Fish Facts: Redfish (Sciaenops ocellatus)

Orvis’s Chrissy Penn shows off a South Carolina redfish caught from the spartina grass.
Photo by Tyler Atkins

A species known as much for its light flavor as for its sporting qualities, the redfish (Sciaenops ocellatus) is the only species in its genus, which sets it apart from the other fish commonly known as “drums.” The combination of the redfish’s love for shallow-water flats and its willingness to pounce on almost any food-like morsel it see makes the species a favorite of fly fishers. But they’re no pushovers: casting to a school of tailing redfish requires a quick delivery, accuracy, and a delicate presentation. Once you hook a big redfish and feel its power, you’ll understand why anglers call them “bulls.”

Marshes and Flats
Like most shallow-water species, redfish follow the tide up onto grassy flats and marshes in search of food. They are found over all types of bottoms but seem to prefer areas with submerged vegetation and soft mud, in which they can root for crustaceans and other morsels. Redfish will feed in water just inches deep, and tailing activity is most common at dawn and dusk. Other hot spots can include mangroves, oyster beds, the muddy areas around jetties and pier pilings, and in cold weather they often congregate in tidal creeks and rivers.

The world-record redfish—a 94-pound 2-ounce behemoth—was caught off Hatteras, North Carolina in 1984, while the fly-caught record is a 43-pounder from Florida’s Banana River Lagoon in 1995.

This Louisiana Marsh redfish is no beast, but it still puts a bend in a fly rod.
Photo by Sandy Hays

Range and Habits
The full range of the redfish stretches from Massachusetts to Key West, and around the rim of the Gulf of Mexico to the Mexican city of Tuxpan, but they don’t exist in targetable numbers north of Chesapeake Bay and in extreme southern Florida. True world-class fishing for trophy redfish can be found in the marshes of the Southeast, Florida’s Indian River Lagoon system, along the Sunshine State’s western coast, in the marshes of Louisiana, and in the shallows off Texas.

In the 1980s, a marked decline in redfish populations was often blamed on famous chef Paul Prudhomme, who had popularized blackened redfish as table fare, but biologists believe that the species had been struggling since the late seventies due to overharvesting of young redfish in coastal waters by sport fishermen, declining water quality, and loss of habitat. Catch limits and bans on commercial fishing have allowed the species to recover. Hatchery programs helped rebuild stocks, and farm-raised redfish replaced commercial fishing. In 2007, President George W. Bush making permanent regulations that already banned the commercial harvesting of redfish in federal waters.

Redfish can withstand a wide range of salinities and temperatures and can often be found in tidal areas of rivers. The fish spend their early lives in estuaries, feeding on plankton and growing rapidly—up to 14 inches in the first year. Redfish grow throughout their entire life span, although once they hit about 36 inches, they add more girth than length. Juvenile fish spend as much as four years in the estuary before migrating into nearshore waters to join groups of other mature fish. Spawning takes place from midsummer through fall, depending on the location.

Capt. Gary Taylor’s fly box includes patterns with different sink rates to match water conditions.
Photo by Sandy Hays

Adult redfish are voracious feeders—snacking mostly on crabs, shrimp, and baitfish—and they will pounce on a wide variety of fly patterns. They locate food by sight, touch, and by vacuuming the bottom, and because the fish are generally looking downward, lightly weighted flies that you can hop along the bottom work well. Although redfish aren’t known to be as finicky as bonefish or permit, here are lots of redfish-specific patterns available, and “generalist” patterns such as Clouser Minnows and Deceivers, tied to imitate local baitfish, also work well. Spoon flies, which wobble enticingly when retrieved slowly, are favorites for grassy areas, especially those with off-color water.

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