There we were, watching reds swim back and forth, their tail fins cutting the water. My buddy and I could see a school of them, but we couldn’t get our boat over the shallow to get close enough to cast.
Kayaks are the perfect platform for sight fishing for reds.
Trust me, we tried!
But if we’d been on kayaks, we’d have been casting to those hungry fish in seconds.
Kayak fishing for redfish, whether you’re working salt marshes in a moving tide or you’re just off the beach in a few feet of water, is pure bliss. Hooking a big red drum from a ‘yak is definitely something special, and it’s a thrill you’ll never forget.
If you want to know more about kayak fishing for redfish, keep reading! We’ll cover the basics you need to get started, whether you’re new to the sport or just new to ‘yaks.
Table of Contents (clickable)
Sciaenops ocellatus doesn’t stir the blood like the simple word “redfish” does, and while the common name for this species might be reckoned as red drum, I’ve never heard that name spoken by anyone in Louisiana or any of the other hot spots for this species.
Red drum are very easy to identify.
Instead, “reds” is all you'll hear, often with more than a tinge of excitement in the speaker’s voice.
The red drum is a distinctive copper brown shading to orange, sporting immediately recognizable tail spots that look like big black eyes.
Growing to average sizes of 28 to 33 inches, depending on the sex of the fish, reds are voracious predators that eat everything from crabs to shrimp, as well mullet, Menhaden, croaker, and many other species of small fish.
According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, “For the first three years of their lives red drum live in the bays or in the surf zone near passes.” They typically stay put, remaining within three miles or so of where they were spawned. Moreover, “Although there is little evidence of seasonal migrations, anglers find concentrations of red drum in rivers and tidal creeks during the winter. Daily movement from the shallows to deeper waters is influenced by tides and water temperatures. During the fall, especially during stormy weather, large adult red drum move to the gulf beaches, possibly for spawning, where they can be caught from piers and by surf anglers.”
Locations like this are prime red habitats during the cooler months of the year.
In the cooler months, shallow waters just off the beach and the tidal estuaries and salt flats of the Gulf of Mexico offer simply outstanding fishing, especially during a moving tide.
And given how shallow these waters are, kayaks are just perfect for a stealthy approach to big bull reds in excess of 27 inches.
Our Best Tips for Kayak Fishing for Reds
Watch the weather and tide
Experts report that reds “have a temperature preference between 70° and 90°F. Redfish may move to find warmer water when temperatures get below 70°F and probably won't feed at all when temperatures get below 52°F.”
You can use that information to your advantage.
When the water is bath-like during the height of the summer, reds will head for deeper water and scatter, making them hard to target. But as the weather cools, they’ll look for warm shallows where the sun is still able to keep water temps high. That will concentrate them along beaches and in tidal estuaries where they’re easy to find and target.
Reds like a moving tide, as that steady pull draws prey items along with it. They’ll wait in cover, just watching for crab or shrimp or mullet to be pulled close before they explode into a strike.
For you, this means having your kayak ready when the water starts to cool in fall and studying your local tidal charts. When the sea starts to cool below 75 degrees or so, and the tide is moving, head shallow and get ready!
Get in close
Reds love shallow tidal flats where the water stays deliciously warm and prey are concentrated by a moving tide.
They’ll often congregate in water that’s shallow enough to reveal their dorsal and tail fins, curing back and forth like copper-colored sharks.
Big boats often can’t reach some of these hot spots, but kayaks can.
Bring a push pole or a strong paddle, and don’t be afraid to push yourself through just inches of water to a shallow pool beyond. And don’t think that just a foot of water - or even less! - won’t hold big reds.
That’s deep water for redfish in a tidal flat!
Choose the right tackle
Reds have a lot of fight in them, and they can get as heavy as 100 pounds.
But most will weigh in no lighter than about 10 pounds and no heavier than 50, though they’ll feel like you’ve hooked an alligator!
Because estuaries and beaches tend to be windy places, I generally prefer spinning tackle for reds.
I prefer a longer medium to medium-heavy rod like the St. Croix Triumph. For me, the 7-foot, 6-inch medium-heavy, fast action is just perfect, allowing for long casts and hard fights. St. Croix’s rods are simply excellent in every respect, and you’ll love the way this rod fishes, guaranteed.
But it can be pricey, and not everyone can drop that kind of money on a rod. I own and fish an Ugly Stik Elite in medium-heavy power. And that 7-foot rod can turn the head of any red in the water, casts well, and won’t leave your wallet empty.
I pair my red rods with strong, capable spinning reels like the awesome 3000-size Penn Battle II. It offers ample silky-smooth drag, more than enough speed to keep a tight line, and plenty of fight-winning power and torque.
Pick one up; you won’t be disappointed.
Awesome reels like the tried-and-tested Penn Battle II are perfect for red drum.
I like to run good, strong monofilament like Trilene Big Game. Clear, Coastal Brown, and Green are all good color choices, depending on the water you’re fishing. Big Game is very abrasion resistant, which is great if I’m fishing around pilings, rocks, or oyster shells.
I typically spool on 12-pound test for most of my reds, but I run 20-pound leaders below my popping corks for a little added security.
If the 12 isn’t getting it done, I’ll switch to a braided superline like Sufix 832 in 20- or 30-pound test. The reason is simple: mono of 20-pound test or larger doesn’t cast very well, whereas the braid does.
So if I know I’m after bulls, 30-pound braid with a 30-pound mono leader is just right for me.
Here are full guides on buying a rod and reel for redfish:
Know your live bait and rig ‘em right
The prey items reds key in on change from season to season, and in the cooler months where they’re concentrated in the shallows, finger mullet is never a bad idea.
Whether you rig them weedlessly or suspend them under a popping cork, they draw red drum with their wriggling, erratic action and scent.
Weedless mullet rigs are murder on reds when the weather is cool.
I’ve had a lot of success with Precision Tackle’s Cajun Thunder, but most brightly-colored popping corks are excellent choices.
I don’t leave the boat launch without a popping cork or two.
The trick is to use strong leader material and keep it short, typically about 18 to 24 inches. You want the mullet to swim around and really call a hungry red in.
In shallow salt flats, you won’t need to wait long, and I've had days where they were taken seconds after hitting the water.
I’ve had plenty of luck with shrimp, too, and several avid red fishermen I know use fresh shrimp in preference to anything else.
Properly rigged shrimp are always a good idea, even in the winter months.
They typically rig shrimp under a popping cork and work the narrow channels and flats in December, January, and February, and when they hit a moving tide, it can get downright ugly.
Charter captains who earn a living catching reds tend to really like crabs. Just ask Charlie Gray. "I prefer small blue crabs 3 to 5 inches across the shell and rig them on 3/0 to 7/0 circle hooks with 3 to 4 feet of 30- to 40-pound fluorocarbon leader. And I add a 2- to 4-ounce egg sinker above the swivel connecting the leader to the main line of 30- to 50-pound braid."
The only problem with crabs is that lots of species like them.
If you need a refresher on how to rig a crab, check out this video:
Choose the right hook
For reds, nothing beats a circle hook.
Good circle hooks like this Gamakatsu are essential for strong, sure hook-ups.
The unique design of a circle hook makes them self-setting, and when the red takes off with your live bait, it’ll automatically slide that hook into the corner of its mouth and punch it in deep.
Just start reeling!
2/0 to 7/0 Gamakatsus are my circle hook of choice, and I vary the size to match my live bait.
Trust me, switching to a premium brand with a circle hook design is going to make a huge difference in your connection percentage, and you’ll never miss a strike again.
Don’t forget your lures
Live bait may be the most reliable choice for reds, but don’t overlook lures.
High-quality gold spoons are legendary for their performance with red drum, and there’s something about the shimmy and flash of this design that drives them wild.
My favorite is undoubtedly the H&H Secret Redfish Weedless Spoon.
The H&H spoon is as good as they come.
Available in ¼, ½-, and ¾-ounce sizes, you can cast these spoons into weed beds and drag them through without worrying about getting snagged, and you can cover a lot of water really quickly.
I’m a big fan of these when I’m fishing reds in slightly deeper water, say, just off a beach. For me, they’ll outproduce live bait under a popping cork in those situations.
You can also count me as Rapala man, and for topwater, I love the Rapala Saltwater Skitter Walk. Designed to “walk the dog,” it really struts its stuff on the surface, enticing reds to hit it hard.
Don’t overlook top water options, too.
And never underestimate a gold spinner with a shrimp-colored trailer. Especially in deeper water, where you’re fishing at a depth of 5 to 10 feet, the flash, thump, and wriggle they create is simply deadly.
My pick is the Strike King Redfish Magic with a “New Penny” trailer.
Try it, and you’ll be amazed.
Kayak fishing for redfish is exhilarating, and tying into a big bull and having it drag your bow around the points of the compass is something every angler should experience.
It’s important to keep safety in mind, especially where you’ll be sharing the water with power boats, so don’t overlook a good safety lighting system. You’ll want to be as visible as you can be, so be sure to use a lag as well.
We hope that you learned something from this article, but we’re sure you've still got questions.
We’re here to answer them, so be sure to leave a comment below.