Redfish on the fly Sciaenops ocellatus
Unlike most other species that fly angler’s target, Redfish are really not that well known. If you talk to an angler that targets Redfish regularly and with success, they might say it’s the best species to fly fish for. That debate will rage on for ages, it’s preference really, but Redfish definitely have a lot going for them and are certainly gaining popularity among salt water fly fisherman. Redfish are also known as a channel or spot-tail bass, Red drum, or just plain “Reds.”
So what makes Reds so special?
First and foremost, they are a strong fighting fish that have a broad distribution from the panhandle states to northern Mexico and as far north in the Atlantic as Massachusetts. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars flying to the Caribbean or Central America to catch them.
There are even some places you can drive to from the northeastern corridor of the USA to fish for them. Unlike other targeted fly fishing species, they are more predominantly found along the southern Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts of the United States, including the coasts of Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. Aside from striped bass, this is the only other popular target species that doesn’t require a passport, airfare or an expensive trip at all. Secondly, they are not shy and will aggressively attack a fly. They definitely eat! Actually unless you stop your strip of cast too far away from the fish, they’ll eat almost every time. Like other target species, they will see prey and decide to eat, approach it with speed and fury and just plain attack. It’s not that different than hunting for bones except you don’t lead them as much. The major difference however, Redfish can grow to 100 lbs. (~45 kg) or more. Last we checked that’s bigger than any bonefish we’ve ever seen. Now we are entering a decent size fish even by tarpon standards. No wonder people are getting excited about this fish. It takes about three years for a Redfish to reach a weight of about 6-8 pounds (2-3 kg). When they are just over two feet long (just under 1 meter), they are called “bull Reds” or as we like to call them “Red bulls.” The largest Red drum on record weighed just over 94 pounds and was caught in 1984 on Hatteras Island but that was caught bait chunking and not with a fly rod. When you catch and boat Reds, they make a very noticeable croaking or drumming sound when stressed, hence the name. Redfish can live to be around 60 years old unless caught or preyed upon, so be respectful to your elder as you wrestle him up to the skiff. Redfish are a Reddish copper like color with typical scales. The Red color fades from top to bottom diminishing to white on the belly. They have a distinctive black dot on the back of their bodies, near the tail, that is usually surrounded by a yellow or white halo. This appears to be an evolutionary characteristic that causes prey to confuse the front from the back, potentially allowing the Red to escape. They are somewhat streamlined but definitely have some mass to them. The most distinguishing mark, as we mentioned, is one large black spot on the upper part of body at the base of the tail, it’s like a flag if you ever get to see them tailing. Immature Redfish prefer grass marsh areas, in bays and estuaries and the safety of mangroves when available. They are foragers and feed on the tides in the same fashion that other flats species would, except they really don’t ever leave. They go in and out of the protected area that is home and feed on crustaceans or whatever the tide may bring. Incoming tides bring food and bait fish into the flats, providing menu diversity for feeding Redfish. Small crabs and shrimp become more active on an incoming tide, enticing Redfish to feed heavily as the waters rise. The opposite is true for outgoing tides. Adult Redfish retreat from the skinny water and wait to feed on whatever bait is carried back out with the tide. Both semi-mature Reds and mature bulls prefer rocky structures including jetties and manmade structures like bridges, channel markers and oil rigs. They seem to find an abundance of food around these types of edifices. Channels and deeper areas near flats, known to hold Redfish, are good places to find them on outgoing tides. This is relatively consistent for most other flat fish as well except maybe tarpon. Redfish have decent vision and effectively hunt by sight. Probably slightly inferior to bonefish and Permit but is more than adequate to locate prey. They use a tactile sense most when feeding. It’s down turned mouth allows it to locate prey by foraging on the bottom through vacuuming (suck and blow) or actually biting the bottom. On the top water or just below, Redfish use changes in the light to detect food, this probably accounts for the way they destroy flies in open water and why you can never stop stripping. In the summer and fall, adult Reds feed primarily on crabs, shrimp, and sand dollars. The spring and winter drastically change the adult diet to almost fish only; menhaden, mullet, pinfish, sea robin, lizardfish, spot, Atlantic croaker, and small flounder. Essentially any small fish they can catch.
Fishing for Redfish
Redfish are mostly fished for by sight fishing and as you probably know that can be very challenging, but is actually the most rewarding and frustrating fishing experience. You definitely need your short game for Redfish. Drive for show, put for dough is a relatively good analogy. It’s assumed that casting great distances to fish off in the distance is the challenge of saltwater, that’s not always true. When Redfish do appear, they are almost always close; too close, sometime 10 feet away. They pop up out of nowhere. This accounts for the majority of missed opportunities. When they pop up, fire your fly. Aim for the nose, and don’t be concerned about spooking them, they aren’t shy. You can plop a fly 6 inches in front of a Redfish and most of the time it will nail it. Yes, you will spook some, but in the end there will be more fish caught. We may be making it sound easy but they are still fish with instincts so keep in mind a few more things: If you flub your first shot, don’t panic. Pick up and throw again, you more than likely didn’t spook him. Keep throwing until he’s gone or hooked. During the last Florida Keys trip one of our staff members cast to the same Redfish 5 times before he ate it. The Redfish quickly spit the hook, in frustration, he threw again, now cast number 6 and the same fish ate the same fly he just spit out. It was quite an interesting thing to witness. Do not drag the fly into the fish. If you’re a predator, you’re not accustomed to having prey come toward you. The fish will sense unnatural behavior and take off. Never stop moving your fly, especially while the Redfish is closing in and about to take it. Same scenario, they will sense this is unnatural and dismiss the chase. They seem to take many different types of flies as they have such a broad palate. They eat such a wide variety of creatures and critters in their diet that you could probably throw almost anything at them.
Flies that are commonly used and favorites among anglers are:
Waldner’s Spoon Fly
Enrico Puglisi Redfish Special (Rootbeer)
Enrico Puglisi Spawning Shrimp (Any color in the larger sizes)
Search our HD Video Fly Tying Library for specific flies and Fly Tying Videos Use our Destination Specific Fishing Calendars & World Map to help plan your trip
EP Red’s Critter Fly
learn how to tie it in our library of HD fly tying videos