Last updated on November 23rd, 2022
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Guest Post by Dena Standley —
There is a special kind of magic in surf fishing for redfish.
My favorite spot for fishing redfish is in the Crystal Beach area of the Bolivar Peninsula, just a ferry ride across the bay from Galveston. It is one of the few beaches left that allows you to drive onto the beach, making it easy to get all your gear set up for a day of fishing bliss.
We spend a large part of each summer here, and saltwater fishing is always fascinating because despite what bait and rigging you use, you are never really sure exactly what will be on the end of the line when you feel that first tug.
Growing up fishing the area lakes of deep East Texas are some of my best memories, but once I caught my first shark shore fishing in the gulf, I was immediately addicted to the suspense of not knowing exactly what you would catch.
For those who don’t know, redfish are a type of drum found all along the Gulf and the East Coast. The best day I have ever had in catching large bull reds, the rigging was actually a homemade concoction we were using to surf fish for sharks. It is not uncommon to catch good-sized blacktip sharks, bonnetheads, and the occasional bull shark from this stretch of beach.
Redfish Magic in the Surf
Once, I had lost a couple of really good hits due to hook and/or line breakage. My husband decided to try making our rigging to be a bit more durable, and better equipped for larger sharks.
So, we were using six-foot steel coated leaders made from 125-pound coated leader material from Bass Pro Shop. Attached to the leaders, were 8/O circle hooks. The pole was a Penn Squadron II, twelve feet in length. My Penn Slammer III reel was loaded with an 80-pound Power Pro braided line from Spectra.
The 12-foot pole is a little shorter than what most people use for surf fishing, but I can handle it better and cast it farther. It really matters that you feel comfortable with your gear.
We stay flexible on bait, but know that ladyfish, croakers, crab, sheepheads, and stingrays all make good versatile bait. On this particular day last summer, the bait was not plentiful, so we were using cut crab.
I had waded out to the second sandbar and estimated that my line was two hundred to two hundred and twenty yards offshore. Not expecting a lot of action, I stayed on the second sandbar just enjoying the beauty of the hot summer day.
The Fight of a Lifetime
In just moments, I felt the first hit and set the hook. My first thought was that I had hooked a large ray, as they tend to sink to the bottom and just stick, making them a challenge to get in.
The tide was also coming in, and I still had to cross a gully that was now chin-deep. I fought for a while, making very little progress. So, not being entirely sure what I had on the line, I decided it might be safer to retreat to the beach before continuing this battle.
My husband had come out to the sandbar to see what was going on, so we slowly made it back across the gully with him pulling me by the straps on my bathing suit. After all, there was no way I was letting go of the rod.
Once on the beach, it took a solid 20 minutes to finally land what turned out to be the largest bull redfish I had ever seen. She weighed in at 47 pounds and was 40 inches long. Bull Reds are known for their endurance, as well as for putting up a good fight. This one did not disappoint in either category.
We practice catch and release, so after some quick pictures, she was released to be on her way. In Texas, there is a redfish bag limit of 3 and a slot limit of 20-28 inches, and one “over” per year if tagged. I had my tag, but with no intention of eating the fish, a picture makes the best memento.
After a few minutes of reprieve to let the adrenaline wear off, and for my arms to stop throbbing, I was ready to go again. Using the same rigging and bait, I waded back out to the same area. This time, I had to swim across the gully to reach the sandbar due to the incoming tide. I cast my bait, and just enjoyed that feeling of pleasure that comes after having made a great catch.
The Rod Doubles Over… Again
Within 10 minutes, the rod doubled over again. This time, I felt more confident that I knew what I had. I did not think I could land it from the sandbar, however, so I had to signal my husband for backup. He was able to walk the pole across the gully (barely) thereby saving me from being pulled out to open water.
This one had more fight, or it could be that I was just more exhausted, but it took a bit longer to finally pull her in. These fish are notorious for being deceptive. I thought I had played this one out more than once, and just as I would start to make serious progress in bringing her in, she would surprise me by getting back in the fight stronger than before.
I almost lost this one to inexperience and complacency. After getting her almost into the shallows, she made one last show of brute force by swimming straight at me so fast the line was slack. As I was trying to play catch up, a sudden left turn down the beach took me by total surprise. Thankfully, I was able to take up the slack just before the turn, and head her back my way.
This one had multiple black spots, instead of the usual trademark of one black spot on most red drums. If not for that, I would have been convinced I had just caught the same fish twice. She was also a bit smaller at 43 pounds, and 35 inches long. Once again, we grabbed our quick pictures and released her back into the gulf.
I would have loved to have given it a third try, but shore fishing for game fish requires a lot of physical effort, and I was content with a great doubleheader on two of the largest fish I had ever caught. The decision had nothing to do with the quivering bicep muscles or the dull ache across my shoulders after battling two of the beast less than half an hour apart.
Introduction to Redfish Fishing in Texas
Prior to this magical fishing day, the only other bull red caught in our family was by our middle son. He was 15 at the time. He had kayaked out some bait for my husband and took his pole with him. He was probably fishing somewhere around 400 yards offshore.
It was a calm day on the gulf, and we saw him set the hook. The next thing I know, he is holding a bent rod and being pulled out to open water. My husband is yelling “give it line, GIVE IT LINE.” I am not sure if he was able to hear, or just finally came to his senses, but he did pay out the line while paddling backward to shore. Once he was close enough to reach, we pulled the kayak in with him in it.
We didn’t weigh or measure, but this one was probably closer to 35 pounds. My son learned an important lesson about fishing from a kayak in the open ocean. If you hook a large, powerful fish in a small kayak, get to shore before you try to land it.
Gulf Redfish Fishing Tips
Because red drums were never a species that we specifically targeted, I knew very little about them. After my encounter that day, I learned that they are great gamefish because they are fond of many types of fresh bait.
They prefer shallow waters and are prevalent along bays and areas with submerged vegetation. In the warm gulf waters, they spawn from mid-August through mid-October. As it was mid-July, and we were fishing in the open surf, it was just a lucky day to catch two of that size.
The key to catching bull reds seems to be more about where and when than it is about how to. Any tackle heavy enough to handle them will work. If fishing in the surf, you do need a heavy-grabbing sinker to keep bait stationary on the bottom.
Circle hooks are crucial because they are almost always hooked on the corner of the mouth, making it easy for them to fight their way off of standard hooks as well as minimize gut hooks.
They are not as picky as most game fish about what they will eat. However, it does seem that the larger bulls usually prefer fresh bait. Live mullet, cut crab and croakers seem to be among their favorites. I have also had success with cut rays, and live ladyfish. The key to success seems to be in knowing what time of year, and the areas that they prefer.
In clear water, which we do not have on this part of the Texas coast, you can often see the large schools. In our murkier waters, I pay attention to birds feeding and being able to see small fish jumping from the water.
This can often indicate a school of reds pushing them upward. If you do land a nice one, remember to get your hook back in the water as soon as possible. The schools don’t move fast, but once they are gone, there is no way to tell when you might find another.
Redfish vs Bull Reds
In Texas, the fish I am talking about is referred to as a redfish, or often just reds. Once they reach a size exceeding 27 inches, they are called bulls or a bull red. In other parts of the country, they are usually referred to as red drums. Both names are correct and refer to the same species of fish.
We tend to assign a male pronoun to large fish, but technically a bull redfish is any red over 27 inches, male or female. It is interesting to note that females normally grow larger than males. That means that the odds are good that the two fish I caught were both females.
The moniker, bull red, is technically determined by the length of these fish, but it is especially appropriate given their bullish behavior once hooked. When surf fishing, very little matches the thrill of hooking one of these large fighters. It has become so addicting, that we now find ourselves extending our summer trips to the beach just to be here when they start to run in mid-August.
Rod, Reel, and Rigging for Redfish
Your Redfish Rod
You need at least an 8-foot pole, although a 10 or even 12-foot surf rod will give you a longer cast and better leverage if you snag a bull red. They can reach enormous size with one of the largest on record weighing in at just over 94 pounds and 57 inches long. This isn’t the norm, of course, but you need to be prepared for a large fish with some fight.
There are many very good redfish rods for the surf on the market today from which to choose, from premium models to more budget-friendly offerings.
The Shakespeare Ugly Stik Bigwater is an excellent value as an everyday surfcasting rod. The PENN Prevail is an affordable graphite composite surf rod I happen to like a lot and is rather lightweight for the length, making it perfect for the surf. The 10 ft. PENN Spinfisher V or VI surf rod and reel combo is a great heavy-duty and versatile setup that will easily handle big redfish.
Whatever redfish fishing rod you choose, keep it in good working order and check that it is free from any cracks or signs of corrosion before heading out for a day at the beach.
Can’t Forget the Rod Holders
You also need rod holders/sand spikes for each rod you have. Some people make their own out of PVC pipe, just cutting one end into a wedge to drive into the sand. The only downside is that a big enough hit can pull your rod right out of the holder, and you will be sadder about missing a chance to land whatever could do that than about the gear you lost.
This can happen with any holder meant to be stuck into the sand. The solution is a rear-mounted fishing rod rack. This attaches to the back of your truck and allows you to back up to your fishing spot and be ready to go. You can also store and transport your rods in this without the worry of tangling them together. Make sure it will fit whatever type you use.
You want to look for a brand that offers an adjustable rod angle. Depending on the condition of the surf, you may need to adjust the angle for the best chance of making a catch.
I like one made out of non-corrosive material. Saltwater and sand are brutal on metal. Lockable versions are also available, providing a great solution to no longer having to worry about theft of your valuable rods.
A Reel to Stand Up to Saltwater and Big Fish
You will also need a good saltwater spinning reel. When surf fishing for reds, because of the size of the rigging and the variety of bait, you may get some great by-catches as well. When fishing for reds, it is not uncommon to land a nice-sized shark, ray, black drum, or a striper. You want to be prepared for any of these with a good quality, all-purpose reel.
As with anything fishing-related, you can spend as much or as little as you want. Most anglers strive for that middle ground where quality meets value. Some of the best ones to dependably get the job done are the PENN Slammer III, the more economical PENN Battle II, and Piscifon Carbon X.
Braided Line = Long Casts and Strength
You also want good quality 25-30 pound braided line. Braid is the best fishing line for redfish because gives you enough line to get out of the breakers and into the deeper water, but it is still heavy-duty enough to stand up to most of what you will catch in the surf. Braided line has very little stretch and great castability which makes it a popular choice for redfish.
Round It Out With Solid Rigging
Sturdy gear and tackle not only make it easier to land the bigger bull reds but also increase the odds of survivability for catch and release. Using undersized gear will mean a longer fight which carries the risk of killing the fish.
Rigging for redfish is a matter of preference, but almost all anglers agree that circle hooks are a must. These fish are almost always hooked in the corner of their mouths and, with the fight, they put up; other hooks just will not stand up to the task.
You will need steel leaders, with 8/O to 10/O circle hooks. Steel leaders are prone to corrosion so make sure you rinse them in fresh water after use. Reds do not typically bite through monofilament leaders, but most of the other fish you catch can.
Pyramid weights are good for calmer days when the surf isn’t pounding and the current is not too strong. If conditions are a little rougher, you will want to consider spider weights which tend to help set the weight by digging into the sand.
The amount of weight you need to use will also be determined by the conditions. A one-ounce weight will work for calm to moderate conditions, but you may need to use 2-ounce, or even 3-ounce, weights for rougher conditions.
Best Baits for Reds in the Surf
Every angler that fishes for reds has their favorite kind of bait, but the truth is these guys are not picky about what they will eat. Their only preference seems to be that it is fresh, especially in murkier water where their sense of smell is what will drive them to the bait.
When fishing in clear water or by boat, reds are frequently caught using artificial plastic lures. However, they are rarely successful in the murkier waters close to shore all along the gulf coast.
Many anglers use a casting net to catch bait in the surf and then use it for live or cut bait for fishing. Most areas will also have local bait shops offering fresh bait if you have not mastered it or do not want to invest in a casting net. Whether fresh or cut, here are some of their favorites:
- Blue Crab (different states have varying regulations about what size and type of crabs can be used for bait. Make sure your crabs are legal.)
- Squid and shrimp (although these usually work better on the smaller reds. Bull reds tend to be a little more selective.)
Location and Timing Are Everything
Finding your spot to set up for the day is made up of experience, facts, and a little fisherman’s instinct thrown in. Scouting your location is one of the most pleasurable parts of surf fishing. For reds, you definitely want to find a place that has some shore and underwater terrain.
Cutouts, sandbars, sloughs, and troughs are all things to keep your eye out for. Gullies between the shore and offshore sandbars are popular places to find redfish schools trolling for bait.
Channel breaks between sandbars are used by most predator fish to follow smaller baitfish into the shallower water. Spot these channel breaks by looking for a difference in the patterns of waves breaking a small distance offshore.
You also want to keep your eyes open for seashell points, which are points of the beach that extend further into the surf and will have a large number of shells washed up by the rolling surf. Any of these features are potentially great places to set up for fishing for redfish.
Once you have picked your location, now it is time to set up your spread. Most anglers prefer to have at least 2-3 rods, set up in rod holders and spaced far enough apart to cover a significant amount of water. You want them far enough apart to avoid any tangled lines, but not so far that you cannot get to them quickly at the first sign of a bite.
Early morning and late evening are popular times to find the bigger bull reds in shallower water. They tend to spend the middle of the day in the cooler, deeper waters that are farther offshore than you can reach by surf fishing. However, fish aren’t bound by rules, and large reds have definitely been caught midday within a 100-yards of the beach.
The best time to fish for reds is during their spawning season. This varies in different parts of the country. Along the gulf coast, it can happen anytime between July-October. September is considered the prime time, and this is the month most anglers try to plan their trips to the beach specifically to catch reds.
Along the Atlantic seaboard, red drums are caught in the surf anytime from early spring until mid-November. Surf fishing is more difficult along a large swath of the Atlantic seaboard as many of the beaches have restricted fishing, or closed access altogether to protect various species of birds and marine animals. Most of the fishing for red drum in the Atlantic is done from public fishing piers or by boat.
It Never Gets Old
Fishing for redfish in the surf, or any other species, is addictive. One of the biggest thrills is that no matter what bait or rigging you use, you can never be sure exactly what is on the other end of the line. The hard work of getting your gear prepared, getting up before dawn, finding your favorite spot, and getting your hooks in the water all disappears the second the rod doubles over.
The feeling of setting the hook, frantically reeling in slack line, fighting a big red on the other end, and finally landing the fish – that’s the magic – and what brings me back time and time again. Spending time along beside the ocean means that even a bad day of fishing is still a really good day.
About the Author:
My name is Dena Standley. I am a wife, mom, and freelance writer. My passions are reading, writing, traveling, and spending as much time as possible near or on the ocean. A favorite hobby for my entire family is saltwater fishing, and we spend as much of our summer as possible on the Texas Gulf Coast.