A Marsh of Your Own: How to Catch Redfish by Kayak

A Marsh of Your Own: How to Catch Redfish by Kayak

Corpus Christi Bay is tequila clear and cellophane slick this morning.

When my kayak slipped over the oyster bed a moment ago, a thousand calcium and carbon blades scratched the hull and scraped off any boats on my tail. Now I stand up in the sit-in kayak, invert my paddle, and pull a camo sock-hat over the yellow blade. I push myself slowly through the skinny water, still-hunting.

A grumpy aghh, aghh snatches my eyes to a trio of white ibis wading the shallows, probing ­­ up and down, protesting the empty wake at their shins. A pair of roseate spoonbills seem to side-eye the ibis and shake their heads side-to-side as they filter food from the brine.  I study their trails for wakes, swirls, or other sign.  At my bow, a cownose ray passes, lifting sand with her wingtips, but no tag-along redfish accompany her. So, I turn back to my preferred target: that disputed border where terrestrial and aquatic worlds clash in inches of bait-rich water. This is where I hope to find the day’s first redfish.

More quickly than I deserve, the grass parts. Bait sprays. A swirl and a flash of bronze. A dark, false eye glistens in open air and stares back at me. So, I lean the paddle against my shoulder and pick up the rod at my feet. The weedless soft plastic jerk bait lands just past the fish, but the rooting hog doesn’t see it. Twitch. Nothing. Twitch. Nope. Twitch. This time he bulldozes toward the lure in an audible shwoop, bullying wake from his head until a third of his body shines in the air. Twitch. Swing and a miss. Twitch. He spins. Water sprays. Bent rod.  Set hook. Whining drag. This is the good stuff—damn good.

Today, I’ll hunt tailing reds until the wind blows in and steals the slick.  Beginning at about 10 a.m. the sun will shine down like stage lights to present fish in singles and schools near shore and out on the flats. So, I’ll switch things up a little. I’ll stay on my feet. But, I’ll set out rigs in the rod holders to troll past grass, islands, potholes, depressions, channels, oyster beds, and other promising places. I’ll work progressively deeper. But no blind-casting. I’ll be on watch for rays, birds, and redfish to cast toward. By 3:00 p.m., I’ll be kicked back on a beach eating and willing the winds to die for another round.

Redfish Backstory
Back in the 1970s, red drum, Sciaenops ocellatus (aka redfish, reds, or puppy drum) were rare as rocking horse teeth due to unsustainable harvests. But, thanks in large part to the Coastal Conservation Association that day is long gone. Now healthy populations of reds root in the coastal shallows from Massachusetts to Mexico. You can catch them from the bank. You can fish deep or cast from the bow of a boat. But, the kayak plus light tackle or a fly may just be the most exciting way to catch them on your own. You can get back into places where most craft can’t travel, and have to worry less about the tide leaving you high and dry. If you get stuck, you can always just drag yourself out.

Cold weather can put kayak anglers on some hot redfish action. Right now is as good as any time to go after redfish in the Gulf and Southern Atlantic coasts. Big, mature fish often run inshore in the winter, presenting diehard anglers with chances at the biggest red of their lives.

Here are some basics to help most anybody catch skinny water redfish from a kayak any time of year.

The Case for the Kayak
Redfish thrive in shallow water. Kayaks do, too. It’s a match made in a salty, bent-rod heaven. And often, all the guys on the big boats can do is hang up out of range and cuss you for catching their fish. What’s more, you can launch a kayak just about anywhere. They’re light, versatile, quiet, great exercise, and inexpensive—if you don’t get carried away. I bought a $500 kayak and paddled it all over Texas. So, for the cost of a one-day guided redfish trip, you can buy a kayak. Definitely fish with the guides, you’ll learn a lot. But, maybe save the money from one of those days and invest in yourself.

Gear, Bait, and Tackle Basics
I typically run three spinning rods and a fly rod. It’s too much, but I do it anyway. One spinning rod goes in each rod holder for trolling. The last spinning rod and the fly rod go between my feet.

If you’re bait fishing, dead shrimp, chunks of mullet, or quartered blue crab fished on the bottom do well. And, live shrimp under a popping cork will tear up the reds. Fiddler crabs or even hermit crabs liberated from their shells work, too. Redfish are not finicky. Lay it against his lips and chances are he’ll eat it.

Where and when you fish is far more important than which lure you choose. But, start with soft plastics, spoons, and topwater baits. Bass lures work fine if it’s what you have.

One of my trolling rods is rigged with a popping cork and a set of pre-fab tandem jigs known as a speck or redfish rig. (More than once I’ve run two of these and ended up with four reds and speckled trout on the trolling rods and one on the rod between my knees. It is a glorious mess.) Typically the second trolling rod runs one of the Berkley Gulp saltwater plastics or a Cocahoe minnow rigged on a jig head—either with or without a cork. The rod between my feet has a “The Secret” weedless spoon or—if snagging is a real concern—a Gulp Saltwater Jerk Shad or another weedless, soft plastic, jerk bait. And, just to make things harder than they have to be—as is the ancient way of the fly anglers’ cult—I keep an 8-weight fly rod rigged with a white Clouser minnow.

Other gear in the boat includes polarized glasses, sun block, ball cap, net, food, PFD, water, GPS, spare short canoe paddle, water shoes, cell phone, lighter, sock hat to cover the paddle blade, fillet knife, multi-tool, tackle bag, bowline, anchor or stakeout pole, stringer, IFAK, rain gear, and, if appropriate, warm clothes—and everything is in dry bags and strapped in. Kayaks swamp. Kayaks flip. Shit goes wrong.

Where to Fish
“Where’d you catch ‘em?”

“In the lip.”

The bad news: That happens.

The good news: There’s good fishing in lots of places. You just have to figure out where the fish are in your conditions. Anyone who knows how to catch redfish from a boat can figure out pretty quickly where to find success in a kayak. But, if fishing reds is a brand new endeavor, you can start your search well before you get on the water.

Go to a CCA chapter event straight away. Nobody knows reds like the CCA folks. And, you just might find your tribe. Meanwhile, listen to how Randy Newberg scouts public land hunts and adapt that logic to finding reds. And, check out MeatEater Podcast Episode 202: From the Two Kingdoms of Nature, where Texan redfish guide JT Van Zandt talks about the importance of understanding tide and wind-driven current, wind direction, water temperatures, bait presence, and other conditions.

From your desk: call biologists, the appropriate state fish and wildlife agency, other anglers, and local bait shops for local knowledge. Read forums, use Google Scholar to find relevant academic studies, use satellite images to find points, drop-offs, channels, mangroves, sea grass, oyster beds, potholes, and other promising spots. String them together as a kayak route and link them up with potential access points. Then study tide charts and wind and weather to inform your day. Do everything you can to eliminate low probability areas so that when you drop your boat in the water you’ll drop into the best water you can find and you’ll have the best chance for success. Build a hypothesis. Go explore. Remember, reds move. They’re chasing bait. So, put in the miles. While you’re out there looking for reds, run an OODA Loop: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. Run it again until you find fish. You’ll know more at the end of every day. Document your lessons for next time.

Understanding reds takes time. So, the most important thing is to get out and start a process of learning. Form a hypothesis. Refine it with local knowledge. Ground-truth it with miles paddled, fish fights lost, and knowledge won. Rinse and repeat.

When to Go
I’ve had the good fortune of catching redfish from a kayak every month of the year in Texas, though in a low moment, I found myself in a duck decoy spread. The hunters expressed their tolerance by not peppering me with steel shot. I thanked them and they waved back with at least one finger. So, understand competing uses and plan for them.

You can find out which months offer the best fishing in your area by having those conversations with the mentors mentioned above. But then go and find out for yourself.

Slack tides are not the best for fishing. That’s pretty commonly accepted. Otherwise, opinions vary greatly about the importance of tides. High tides might push reds into grass where they chase everything living. Falling tides might send reds rushing to escape a waning shallows—and eating everything in their way. Low tide might concentrate reds into potholes surrounded water too shallow to swim. Anything could happen. The only way to find out is to get out and fish. So, don’t let tides keep you from fishing. But do watch falling tides and be sure not to get stranded. On the day of my decoy debacle, I discovered too late that I’d left my wading shoes on the hood of the pickup; so when the tides dropped out, I had to walk across an oyster bed. Luckily, the cold water numbed my feet for the razor gauntlet.

Plan for the wind. Usually the best move is to start your day paddling into the wind and working your way back with it. Sometimes it makes more sense to fish with the wind all day and have someone pick you up that evening. Every year more than one guy finds himself miles away from the truck with no energy to beat the wind—and no supplies to wait it out comfortably.

Kayak Reds, Four Ways

Soaking Bait
We’ve all done it. There’s no shame in it. And, if you’re looking to put reds in the boat, it’s hard to beat soaking bait. You can fish with a hunk of dead mullet, chunk of crab, a live shrimp, and many other baits. It’s effective. But then again, there is absolutely nothing like sight-casting lures or flies.

Sight Casting
Skinny water reds are wary as a hook-spurred gobbler. Fishing for them in less than a foot of water is a blend of hunting, fishing, and trick shooting. Stand in the kayak to get the best perspective. Be stealthy. Use light line. If your paddle blade is brightly colored, drop a drab sock hat over it. Find fish. Pick the one you want. Then it’s simple. Account for tide, wind, fish speed, boat speed, casting speed, lure weight, trajectory, direction the fish is facing, your silhouette, tangle hazards, sun position, rotation of the earth, then land the lure where it goes.

It takes a bit of observation to get the game eye for redfish. As you do, look out for more than whole fish in singles and schools. Look for pieces. Watch for that dot on the tail. Look for swirls, wakes, copper flashes, bait balls, bait sprays, mullet jumping, parting grass, moving mangroves, muddy clouds. Study the path of wading birds. And, watch for reds trailing rays.

Sunglasses and a sky colored shirt can help you see reds before they see you. When you spot a red, land your lure just beyond the fish, as gently as possible. Work it to his lips.

Soft plastics, spoons, and topwater baits are go-to lures for sight-casting. You can definitely sight cast with cut bait or live bait. But, if you want to add another level of complexity, try casting a white Clouser minnow with an 8- or 9-weight fly rod. 

Paddling with lines out behind is easy. It covers ground. And, it flat out catches fish. As far as when and where, the answer is yes. I troll when I’m looking for fish. I troll when I’m chasing birds. I troll when I’m exploring and just paddling around to see what will happen. To start, troll along the bank while you hunt. Then run parallel passes out toward any drop-off or structure. When the rod jumps, reel him in and make another pass. There’s likely more. Stop and look for the school. Set your anchor or stakeout pole and sight cast to them. If you troll spoons, be sure to use a swivel so you don’t twist up your line and make a mess.

Chasing Birds
It’s not just for outboards. Fishing for reds from a kayak is a game of hide-and-seek. So, accept all the clues you can find. If you see birds working, Mother Nature is pointing and mouthing, “They are right here!” Take advantage of it. Pelicans are rafted up: go! See bait: Go! There’s been many a day I just trolled 10 to 15 miles, chased birds, enjoyed the country, caught fish, earned a cold beer, and a po’boy—and learned a lot.

In the last minutes of light, I’m back at camp on Mustang Island working the fillet knife on the whetrock and grinning at arms sore from more fish fights than I deserve. I don’t keep fish every time, but this time I kept three. One will go half-shell on the grill for my supper tonight and the others will fill tacos to feed family and friends at home tomorrow.

Featured image via Tosh Brown.

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