If you’ve been around the area for a while, you’ve probably heard of Red October. If you haven’t, it’s the belief that October is the month the Harbor loads up with big redfish from the Gulf. While it’s true-ish, you have to remember that redfish don’t have calendars, so some years it’s earlier or later.
For the past several years, it’s been earlier. First it was Red September, then it was Red August. As early as we saw some of these bull reds turning up this year, we might be looking at Red July in a year or two.
What’s driving these changes? Hard to say. But the bald fact is that redfish have suddenly popped up all around Charlotte Harbor. We’re getting reports from the mouths of the rivers to Pine Island Sound and everywhere in between.
The redfish schools seem to show up earliest in a few predictable places. Two of the best-known are the Turtle Bay bar and the bar just south of Burnt Store. Reds have traditionally been on these spots by mid-September, but for the past couple years the reports have been coming about a month early. I don’t know if they’re actually showing up sooner or maybe it’s just there are more eyeballs on the water and more loose lips at the dock.
Finding them is just the first step. You still have to get them to eat. Natural baits are easy to use and generally work very well. Although you can use freshly caught baitfish or store-bought shrimp, I suggest chunks of cut pinfish or ladyfish. The scent of cutbait seems to be almost irresistible to a hungry redfish, though you have to put up with an occasional catfish or little shark snarfing your hook.
To avoid unwanted bycatch, you can switch to artificial lures. While there are almost unlimited options (just scan the walls of any tackle shop), there are two that can be amazingly productive in late summer and early fall.
Spoons are perhaps the best and most universal lure in the world. They’re simple, but the flash they create imitates a baitfish better than just about anything else, including the ultra-realistic lures that are currently so popular. Think about what a fish sees, not what a fisherman sees.
Although the half-ounce size is the most popular all-round choice, smaller versions (eighth- and quarter-ounce) are going to catch more redfish right now. There are huge numbers of smaller baitfish in the Harbor, and a smaller spoon matches the size of those baits much better.
Flats-style spoons, made of thinner metal and with a single (usually weedless) hook, are the ideal choice. You can work them fast or crawl them slowly across the bottom. Gold is far and away the most popular color, though others will also catch fish.
My other favorite lure is a shad-tail soft plastic bait. It can be a ready-made swimbait or a bait you put on a jighead. Like a flats spoon, these lures can be worked fast or slow, allowing you to figure out the exact retrieve the fish are looking for (here’s a hint, though: It’s probably slow this time of year).
A big advantage of soft plastic lures is they can be soaked in scent attractants. Menhaden oil, WD-40, garlic or anise sprays, Pro-Cure, coffee grounds — whatever you think will give your bait a little added appeal and also cover up your human stink.
Whatever method you use to catch them, it’s important to put as much effort into making sure they swim away healthy — especially the big broodstock fish that start showing up inshore around this time.
Use heavy enough to tackle to keep the fights short. If it takes you more than two minutes from the time you set the hook until the fish is in hand, you need heavier gear. Light tackle is fun, but save it for when the water is cooler and holds more oxygen.
After you get your trophy photos, take a minute or three to revive the fish. Hold it by the lower lip and move it forward (not back and forth, not side to side) in the water until it fights back enough to be hard to hold onto.
If it won’t revive within a few minutes, you can try putting it in your livewell and running the pump. Just remember that possession of oversize or over-bag-limit reds is illegal. Be ready to explain your situation if necessary, and don’t move the boat with such a fish in the well.
This is a turning point in Southwest Florida fishing. We’re on the downward side of summer, and the action should continue to improve with the weather — at least, we hope it well. And hope is never a bad thing.
Robert Lugiewicz is the longtime manager of Fishin’ Frank’s (4200 Tamiami Trail Unit P, Charlotte Harbor) and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Contact him at 941-625-3888.