Redfish are not something we usually talk about in February. It is usually rat red season, meaning there are hardly any redfish around of legal size — just babies from 10 to 16 inches, although often there are a lot of them. They form schools and roam around on the flats and in the creeks.
This year we are still seeing a lot of rat reds in the creeks on the west wall and way back among the islands on the east side. But anglers fishing the outer islands of the east side, the outside edge of the west wall, and almost anywhere on the Intracoastal Waterway have been reporting quite a few reds in the 24- to 30-inch range. The docks at Boca Grande and Little Gasparilla Island are also holding some good-sized redfish.
Fishing with shrimp on a jighead has been providing the best results. But pinfish, either alive or cut up, along with cut ladyfish and cut blue crab are catching plenty also. Sometimes there are too many bait thieves to fish with shrimp, which is easy to pull off the hook. However, there’s also the possibility of sheepshead when using shrimp, and they don’t like cut fish at all.
If you’re using natural bait, consider using inline circle hooks. Redfish, especially the smaller ones, often swallow baits very quickly. Redfish season is closed because the FWC is concerned about their numbers. We’re not doing the fish any favors if we gut-hook them. Too many gut-hooked fish die, even if you don’t try to remove the hook and kill them with amateur surgery. Inline (the package might say tournament or non-offset) circle hooks do a great job of hooking fish in the lip rather than down deep. You can get circle hook jigheads as well.
If you’re fishing docks, try to get your bait under the shaded area or at least next to a piling. The conundrum is that your baits need to be close to structure, but you have to be careful to not damage anyone’s property. That includes bouncing jigheads off somebody else’s gelcoat or leaving hooks in their decking. The Golden Rule applies here: Treat their property with the same care as if it were your own. And remember, tying up to or even touching a dock without the owner’s permission is trespassing.
Artificials are also catching quite a few fish in more open areas. Soft plastic DOA shad tails and Z-Man lures seem to be best, and they can be fished on the same jigheads you’re using for shrimp. It’s a good idea to add some Pro-Cure to your lures, even if the manufacturer says they’re already scented. The more smell the better. The longer the baits soak in Pro-Cure, the longer the smell will last.
When fishing the flats or along the shoreline, look for mullet if you can find them. The redfish have been following them around, as they usually are. Mullet aren’t predators, but they disturb a lot of small crabs, shrimp, fish and other potential redfish prey as they root around the mud. Redfish seem to be aware of this and will often be found around schools of feeding mullet. You might also catch a snook or two.
There are a lot of thoughts on why we are seeing so many large redfish this year. The Charlotte County CCA released a bunch of redfish last year. While most were fingerlings, there were some larger fish introduced as well. We also have no red tide, an unusually warm winter, and an abundance of forage fish along the nearshore Gulf.
There are lots of possibilities for what’s driving this unexpected phenomenon. All I know for sure is it’s great to see these fish, and it looks promising for the future of our redfish stocks.
Robert Lugiewicz is the manager of Fishin’ Frank’s Bait & Tackle, located at 4425-D Tamiami Trail in Charlotte Harbor, and a co-host of Radio WaterLine every Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. on KIX 92.9 FM. Call 941-625-3888 for more information about the shop or for local fishing info, or visit them online at FishinFranks.com.