Every fall, anglers in the gulf and Atlantic become obsessed with pumpkins. Not because of the looming Halloween holiday, however, but the presence of bull redfish. Learn more about why these giant fish are one of the most sought after species in saltwater this time of year.
During October, anglers in South Carolina’s lowcountry enjoy one of the area’s most popular traditions - smashing pumpkins. No, we’re not talking about the Grammy winning alternative rock band, or Halloween inspired violence against squashes. Instead, anglers along the Palmetto State’s coast spend the autumn months pursuing the hard-charging fight of the fall’s most iconic copper-colored fish.
Red drum, also known as spottail bass and redfish, are an extremely popular target species among anglers. Ranging in color from silver and gray to a deep autumn orange, these fish are most often recognized for the dark spot typically found on their caudal fin.
Redfish live in waters as far north as Massachusetts all the way through the Gulf of Mexico. It’s common to see colossal red drum in areas like the Chesapeake Bay, Pamlico Sound, and Venice, Louisiana, as well as countless locations in between.
While red drum are fun to fish for at any size, it’s the big fish that really capture the greatest attention throughout the fall. Large redfish are often referred to as bull reds. In most instances, whether discussing fish or ungulates, the word bull is used for the males of the species. That is not the case for redfish.
A bull red earns its revered moniker based on size and maturity rather than sex. Look online and you’ll see some disagreement about what length a redfish becomes a bull red, but it seems that the consensus is somewhere between 27 to 30 inches.
Bull reds are known for their impressive mass, as well as the way they’ll absolutely crush a topwater bait or fly. Couple that action with the bend of the rod and the sound of the line peeling off the reel, and it’s easy to understand why folks will travel hundreds of miles just to get a shot at one of them.
While visiting Charleston, indulging in local cuisine and exploring some of America’s most beautiful and historic city streets, anglers often book a trip with the area’s finest fishing guides. Capt. Chandler Williams of Hook 1 Charters makes his living guiding clients through the Lowcountry’s vast stretches of serpentine saltwater creeks, barrier islands, and busy sounds. Fall redfish make it all possible.
“I really love guiding in Charleston in the fall and early winter,” says Williams. “The area boasts some of the best red drum fishing in the world. You get to see some absolute National Geographic moments. Plus fall and winter in the Lowcountry is something magical. When I guide in Charleston, I tend to only target reds or sheepshead, but mostly redfish. There’s nothing cooler than putting a client on a 30 plus inch early winter bull red. The eats are spectacular!”
Much to the angler’s delight, redfish can be targeted using a variety of different baits. Some folks use live mullet and menhaden. Williams prefers artificial baits. “I like to use soft plastics or fly,” he says. “I prefer black and purple flies with a hint of gold, or bigger shrimp patterns. For soft plastics, there’s a large range of products I like to use. My favorites are the Fathom inshore series of soft plastics. I tend to use their copper color patterns with chartreuse.”
Red drum form spawning aggregations in South Carolina during the late summer months and early fall, which brings them to estuary inlets and channels along barrier islands. Afterward, they feed voraciously to prepare for the colder winter months offshore. The bull redfish anglers target have an important job to do, so Williams chooses to give them some additional space and respect.
“Large bull reds tend to show up in Charleston Harbor in the summer months and stick around in the fall,” he says. “I tend not to mess with those fish weighing up to 30 pounds or more as those are our main breeding fish. Those are the fish that supply our inshore fishery. Instead, I wait for the fall and winter to go to what I call the Charleston backcountry, where you get plenty of shots at fish over 30 plus inches. It’s super cool catching those bulls deep inshore. They put up a hell of a fight!”
The network of meandering tidal saltwater creeks that Williams calls the backcountry provides a stunning backdrop for any catch. The glittering copper of a 30 inch bull red may very well be the most appropriate match for the scene. For anglers hoping to enjoy such an experience this fall, the young captain has a basic, but critical, recommendation.
“Follow the bait,” says Williams. “Then look for staging areas for when the tide changes. Identify where bull reds will enter and exit during those tidal changes. If you see a lot of fish in an area at high tide in the fall, then those fish are going to school up at low tide somewhere near that high water access point.”
When looking at the intricacies of Charleston’s coast, it can be easy for anglers to feel overwhelmed by all of the possible honey holes. Williams says, “Focus around ocean mouths and inlet entrances. Then push further back into the backcountry from there. The fish are right in front of you!”
Anglers often find themselves at the mercy of another redfish lover, the bottlenose dolphin. According to Williams, the charismatic mammal can actually provide a helpful assist when targeting inshore reds. “Dolphins are your friends, and also not your friends,” he jokes. “If they’re in shallow, your target species is just around the corner or nearby.”
Dolphins may be the best anglers when it comes to hunting red drum, but avid anglers have certainly racked up their own arsenal of tools to target the species. “People have a huge love for redfish,” explains Williams. “It’s sort of like bass fishing but in saltwater. Redfish eat a large array of different types of artificial baits and there’s so many ways to catch them. They truly are a unique and special species, allowing anglers to really hone in on different techniques and test their skills as a fisherman.”
Since a slot limit between 15 and 23 inches is in place and there is no harvest of red drum in federal waters off the state, all bull reds caught in South Carolina must be released. Williams hopes that anglers will handle bull reds with extreme care to increase their chances of survival after a battle on hook and line. He has very strong opinions about encouraging catch and release for all redfish, regardless of size.
“It’s very important that we start to switch to catch and release only for this species,” says Williams. “They’re a fish that does not do well with pressure or stress. In recent years, we have been seeing population numbers decrease. These fish are vital for these types of inshore ecosystems. Without them, it would be catastrophic. They’re one of the most well know sportfish we have here in the United States! They help put food on the table for guides, they bring revenue, and people genuinely love them. So, let’s do our part and protect them.”
Once the bull reds head offshore again to their wintering grounds, Williams also heads for warmer waters. He spends much of the winter and early spring in Key West, Florida, where he runs trips primarily targeting bonefish, tarpon, and permit. He loves it there, and proudly claims that splitting his time between Charleston and Key West has made him a better guide and a better angler.
But every year, as pumpkins line the front porches of Charleston’s colorful colonial homes, Williams always knows where he’ll be fishing. Follow the bait and you’ll find him in the golden glow of the backcountry, guiding a client through a battle with one of South Carolina’s famous bull reds.
Learn more about Captain Chandler Williams and other red fish captains from our friends at Captain Experiences.
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By Cameron Rhodes of THE BUCKSKIN BILLFISH
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