Wade For Redfish

Each spring tide brings hordes of redfish onto the tidal flats. Here’s a look at saltwater wade fishing, Georgia style.

Greg McMichael | May 1, 2001

The tide on the outer bar was going to top out around 7:15 p.m. at a height of about 8.1 feet. The water wouldn’t hit the high mark on the marsh at my spot until about 8:00 p.m. Plenty of time to get in a day’s work, yet still have a couple of hours to work the incoming tide before dark. A glance out the window revealed a clear sky and light southeasterly breeze. Just enough to keep the gnats at bay, but not enough to put a chop on the water. This was a perfect set-up for a late-evening trip. And, the first of many treatments to cure the post-winter fishing fever.

A few hours later, Jimmy Shaw and I carefully approached the marsh shoreline in my 17-foot skiff, just as the water began to creep into the grass. The reds were already there, foraging on small mullet. Moving south along the edge of the grass we finally spotted a small creek just deep enough to float the boat and allow us to move into the marsh grass.

Cautiously, we paddled our way into the creek, desperately trying not to spook any nearby fish. We could hear the fish feeding up on the marsh surface and could even see the ripples caused by their movements. But, the fish were just out of casting range. Undaunted, we made a plan — a radical one, if judged by the standards of most coastal Georgia anglers. We’re going to get out of the boat.

Knowing that the bottom was firm enough to support our weight, we hastily gathered our gear as the water continued to rise. I grabbed up my rod and tied on one of the terminal rigs, which I had made by attaching a 4/0 Kahle wide-bend hook to a 2-foot length of 30-lb. nylon-coated wire leader. The opposite end of the leader was fitted with a 30-lb. test barrel swivel. I pinched on a couple of large split shot about three inches above the hook, just to give it additional weight for casting.

Catching reds on the salt marsh flats requires stalking stealth and a strong line to keep the fish away from deeper water.

While I worked on the terminal tackle, Jimmy prepared our bait. He scooped up some small blue crabs from a bucket. He prepared these by removing the legs, claws and top shell, a processing commonly referred to as “backing.” Jimmy finished by breaking the backed crabs in half. Hopefully, these crab bodies would emit a smell that no self-respecting redfish could ignore.

Our anticipation began to build as we heard the unmistakable splash of a feeding redfish just off to the north. Jimmy carefully lowered himself over the side and began wading through the knee-deep water in the direction of the sounds. I tied on a cloth nail apron, which contained my bait, spare rigs, and a homemade fish stringer, and eased over the gunwale of the boat. The hunt was on.

As I watched my partner stalk the fish to the north, I heard another splash about 30 yards off to the west. Jimmy, now moving ever so carefully through the grass, held up two fingers, indicating there were two fish feeding together, a common occurrence. For a moment I debated my strategy. Go after the fish to the west or join up with Jimmy to double-team the reds to the north. I smiled to myself. Too many choices —  tough problem, huh?

I decided to go solo and began wading west and farther up onto the marsh surface, leaving Jimmy to his pair of reds. The direct approach was impossible because of a small feeder creek that separated me from the small open pool that I suspected held the fish. I learned the hard way years ago that trying to cross these small creeks is a good way to end up thigh deep in mud and chest deep in water.

So, I moved parallel to the feeder creek with careful, measured steps. Finally, I worked my way within 20 yards of an open pool of water, where I hoped to find the redfish that had been making the noise. At the far side of the pool, I saw a swirl. Now the game got interesting. The fish was moving to my right along the edge of the grass. Decision time. Cast ahead of him or wait until he stops and begins to feed? My heart rate quickened as the fish’s blue-fringed tail broke the surface of the water. The red was head down aggressively feeding on the fiddler crabs hiding in their holes along the silt-sand bottom. I took aim, trying to make a cast just up current of the fish in hopes that the moving water would carry the scent of the bait toward him. Well, my cast was a bit off and the bait landed directly on top of the fish, which spooked in an explosion of water.

Texas-rigged soft jerkbaits will catch reds in the marsh grass, and a Johnson spoon is also an effective lure.

The fish, probably remembering the days when death came from above on feathered wings, exited the pool like some out-of-control submarine. The red’s headlong escape through the marsh, marked only by the swift parting of the grass, reminded me of the scene in the movie E.T. when the alien creature fled through the field of tall corn, it’s passage unseen yet marked by the frenzied movement of corn stalks.

Standing there frustrated, I turned toward Jimmy, hoping he hadn’t seen my clumsy attempt. Mercifully, he was totally occupied with a drama of his own. In fact, he appeared, by his posture, to be about to the close the deal on a redfish. As I watched, Jimmy set the hook and the water exploded at the end of his line. I was so hypnotized by Jimmy’s battle that I almost ignored another opportunity to try my skills. A fish splashed in a pool of open water just off to my left.

Again, I moved cautiously through the standing grass. Then, I saw the movement of the fish. Doing the calculations in my head I concentrated and managed to drop the chunk of blue crab just up current from the feeding red. Immediately, I lost sight of the fish and once again felt that twinge of doubt. Had I spooked this one too? But, this time there was no panicked exit through the grass, so I could only hope that the fish would pick up the scent of my bait.

I lifted my rod tip, took up the slack in the line, and gently bumped the bait along the bottom a few times to try and get his attention. Then, I allowed the line to go slack again. That way he wouldn’t immediately feel resistance if he took my offering. Holding my breath, I watched as my line began to tighten. The fish had picked up the bait and was slowly moving away, apparently hunting for another victim. Quickly, I set the reel to free-spool and stubbornly resisted the urge to set the hook by forcing myself to count: one-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand. Now! I reeled in the slack and set the hook with a twist of the waist and a lift of my arms.

Immediately, the rod tip arched as the redfish made a drag-scorching run along the edge of the open pool. Then, with an almost supernatural sense of direction, the fish cut through an area of grass heading toward another area of open water off to my left. Apparently, the fish wanted to reach the small creek about 15 yards away. All I could do at this point was to keep the line tight and try to stop the fish before it made it to the taller grass bordering the creek. Finally, I managed to turn him. The fish slashed back and forth through the open water, but showed signs of weakening.

After a few minutes, I gently guided the tired red to where I stood. Seeing me, the fish made one final attempt to shake the hook with another short run. Then, I carefully lifted the redfish from the water admiring the copper color and characteristic spot before putting him on the stringer. The fish measured just shy of 27-inches, the upper-end of the slot limit, and would probably weigh in the neighborhood of seven pounds.

Having redeemed myself, I turned toward Jimmy only to see him hoist his fish on the stringer. Both fish appeared to be about equal in size. Easing his fish back into the water, Jimmy gestured toward the south indicating that he had some more reds in sight. While he moved off to renew the hunt, I returned to the boat to secure my prize in the cooler. When I finished my chore and looked back, I saw my partner cast to another red.

The bend of the rod and the look on Jimmy’s face indicated that this might be a much larger fish. In a characteristic move, the red was trying to power his way through the grass and escape into deeper water. Jimmy eventually was able to exhaust the fish to the point where he could grab the leader. We estimated the fish to be at least 30 inches in length.

We saw several reds and managed to catch one more each before the tide began to ebb and action ceased.

My friend Jimmy Shaw first introduced me to “wadefishing” for redfish about 20 years ago. During those early years, we fished only one location, but have since located several other spots around our home waters of Glynn and McIntosh counties that hold fish on the high tides. These types of habitats can be found from Savannah to St. Marys. Get yourself a NOAA nautical chart for your area and look for expanses of marsh dissected by numerous feeder creeks and bordered by deeper water. The creeks are the routes that reds use to travel on and off the marsh surface and the deeper water gives the reds a place to feed and loiter during low tide. Some of these places may be accessible from causeways and highways. Others can only be reached by boat. When you visit potential fishing locations, look for evidence of fiddler crabs and other preferred prey. Also, cautiously check the bottom composition to see if wading is an option.

Action on the marsh surface is best on spring tides. By spring tides, I don’t mean those associated with the season of the year. Instead I mean those high tides caused when the gravitational effects of the moon and sun are combined. Spring tides are typically at least 7.9 feet.

Usually spring tides muddy the water and create unfavorable conditions for inshore fishing. But, in this case bigger really is better. Spring tides put more water on the marsh surface and for a longer period of time. The reds instinctually know this and seize the opportunity to venture onto the marsh to feed. The tide tables available for free at many coastal businesses will give you the height and time projections for coastal tides.

Wade fishing for reds is a combination of hunting, fishing and casting accuracy.

Jimmy and I have fished the tidal flat areas under a wide variety of conditions as early as April and as late as mid November. We both prefer an early morning or late afternoon high tide, although we have both caught fish during the midday hours. The redfish seem to feed more aggressively both early and late. While one might think that dead calm conditions would be optimal for stalking fish, a light wind is best. A wind strong enough to chop the water seems to make the fish reluctant to “tail,” but a light breeze helps cover your approach. Speaking of approach, the watchword for this style of fishing is stealth. Move quietly and smoothly when positioning yourself for the cast. Awkward movements create vibrations in the water that will betray your presence to wary fish.

And, remember the water is typically less than 2-feet in depth, so the fish can see you quite well. Resist the temptation to move in too close and keep your profile low. Practice casting so you can accurately place a natural bait or artificial lure from a minimum of 30-feet.

Both conventional and spinning tackle will work for marsh-surface fishing. Personally, I prefer a medium-action casting rod with a baitcasting reel spooled with 15- to 20-lb.-test mono.

I have tried several types of terminal tackle on these fish, but keep coming back to a rig built around a Kahle wide-bend hook rig. The new light-wire circle hooks will work, but require you to resist the urge to set the hook. Natural bait choices vary from live shrimp and cut mullet to live fiddler crabs or backed blue crabs. Again, I prefer the fresh blue crab. Whatever, the choice of natural baits, the hook should be rigged weedless to prevent snagging on the grass.

There are also a variety of artificial baits that will entice strikes from reds working the marsh surface. Soft plastic jerk baits rigged Texas-style can be worked through the grass. I like the patterns that mimic a mullet or mud minnow. Similarly, a Johnson spoon, in either the gold or silver color is a killer.

Next time the tides start to build, gather your tackle, an old pair of shoes, and head for the marsh. Somewhere out there in that grass is a big redfish just waiting for a chance to test your hunting and casting skills. While you may catch great numbers of fish, each catch will be a memorable experience.

And, like turkey hunting, you’ll find yourself bragging about the ones that outsmarted you.

Editor’s Note: Capt. Spud Woodward contributed to this article.

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