Redfish are among the most popular targets for fly fishermen plying temperature salt waters in the Southeastern United States. Visions of 'tailing reds' on shallow flats often fill fishermen's minds as they make their way to the coast. However, during late summer and fall, an entirely different type of red drum fishing is available throughout the fish's range.
From Texas to North Carolina large redfish, commonly known as ‘bull reds,’ swim through the surf from July through November, offering anglers an excellent opportunity to catch ‘big game’ close to shore. Although the vast majority of fishermen pursuing these oversize redfish are utilizing conventional tackle, fly rodders are also able to take part in this exciting seasonal fishery known as the ‘bull redfish run.’
Catching Bull Redfish on Fly Rods Along the Texas Coast
WHY THEY RUN
In order to fully understand how to located schools of bull redfish during the annual run, it is important to understand why they migrate to the beachfront each year. Similar to salmon running into rivers, the bull redfish run has everything to do with the continuity of the species' life cycle.
Unlike other inshore species in the Southeastern United States, redfish do not live, grow and expire in the same stretch of water. Redfish are born in backwater estuaries and marshes. As they grow, they move out into bays and saltwater lakes, where they will spend the next few years of their lives. Once they reach sexual maturity - usually around 28 to 32 inches - they move into the open water of the Gulf of Mexico or Atlantic Ocean. They spend the remainder of their lives in these open, deep waters. The lone exception to this is when they 'run' close to shore during the late summer and fall portion of the year.
It should be noted that unlike cattle, bull redfish are females. When these mature fish are found close to shore, they are there for one reason - to spawn. As they move in from the open waters of the Gulf or Atlantic, they are seeking out passes that connect the open seas to the protected bays and estuaries. When the time is right, they dump their eggs near or in these passes and allow the tides to sweep them into the shallow nursery areas.
Though their ultimate goal is the same as salmon - to spawn - unlike their migrating counterparts, redfish have no qualms about eating during their journey. In fact, since they spend a good portion of the 'run' staging and awaiting the right combination of tide and temperature, bull reds spend most of the close-to-shore visit feeding ravenously. And, since they are big, strong animals, capable of covering a lot of water quickly, they won't necessarily always be found feeding where they intend to lay their eggs.
Although they are seeking the passes that cut through beaches in order to lay their eggs, bull reds will also spend a portion of the spawning season feeding along the beachfront itself. More often than not, schools of reds will be found within a mile or so of a pass when feeding in the surf. The chief exception to this rule is if there are two passes within a few miles of each other. This is the ideal situation to target beachfront bull reds, as the schools will often make 'loops' between the two passes.
At times big bull reds will feed in the first 'gut' - or trough closest to the beach. However, more often than not, these fish will be beyond the first sand bar, where they have quick access to deep, open water. For this reason, it is usually more productive to target beachfront bulls from a boat. However, shore bound anglers do have opportunities as well.
If you find yourself fishing the beachfront without a boat, you can increase your odds of encountering bull reds by focusing on areas where channels cut across sand bars, connecting the inside guts to the deep, open water beyond the bars. These are the areas most likely to attract bulls closest to dry sand.
Furthermore, wading surf anglers often make their way to the first or second sand bar, where they are able to cast to schools cruising the deeper waters.
Again, passes will be central to bull redfish activity during late summer and fall. Beyond using the pass to dump their eggs, reds will also forage in these connective waterways. As with any fishing near passes, periods of moving water always account for the best action.
On falling tides, bull reds will feed on the outside of a pass. Most often, they will hang on the fringe of the 'color change' between the out flowing bay water and the ocean water. This confluence generally holds the greatest amount of forage, thus the greatest amount of predators.
Redfish activity on periods of incoming flow will be just the opposite. At these times reds will push close to the beachfront or into the pass itself.
Many passes are lined with jetties or rock groins. These structures serve both to attract fish and provide an excellent angling platform for fishermen.
Wherever they occur, jetties form an artificial reef ecosystem that attracts and supports a wide variety of marine life. Jetties occurring near passes have a double attraction for bull reds - they are rich in forage items and located adjacent to their spawning grounds.
Jetties are also the best perch for non-boating fly rodders to use when intercepting schools of bull reds. The length of a jetty provides access to deeper water, while the host of prey items seeking shelter along the length of a jetty will draw predators such as bull reds within casting distance.
KEYS AND CLUES
Any fly fisherman hoping to tangle with bull reds during the run should use their eyes every bit as much - or perhaps more - than their rod.
During times of good visibility (water), anglers have the advantage of being able to actually spot schools of redfish. However, a school of bull reds along the beach looks much different than a school of reds on a foot-deep flat. While it may seem impossible to miss a school of 200 40-inch fish, it happens all the time.
Most often, this is because fishermen simply don't know what they're looking at when they spot a school. From a distance, a school of reds cruising in open water looks like a rust-colored haze. Since the school is often densely packed, it can be difficult to make out the shape of individual fish. Far too often, anglers dismiss these 'blobs' as schools of baitfish.
Another obvious sign - one that can be spotted regardless of water clarity - is surface activity. But, this should be considered a 'bonus' rather than a mainstay. For while schools of bull reds will at times feed voraciously on the surface, they do most of their eating at depth.
However, any time a school of bull reds 'goes on the feed,' they will likely attract a crowd. Even when feeding below the surface, a herd of bulls will often push schools of shrimp and baitfish high enough in the water column to attract birds. Any flock of gulls, terns or pelicans wheeling and diving along the beachfront is worth investigating. This is perhaps the best visual indicator when water visibility is at a minimum.
Sometimes none of these visual indicators is present. This is especially true during periods of poor water visibility. At times like these, fly fishermen should rely on their conventional tackle compatriots. This is particularly true if fishing along a jetty or beachfront.
Since bull reds tend to roam in large schools and are rarely stationary for long, fishing for them tends to be periods of no activity followed by short bursts of frantic action as a school moves through an area. Boating anglers are able to follow the school. Shore or jetty fishermen, however, must wait for the next pass in order to get back in the action.
Rather than wearing themselves out blind casting during these lulls, fly rodders should kick back and keep an eye on conventional rods on either side of them. When a school moves through, these rods will begin to dip in succession - indicating not only the presence of a school, but the direction in which it is moving. By positioning themselves ahead of the moving schools, fly rodders are able to make pinpoint casts into the productive zone, despite the lack of other visual signs.
TOUGH TACKLE NEEDED
Mature reds are called bulls for a reason - they are big, strong fish. Whereas redfish on the flats can often be subdued on 6 to 8 wt rods, it takes a more substantial stick to tame a beachfront bull. For this type of fishing, a 9 wt rod should be considered the bare minimum. A 10 wt is ideal, although top-end bulls, those over 40 inches, are more easily handled on 11 or 12 wt rods.
Reels should be fitted with substantial disc drags and spooled with a couple hundred yards of 30 pound backing. Floating lines have very little use when prospecting for bull reds. Intermediate lines are the best all-around choice, although a Class IV sinking line is handy when bulls are cruising down deep.
FLIES FOR FOOLING BULLS
Since bull reds are usually feeding at least four feet below the surface and since strong currents can come into play, heavily weighted flies are typically the best choices, even when fishing with sinking lines. Flies that imitate baitfish between 2 1/2 to 4 inches long are ideal. The venerable Clouser Deep Minnow is one of the best. Kirk's Deep Rattle Rouser is a good choice in off-color water, when a little sound helps fish hone in on the fly. However, the absolute best fly I've found for targeting beachfront bulls is a Half & Half tied with heavy lead eyes in either chartreuse/white, olive/white or black/white color patterns.
AVOID BULL FEVER
One last piece of advice - don't let your nerves get the best of you. This most often happens when fishing clean water and spotting huge herds of bulls. Far too many times, upon seeing this 'can't miss' opportunity, anglers begin dragging flies across the school, baffled by why they're not hooking up.
The solution can be summed up in two words: slow down.
While these fish are visible, they are usually deeper than you think. They are commonly 6 to 8 feet below the surface, though in clear water fish this big look like they're right on top. And, while they will readily grab food item in their path, they rarely deviate from their course in order to gobble a two-inch tidbit.
Herded up bulls will eat, but the fly has got to get down to their depth. The best method I've found to ensure solid hookups is to cast slightly ahead of the school and allow the fly to settle until I feel it 'bumping' off the backs of the densely packed fish. Do not mistake these bumps for bites. Rather, these bumps are simply the fly bouncing off the bodies of multiple fish.
Quite often, a fish will grab the fly as it ricochets off a schoolmate. However, if that doesn't happen, it typically only takes a strip or two to find a willing participant. Wait until you feel solid pressure of a fish swimming away with the fly before you set the hook. In this setting, redfish are pretty comfortable and will hold onto the fly a surprisingly long time. Allow the fish to take all the slack out of the line, then hit 'em.
This technique may seem unconventional, but then again, pretty much everything about fishing for bull reds is different. From the freakishly large size of the fish to the open water setting, it's hard to believe this is the same species that inhabits shin-deep flats.