- Black sea bass have dangerously sharp spines on their dorsal fin that can puncture human skin.
- The all-tackle world record for black sea bass is 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
- When hooked in deep water and brought quickly to the surface, a black sea bass will often regurgitate its stomach contents.
Like many popular fish species, red drum have quite a few aliases. However, unlike many other species, they are also referred to by names that denote their size: "Bulls"—the big ones, and "puppies"—those of lesser proportions, are two common monikers. I have absolutely no intention of defining the dividing line between the two, as it varies widely throughout the fish's range. Actually, in some places there are three size designations: one for the smallest, one for the largest, and one for those that fall in-between. For our purposes we'll ignore everything below 36 inches—roughly 20 pounds—and concentrate on where and how to run with the bulls.
First of all, be aware that possession of bull reds is prohibited in certain states as well as in the federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico (the "Exclusive Economic Zone"), and is highly restricted in others. These fish are the breeders and are protected to ensure future generations. In truth, they don't taste nearly as good as the puppies do and probably would have never become as threatened were it not that a certain rotund New Orleans chef burned a fillet one night and had to season the hell out of it to hide his mistake! But that aside, the bulls are best appreciated for their strong, dogged resistance to being hooked—they do pull!
Red drum "bulls" are roughly defined as any fish over 20 pounds.
With a few exceptions, most bulls will be found in nearshore waters. During late summer and early fall they spawn there, often near the mouths of major passes and inlets and on a rising tide. The rest of the year they spend either roaming open water—frequently in huge schools, or prowling the surf. While they can be caught in the former setting, the latter is by far more consistently productive. For fishing purposes it is also best divided into two "patterns."
Surf’s Up! (or Down)
The first pattern is made up of natural beach areas and any passes—large and small—that transect them.
The seabed immediately offshore of a sandy beach typically consists of a series of troughs and bars roughly paralleling the beach and extending seaward. Normally there is a trough against the beach, then a shallow bar, then a slightly deeper trough, a slightly deeper bar, and finally a gradual descent. In this setting, bulls are frequently taken from the second trough on a rising tide and even more so when the ocean is roiled. Then you lob a mullet's head or half a blue crab hooked on a fish-finder rig into the second trough, place your surf-stick into a sand spike (a rod holder made for this purpose), open up your lawn chair, pop the top on a cold one, and sit back to enjoy the surroundings while you wait for a bite. A whole lot of bull reds have been and will be caught in exactly that manner.
A more active form of pursuing bull reds in the surf is to do just that: pursue them. What you seek, though, is not the fish themselves but a discontinuation of the trough/bar/trough sequence, which will serve as a blocking element for bulls chasing prey.
This form of structure, like the troughs and bars, can be determined by the hue of the water: shallow is light, deep is dark. When a deep, dark trough suddenly turns light, it has become shallow, and any prey that have been herded against that end of it will become easy pickings.
During periods of turbulent surf (a really good time to fish for bull reds!), the water's hue can become difficult to determine. Then it's time to let the pattern of the breakers show you the best spots to fish. Remember that the swells break against the shallows and slide unbroken across deeper water. By correctly reading the water in the surf—by either its hue or by the lay of the breakers—you will be able to put your bait where it is most likely to be sniffed out by a bull.
Passes and the surf around their mouths can also be quite productive. Generally the smaller ones are best during a falling tide of moderate range and strength; the bigger ones—"inlets"—often shine brightest on the rising tide. All require the utmost care while wading into casting position, and if conditions are such that you can't tell how deep the water will be after you take your next step, don't take that step!
Whether in the surf or on the flats, wading helps you get closer to bull reds without spooking the fish.
Within the confines of a pass you should concentrate your efforts around bridge abutments, the mouths of feeder creeks, and any sandbars or flats dividing the pass at its mouth. Avoid featureless banks unless that's all there is, then take pot luck; one spot along such a bank can be as good—or as bad—as any other!
On The Rocks
The second pattern is a jetty extending seaward from the mouth of a pass. These are usually created with granite boulders, and the nooks and crannies within them provide haven for all sorts of creatures bull redfish eat. That's the reason jetties are the ultimate producers of these fish in many areas. Indeed, if I simply had to catch a 30-pounder on any given day throughout the year, I'd head for a jetty.
Jetties can be effectively worked in several manners. Trolling a pair of CD18 Magnum Rapalas up and down their lengths at 3 knots or so will get the attention of any that are around. Power drifting with a trolling motor while casting large jigs—or large flies with a 12-weight outfit and a sinking line—is also effective. You can also soak bait and let them come to you, and that demands discussion on terminal rigging and gear.
For trolling purposes a 7-foot "king mackerel" outfit with the reel holding 200 yards or more of 30-pound mono is adequate. Tie the line to one end of a black ball-bearing swivel; to the other end, attach a 5-foot leader of 50-pound fluorocarbon, followed by the lure.
A 3-foot, 50-pound fluorocarbon leader is sufficient for casting big jigs with 6 -foot medium-heavy pitching sticks, reels like Penn's 965 and 975, and 20- to 30-pound line. Connect the line to the leader with an Albright knot.
Fishing bait around a jetty invites a lot of lost tackle, but that can be minimized by using a breakaway rig. Tie the line to a black barrel swivel, then tie around 3 feet of 50-pound fluorocarbon to the swivel and a size 9/0 circle hook. Now tie a foot of 12-pound mono "dropper" to the swivel and to a bank sinker. Fish this rig almost vertically. If the sinker still happens to foul in the rocks, it should be all you will lose. The same outfit used for casting jigs is also suitable for soaking bait.
Power drifting with large jigs is a textbook presentation around jetties.
A big-spinning reel holding 200 yards or more of 20-pound mono and a rod 10 to 11 feet long will benefit your surf fishing efforts. In moderate surf conditions with little current, a fish-finder rig works well. Begin by threading an egg sinker just heavy enough to hold bottom onto the line, then tie the line to a black barrel swivel. The leader is again around 3 feet of 50-pound fluorocarbon and finished with a size 9/0 circle hook.
In heavier surf a 3-way rig is popular. Tie the line to one end of a 3-way swivel, a short dropper with a pyramid sinker to another, and the leader with its hook to the third. As always, use just enough weight to hold bottom. Also, whenever you use a circle hook—which will normally lodge in the fish's jaw, providing for a safe release—don't yank on the rod when you get a bite; apply steady pressure on the fish by reeling, and the fish will set the hook for you.
Two tried-and-true enticers are mullet heads and half of a large blue crab. Assuredly, other forms of natural bait will work, since bulls aren't often choosy. Those two simply provide more of a resistance to bait stealers than most others. And with that, you know all you need to know about how to catch a brawny bull red. Now go get 'em!