Originally published in Tideline magazine in January 2011
BY MATT WINTER
Late last year, Capt. Tucker Blythe was on the hunt, running and gunning over the cold, clear ocean off Charleston.
Heading south in waters 40 to 50 feet deep, Blythe was looking for birds, big gannets spiraling like a tornado above a ball of baitfish.
Blythe found the birds. He found the bait. And he found something that should drive any Lowcountry angler wild with envy: monster red drum, feeding with wild abandon, in massive schools untouched by virtually any other anglers.
“It was pretty epic fishing,” Blythe recounted later. “We found huge schools on the surface, 300 strong, bright orange in clear water. … They stayed up for probably 15 minutes, just jumping — I mean getting air. I saw redfish jumping out of the water eating baitfish.
“When we pulled up to the school, they were not spooky at all. There was a 40-pounder right next to the boat. There was a wounded baitfish on the surface, swimming in circles, and I watched him try to eat it three times. Three times he missed it, and then he finally got it and went back down.
“… They were aggressive.”
News of Blythe’s find quickly spread through the local angling community, and his photographs of massive reds caught during a few days of fishing, many on fly-fishing tackle, starting to circulate online.
For Blythe and many other anglers, such cold-weather sightings of monster red drum spark a lot of questions.
Exactly how far out do these big schools of red drum travel, and how long do they stay out there? Can Lowcountry anglers figure out the wintertime patterns and keep close enough tabs on the big schools to make the fishing effort worthwhile? North Carolina has a fall fishery for big reds offshore. Florida anglers do the same. Why not here?
Blythe thinks that maybe, with enough time and effort, the Lowcountry angling community can find some answers.
“When you hear about big redfish on fly, you hear Louisiana, you hear Mosquito Lagoon (Florida). But I think it’s possible anywhere. We’ve got just as big redfish here, but you’ve just got to go off the beach to get them.”
A worthwhile pursuit
It’s no secret that adult red drum move offshore in the cooler months. Anglers sometimes run into them while dropping squid for black seabass and other bottom fish at nearshore artificial reefs.
But chasing down schools, teasing them up and sight-casting for trophy-caliber fish? If such a thing could be done with any regularity, charter captains and anglers would have a new and exciting option in the wintertime.
Such a new fishery, if it could be established, would be especially beneficial considering that federal regulators continue to ratchet down restrictions on offshore bottom fishing. Until recent years, heading out after grouper and snapper during the winter months preoccupied many anglers and provided work for a number of charter operations. Could cold-weather redfishing help fill the gap?
Figuring out how to target trophy reds in the winter also could bolster the Lowcountry’s growing saltwater fly-fishing community. In other parts of the country, heading out to nearshore waters for false albacore and stripers is the bread and butter of local charter fleets. Charleston has the albies (and bonita), but not the striper. What if redfish were added to the list of potential wintertime catches?
At the least, chasing big reds might become another fun possibility during any wintertime offshore trip. Perhaps anglers heading back from a wahoo expedition at the ledge might stop and check out birds hovering over 90 feet of water… if they thought 300 monster red drum were under them.
The fact that adult offshore drum exceed the slot limits — and therefore must be released — also makes such a fishery an attractive possibility. Provided the schools can be found at, or coaxed up to, the surface, these big breeder drum won’t be subjected to the barotrauma associated with summertime fishing at such deep inshore spots as the Grillage and Dynamite Hole.
Of course, there’s no guarantee any of this will happen. Success hinges mostly on one simple question: Where do big redfish go in the winter?
“We really don’t know,” says Erin Levesque, a fisheries biologist with the state’s Department of Natural Resources. “We don’t know if they just move further offshore, or if they move south. We really have no idea.
“… I’ve heard of large schools in late winter, early spring off Florida. I don’t know if any of those are South Carolina fish or what.”
Levesque and her colleagues regularly conduct longline surveys for adult red drum and seem to have a good handle on how the fish move from inshore grounds in late summer out to nearshore waters in the fall.
After that, the species’ movements remain a mystery.
Levesque says schools of big drum most likely follow striped mullet and other food sources out to deeper water. Like their prey items, the drum seek stable water temperatures in colder months.
Though Blythe also seems to have a good bead on bull redfish in November, he, too, is left to speculate on their whereabouts during winter.
“I don’t know what they do in December, January and February. I know they go out deeper, but I don’t know how deep. I’m guessing about 100 feet, because I saw them out in 100 feet two or three winters ago when I was grouper fishing. It was the same scenario: under the gannets.
“But I think they’re keying in on the same live-bottom areas that, say, kingfish prefer. I think that in any live-bottom areas that hold bait, you could potentially run across them.”
Finding some clues
Blythe’s first real go-round with big redfish off Charleston happened in November 2008. He found them by accident.
Blythe was out in his flats boat fishing with Capt. Mike Hogan, a Northeastern fisherman who founded the Hogy Lure Company. Hogies are big soft-plastic baits Hogan designed for striped bass fishing off Cape Cod.
After a day of inshore fishing, Blythe and Hogan planned to fish a few miles off Charleston to search for false albacore, a small tuna that’s a popular target for northeastern saltwater fly fishermen. Once Blythe reached the tip of the jetties, rough water forced him to change plans and turn his small boat south, sticking relatively close to shore. After a few miles, they spotted a swarm of gannets working an area.
“We didn’t know what they were doing, so we kind of just cruised up,” Blythe says. “We saw a couple of albies blow up, so we started throwing the Hogy lures, a couple of different kinds. This was in 40-45 foot of water.
“I’m just throwing around these birds, you know, deep-jigging, letting it sink all the way down to the bottom and then jigging it up. I started getting hits, but I couldn’t get them stuck.”
After missing a few heavy strikes, Blythe reeled up. He could see the big Hogy lure rising up under the boat, a gang of massive redfish hot on its trail.
“There were about 50 of them. This one came up, and I see him eat it. I hook him that time. He takes off, but the whole school had come up, too. So Mike throws out, and he hooks up immediately.
“So we got a doubleheader on these big redfish out there in the ocean. That kind of started my obsession with them.”
Blythe didn’t get a chance to chase the schools again in 2009, but the thought kept gnawing at him. He researched the nearshore fishery for red drum in North Carolina, eventually finding an article on targeting big reds while offshore in Fly Fishing in Salt Waters magazine (flyfishinsalt.com). The article was written by Brian Horsley and Sarah Gardner, a charter captain husband-and-wife team (outerbanksflyfishing.com) in Morehead City, N.C.
By fall 2010, Blythe was ready to give the big reds off Charleston another shot.
“I figured they’ve got to do the same thing here. It’s just a little different. So I read this article, took what I learned and went out again to the same area.”
In mid-November, Blythe headed out with some buddies, armed with the big Hogy baits and heavy spinning tackle.
“We found the birds in the same general area. It was like a table-top area. It was 55 feet (deep) all around it, and it was 45 feet on top. I think it was some kind of live bottom area, because there were a ton of birds, and we were marking a lot of bait.
“They were cormorants and gannet birds. That’s the key. You want to find those bigger birds — pelicans also — because they’re feeding on the same bigger baits that the redfish are feeding on. If you find the gulls and the terns, you’re more than likely around glass minnows, and there are probably albacore around.
“So we were watching these birds and they would kind of just lay around, real spaced out and just sitting on the water. All of a sudden they’d all get up, and they’d start flying tighter and tighter. …They’d start cycloning. Then right in the middle, they’d all start dive-bombing the same little area.
“So we’d hurry over there, throw the Hogy right up under them. On the first cast — bam! — we got one. So I said, ‘OK, there’s the pattern.’ We kept doing that, and we were having success, every time.”
Satisfied that he had at least temporarily located the action, Blythe upped the ante by targeting these open-water fish with fly-fishing tackle. He headed back out on another few trips, searching for birds and running-and-gunning to keep up with the schools of reds. He figured out that they could tease the schools to the surface with big soft-plastics, then keep them up top by working big hookless poppers across the surface.
Once the schools were feeding up top, Blythe and his fellow anglers would start casting large-profile flies into the school. A big clouser minnow in chartreuse and white, with heavy dumbbell eyes, caught their first big red.
The key when fly fishing out there, Blythe says, is to use heavy sinking fly lines, 450- to 550-grain lines. This heavier line cuts through waves, and helps an angler get tight with the fish for a solid hookup.
Reading the signs
Brian Horsley, the North Carolina captain who coauthored the redfish article Blythe found, says the Outer Banks fishery is based mostly on catching big reds on fly tackle in the fall.
Traditionally, North Carolina captains had concentrated on sight-casting for big reds around inlets in spring and early summer, when the fish school up before heading into sounds for the summer.
“The cold water stuff, the fall stuff, is newer to us,” Horsley said. “We’ve been doing it for 8 or 9 years, but the last couple of years we’ve had pretty good success.”
The cold-water red drum fishery developed there as an offshoot of fall fishing for bonitas and false albacore, he says.
“We’d catch a drum now and then, and then there seemed to be more and more of them around. We started figuring out more of a pattern. Every year we learn more. … The more people you’ve got doing it, the more you’ll learn.”
Horsely says he looks for reds in 65- to 66-degree water, and he keeps a close eye on his fishfinder. “They mark really well. On my machine, they mark like amberjack. … really streaky marks.”
Horsley’s also found a few good “tells” for an area that might hold redfish schools. Gannets, of course, are a good sign, as are spinner sharks.
Flounder, if you can believe it, can also signal redfish off the beach. Marauding schools apparently force the flatfish to flee the seafloor.
“Redfish, they eat the hell out of flounder,” Horsley says. “When you see a flounder on top of the water, that’s a pretty good tell.”
Like Blythe, Horsley recommends anglers use Hogy lures, especially if the red drum schools are on the surface. If they’re deep, though, it’s “hard to beat a big bucktail, like a 2- to 4-ounce bucktail with a twisty tail.” Chartreuse and white works, but just about any color might work in a frenzied school, he says.
“When they’re feeding, they ain’t very smart.”
Blythe also advises anglers to use depth finders to find the schools. A school of a few hundred 20- to 40-pound redfish will definitely show up on the radar. “At one point, I was in 40 feet and the whole depth finder was showing fish from top to bottom. I saw the top of the school under the boat.”
Most of all, anglers need to be ready to keep moving.
“I think that’s the thing about this fishery,” Blythe says. “It’s a lot of searching, a lot of running and gunning looking for birds. The birds are essential.”
So can Lowcountry anglers follow these signs and develop a cold-water, offshore red drum fishery?
“I think it’s doable, if people put their time and effort in,” Blythe says. “Especially if we get people working with each other out there. Staying on top of these schools, locating those birds. That’s what they do in North Carolina.”