How Experts Find Big Schools of Trophy Reds on Top from Northern Gulf Bays to Beaches and Beyond
By Doug Olander
Some northern Gulf guides chase ’em in warm weather. Some guides just chase ’em when it’s cold. Lots of guides and anglers in these waters don’t chase ’em at all.
And the latter are missing out, because bull reds aggregate in hungry schools pretty much all year for those who know where and how to look for ’em.
Two experts who know those things quite well offer insight into how they successfully target these 15- to 40-pound blitzkriegers.
Red Tide When It’s Cold
If you were to look for Capt. Clif Jones (www.shallowmindedoutfitters.com) from roughly mid-October into March, odds are good you’d find him wherever big-redfish schools were patrolling.
And that, says the guide — based in Orange Beach, Alabama — can be anywhere from inside Mobile and Pensacola bays to the passes and up to several miles off the beaches. (Jones recently gave up a larger offshore boat for a nimble skiff; his 19-foot East Cape Skiff Vantage gives him the speed to run and gun looking for reds anywhere from the bays’ shallows to offshore, well beyond the beaches, weather cooperating.)
Jones has been putting anglers in the middle of some of the Gulf’s wildest action for many years. (Indeed, this author has been there and done that with him, and the action proved spectacular.) The great majority of the time, he does so by keying in on diving birds.
“Sometimes in December or January on a slick-calm day, we’ll find fish without birds over them, just swimming at the surface,” he says, but mostly it’s about the birds.
What the reds are feeding on is largely determined seasonally, with the small anchovies — known in the northern Gulf as “red minnows” — abundant from sometime in October through December, though these may be found most of the year. They’re followed by big schools of pogies (menhaden), and by February or March, threadfins and sardines a little farther out, off the beach.
Find the fish and it’s a light-tackle angler’s dream. That’s especially true for fly-rodders, who now comprise about 75 percent of Jones’ clientele.
Otherwise, it’s all about lures, notably topwaters or jigs. “We don’t bother with bait,” Jones says. “We don’t need it.”
Surprisingly, if anything, this fishery seems to have gotten more productive in recent years, according to the guide. “We run into giant schools,” he says.
Another surprise: There just isn’t that much competition, especially in winter. It’s not unusual for Jones to be parked on one of those giant schools and be the only boat around.
Red Tide When It’s Warm
Another northern Gulf guide who looks for schooling bulls is Scott Simpson (www.myweb.cableone.net/captscott). He runs the Stamas 25-foot center-console Impulsive out of Long Beach (Mississippi) Harbor.
But for Simpson, it’s a spring and summer show.
Although he might start looking for them as early as mid-February, Simpson says his best luck for big surface schools of reds starts at some point in May, and shortly after that, things usually settle into full swing.
“During June through October, we find the larger schools of reds on the surface, generally in the area from three nautical miles south of the islands — Cat, Ship, Horn, Petit Bois — all the way to the islands themselves,” Simpson says. If you had to pick a month to encounter a red tide, Simpson would highly recommend August: “That seems to be the peak for finding reds on the surface in Mississippi waters.”
The reds might show in as little as three feet of water to more than 30. But wherever he’s running, like Jones, he keys in on diving birds. “We find the reds by looking for small, black diving terns feeding on small balls of red minnows, as well as any type of surface-feeding activity. Likely as not, the first predators to be seen are Spanish mackerel. But even if you’re spotting only mackerel feeding on the red minnows, take heart: “Often, redfish will be just below or just behind,” says Simpson.
“While cruising at 20 to 25 knots, I instruct customers to keep a constant lookout for any surface activity from bait or diving birds,” Simpson advises, adding that in the area he expects to see reds, he’ll run parallel search patterns, much like the Coast Guard uses as its search protocol.
Once a feeding frenzy is sighted, Simpson motors to within 20 or 30 yards and kills the engines just as anglers start casting Yo-Zuri Surface Bulls or other large poppers into the melee. Doing this last summer paid off for Simpson, who at times had perhaps 200 reds in the 25- to 40-pound range surrounding the boat.
Simpson points out that, especially in summer, surface activity where bait is being pounded can also mean tarpon, large sharks, big jacks, bonito (little tunny) and cobia.
Though Mississippi law allows one red measuring more than 30 inches per angler, the guide “highly recommends catch-and-release” on larger redfish. “These are our breeding stock,” he adds.
April 13, 2012
Top Redfish Spots
A lot of the best redfishing happens along the northern Gulf Coast seashores.