Guest Post by Dena Standley —
My favorite spot for fishing is in the Crystal Beach area of the Bolivar Peninsula, just a ferry ride across the bay from Galveston. It is one of the few beaches left that allows you to drive onto the beach, making it easy to get all your gear set up for a day of fishing bliss.
We spend a large part of each summer here, and saltwater fishing is always fascinating because despite what bait and rigging you use, you are never really sure exactly what will be on the end of the line when you feel that first tug. Growing up fishing the area lakes of deep East Texas are some of my best memories, but once I caught my first shark shore fishing in the gulf, I was immediately addicted to the suspense of not knowing exactly what you would catch.
For those who don’t know, redfish are a type of drum found all along the Gulf and the East Coast. The best day I have ever had in catching large bull reds, the rigging was actually a homemade concoction we were using to surf fish for sharks. It is not uncommon to catch good-sized blacktip sharks, bonnetheads and the occasional bull shark from this stretch of beach.
Bull Red Magic in the Gulf Surf
The week before, I had lost a couple of really good hits due to hook and/or line breakage. My husband decided to try making our rigging to be a bit more durable, and better equipped for larger sharks. So, we were using six-foot steel coated leaders made from 125-pound coated leader material from Bass Pro Shop. Attached to the leaders, were 8/O circle hooks. The pole was a Penn Squadron II, twelve feet in length. My Penn Slammer III reel was loaded with 80-pound Power Pro braided line from Spectra.
The 12-foot pole is a little shorter than what most people use for surf fishing, but I can handle it better and cast it further. It really matters that you feel comfortable with your gear.
We stay flexible on bait, but know that ladyfish, croakers, crab, sheepheads, and stingrays all make good versatile bait. On this particular day last summer, bait was not plentiful, so we were using cut crab.
I had waded out to the second sandbar, and estimate that my line was two hundred to two hundred and twenty yards offshore. Not expecting a lot of action, I stayed on the second sandbar just enjoying the beauty of the hot summer day. In just moments, I felt the first hit and set the hook. My first thought was that I had hooked a large ray, as they tend to sink to the bottom and just stick, making them a challenge to get in.
The tide was also coming in, and I still had to cross a gully that was now chin-deep. I fought for a while, making very little progress. So, not being entirely sure what I had on the line, I decided it might be safer to retreat to the beach before continuing this battle. My husband had come out to the sandbar to see what was going on, so we slowly made it back across the gully with him pulling me by the straps on my bathing suit. After all, there was no way I was letting go of the rod.
Once on the beach, it took a solid 20 minutes to finally land what turned out to be the largest bull redfish I had ever seen. She weighed in at 47 pounds and was 40 inches long. Bull Reds are known for their endurance, as well as putting up a good fight. This one did not disappoint in either category.
We practice catch and release, so after some quick pictures, she was released to be on her way. In Texas, there is a redfish bag limit of 3 and a slot limit of 20-28 inches and one “over” per year if tagged. I had my tag, but with no intention of eating the fish, a picture makes the best memento.
After a few minutes reprieve to let the adrenaline wear off, and my arms to stop throbbing, I was ready to go again. Using the same rigging and bait, I waded back out to the same area. This time, I had to swim across the gully to reach the sandbar due to the incoming tide. I cast my bait, and just enjoyed that feeling of pleasure that comes after having made a great catch.
Within 10 minutes, the rod doubled over again. This time, I felt more confident that I knew what I had. I did not think I could land it from the sandbar, however, so I had to signal my husband for back up. He was able to walk the pole across the gully (barely) thereby saving me from being pulled out to open water.
This one had more fight, or it could be that I was just more exhausted, but it took a bit longer to finally pull her in. These fish are notorious for being deceptive. I thought I had played this one out more than once, and just as I would start to make serious progress in bringing her in, she would surprise me by getting back in the fight stronger than before.
I almost lost this one to inexperience and complacency. After getting her almost into the shallows, she made one last show of brute force by swimming straight at me so fast the line was slack. As I was trying to play catch up, a sudden left turn down the beach took me by total surprise. Thankfully, I was able to take up the slack just before the turn, and head her back my way.
This one had multiple black spots, instead of the usual trademark of one black spot on most red drums. If not for that, I would have been convinced I had just caught the same fish twice. She was also a bit smaller at 43 pounds, and 35 inches long. Once again, we grabbed our quick pictures and released her back into the gulf.
I would have loved to have given it a third try, but shore fishing for game fish requires a lot of physical effort, and I was content with a great doubleheader on two of the largest fish I had ever caught. The decision had nothing to do with the quivering bicep muscles or the dull ache across my shoulders after battling two of the beast less than half an hour apart.
Family Introduction to Texas Redfish
Prior to this magical fishing day, the only other bull red caught in our family was by our middle son. He was 15 at the time. He had kayaked out some bait for my husband and took his pole with him. He was probably fishing somewhere around 400 yards offshore.
It was a calm day on the gulf, and we saw him set the hook. The next thing I know, he is holding a bent rod and being pulled out to open water. My husband is yelling “give it line, GIVE IT LINE.” I am not sure if he was able to hear, or just finally came to his senses, but he did pay out the line while paddling backward to shore. Once he was in close enough to reach, we pulled the kayak in with him in it.
We didn’t weigh or measure, but this one was probably closer to 35 pounds. My son learned an important lesson about fishing from a kayak in the open ocean. If you hook a large, powerful fish in a small kayak, get to shore before you try to land it.
A Few Gulf Redfish Fishing Tips
Because red drums were never a species that we specifically targeted, I knew very little about them. After my encounter that day, I learned that they are a great gamefish because they are fond of many types of fresh bait. They prefer shallow waters and are prevalent along bays and areas with submerged vegetation. In the warm gulf waters, they spawn from mid-August through mid-October. As it was mid-July, and we were fishing in the open surf, it was just a lucky day to catch two of that size.
The key to catching bull reds seems to be more about where and when than it is about how to. Any tackle heavy enough to handle them will work. If fishing in the surf, you do need a heavy grabbing sinker to keep bait stationary on the bottom. Circle hooks are crucial because they are almost always hooked on the corner of the mouth, making it easy for them to fight their way off of standard hooks as well as minimizing gut-hooks.
They are not as picky as most game fish about what they will eat. However, it does seem that the larger bulls usually prefer fresh bait. Live mullet, cut crab and croakers seem to be among their favorite. I have also had success with cut ray, and live ladyfish. The key to success seems to be in knowing what time of year, and the areas that they prefer.
In clear water, which we do not have on this part of the Texas coast, you can often see the large schools. In our murkier waters, I pay attention to birds feeding and being able to see small fish jumping from the water. This can often indicate a school of reds pushing them upward. If you do land a nice one, remember to get your hook back in the water as soon as possible. The schools don’t move fast, but once they are gone, there is no way to tell when you might find another.
Redfish vs Bull Reds
In Texas, the fish I am talking about is referred to as a redfish, or often just reds. Once they reach a size exceeding 27 inches, they are called bulls or a bull red. In other parts of the country, they are usually referred to as red drums. Both names are correct and refer to the same species of fish.
We tend to assign a male pronoun to large fish, but technically a bull redfish is any red over 27 inches, male or female. It is interesting to note that females normally grow larger than males. That means that the odds are good that the two fish I caught were both females.
The moniker, bull red, is technically determined by of the length of these fish, but it is especially appropriate given their bullish behavior once hooked. When surf fishing, very little matches the thrill of hooking one of these large fighters. It has become so addicting, that we now find ourselves extending our summer trips to the beach just to be here when they start to run in mid-August.
About the Author:
My name is Dena Standley. I am a wife, mom, and freelance writer. My passions are reading, writing, traveling and spending as much time as possible near or on the ocean. A favorite hobby for my entire family is saltwater fishing, and we spend as much of our summer as possible on the Texas Gulf Coast.