Winter Skinny-Water Redfish
Poling the Georgia flats for hard-pulling action.
Greg has guided full time in the Golden Isles area for the last 13 years, with much of his time during the last several years spent on a poling platform in pursuit of red- fish. When not on the water on a guide trip, he spends time in his shop producing some of the finest fish mounts available. His eye for detail in a replicated fish scale is equivalent to his attention to detail in his approach to skinny-water redfish.
Our schedules finally aligned in mid January, and I was able to see what shallow-water redfishing is all about. We had hoped for a nice, sunny 60- degree winter day with stable pressure and calm winds. Because of having to mesh our two schedules, what we got was anything but our hopes. The two days prior to our trip, gale-force winds lashed the Georgia coast, but not to worry, they died to a mere 15-20 knots by the afternoon of our trip. The thermometer in my tow vehicle read a balmy 43 degrees as I approached Brunswick. North Georgia had even received a thin coating of ice that morning. The cold weather was not a concern, but we were afraid that a 15-degree water temperature drop, along with probable muddy water from high winds would make it tough to get bites.
As I loaded my “stuff” into the 17-foot skiff, I probably added the equivalent weight of a third person. It was obvious I was used to fishing from a bay boat and not worrying about the draft. We idled away from the ramp and ran toward our fishing destination. Fortunately the stiff breeze was across the run of the river and not parallel, or it would have been a very rough ride. With the less than perfect weather, Greg would have stayed at the house if I did not have a deadline for this article.
We dropped off plane and idled into a half-mile long embayment with a five foot deep channel lined with oyster mounds on one side and an exposed mud flat on the other. Had I been at the helm in my bay boat, we would have eased along the deeper side casting Cajun Thunder/Sea Shad rigs for trout, but Greg headed for the shallow side. We had about an hour before the tide would turn and head back in. Greg offered me a fly rod, but I politely declined, blaming the high winds for my opting to stick with spinning gear. The Pflueger outfit he hand- ed me was rigged with a floating Bite- A-Bait Fighter hard jerkbait. The Trion rod was a 7-foot, medium-fast model, and the Medalist No. 6030 reel was spooled with 15-lb. test Shakespeare braided line with a foot-long leader of 20-lb. test fluorocarbon. During the usual clear water of winter, Greg recommends a fluorocarbon leader. If the water is murky, he believes that the leader is unnecessary.
I made a few casts to get used to the outfit while Greg grabbed the push pole and made his way to his perch atop the raised poling platform. He continued to move us surprisingly close to the mud-water interface where you can only dream of taking larger crafts. Greg studied the water for tell- tale signs of redfish. The wind was stiff, but Greg’s experienced eye could still pick up the subtle pushes of fish scooting along the flat or feeding. A bird hovering above clued us in to our first redfish, a 5-pounder swimming with its dorsal fin barely below the surface.
Not compensating enough for the wind, my cast blew behind the fish, and I blew it. As Greg scanned the flat for other fish, he explained that the birds will often lead you to the fish as they hover overhead waiting for the redfish to stir up a morsel. Before the tide slacked, I had one more chance at a red, but even with a well-placed cast, I was unable to convince the brute that my jerkbait was edible. At slack low tide, Greg noticed a pod of redfish working in a shallow gut between two mud bars, so we motored around and into position to work those fish as the tide began to flood.
My adrenaline rose as Greg poled us within casting range. The fish revealed themselves in the foot-deep water by creating a different ripple on the surface. I am not sure I could have recognized the subtle change, had Greg’s experienced eyes not noted it. My first cast as we approached resulted in a 6-pounder inhaling the Bite-A-Bait and making a beeline for deeper water. The drag screamed for several seconds before the fish made a right turn. Shortly thereafter, the hooks pulled free and everything settled back down. Exhilaration and disappointment ruled the moment. A few fish spooked during the fight, but there were still plenty of redfish in the area. A quick examination of the hooks, line, and knots, and I was back on point ready for the next opportunity.
It did not take long before a school of several fish pushed their way toward us. Greg held the boat with the pole while I waited. Moments later I cast, leading the fish several feet with the jerkbait and twitching it as the fish approached. The water boiled as the redfish inhaled the gold jerkbait, but the hooks did not set. That short half- hour window as the tide turned was the only activity we were able to stir all afternoon. As the water continued to rise, we drifted and poled our way over hundreds of redfish without another bite. Greg made the mistake of coming off the platform to cast to several fish, which he was also unable to get to bite. That confirmed to me that the fish had lockjaw and the problem was not my ineptitude. Had he not left the platform, he could have blamed it on my lack of skill.
We tried several colors of Bite-A- Bait Fighters, Thunder Spin spinner- baits, Bass Assassin five-inch shads, MirrOlure Top Pups, all standard lures for redfish. We even plunked Gulp! shrimp, which some lure anglers consider “cheater bait,” in front of redfish to no avail.
Greg attributed the lack of activity to the combination of muddy water and a 15-degree water-temperature drop over the previous two days.
“Cold water is not a problem for wintertime redfish, but you need stable cold water, not widely fluctuating temperatures,” Greg shared.
Under stable conditions, those same hundreds of redfish we saw would have been much more cooperative.
“When conditions are stable, the fish roll and move a lot more. They’ll even turn sideways and flash their cop- per sides and white bellies like they are happy,” he said.
Redfish and black drum are the primary fish you will catch on the shallow mud flats. The fish cruising the shallow water are primarily the hard- fighting 5- to 10-pounders.
“You will not catch the little rat- reds in the skinny water because the ospreys and other birds will eat them if they get that shallow,” Greg explained.
Spinning and light baitcasting tackle works great for shallow-water reds, but Greg believes that fly tackle is the ultimate gear. He prefers eight- or nine-weight equipment and minnow or crab patterns. The Clouser Minnow is one of his favorite patterns.
Whatever equipment you choose, presentation is everything, and a small error will result in a mud boil and a lost opportunity. It is critical to determine which direction a fish or school of fish is moving and place your cast several feet in front of them so it is already in place when they arrive. A lure plunked directly on top of a fish sends it scurrying. Working a lure subtly is also usu- ally a necessity. The slightest movement is usually all that is needed to get a shallow redfish’s attention.
Before you can make the presentation, though, you must get into position for the cast. Greg propels his skiff across the flats with a fiberglass/graphite composite Stiffy Pole, which costs as much as a high- end saltwater trolling motor. He believes the composite model has just the right feel and characteristics needed to silently propel his craft over the flats and put his clients within casting range of trophy redfish.
Fishing around low tide is important, as you can see the redfish best when they have the least amount of water over them. Greg fishes from two hours before low tide until the water gets back up into the marsh grass. His best success is typically within an hour either side of low tide when it is easier to see the fish pushing along the flat.
Winter redfish are extremely predictable once you find a concentration of fish. Greg likens a school of redfish to a covey of quail in that they stay in about the same areas day after day. He said the population of redfish we fished have always been there. Some days there are more than others, but he has always seen a good number of fish. They will stay in the same area for about five years before heading to the Atlantic to join the spawning stock. The school we fished is not unique, as there are bays and creeks all along our coast that hold big numbers of redfish, and winter is one of the best times to chase them.
While allowing you to fish water previously inaccessible, you definitely give up comfort by fishing shallow- water skiffs. The small gas tank necessitates launching close to your fishing area, as range is not a skiff’s strong suit. That is a good thing, as a long run on a rough day would rattle fillings loose. I am used to packing a half-ton of tackle and accessories, which is not possible when fishing from a skiff. But what you sacrifice in comfort is rewarded 10-fold in the ability to glide over mere inches of water to oversized redfish ripe for the picking. You can use lightweight aluminum boats for this type of fishing, but they typically do not pole well, are noisier than fiber- glass when you move around, and usu- ally have significant “hull slap,” the smacking of small wind-waves pushed against the side of the boat. These are significant drawbacks to aluminum rigs, as any noise causes shallow-water reds to spook.
Ultra-skinny-water redfishing requires specialized equipment, but it is extremely exciting. When most other fisheries are in idle for winter, the shallow-water redfishing is on fire. If you are not equipped to pole around in water measured in inches, give Capt. Greg Hildreth a call at (912) 261-1763 to see first-hand how hard a redfish can pull. You can also access Greg’s website at www.goldenislesflyfishing.com.
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