, you can bet they’re cleaning up the surfacing spoils of what predators are doing to the bait school underneath.
Now’s the time to toss a baited rig, like the one we used, or one with a single hook if you prefer. Another option is a heavy jig, such as the diamond jig, or even a common heavy bucktail. Just be sure it’s weighty enough to get to the bottom fairly quickly. And remember that nine times out of 10, fish hit on the fall.
Judy has perfected another method of finding these fish, which she says no one believes until they see a red on it. It’s basically a float rig commonly used for speckled trout—with no bait attached. It consists of a trout rig with 60- to 80-lb. test wire with an egg sinker in front of it and an empty 4/0 hook. When trolled, the red’s predatory instincts kick in, and he takes a swipe. If he gets the hook, it’s fish on. If not, at least you’ve located him and maybe a school of his companions, and can go to the traditional bait/jig methods.
The daily allowable redfish harvest is five fish between 14 and 23 inches in length.
Proper Handling Of Giant Redfish
Out of respect for these majestic redfish, anglers need to be careful how they handle them when caught. Some anglers will use a BogaGrip or similar device to grasp the fish by the lower jaw, which is not a bad thing. However, it becomes an issue when anglers lift the fish from the water with the BogaGrip. By suspending all 30-plus pounds of fish weight from the jaw, it can cause permanent anatomical damage to the fish’s jaw. Imagine being lifted off the floor by your jaw!
“The proper technique is to control the head of the fish with the BogaGrip device but lift the fish from the water by supporting its weight with a hand under the abdomen or by holding the fish securely at the base of the tail,” said Spud Woodward, director for DNR’s Coastal Resources Division. “A soft-mesh landing net (striper/catfish size) is actually the best. That’s what I use. I scoop up the fish with net and gently lower it to the deck of the boat. Then I use the BogaGrip and gloved hand to control the fish for hook removal, holding for photo ops and eventually release.”
There’s also a proper way to release these powerful fish.
“Assuming I can lean over the gunwale and reach the water, I place the fish back in the water, holding it by the tail and moving it back and forth until it forcefully resists my efforts to restrain it,” said Spud. “At that point, I just open my hand and let it swim away.
“In the case of releasing a redfish from a boat with high gunwales where it’s impossible to lower the fish into the water, the best technique is to push the fish back into the water headfirst.
“When redfish are caught from offshore habitats such as artificial reefs in 40 to 60 feet depths, they may exhibit bloating from barotrauma (enlargement of the gas bladder). This can cause a released fish to float at the surface, typically in a belly-up position. However, most fish will recover their equilibrium in a few seconds or minutes and swim away no worse for the wear.”
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