Red Drum (Redfish)

Redfish (Red Drum) range from Mexico north to Delaware (at least some years), and come in a variety of sizes, from “rat reds” to “bull drum”.  Like striped bass, they live in shallows and deep waters, inshore and offshore, and take flies aggressively.  The single feature that makes redfish amazing for fly fishermen:  They will feed in water so shallow they can be sight fished.

Seasons

Redfish that inhabit Chesapeake Bay usually winter offshore of Virginia and the Carolinas.  Beginning in late April, bull drum (the largest redfish) begin migrating inshore in the lower Chesapeake, cruising the shallows of the Eastern Shore eating whatever they find.  Smaller drum seem to follow, and I’ve spotted crusing pods of puppy drum to 28″ in the shallows near the Patuxent River in early May.  These drum are traditionally caught on bottom fished peeler crabs in passes and the edges of depth changes, but more and more fly and light tackle fishermen catch these fish by sight casting on sunny spring days.  In the back bays of the oceanside Eastern Shore, these drum will feed and tail actively in May, and can be sight case far from the ocean.  Be aware that no one who knows their secrets will give them up willingly.

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A shallow water rat red.  A 5 or 6 wt, a floating line, and a copper/brown clouser makes for a perfectly good sight fishing rig for these guys.

In June, as the bay warms into the 60’s and 70’s, these bigger drum will move into deeper water, and will take up residence on reefs in the Virginia portion of the bay. This trend continues throughout the summer.  Smaller drum will move into the shallows and feed actively where the water clarity is better, and where ample supplies of small crabs and killifish can be found.

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A fat July bull drum caught on a deep water reef.

September and October bring the best deep and shallow water fishing of the year.  On the reefs and wrecks of the lower bay, large drum can be caught in record sizes and numbers.  Under breaking fish north to Cove Point in Maryland, bull drum are caught on tackle designed for smaller striped bass and bluefish, often in enormous sizes.  This is a hit or miss fishery, but tight knit groups of fisherman (sharing information) have been successful at putting people on these fish for several days at a time.

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A fall bull drum caught in deep water.

The shallow water fishing in September and October is the best of the year.  Oyster bars, grass flats, and shallow wrecks all produce good fishing, often on jumbo sized puppy drum that can take you into your backing.  Fishing tailing fish on flooded grass flats is also a possibility, and in certain areas of Virginia, the fishing can be as good as what you’ll find in Charleston, SC.

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Grass flats and rat reds go together.

November and December are slow, with fish now out in deeper water, with their metabolisms in lower gear.  Warm water discharges are a possibility, as is traveling to the tannin colored creeks of the Emerald Isles (NC) to find puppy drum in their winter holes.

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North Carolina winter redfish.

Tackle

On the Chesapeake, the most fly-accessible redfish are in the shallows.  For that reason, the best rod/reel/line size is an 8.  A tropical-rated floating line is a great choice, as red drum inhabit the shallows on warm and hot days (May through early October).  That 8wt will throw all the flies needed for sub-adult redfish (puppy drum in the Mid-Atlantic).

For the reel, these smaller redfish can be caught on a very simple reel without issue.  A click-and-pawl reel will work fine, but the primary consideration should be reel diameter and resistance of the reel to corrosion.  A larger reel diameter will help ensure smooth, accurate casting (with line that hasn’t taken a set on the reel), and an anodized reel (as well as a sealed drag to go with it) will keep your redfish rig in good shape for as long as you want to fish with it.

About rods:  For sight fishing, accuracy is key, and casts in the 30 to 50 foot range are normal.  From a kayak, you may be able to be even closer.  So an accurate fly rod is a good fly rod for puppy drum.  Beyond that, it’s personal preference for rod action.  I like very fast action rods, primarily because I can cover a lot of water blind casting with one (fan casting 80 feet all around searching the water), but many people enjoy moderate action rods for sight fishing (and do very well with them).  As with the reel, corrosion resistant components on the reel are key.

For blind casting, a clear floating or intermediate tip line is best.  You can throw this line near a cruising fish you never managed to see, and (generally) it won’t spook.  Some people like 250 grain sinking head lines, but I’ve seen more fish caught on floating lines.  If the water is very murky and the fish low in the water column, this style of sinking line can work.

For fishing open water reefs and wrecks, or under breaking fish, you need bigger rods and faster sinking lines.  9 to 12 wt rods with appropriate sinking heads (350 to 500 grains) and very heavily weight flies are the way to go.  Here, your casts will be more of a lob, and your goal is to jig the fly near the business end of a bull drum.  Make sure you carry an extra fly line, as fishing these near reefs and wrecks can result in hang ups and cut off fly lines.

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A puppy drum caught on a near-shore wreck.  One of two 24″ drum that were in the shallow portion of that wreck.

Leaders for the shallows depend on conditions.  A 9′ tapered leader in 12-16lb class is perfect, with tippet in the 12 lb class.  If you are fishing a clear line, you can shorten this leader to 7′ for increased accuracy and control of fly placement.  If winds are high, the same applies:  Shorten the leader.

For deep water rigs, use 5-6 feet of 30 to 40 lb test.  Alternately, you can build a leader of 4 feet of 60 pound test and 2 feet of 30 pound test for easier casting.

In some situations, an ultra-light fly outfit (5 or 6wt) can be great.  I like using a six weight in the middle of summer/very early fall if conditions permit it.  The same rigging for the shallow water 8wt outfit applies here.

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A rat red swims off after a quick fight on a 6 wt.  I pulled a half dozen drum from one school, sight fishing the edge of a grass flat.

One comment on deep-water fishing for red drum:  You will catch more fish with a spinning outfit (jigging) than using a fly rod, especially when the fish are deeper than 20 feet.  In those conditions, I use a 2-4 oz jig and a 7″ soft plastic body and work bottom structure.  If those deep water drum come up high in the water column (as often happens in the Outer Banks or lower Chesapeake Bay) fly fishing becomes more viable.

Flies

The number and variety of flies people throw for redfish is staggering, and is in part because redfish eat everything.  Worms, gobies and blennies, anchovies, killifish, crabs, shrimp, mullet – redfish are creatures of opportunity.  For fishing on the Chesapeake, I only throw a few flies for redfish, depending on the situation, and almost all include brown, copper, or rust materials and flash:

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“Mummichog” Clouser Minnow (Lightly Weighted)

(1) Mummichog, killifish, and other juvenile shallow-water fish are imitated best by the lightly weighted white/tan clouser.  This fly can be cast in shallow water without making a loud splash, and sink more slowly.  This is important to let the fly dance just above grass beds in the shallows.  If you are fishing in really weedy areas or after a storm, this fly should be tied with a weed guard.  I like a size 2 B10S Gamakastu hook and medium sized brass beadchain, as both make for a much lighter fly.  I like this fly in 3″-4″ lengths.  If you go smaller, tie it on the B10S in size 4.  I tie these in the high-tie style, which I find keeps the fly in one piece for a longer period of time.

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High-Tie Clouser Minnow (Heavily Weighted)

(2) Peanut bunker, anchovies, and silversides are deep water fish species, and a heavily weight clouser minnow is ideal to capture both the profile, length, and speed of these open water bait.  Chartreuse bucktail is visible for a long distance in the bay’s turbid waters, and in combination with white bucktail and pearl/white flashabou, this fly is deadly.  I tie this on a B10S as well, as the entry wound from the thinner diameter hook appears to do less damage to smaller fish.  This fly can also be tied with craft fur, but I find bucktail holds up better to fish, and can be more easily tied to adjust fly profile: Wider and taller for menhaden/bunker imitations, thinner and sparser for anchovies and silversides.   For red drum, this fly is great for dredging deeper channel edges and blind casting around oyster bars.

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Surface sliders – crab or shrimp imitations that work great for drum, snook, tarpon, stripers…you name it.  Tied more sparesly, a great killifish imitation.

(3) Surface sliders are fantastic patterns, and while they are used in the Florida Everglades for redfish, they also will produce in the Chesapeake.  Cast over redfish nosing in grass beds, these swimming crab imitations will be whacked.  That said, they shine the best when cast under mangroves in the summer time.  I like to tie mine on heavy gauge tarpon hooks (a Gamakastu SC17 usually), with spun deer hair to provide buoyancy.   The fly is slowly and steadily stripped back after the cast at a very slow speed, mimicking a high swimming crab or mullet.  Great in the mornings and evenings.  Size 1/0 and 2/0 for redfish and stripers.

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Bendbacks are one of the best flies for shallow water fishing.

(4) Bendbacks are great.  Naturally weedless by virtue of the hook shape, they can be cast into heavy grass without getting snagged or covered in debris.  They really shine when fishing for tailing red drum in cord grass (spartina), a fishing scenario that exists in summertime Virginia.  I like copper or rust colored bodies and pink wings, and use B10S size 2 hooks.

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A 4″ long clouser-style rattle fly tied heavily weighted.

(5) Rattle Flies come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  If you want to fish the deeper holes near oyster bars and shallow water channels, a clouser-variant works well.  These flies are heavy, but the noise they make and the wiggle the rattle’s ball bearings provide bring the drum running.  Tied in a bendback style in smaller hook sizes, these flies are great for sight fishing to cord grass drum on a summer and early fall high tide.

Where and How to Fish

The most fun way to fish for red drum is by sight fishing the shallows for them.  For this style of fishing, what you fish from is part of the equation.  If you are fishing from a skiff/small boat, a pushpole or trolling motor is key.  You can’t turn on your boat’s engine in the shallows without spooking eveything in the neighborhood, so don’t do it.  In my boat (a 23′ Parker that drafts 12″), I usually put a fisherman on the bow of the boat (3-4 feet above the water) and pole the edges of the shallows with the current.  Drum will usually feed into the current, and by working along the edge (poling in 2-3 feet of water), you can look straight ahead or over into the shallower area.  Polarized sunglasses are key, and make sure you are poling with the sun at your back (more important than poling into the current).  You will encounter crusing fish and feeding fish.  Cruising fish are moving with purpose, and leading these fish by a few feet is important:  You want your fly to be at mouth level for those fish by the time they reach your fly.  These fish won’t always eat.  A lightly weighted clouser is a great choice.  Feeding fish are different.  In spartina grass, these fish will tail, nose down, into the roots of the grass to pluck out worms, gobies, killifish, and crabs, and you’ll need to put a fly on their heads.  A weedless fly like a bendback is great in these environments, and can be cast quietly to the fish with accuracy.  Alternately, a lightly weighted clouser is good for actively feeding fish as well, but only where the bottom is more barren (pockets of barren sand between patches of grass).  Red drum won’t always rush a fly like a striped bass, so short strips of the fly followed by a long pause (measured in seconds) works well.  Watch the fish’s body language.  If it continues towards the fly, it will probably eat despite the fly’s lack of motion.  Let the fish eat, set the hook when you see the eat, and you’re in business.

For fishing deeper water around oyster bars and channels, a heavily weighted rattle fly or clouser works well.  Cast into current eddies and strip the fly back with a strip-strip-pause cadence.  Use longer pauses than you would for striped bass.  I’ll often cast on top of the oyster bar, and strip the fly off into deeper water only to let it drop to the bottom before retrieving it again.  Fish in that eddy may eat on the drop.

For early morning or evening, a gurgler or slider pattern is fun, and can be fan cast over grass flats and structure and slowly stripped back, imitating a free-swimming crab.  The strikes can be violent, and you may catch seatrout, striped bass, or red drum.

Wade fishing in the above situations can be a lot of fun, especially when the fish are in spartina.  To time your trip, find a spartina grass flat and look up the highest tides for the month you want to fish.  Show up 3 hours before the high tide, and plan to fish for 3 hours after that tide.  You’ll start by blind casting fast sinking clouser minnows or sliders off the edge of the flat into the main channel, looking for redfish staging to come onto the flat.  Find drainage creeks into that main channel, and focus there:  These are the “highways” for puppy drum to enter the wider spartina field.  Once the water on the flat is a foot deep, the fish will begin to push onto the flat.  Wade with the sun at your back, and look for spartina bending and swaying as the fish nose through it.  At times, you’ll spot the fishes tail as it spins to grab a meal, or noses down (called “tailing”).  If you see a fish tailing quite a bit, stalk closely towards that fish ensuring that you are not pushing a wake (read:  move very slowly).  Cast your fly directly to that fish’s head (sometimes you know where it is, and sometimes you have to guess), and immediately tick your fly (maybe an inch or two of movement).  Often the fish will immediately spin and grab your fly.

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An excellent spartina flat in Virginia that has redfish from May to October most years.

Fishing deep water or under breaking fish is a game of luck.  Very big flies (5-10″ clouser variants) tied with moderate bulk is key.  For breaking fish, throw your heavy fly and sinking line in front of the moving school of breaking bluefish (sometimes striped bass), and count the fly and line down to the bottom.  After the 20-30 seconds it takes to get your fly in 30 feet of water, begin short 2′ strips, followed by a long pause.  Repeat this again and again until you strike pay dirt.

For wreck fishing, the game is even more challenging.  You’ll need to understand the shape and size of the underwater structure, and avoid tangling your fly in the wreck.  Fast currents make this even harder, so tying weedguards on your flies can be useful.  I like to tie a section of 12 lb test in my leader for this style of fishing, knowing that I can break my fly off without breaking my fly line (most fly lines are rated at 25 lb test, and might break before a 40 lb leader).  Redfish will be in the wreck, out of the current, or on the down current side of the wreck.  If the wreck is in 20 feet or less of water, or at least a portion of the wreck or reef, you have a good shot.  Any deeper, depending somewhat on current, and you need to use your spinning rod and a heavy jig.

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A bull drum taken in 40 feet of water on a jig.  We can’t always get what we want (on fly, anyways).