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Despite water temperatures that have reached into the 40s, anglers still report spotting nice schools of red drum prowling the shallow waters. These fish will not always bite during the coldest periods, but on some days the sun warms up things enough to create a very favorable environment for targeting these winter redfish.
Red drum can often be seen “tailing” in the shallows with their noses down and rooting up food while their tails are sticking up in the air. Some of these redfish schools are huge. Finding them, however, is just part of the task of redfishing.
Big redfish schools spook very easily. Experienced anglers and guides use long poles to push their boats into casting distance instead of loud trolling motors that might frighten the schools. Boaters who dare to throw their anchors loudly into the water near redfish schools will get dark looks from their fellow sportsmen.
Although mud minnows and shrimp would be terrific for hooking up with redfish now, such live bait is almost impossible to find in January. Anglers instead use artificial lures to entice these brutes. Reds this size are often called puppy drum, since they average between 16 and 27 inches.
The Gulp line of baits, as well as lifelike shrimp imitating lures, are favorites at this time of the year. Most anglers utilize jig heads dressed with these or similar synthetic baits. Jig heads are typically 3/8 ounce or ¼ ounce, while most baits are 3 or 4 inches long.
The key to winter fishing for lethargic redfish is a slow retrieve. If you use the more rapid retrieve you utilize for trout or bluefish during the warmer months, then nothing will touch your lure. Although redfish are powerful fighters, most hits are relatively soft and occur when the lure is falling backward, drifting with the tide or just standing still. There is no need to add a lot of action to the lure.
Reds themselves gather in the shallows for safety during the winter, as predators, like dolphins, eat them. Redfish make up a big part of a dolphin’s diet during the winter. Even a variety of large birds can be a danger to smaller reds in the clear January waters.
Despite their continued presence in the winter, it sometimes takes a few hours of daylight to warm the water enough so that fish and bait are moving. Mud minnows, finger mullet, fiddler crabs and grass shrimp are all staples of the red drum’s diet, but they only become active as the creeks and shallow banks they frequent are exposed to the sun. Darker banks often hold good concentrations of fiddler crabs and mud minnows, while the few mullet schools that are around can be spotted as they leap from the water.
Outgoing tides are often good producers for redfish, since concentrated pods of bait are funneled out toward the waiting schools of predators. An outgoing tide in the middle of a warm winter day is a terrific combination.
It is difficult to predict the temperature at which reds stop hitting. They can be caught when the water is in the 40s, although on some days they can easily be seen but develop lockjaw no matter what lures you throw at them. They share this attribute with their cousins, the speckled trout.
Like most inshore fish in the winter, reds are mostly schooled up, so you shouldn’t spend too much time in one place if you aren’t getting any bites. Conversely, if you catch one drum, there is a good chance many more are around.
Some hardy anglers try the ocean surf during the winter for redfish. Instead of plastic and synthetic baits, many of these surf fishermen throw MirrOlures, since they can obtain far greater casting distance with the weighty plugs. MirrOlures imitate big baitfish that redfish feed on in the ocean whitewater and deeper sloughs.
It is important to remember that red drum are a highly regulated fish wherever they roam. In North Carolina there are strict limits on redfish. You may keep one fish a day, and it must be between the “slot” limit of 18 and 27 inches. Many red drum anglers practice catch-and-release for these great sport fish. Many folks who fish cut bait in the surf have gone to using circle hooks in an effort not to harm the big bruisers.
One great (and easy) way to locate winter redfish is to higher a fishing guide. The guides who operate during the winter usually keep track of where the drum schools have been roaming.