Are Redfish Coming Our Way?
Changing conditions bring new characters to Chesapeake waters
Perhaps it’s global warming. Maybe it was a super-successful spawn. Or it could be another one of those things that can’t be explained. Whatever the cause, young redfish are pushing up the Bay in search of new sources of food.
This high up in the Bay is the northern edge of these fish’s customary salinity range. But anecdotal indications are that a pretty fair number of redfish overwintered here. That means you’re likely to encounter these game fish.
The yellow perch runs seem to be sputtering. The only recent results have been reported from Waysons, the Tuckahoe and the Sassafras, and these are not consistent. This is perplexing since the runs should be in full blossom. Shad is next. Last year’s run was phenomenal in some areas.
Light geese, conservation season: thru April
Lefty Kreh’s Tiefest
Renamed this year for Lefty’s 88th birthday party, this annual celebration of the art of fly tying, the 11th, is bigger and better than ever. The event is free if you’re a member of Coastal Conservation Association or join at the door. Otherwise it’s $10. Rub shoulders with the best and most innovative fly tiers in the country, plus free fly-casting lessons for kids. Food and adult beverages on sale. March 9: 10am-4:30pm at Prospect Bay Country Club, 313 Prospect Bay Drive West, Grasonville: 202-744-5013 (Tony Friedrich); www.ccamd.org.
Redfish are also known as red drum, channel bass and, in smaller sizes, puppy drum. The small ones are called rats or rat-reds farther south, where they are more common.
With a physique similar to rockfish, though a bit thicker through the middle, the redfish has a dark copper back, reddish bronze sides and a pearl-white belly. Its mouth is on the small side and underslung, rather like its cousin, the croaker.
It also prominently sports one (or more) black ocellar spots near the upper base of the tail. The long-lived fish can approach 100 pounds, though the Maryland record is closer to 75 pounds, caught in Tangier Sound back in 1977. The legal length in the Chesapeake is the puppy drum size, at least 18 inches but not larger than 27 inches, and only one fish may be kept.
Last season I caught at least a half-dozen of the tough-fighting fish, all up to 15 inches long. Fishing small spoons and spinner baits for perch in the summertime shallows, I thought each time that a trophy-sized whitey was on the line. I was only mildly disappointed to find a redfish flashing its copper-hued flanks at boatside when I realized those throwbacks would be keepers the next year.
Six or so young redfish might not seem a harbinger of a new fish explosion in the Bay. But reds don’t frequent the same areas as most of our resident game fish. Anglers seeking summertime rockfish, bluefish or perch, spot and croaker in their usual haunts in the Chesapeake would be unlikely to have encountered redfish. Finding them there means a lot more of these fish than we realize could be living in the Bay.
Approach with Extreme Stealth
Redfish are shallow water feeders, rooting small crabs, clams and shrimp out of the mud or weeds often in waters hardly 12 inches deep. So clear are their habits that it’s common to scout redfish by slowly (and quietly) cruising well off a shoreline, looking for their spotted tails waving out of the skinny water as they stand on their heads rooting crustaceans from the bottom.
They must be approached with extreme stealth as they are very adverse to noise in the shallows. To add to the difficulty, when sight fishing reds, you must present your baits close enough for them to notice yet not so close as to spook them. This makes redfish a great fly target because weightless flies make very little disturbance entering the water and can be dropped almost on the red’s nose.
The handsome fish also frequents shoreside structure such as rock jetties and groins, grassy shorelines, weed beds, piers, docks, around laydowns and anywhere else shrimp and crabs are likely found. They can tolerate water temperatures well into the 90s, so fishing for them on hot summer days is not out of the question. The only requirement is lack of boat traffic. Passing watercraft will quickly drive them into deeper water.
Generally speaking, the redfish is an outstanding all-around light-tackle gamester. Hooked in its shallower water environment, the fish’s long runs and warm water stamina will test the tackle and skills of any angler. Its table qualities are every bit equal to our own resident rockfish.
Lure selections for this gamester include small jigs and soft plastics like the Bass Assassins, BKDs and Gulp Minnows. Reds also love smaller gold spoons and shallow-running crank baits. Occasionally they will take a spinner bait or a medium-sized top-water popper.
Fly-rod lure selections are spoon flies (gold again) and medium-sized Clousers and Deceivers in crab colors (olive and tan over white with gold flash) and any good shrimp imitation. Bait fishermen should cast good-sized chunks of soft or peeler crab.
Here’s hoping you meet up with redfish yourself.