Alabama anglers don’t have to go far to find the biggest bull reds; they’re right off the Gulf’s sandy beaches.
My daughter and I had launched our kayaks off the beach where Alabama and Florida meet. We had light gear and were looking for flounder or whiting for supper on this fine early winter day. Small 3/8 oz jigs tipped with chunks of shrimp had already caught us a mess of eating-size fish. We were almost ready to head home when something totally unexpected happened. My daughter’s rod jerked down suddenly and she yelled for help. Before I could come to her aid, my rod was almost pulled out of my hand, and I had trouble of my own.
It took us nearly twenty minutes, and we were pulled a long way offshore into the Gulf by these big, strong fish, but we finally worked our quarries back to our kayaks. We also managed to get both big fish back to the beach where they could be admired and then released. Twenty-five pound redfish are impressive fish, and we were definitely impressed, and tired.
We had discovered that during winter time in Alabama, anglers fishing for small fish right off the beaches had better be prepared to deal with some really big fish. Bull reds will come right into shallow water, and they will take a hook in a heartbeat.
Why Are These Big Reds So Close?
I’ve asked my friend Dr. Bob Shipp of the Marine Sciences Department at the University of South Alabama to explain why these massive schools of big redfish come so close to the shore at this time of year.
Dr. Shipp tells me that big reds spend most of their time offshore on the reefs and other structures in the Gulf, but they come in close to shore in the fall and winter to locate food. In the fall, huge schools of pogies, mullet, shrimp and other forage migrate from the bays and estuaries where they have spent the summer, and they go to the Gulf for the winter. The big reds meet the food fish as they leave the passes and then spend the next months chasing the food wherever it goes. Mostly, the food stays close to shore, so the big reds stay with them.
Anglers who want to find the big reds should find the food fish first. The reds will be close, and when they start feeding, there’s no doubt about what’s going on.
What’s the Best Way to Locate Big Reds?
I like to do things the easy way, and the easiest way to find schools of feeding redfish that are right off the beaches is to watch for the birds. Gulls, terns and pelicans will follow the schools of food fish and the reds that pursue them. When the reds drive the food fish to the surface, the birds drop down to take their share.
Anglers in boats use binoculars to see long distances, and when the birds start diving into the water near the beach, the anglers then run down to the area and start working the feeding fish.
When the big reds are not busting food on top, they may still be feeding. Slow trolling or drifting a croaker on a single circle hook is a good way to find feeding reds that are not on top. Especially near the Dixey Bar, massive schools of bull reds will be very close to the beach, but they may not be feeding on top. A lively croaker drifted close to the bottom will soon determine if reds are in the neighborhood. Live croaker fishing is just about the best way for beach anglers to get into the big reds.
Another good way to find the beach-area schools of bull reds is to slow troll a deep diving plug just out from the bar, which lies offshore from the beaches of Alabama. Thirty-foot deep water will be found less than a half-mile off the beach, and a diving plug fished in this water will often locate schools of reds.
So How Do We Rig For These Beach Bulls?
Even though these bull reds will usually be found in schools of hundreds of fish, we need to protect each one of them, and this means using equipment suitable to the task. Catching big reds on very light tackle takes a long time, and the fish will fight to the point that they are exhausted. This makes them difficult to revive and release in good shape. Both anglers and the reds are best served by using heavier tackle. Either level-wind or spinning gear that will handle thirty pound line is good. This heavy gear allows anglers to enjoy the fight, but yet get the reds in quickly and in good shape for the release.
Also, these rigs need to be able to make long casts, especially for beach anglers. The reds won’t usually come up in the surf, but they will be fifty yards or so offshore, so the rig needs to be able to cast that far anyway.
Also, boat anglers need to be able to make long casts because some days–bright, sunny bluebird days–the feeding reds may get spooked and stop feeding if anglers’ boats get too close. For the big wintertime reds, long casts are often needed.
Now, for baiting these big reds, this is the easy part. They’ll eat nearly anything when they’re feeding near the beach. My favorite bull red lure is a one-ounce jig with a white plastic grub body. This heavy jig allows long casts, and the single hook makes unhooking and releasing the big bulls much easier than treble hooks.
Places to Launch Boats or Access the Beach for Bull Reds
Boat anglers have great access to Gulf waters. At Perdido Pass in Orange Beach, both Cotton Bayou and Boggy Bayou have great ramps, and both ramps will have boats in the Gulf within ten minutes of launching. Once past the rock jetties, anglers can go east or west along the beaches, wherever the birds are working schools of fish.
Fort Morgan Park has fine boat ramps, and launching a boat here will have redfish anglers over Dixey Bar in five minutes or less.
Beach and kayak anglers can access the water at any public access point. The beaches and jetties around Perdido Pass and the pass into Little Lagoon are traditionally very good spots for kayak anglers.