Texas Redfish Herd Fishing Strategies
Every year, anglers along the Gulf Coast anxiously anticipate the "running of the bulls," when mature "bull" redfish gang up in large "herds" in anticipation of their annual spawn. Herding activity for redfish occurs throughout summer and fall. Depending on the location, herding may begin as early as July or as late as September. But, at some point during the summer, every area of the Gulf Coast will see big herds of bull redfish.
When they are congregated in herds during the summer, redfish can be found in three areas: beachfronts, passes and bay waters. The pivot point for the bull red run is the Gulf passes. In order to consistently be successful pulling bull reds during the run, fishermen need to understand the underlying purpose for these passes and the reason the redfish are drawn there.
To begin with, the bull red run is about reproduction -- these fish are gathering to spawn. Bull reds are actually mature female red drum. As it gets close to the spawn, the offshore population of bull reds moves inshore from the open Gulf, where they spend most of their time during the rest of the year. Once they are close to shore, they will hang tight to Gulf passes that connect Texas' various bays to the Gulf of Mexico. At the same, recently sexually matured male and female redfish begin to filter out of the bays, where they've spent their early years, to the beachfront in order to congregate with the spawning stock. In this instance, the passes act as open doors for the redfish leaving the bays looking to start the second stage of their life in the Gulf waters.
Once these two groups meet, the passes play yet another important role in this ritual. According to biologists, redfish actually drop their eggs along the beachfront and rely on tidal currents to sweep them through the passes and into the protected bay waters, where they newborn redfish will have a better chance of survival once hatched. These same bay waters will be home for the first few years of each red's life, until they mature to the point they, too, can join in the annual beachfront spawning ritual.
The sheer mass of fish concentrated during this time is somewhat reminiscent of the salmon run. Of course, unlike salmon, bull reds have no qualms about feeding during their spawning ritual. Therefore, anglers located schools of bulls have a very good chance to hook into them, whether they are in the bay, passes or surf. The key is locating the schools, presenting baits in the proper way in order to draw strikes, and fighting the fish away from the herd so as not to spook the group and ruin subsequent hook-up opportunities.
INSIDE THE BAYS
When redfish leave the bays for the spawn, they do so in fairly large groups. Thus the term "herds." These fish start getting together during mid- to late-summer in preparation for their trip to the Gulf passes. Over the course of a couple months, each of these large groups will meander through the bay and toward the pass. Most often schools of redfish will follow some sort of defined boundary, such as a shoreline or channel edge while making their way to the open Gulf. Although these schools of freshly matured reds may be using deep channels as a road map to the spawning grounds, they will usually travel over the shallow shelves paralleling the deep channels. And, while these schools typically travel at good clip, they will stop and mill around while feeding. At times like these, anglers can wade to or stake out a boat within casting distance of a school and pluck fish from the perimeter without spooking the main school.
While schools are actively working their way out of the bay, anglers have two reliable ways to track them down. If the school is set on "cruise control" and is making steady progress toward its destination, anglers can set up along the shelves adjacent to channels, shorelines or spoil islands and wait in ambush. This is somewhat like hunting deer from a blind. Anglers simply wait until a herd moves within casting distance, and then fire their lures. One of the best "choke points" to await a passing school is a narrow strip of shallow water between a deep channel and shoreline or spoil bank.
Although cruising fish are trying to cover ground (or water, in this case), they will also eat. But, rarely will they deviate far from their designated course. And, anglers need to toss something that gets their attention. For that reason, topwater baits like the MirrOlure She Dog and Bomber Badonk-A-Donk, as well as weedless spoons and spinnerbaits work well for traveling packs of reds, as they make enough vibration and commotion to get the attention of passing fish.
But, there are times when these schools will stop to feed. When they do, it is usually over a flat adjacent to their path of travel. Herds of reds on shallow flats are easily spotted. Generally, anglers will be able to see body parts -- tails, dorsal fins, etc -- protruding above the water's surface. Other times the herd will appear as a huge bronzish-orange glob in the water. If the water is particularly stained, the school can be pinpointed for looking for areas of disturbed surface water.
When working a school of feeding reds, fly rodders are at a distinct advantage in that they can quietly present their offering to fish on the fringes without causing a fish-spooking splash. Conventional tackle fishermen are best served using spinning rigs and casting weightless or lightly-weighted lures to fish around the edges of the main pod. Baits such as DOA Shrimp, weightless Egret Chub Minnows or TTF Red Killers will land softly enough to avoid sending fish scattering. The TTF Shiney Hiney Shrimp is an excellent choice if the fish are particularly prone to "blowing out" and spooking.
ALONG THE BEACHFRONT
Surf fishing and bull redfish are synonymous in many areas of the Gulf Coast. And for good reason -- many big bulls are pulled from the beachfront every summer and fall. The majority of fish caught from shore are subdued by fishermen armed with heavy surf sticks loaded with natural baits such as cut mullet, skipjack, cracked crab or jumbo live shrimp.
The main reason natural baits produce so well in the surf is that herds of bull reds spend their time along the beachfront essentially cruising in big loops. In areas where the water clarity isn't good enough to allow fishermen to see approaching schools, laying out set baits and waiting for a school to pass by only makes sense. However, in areas where the beachfront water visibility is good, beach-bound and boating anglers can both spot cruising schools and throw lures and flies into the fray.
For fishermen with the ability to spot fish moving along the shoreline, holding fire until the fish are within range is the best bet. Boating anglers are, of course, at an advantage in that they are able to position themselves in front of moving schools - and stay with a school as it moves up and down the beachfront. Beachfront and jetty fishermen are more reliant on the kindness of schools willing to move within casting range.
As schools approach, anglers should be at the ready. The biggest mistake in this scenario happens when fishermen misjudge the depth of the swimming school. Clear water tends to make fish appear closer to the surface than they actually are. Most often, even sighted fish are at least 4 feet below the surface. And, though this fish will readily eat, they won't stray far from their path to do so. This means fishermen need to toss offerings that will quickly sink into the fish's line of sight. Baits like the Storm Wild Eye Shad and 1/2 ounce Blakemore Bucktail Roadrunners are excellent for this type of fishing. Fly fishermen should use heavily weighted baitfish patterns paired with sinking lines.
THROUGH THE PASSES
When reds are in the passes during summer and fall, they will be on the move. Anglers working inside passes should use the same strategies as beachfront fishermen working along the beachfront. If the water is too muddy to see, set baits on the bottom and wait for passing schools. If the water is clear enough to sight fish, hold your fire until a school moves through.
Either way, fishermen are usually able to attack fish in passes with equal success whether they are in a boat or not. There are two reasons for this. One, passes are generally relatively narrow and fish usually follow the shoreline to some extent. Secondly, most major passes are lined with jetties, which provide excellent fishing platforms for anglers targeting bull redfish.
Bull redfish don't require extremely heavy tackle, as some fishermen seem to think. However, anglers wanting a realistic shot at subduing one of these big drum should use a little beefier tackle than they normally use for flats fishing. Conventional tackle fishermen can typically get by with 7-foot medium to medium-heavy rods paired with a reel capable of handling 175 yards of 12 pound test. The exception to this would be surf fishermen, who need slightly longer rods fitted with reels capable of holding around 250 yards of line. Fly rodders should use 9 or 10 wt sticks paired with either intermediate or full sink lines.
When a fish is hooked it is essential to try and maneuver it away from the herd so as not to spook the rest of the group. This can be tough, as they often attempt to stay with the school (this is also a reason bull red anglers should use a shock leader, as the line tends to rub over the rough backs of a hooked fish's schoolmates). If the fish can be cut away from the herd, keep an eye on the main group so as to be able to target them again once the fish is landed. If the group spooks, make not of which direction the majority of the group fled, so as to be able to track them down again. In all likelihood, the rest of the school will reconnect a short distance away. In any event, it is best to reposition with a pushpole or trolling motor when on the flats. In deeper water, either position a drift to intercept the school or use a trolling motor.
Whether fishing the bay, beachfront or in passes, anglers should know that every day they wet a hook once the herds have formed in summer, they have an excellent opportunity to land a very large redfish. Of course, they also need to be aware of their state's rules and regulations regarding keeping these big fish. Any fish that are to be released should be handled with care. Either way, summer is a time when "herding redfish" can pay off in a big way.