How to Fish for Red Drum

Red drum (redfish) are an inshore species with a fanbase whose dedication borders on obsession. Redfish get their name from the distinctive copper color that dominates their body, which also sports a distinctive black spot near the tail. On some redfish, this spot becomes a wild collage of spots as a result of recessive pigmentation genes—and for some anglers, these “leopard” reds are trophies on their own. While there’s no denying red drum are brilliant-looking fish, the appeal of these gamefish stems from their formidable strength and remarkable size. 

Redfish grow to trophy sizes fast, typically reaching maturity at a length of 28 inches in just three to five years. Most anglers consider a “large” red drum to be anything over 30 inches. Once they get bigger than 40 inches, you’re talking about a true trophy. While these giants do spend time in deeper water, the most best place to catch red drum is in shallow bays and backwaters. Redfish are a blast to catch; it’s not unusual for even a moderately-size redfish to crush your bait and immediately take off, peeling out line once the hook is set. “Fighting a 30-inch redfish on light tackle, you will not get a better fight than that,” says Captain Ryan Rodgers of Folly Beach, South Carolina.

Hopefully, by now we’ve sold you on wanting to learn how to fish for red drum. To help you learn how to catch these fish, we asked three captains from Captain Experiences to share their perspectives and expert insights on this gamefish.

The Best Time to Catch Redfish

Depending on who you ask, the best time to target redfish is either:

  • A) Anytime you can
  • B) In the fall

In reality, both answers are true, but neither quite captures the big picture. Redfish are found throughout the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic Coast, but year-round populations are usually confined to the waters south of Virginia. From Texas to North Carolina, shielded warm waters and abundant food sources allow redfish to stay put—and allow anglers to target them anytime. Captain Alan Fisher, of Rockport, Texas, summarizes it best saying: “These fish live here year round and have to eat, but the biggest reds show up in the fall to spawn.” 

Redfish bigger than 30 inches—commonly called bull reds—often leave inshore waters and head to deeper nearshore areas for most of the year. The only time you can count on these giant reds heading back into shallow bays and backwaters is to spawn. When fall hits, bull redfish flood into inshore waters to eat and spawn, which some anglers refer to as “the running of the bulls.” Bull redfish measuring bigger than 30, and sometimes 40 inches, are not uncommon during the fall run, making it the best time to catch that trophy-size fish.

Venice Louisiana United States Of America
Venice, Louisiana, is one of the best spots in the country to fish for bull reds. Getty/Eric Kulin/Design Pics

The Best Places to Catch Red Drum

Again, while you can target redfish along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, there are four states—each with its own unique fishing environment—that stand out as the best places to catch redfish: Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina.

Vast stretches of warm, protected waters make the Texas coast—from Rockport to Baffin Bay—a special place to catch redfish. The Mississippi River supports an incredible amount of bait in the Louisiana marsh, especially near Venice and Grand Isle, and is likely responsible for the abundance of exceptionally large bull reds that are caught here every year.

Florida’s super-clear water and grassy flats are the perfect environment for redfish to flourish, with Mosquito Lagoon one of the best redfish spots in the state. And the intricate backwater creeks, combined with the oyster bars and grass flats near Charleston, South Carolina, also create a diverse fishery that’s teeming with redfish 365 days a year.

Tactics for Catching Red Drum

The techniques anglers use to target redfish vary with different locations, weather conditions, and fishing styles. The two of the most common styles are sight fishing from a drift boat and surf fishing. Each approach has pros and cons, but both are productive if done correctly. The effectiveness of various bait and tackle options on the other hand, differ much more.

Bait for Redfish

How to Fish for Red Drum
Live shrimp are likely the best saltwater live bait to use. Bob McNally

No matter what fish you target, the goal is to get a bite. Natural bait is a reliable choice especially common redfish food sources like shrimp, crab, and various baitfish. The type of bait available will vary by season and location, but asking the local bait shops or guides can unveil valuable insights. The most popular and effective ways to fish with bait are popping corks for fish near the surface and a Carolina or Texas Rig for bottom fishing.

Captain Rodgers emphasized that the old advice of using long leaders on bottom-fishing rigs often results in gut hooking fish, which can kill the fish. Rodgers recommends using a circle hook with a 6- to 8-inch leader to reduce the chance of a gut hook and cause your bait to “shake and be more violent on the hook.” The shorter leader has two benefits:

  1. It’s sensitive and allows anglers to feel a bite before the fish swallows the hook.
  2. It forces the bait to stay closer to the bottom where it causes more disturbance.

Lures for Redfish

When it comes to the best lures for redfish, the options are endless. Redfish are not known to be picky eaters, but if a presentation doesn’t work, standard procedure is to switch to a bait that closely matches what the fish are currently eating. 

Captain Jacob Morris of Venice, Louisiana, urges anglers not to overthink what lures they choose to throw for redfish, advising, “it’s usually the most simple thing you can do. I’d have a gold spoon in my arsenal and some sort of swimbait.” Spoons and swimbaits are staples for targeting redfish in the winter, spring, and summer, but in the fall, things change. 

In the fall, schools of bull redfish feed on the surface, so Morris switches to his favorite lure—a topwater plug. These three baits in any combination of yellow, white, chartreuse, or silver provide maximum visibility and the best opportunity to get bit.

Fly Fishing for Redfish

Redfish are the perfect target for sight fishing on the fly. The shallow water where they are commonly found makes it easy to spot tailing reds, or a push of water and their behavior is more predictable than other skinny water species. Despite this, finding a productive spot will require a guide or plenty of time. Captain Fisher explained the biggest mistake new anglers make is staying in a spot too long just because it looks good. He said they mistakenly think, “it’s a great looking spot, there ought to be fish here,” and then “stick around in a spot where they probably shouldn’t for too long.” 

Redfish are opportunistic feeders, which gives fly anglers plenty of options to choose a productive fly. Crab, shrimp, or baitfish fly patterns are classic, effective and will get the job done. Hook sizes should depend on water depth and clarity. Recommended flies range from small buggy patterns tied on a No. 6 hook, to large 5- to 6-inch articulated streamers for that big bull red cruising the flat with its back out of the water. More art than science, the presentation is equally—if not more—important than the fly on the end of your line. No matter what pattern you’re throwing, the goal is to make the presentation look so irresistible that the fish has no choice but to eat it. Since redfish can reach 20 to 30 pounds or more, a saltwater fly reel paired with an 8- to 10-weight rod is the basic requirement to consistently land these fish.

After 30 years on the water, Captain Fisher notes that fly fishing carries a unique advantage over some of the more conventional baits. “After a while, redfish get smart and wary of common baits like shrimp and cork or artificials,” he said. “If you throw a fly at them, it’s new and they are more likely to eat it.”

Meet the Redfish Experts

Captain Ryan Rodgers

  • Guiding Experience: 3 years
  • Location: Folly Beach, South Carolina

F&S: What do you love most about fishing for redfish?

RR: It’s changed as a guide. I love watching new anglers experience the feeling of catching a redfish—or learning from losing one.

F&S: When is your favorite time to fish for redfish?

RR: October and November. In October, there are more mature fish in the grass, and on the colder days in November, they school up thick.

F&S: What’s your favorite lure or bait and why?

RR: Z-Man Trout Eye 3/16-ounce Jig Head with the chartreuse eye, and a MinnowZ in purple with a chartreuse tail. That 3/16-ounce size is such a good weight on the rod—you can cast into the wind, you can feel the bait, that 4-inch shad is the perfect size, and is just the right combination. 

F&S: What’s the worst thing an angler can do when they hook into a big one?

RR: Reeling while the fish pulls out line, which creates line twist, or trying to horse in the fish and breaking the line. Don’t lose tension, and don’t pull too hard.

F&S: What’s the biggest redfish you (or a client) have caught so far?

RR: The biggest redfish a client caught was a very seasoned 8-year-old boy who landed a 37-38 inch, 30-pound redfish on light tackle. 

F&S: What’s the most painful one you’ve seen break off?

RR: Had a seasoned angler on board and it had been a really tough day of fishing. We stopped at a dock on the way back to the ramp as a Hail Mary. The client hooked and started pulling a 30-inch-plus redfish away from the dock and fought it for several minutes. Right before it got to the boat, it took off and cut the line on the oysters on the pylon.

Captain Alan Fisher

  • Guiding Experience: 30-plus years
  • Location: Rockport, Texas
red drum anglers
Capt. Fisher spots reds from the push-poling platform for an angler. Captains Experiences

F&S: What do you love most about fishing for redfish?

AF: It’s all about the bite. I just like seeing the bite. I like fishing top water, and I want to see the fish eat it.

F&S: When is your favorite time to fish for redfish?

AF: Anytime you can!

F&S: What’s your favorite lure or bait and why?

AF: Top water: Bomber Badonk-A-Donk in Bone/Oragne Throat. Soft plastic: White-tail Bass Assassin on an 1/8-ounce jig head. Fly: Chartreuse and White Clouser Minnow with bead eyes.

F&S: What’s the worst thing an angler can do when they hook into a big one?

AF: Pulling on the fish too hard. Let them run.

F&S: What’s the biggest redfish you (or a client) have caught so far?

AF: We were fishing the shoreline outside of the jetties, and the conditions were perfect. We worked the grass line on the flats, then turned to the drop off and got nailed. Caught a 36 inch redfish.

F&S: What’s the most painful one you’ve seen break off?

AF: Broke off a 24 or 26-inch redfish last year on the fly. I was just not following my own advice and trying to horse him in.

Captain Jacob Morris

  • Guiding Experience: 5 years
  • Location: Venince, Louisiana

F&S: What do you love most about fishing for redfish?

JM: The fight, and before the fight, it’s the hunt. The reward is phenomenal.

F&S: When is your favorite time to fish for redfish?

JM: The fall spawning run, that’s my favorite time. That’s when we just got done with sweltering heat. Big fish move in, and you can find them in schools and catch one after the other.

F&S: What’s your favorite lure or bait and why?

JM: The top water Top Dog. Usually the all white one. I also get heat-shrink skins that look like baitfish for these plugs.

F&S: What’s the worst thing an angler can do when they hook into a big one?

JM: Over-fight the fish, reeling while they run. If you don’t have confidence in your gear, you’ll over-fight the fish. You’ll either wreck the equipment or lose the fish.

F&S: What’s the biggest redfish you (or a client) have caught so far?

JM: Personally 51 inches, but I had a client catch one that was 48 ¾ inches.

F&S: What’s the most painful one you’ve seen break off?

JM: This has happened several times when people come and want that bull red. We go out and catch all the eater fish that we’re going to take home, then spend the rest of the day looking for a bull red because the client really wants it. Then, we finally get on a bull red, the fish gets just outside the range of the net, and the client over-fishes it. The hook pops out and whizzes by your head, but you’re not even worried that you almost got hooked. You’re completely devastated because you just watched that guy’s bull red swim off.

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