Tidal Rip Redfish
Each fall, the tidal rips off St. Simons Island produce phenomenal catches of trophy Georgia redfish.
In the late 1990s, fishing guides targeting sharks and tarpon during the early autumn started catching redfish in the waters off the southern end of St. Simons Island — big redfish, some of which pushed record size.
These anglers were working the area between Gouldʼs Inlet and the shipping channel leading into the St. Simons estuary, a locale known as Portuguese Slough. Had these big fish been there all along or had something changed to make this area a new redfish haven? Little time was spent debating the answer as anglers geared up to take advantage of a new fishing opportunity.
One glance at a nautical chart reveals that the ocean floor off the south end of St. Simons Island, and off most other Georgia barrier islands for that matter, is a complicated mix of sandbars and sloughs. This area can be very intimidating and confusing to the first-time visitor, especially one trying to find just the right fishing spot. But after some trial and error, the best catches came to those who focused their efforts on the current rips that formed within a few miles of the beach.
Some anglers relied on visual reference points, using a water tower, a building or some other structure to find their way back to the areas where the rips formed. Others simply punched a button to log the latitude/longitude information in their GPS. Although cynics scoffed, it soon became apparent that the reports of 10- to 20-fish trips were credible and not just fish tales. Nowadays, an autumn trip to the 90-Degree Bar or one of the other nearshore rips is almost a guaranteed way to catch a big redfish.
Rips Equal Action
Experienced saltwater anglers know that rips are fishing hotspots. Some of you freshwater types may wonder just what the heck a “rip” is? Well, the term “rip” is used rather generally to describe an area of the oceanʼs surface that has a faster current and greater turbulence than the surrounding area.
They are identified pretty easily as areas of rough water with calm water on both sides. Rips are usually formed where opposing currents meet, or, as is most often the case in Georgiaʼs coastal waters, in an area where the depth changes quickly. In some cases, rips are only a few hundred feet long and a few yards wide. In other situations, they may extend for miles.
Every rip has a personality all its own — a personality that will change based on wind direction and tide flow. Spring tides, which occur on new and full moons, will produce the strongest rips. Even a moderate incoming tide pushed by a stiff easterly wind can produce a strong rip. Yet, that same easterly wind may diminish the rip that would form on an ebbing tide.
As with all coastal Georgia fishing, the tide table is an indispensable aid and will help you predict the optimal time for rip formation. Sometimes a rip will not make up until well into the tide. For example, one of the spots I fished last year wasnʼt a producer until the tide had been coming in for a couple of hours. But once the action started, it was hot and heavy for about three hours right up until the last hour of the flood tide. Once the tide went slack, I moved to another nearby location to fish the rip that formed on the outgoing tide.
In Georgiaʼs coastal waters, the sloughs that run between shoals will average around 10- to 15-feet deep, depending on the tide stage. Some of the shoals will become exposed on spring tides, while others stay submerged even under extreme conditions of wind and tide. Most will be covered with six to eight feet of water at high tide. The most distinct rips form where the difference in water depth in the slough and on the shoal is the greatest.
As you check out a rip, look for a break or any subtle change in its appearance. This visual cue may reveal a slightly deeper or shallower area in the shoal. While scouting, I also keep a sharp eye on my Lowrance depthfinder, looking for any differences in the bottom contour. Also look for bends or small pockets in the rip. Both predator and prey will often congregate at these locales. The end of a rip is an often overlooked but potentially productive spot.
Riding the Rip
Rips themselves can be a boisterous place with choppy waters and stiff currents, and the novice boater is often hesitant to get anyway near these areas. But with a little common sense and some caution, these spots can be fished safely even in smaller sea-going boats. By sea-going, I mean self-bailing hulls or boats equipped with bilge pumps. The new generation of bay boats, like my Pathfinder 19, are tailor-made for fishing the rips — shallow draft, but seaworthy, and lots of open deck space for fighting big fish.
Fortunately for those of us hoping to tangle with Mr. Redfish, the best way to fish a rip is to get near it, but not in it. In fact, the best place to be is in the calmer waters near the rip. Capt. Greg Hildreth of Brunswick, one of the pioneers of rip fishing for reds, offered some advice
“These big redfish are often right in the rip or along its edge,” said Greg.
“When in such shallow water, they are highly sensitive to noise. Approach from up-current, and once you pick a good spot, kill the engine and drift back toward the rip. Carefully deploy the anchor so that the boat is positioned within casting distance of the turbulent water.”
Fishing the rips is sort of the ocean-going equivalent of a dove shoot. Most folks donʼt mind a little company as long as youʼre not in their pocket. It is possible for several boats to fish the same rip and for all the boats to catch fish. However, as is the case with most hunting and fishing situations, it pays to practice a little common courtesy.
“The ideal way for a boat to join in on the action is to give the anchored boats a wide berth from an up-current approach,” Greg said. “Pick out a spot no closer than 150 yards to the other boats, cut the engine and drift into position. There are times when we might have half a dozen boats lined up on one rip. Everybody is having a good time and catching lots of fish. Unfortunately, some folks get so excited that they donʼt think. They come in behind your boat, or run right across the rip and mess up the fishing for everyone.”
Sometimes the rip will move as the tide rises or falls. If this happens you might be able to simply lengthen or shorten your anchor line to keep the boat in position. As Greg advises, avoid making noise if possible. If you do have to use the engine to change positions, do so sparingly. My boat is equipped with a 74-lb.-thrust Minn Kota Riptide trolling motor. If I need to change position, I can simply use the trolling motor and avoid cranking up the big Yamaha.
Fish And Cut Bait?
During the autumn, schools of menhaden and mullet will use the sloughs between sandbars as highways, moving back and forth on the tide. A variety of crustaceans, such as shrimp and crabs, can also be found in these areas as can saltwater panfish such as whiting, spot and Atlantic croaker. Invariably, the strong currents will push them up into the rip. To a big redfish, hungry from weeks of spawning, the flip of a menhaden, the splash of a leaping mullet, or the frenzied retreat of a shrimp means one thing —mealtime.
The variety of sea life found in and around the rips also means opportunity for the angler. Greg has found the perfect way to use this variety so that his customers can have their fish and eat them, too. Once he gets the boat in position near the rip, heʼll arm his anglers with light tackle and small pieces of shrimp. Quickly, whiting will start coming over the side of the boat. The small whiting go back while the 10-inch or larger keepers go on ice. Some of these keepers are cut into chunks for bait. Experience has taught Greg that both humans and redfish share a voracious appetite for whiting. Talk about your perfect trip — trophy reds for the camera and fresh whiting for the frying pan!
If you want to bypass the whiting and go straight to the big reds, then cut menhaden or mullet will do the trick. On those days when conditions are just right and the fish are in a feeding frenzy, frozen baits work just as well as fresh. However, Iʼm a stickler for fresh baits and never leave the dock without a cast net since there are usually schools of menhaden in or near the Portuguese Slough area. If the menhaden situation is questionable, Iʼll stop in a creek on the way out and pick up some fresh mullet.
Fishing the rips is not like fishing the crashing surf favored by the beachfront reds. The currents are stronger, and the fish will use this to their advantage. So, I scale up my gear when going to the rip. In fact, I will use the same gear that I use for tarpon, so that I can muscle these 25- to 40-lb. reds to the boat quickly and minimize the stress from a prolonged fight. Medium-heavy action rods, either spinning or casting, fitted with reels capable of holding at least 200 yards of 25-lb. or stronger line are best.
The new super-braid lines are good for rip fishing since you get strength combined with small diameter. This small diameter means less drag on the line in heavy currents and more line on smaller reels. Greg favors 50-lb. test PowerPro, which has the diameter of 12-lb. test monofilament. The new Stren Super Braid is also a good choice. I particularly like the fact that conventional knots work well with this new product, and it comes in a high-vis gold color.
The preferred terminal tackle set-up is the sliding egg sinker or Carolina rig. First, a plastic bead is threaded on the main line followed by a 2- to 5-oz. egg sinker and another plastic bead. The main line is finished off with a 75-lb. test coastlock snap swivel. Tie up a leader using an 18- to 24-inch length of 50- to 80-lb. test conventional monofilament or fluorocarbon, depending on your preference. Finish one end of the leader with a surgeonʼs loop, which makes an easy but reliable connection between leader and swivel. Tip the business end of the leader with a circle hook.
Greg prefers the new Eagle Claw P170 in a 9/0 size and red color. Over the years, I’ve tried just about every type of circle hook and always come back to the up-eye, wide-gap version made by Eagle Claw (Model L2222) in a 9/0 size. The wide gap between hook point and shank makes it easy to thread big chunks of bait onto the hook. Depending on personal preference, the circle hook can be attached with a perfection loop, improved clinch knot, or it can be snelled.
Savvy anglers know that most game fish rely heavily on their sense of smell to find food. Redfish, in particular, have a keen olfactory sense that they use to hone in on a potential meal in the turbulent and murky waters. One technique that can help turn a mediocre day of rip fishing into a barnburner is chumming. This can be as simple as cutting fresh-caught baitfish into small chunks, which are dropped into the current. Or, one can go techno and have a 12-volt commercial grinder onboard, which is used to make fresh ground chum from menhaden or mullet. The low-tech version of inexpensive dog food soaked in menhaden oil will also work.
Regardless of your choice in chum, the key to success is getting the scent down into the water column. Remember, these bruiser reds are working the bottom and not the surface. The “chum bomb,” a frozen mixture of ground menhaden, fish oil, and sand, can be dropped once the boat is anchored. The weight of the sand will carry the bomb down to the bottom, where it will exude a scent trail drawing the reds to your bait spread. A nylon-mesh bag filled with ground fish or the dog food/oil mixture can be tied to the anchor or weighted and tied off to a stern cleat.
The prime time to match wits with a big redfish is late September to early November. Public ramps and marinas on St. Simons and Jekyll Islands and in Brunswick offer safe and quick access to the Portuguese Slough area. Remember, all redfish over 23 inches must be released, so youʼll be practicing catch-and-release. Handle the fish with care, and theyʼll probably be there next year. So, the next time you grow weary of shooting doves, hunting deer, or following any one of Georgiaʼs many outdoor pursuits, go get ripped — with a big redfish that is.
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