How to Catch Redfish Like a Pro: Tactics and Tips

Redfish are abundant in the warm, shallow waters of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, and they’re among the most popular inshore game fish for anglers across the coastal South.

Anyone can get lucky, but knowing where, when, and how to catch redfish like a pro will tilt the odds in your favor.

Related Articles

On the southern coast of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, the winters are short and mild, drawing anglers to the water for what’s nothing less than a rite of passage: redfish season.

But salty anglers, charter captains, and paid fishing guides will all be quick to explain that while anyone can get lucky and hook a nice red, consistently catching monster red drum requires more than what my Cajun friends call bonne chance.

Knowing where, when, and how to target redfish sets an angler apart along those marshy coasts, riddled as they are with estuaries, river mouths, and mile after mile of shallow mud flat. 

I’ve been there and done that countless times, been skunked and caught my limit, and I’ve studied these fish as carefully as any angler to improve my game.

Redfish Basics

The red drum, or Sciaenops ocellatus as it’s known to science, is a close relative of the black drum, with which it’s capable of interbreeding. It’s commonly called “redfish” or just a “red.”

Common in the warm, shallow coastal waters of the South, redfish spawn near estuaries and other safe havens from mid-August to mid-October, producing millions of fry per female. These immature specimens need plenty of cover and safety, as well as an environment rich in tiny prey items. 

Starting life near an estuary or marsh is perfect.

They’ll eat, be eaten, and grow in these nurseries until they’re sexually mature, roughly four years later. They’ll weigh roughly six to eight pounds at this point, and measure somewhere in the neighborhood for 22 inches or more, ans slot limits between 22 and 27 inches are common.

You’ll still find them in the estuarial environments and mud flats, but they’ll also congregate and hunt around any rocky outcropping they can find, adjacent to piers and jetties, bridge pilings, and other vertical structures exposed to current and tide.

There, mature reds will wait in ambush for prey items swept along by the movement of water, feeding actively on crab, shrimp, and mullet, but they won’t pass up menhaden, pinfish, sea robin, lizardfish, spot, croaker, or mud minnows.

They prefer water temperatures between 70 and 90 F, and water cooler than 52 F will kill the bite completely.

Where to Catch Redfish

Reds love warm water and moving tides, and anywhere you find prey items and cover, you can find red drums.

But savvy anglers know that some spots are much more likely to hold reds than others, and by focusing on where they hunt, you can put yourself in the best position to make some unforgettable memories.

Hunting habitat

Those rock barriers along Grande Isle are one of the first places I’d go looking for reds.

Two facts can help you decide where to start casting.

First, reds aren’t particularly active hunters. Instead, they prefer to preserve their energy, wait patiently for prey, and ambush shrimp, fish, and crabs as they move by.

Second, 90% of the fish are in 10% of the water. If you find where the reds are schooling, you’ll catch your limit in no time.

Reds often hunt in just feet of water, and they’ll stick close to the shoreline even when open water is available. Any deviation, even minor ripples, humps, submerged islands, oyster beds, or live weeds - in short, any feature that breaks the monotony of the bottom, offers some place for them to hide, and is swept by the tide will attract them.

Bridges like this one in St. Augustine offer tide-swept structures that are almost certainly holding reds.

Larger red drums, called “bull reds,” will often hunt the channel between two small islands where the incoming or outgoing tide carries prey items into a natural funnel. If you can access the beach, this is a prime spot for fishing from shore or wading.

The passes around Captiva Island on the Gulf Coast of Florida are popular.

Major features like a pier, jetty, or bridge that’s swept by the tide are excellent places to start. If you’re fishing for reds from shore, or wading, these can be awesome options, too.

This jetty in South Carolina is a perfect example of the structure you’re looking for.

And last, but certainly not least, reds congregate in large schools in the warm, shallow water of salt marshes, using the tidal flow as a delivery service while they hide in the lees created by myriad tiny islands and channels.

Shallow marshes with abundant grass and a maze of tiny islands are the perfect hunting habitats.

Chances are that you’ll find a school of redfish hunting a prime location rather than individual fish, so be ready to go when you get your first bite!

But the wrong conditions can make these attractive locations about as busy as a bus stop at midnight, and if the fish aren’t where they should be, you need to change your game.

Excessive heat, rain, turbidity, and other changes to the shallow water that reds love to hunt can drive them off their preferred spot.

If you’ve hit the barriers, jetties, piers, and mud flats without seeing reds, chances are, they’re schooled up in a transition area.

These transitional zones will be sightly deeper, perhaps as much as 15 to 30 feet, and they’ll be adjacent to or very near their prime hunting grounds.

As Captain John Eggers, a professional redfish guide, explains, “When reds transition, it’s usually to a deeper area pretty close to where they were last seen. If the reds had been on a mud flat, I look for a nearby channel or drop-off, which can be as much as 20 feet deep. If I found them up a creek most recently, I’d check the deeper creek bends or the creek mouth.”

If you can identify a channel, hole, drop off, or other feature that gives reds a place to ride out unfavorable conditions, you’ll be on the fish.

When to Catch Red Drum

Most predatory species are particularly active in the 90 minutes of bookending dawn and dusk, and that’s certainly true for reds.

But as you’ve probably figured out by now, there’s another necessary ingredient: tidal flow.

Tide

Redfish are waiting for a tide to sweep fish, shrimp, and crabs against and along vertical barriers.

boat in water

Look carefully to the left, and you’ll see a few reds waiting in ambush.

For instance, the reason a rocky erosion barrier or jetty gets so much love from hungry reds is that it drags prey items up against it, pushes them along its length, and sucks them past its edges. 

Reds will wait in ambush adjacent to this tidal barrier until something tasty comes along. 

Typically, they’ll be near the bottom, where their downward-facing mouths allow them to suck crabs off the bottom. Their keen eyes will be turned skyward, however, and they’ll watch for any shadow or shape that looks like food in the water column or on the surface.

school of redfish

Redfish school even in very shallow water.

On marshy flats, the reds will hold in the lee of islands near narrow channels, stick tight to just inches of water, and chase small mullet, fat shrimp, and tiny menhaden along the curves of mud islands covered in marsh grass. 

And they’ll school at any natural funnel through which baitfish will be swept by the current.

You can catch red drum without a moving tide, but the fishing is always best when the tide is actively moving.

If you can time your fishing such that dawn or dusk correlate with an active tide, your chances are excellent.

If you can’t manage that - and it can be tough to time every fishing trip to coincide with a moving tide - it’ll be harder to find red drum.

Rain

cloudy weather above lake

Rain can be a mixed blessing when you’re fishing for redfish.

If it’s been raining for weeks, and freshwater has been inundating a salt flat, not only will the salinity be lower, the water will be murky and turbid. 

That can make for very tough fishing in these areas.

But rain can also cool the water down when the heat is unbearable, increase the oxygen content of the water, and turn the bite on if you know where to look.

For me, weeks of rain is a sign to skip the marshes and head to the beaches farthest from freshwater inlets. I’ll be looking for barrier islands and other structure with relatively clear water and direct exposure to the sea.

But stormy weather will often drive bull reds to barrier islands, jetties, and passes for shelter. And a sudden shower, even in a salt marsh, can turn a nothing day into a life-long memory in minutes.

My other tips for rainy-weather reds are to:

  • pay attention to your lure color

When light conditions are low and the water isn’t as clear as I’d like, I switch to bright colors like gold, chartreuse, and white. I’m looking for contrast with the water, and I want to make what I’m throwing very easy to see. A gold spoon, like this H&H weedless, is a perfect rainy-day option.

H&H Weedless

If the water is still clear but the light is dim I stick with natural hues and patterns. A life-like DOA shrimp is perfect in dim light and clear water.

DOA Shrimp

  • increase vibration

If I’m using cut or live bait, and I wan’t already tying-on a popping cork, I certainly will. A good popping cork creates intense vibration that attracts reds like a dinner bell draws hungry cowboys.

Lures like spooks can by magical in low-light conditions with rain crushing the mercury. A big Heddon Super Spook with a bit of flash can draw strikes in turbid water.

Heddon super shook

How to Catch Red Drum

You know where and when to fish, and I’ve already made some tactical recommendations for the rain, but let’s dig down on the details a bit.

Lures and tactics

Obviously, you need to be on the water, in a good spot, at least 45 minutes before sunrise or sunset. And if you’ve timed your trip to catch an incoming tide, you’re in the best place at the best time you can be.

What more do you need?

Sight fishing

On a mud flat, you should keep your eyes peeled. Reds will school in water that’s just inches deep, cutting the surface with their distinctive tails.

Sight fishing reds is a time-tested approach in the marshes, and when you see a few tails peeking above the water, you know where you need to be casting.

I look for birds like gulls or pelicans actively feeding, too. If they spotted bait fish, the reds have, too.

man on boat fish in water

Switch it up

Chances are, you’ll have a buddy or two with you, and you should try a few different lures and presentations to see what’s getting hit. 

When one of you gets bit, you’ll have a very good idea what all of you should be throwing.

Keep it real

Smart anglers will know what the reds are eating and throw lures that mimic that.

Jeff Crabtree, a charter captain and tournament red fisherman agrees. “You don’t want to throw a big mullet-imitating plug when reds are chasing grass shrimp in the shallows. Try to imitate the prey the reds are targeting with the lures you choose. If reds are eating small crabs, casting small paddle-tail jigs might be great. Lures should match the size of baits. A lure designed to imitate a shrimp shouldn’t be worked like a mullet or menhaden.”

That sounds intuitive, but really dig down on the details.

If you’re throwing a paddle tail, it should be swimming, drifting, and twitching like an injured finger mullet, menhaden, or pinfish. But if you’re throwing something like a DOA shrimp, it should be relatively high in the water column, swim more or less steadily, and pulse occasionally for a few seconds.

Even slight variations of your presentation can make a huge difference if they better mimic the real thing.

Don’t be afraid to wade

man holding red fish - stephen

Red fish love shallow water.

But waves slapping the hull of your boat can spook them quickly, whether you’re working waist-deep water near a jetty or knee-deep water in a marsh. Staying back and making long casts can help, but consider getting out of your boat altogether.

Where decent foot protection, slip into the water, and moor your boat far enough away that it’s not an issue.

You’ll be amazed at the difference stealth can make.

Soft plastic near jetties

If you’re fishing a jetty or erosion barrier, work the sea-ward side and both points, including the lee created at each end by the incoming tide. 

I like to run a DOA shrimp down the length of these structures, popping it and letting it fall, varying my cadence, and working slowly. I also love to throw a paddle tail with and swim it back with pauses, twitches, and jerks throughout.

Both of these options allow you to cover a lot of water quickly, much like a crankbait in bass fishing.

Soft plastics in the marsh

If you think weightless paddle tails and flukes are only good around structure, you’d be dead wrong!

Z-man DieZel MinnowZ

Fix a 5-inch paddle tail like a Z-man DieZel MinnowZ  or a Southern Shad Fresco Natural Shrimp on a good hook like the Owner's Twistlock and cast this combo into submerged grasses, swim it down oyster beds, and run it around the edges of tiny islands and points.

You’ll get hit in no time!

And don’t forget that running something like a DOA shrimp under a popping cork works almost as well as live bait.

Carolina rigs

But it’s important to remember that reds are often holding at or near the bottom, and rigs designed to target fish at the bottom of the water column - even if that’s just a few feet - can work wonders.

For instance, I like to Carolina rig DOA shrimp or Zoom Salty Super Flukes, dragging them across the bottom until I get a bite. 

I vary my sinker weight with my intention: when I want to hold still in a current, I add weight. Ditto if I need to cast a fair piece. But if I want the tide or current to drag my soft plastic past where I think a big red will be waiting, I’ll ease up on the size of my sinker until I find that sweet spot that keeps my shrimp on the bottom but light enough to move with the water.

Swim jigs with paddle-tail trailers

Another option that I like a lot are swim jigs. With a good ji and trailer, you’ve got excellent castability, a skirt that looks fantastic, and a trailer that thumps its tail like mad as you work it.

I like to run my swim jigs down the sides of jetties, along pillings, and through the lee areas in a marsh during an incoming tide. Swim jigs like this one from 6th Sense can be amazing.

6th sense swim jig

 

Spoons

There’s no more classic redfish lure than the gold spoon, and there’s a good reason for this.

A well-designed spoon vibrates as it's worked, calling reds in for a closer look. The flash of that gold metal mimics the reflection of a menhaden’s scales, demanding attention from hungry fish.

I have both weedless and standard varieties with me when I’m red fishing.

I love throwing weedless spoons into the tops of submerged grasses and pulling them out into open water. Big reds will often hide in these areas, waiting for prey, and a spoon wriggling past them is nothing short of irresistible.

Twitchbaits

Another fantastic possibility are twitchbaits.

These lures may look like water-covering workhorses, but that’s not the way to use them at all. Yo-Zuri 3DB Pencils are deadly.

Yo-Zuri 3DB Pencil

 

Instead, the idea with a twitchbait is to cast it up current, allowing the water to carry your twitch bait along with it. You give it a few gentle twitches of your rod tip every now and then, and it’ll act like an injured baitfish captured by the current. Daiwa’s Saltiga Dorado Slider can be murder on reds when the water’s cool.

Daiwa’s Saltiga Dorado Slider

This is especially effective when water temps are on the low end for red drum, meaning in the high 50s or low 60s.

Plugs

When I need to cover a lot of water quickly, or target reds that have been driven into transitional zones in deeper water, I’ll reach for a plug.

One option that I like a lot is the X-Rap Long Cast Shallow.

X-Rap Long Cast Shallow

Shallow-running plugs like the X-Rap are fantastic search lures.

It’s a great search lure when run down the sides of a jetty or pier, and I love it for hunting grassy areas for reds waiting in ambush. It also allows for a variety of retrieves, including a submerged “walk the dog” action that’s spot on.

For deeper water, I’m looking for something like a Nomad Design DTX Minnow

The massive bill on the front of this lure gets it moving deep quickly, and it runs at about 13 feet or so, wobbling and hunting for all it’s worth.

Yo-Zuri’s Crystal 3D Minnow is another great option for a deep diver, but don’t forget that it can be worked shallow, too, by popping it and letting it float skyward.

Yo-Zuri’s Crystal 3D Minnow

I’ve seen that technique drive reds wild, and as the lure darts down a few feet and starts to slowly rise, they’ll race up to hit it.

Chatterbaits

Where I fish in Louisiana, “clear” water is a relative term, and if you can see more than a foot or two, that’s pretty good.

Redfish rely more on smell and sound than sight in these conditions, and you want a lure that has flash, color, pattern, and plenty of vibration.

It may sound strange, but one of the most effective marsh lures I know is the chatterbait.

Z-mans original

A natural-colored chatterbait like Z-man’s Original, when sweetened with a paddle tail, fluke, tube - or darn near anything else in an attractive color and pattern - can outproduce anything but live bait some days.

Pop this bad boy up off the bottom and let it flutter to a stop. Run it down the sides of islands, piers, and weed beds.

You can thank me later!

Spooks

Finally, I’d like to talk about spooks.

When I was just starting out in the marshes, my buddy pulled a clear Heddon from his tacklebox, tied it on, and cast it over a grass bed.

The water exploded as he was hit, and it wasn’t just the fish that got hooked!

If the water is warm but not too hot, and the wind is leaving the water relatively calm, I’m not sure you can beat a spook for working the lees of jetties and barriers or the still pools of a marsh.

spook

This Spook has an internal rattle that’s just fantastic for calling reds in for a closer look.

A big Zara Spook, rattling or not, will garner as much attention as all-you-can-eat shrimp at a buffet.

Walk the dog with one of these guys, or pulse and twitch it a few times, and watch what happens!

Live bait

While there are anglers who pass on live bait, I have fishing buddies who won’t throw anything else for red drum, and I understand why.

Especially if you’re struggling to catch fish, switching to live bait can make a night and day difference.

Cut mullet

 

If there’s a clear number one, fresh cut mullet would take the prize.

High in oils that spread scent in the water, nothing calls to reds like fresh cut mullet.

I rig mine with a 2/0 or 3/0 Mutu Light Circle Hook and soak on the bottom. 

Circle hooks are a game-changer, especially if you’re usin\g rod holders and running more than one stick. By design, they’re self hooking, lock up perfectly for catch and release, and increase your odds substantially over traditional J-hook designs.

Menhaden and finger mullet

minnow

A close second to cut mullet, menhaden and finger mullet are easy to rig. If you need a tutorial, check out this article:

How to Hook a Live Minnow

Live bait fish look, sound, and smell just like they should - they’re not imitating anything. And since they’re a natural prey item of redfish, you’d be surprised by how hard they get hit.

I either Carolina-rig them in deeper water, keeping them within a foot or two of the bottom, or run them under a popping cork with a bit of split shot to weigh them down.

popping cork

A good popping cork is a fantastic way to suspend live finger mullet.

Shrimp

shrimp

I have friends who won’t throw live bait other than shrimp, which should tell you how effective they can be.

You want them twitching and swimming for as long as possible, so proper hooking technique is critical. If you need a refresher on how to rig shrimp, we’ve got you covered:

How to Hook Live Shrimp: Three Techniques to Improve Your Odds

I throw my shrimp under a popping cork and give it a rod-tip tug every few seconds.

I don’t typically wait very long for the sound of my drag starting up.

 

popping cork 

Crab

crab

Last, but certainly not least, let’s talk about crab.

Crab is an important part of the redfish’s diet, and their downward-facing mouths should key you into just how significant a food source crab is.

I like blue crabs to be in the 3-to-4-inch range when thrown whole, but I don’t hesitate to cut them in half if they’re too big.

One advantage of crabs is that smaller fish can’t steal them; one disadvantage is that sheepshead and other fish will target them, too.

I reach for a 4/0 or 5/0 Mutu Light Circle Hook for whole crabs, downsizing to a 2/0 or 3/0 for halved crabs and the small ones.

Final Thoughts

Knowing where, when, and how to fish for red drum will change your game for the better, and by incorporating a few of these tips and tactics into your inshore arsenal, you’ll leave bonne chance behind.

Of course, we’ve only just scratched the surface of redfish mastery, and we’d love ot here tips and tricks that have worked for you.

Leave a comment below with your favorite location, lure, or live bait tips. We’d love to hear them!

About The Author
John Baltes