Fishing for redfish is a blast. They're aggressive eaters, known to feed in all conditions and points of the tide, which is why they grow to massive trophy fish sizes. The largest redfish ever caught weighed in at a behemoth 94 pounds.
Although you're unlikely to land one that big, redfish put up a serious fight regardless of size. Even the smallest puppy drum will make you work for the catch, thrashing like a chihuahua that won't let go of a bone.
You'll find redfish along the gulf coast and up the east coast from Florida to Massachusetts. And they have predictable eating habits. This makes them easy to target once you know where to look for them.
My parents live on the gulf coast of Florida, where I spend a lot of time fishing the back bays for these feisty fish. I'll share everything I know about where, when, and how to catch redfish in this article.
Red Drum Characteristics
The red drum is a fish of many names. Redfish, spot tail, red bass, bull red, channel bass, and simply Reds are all interchangeable when referring to red drum. We also use the names puppy drum, slot ds, and bull reds to categorize redfish sizes.
Puppy drum refers to any juvenile red. Slot red refers to any keeper-size redfish, typically with a slot limit between 16-32 inches. However, the exact size will vary based on local size regulations. Bull reds refer to redfish past the age of maturity and well over keeper size meant for catch-and-release fishing.
Redfish usually have a reddish, copper-bronze color. They're darkest towards the spine, gradually becoming lighter shades until turning into a white belly. They're easily distinguished from other reddish fish by a black, eye-like dot usually found on their tail fin. They usually have just one spot but sometimes they have multiple spots or none at all.
The redfish's arched back, blunt nose, and downward-facing mouth distinguish redfish from other reddish-colored fish.
Take a closer look inside a redfish's mouth, and you'll see molar-type teeth at the back of the throat called pharyngeal teeth. Pharyngeal teeth are ideal for crushing hard-shelled prey, unlike the serrated teeth, which line the jaw of many predator fish. Although redfish don’t appear to have any teeth around their mouth, large redfish can have a sharp row of teeth hidden beneath their lip.
Redfish grow rapidly until they reach maturity, typically between 3-5 years old. They'll measure about 25 inches and weigh around 7 pounds at that age. Although their growth rate declines after maturity, it doesn't stop.
Combine that fact with their above-average lifespan, and you have the recipe for some very old, very big fish. Redfish can live to 40 years old and, in that time, grow to over 40 inches long and weigh between 40-60 pounds.
Where To Surf Fish For Red Drum
Redfish are hardy fish capable of thriving in a wide variety of conditions and habitats. They'll feed whether the waters are warm or cold. They're also comfortable in high salinity waters offshore and low salinity waters near inlets and creeks. You'll find them hunting in deep water surf zones, calm coastal waters, and the white water around beach structures.
However, despite their versatile capacity, redfish are creatures of habit. They never stray too far from the area they call home once they reach maturity. They also follow the same routes between high and low tide hangouts. That means once you've found a hotspot for redfish, they're easier to find again.
Many surf anglers target redfish in the water column between 1 to 4 feet deep in calm conditions along the coastline. Although redfish fishing from shore is sometimes possible, you'll need a boat, kayak, or waders to access many of the best shallow water spots.
We're looking for seagrass beds, muddy shoals, mangroves, oyster reefs, underwater structures such as jetties, bridges, docks, and rock pilings in the shallows. The areas where tidal creeks and rivers empty into deeper water are also a redfish favorite. This wide range of natural and manmade features provides ideal habitats for redfish prey. These spots also present strategic feeding opportunities for the redfish that change based on tide and conditions.
When Is The Best Time To Fish For Red Drum
Despite their gluttonous nature, redfish have feeding patterns that make them easier to find and more likely to bite. Let's look at some conditions that indicate it's a good time to fish for redfish.
Like most fish, the tide influences redfish's feeding habits. However, unlike other fish that will only eat at particular points of the tide, redfish are always up for a quick snack. So with redfish, we use the tide not as much to tell us when to fish as we do where to fish at particular times.
Incoming Low Tide
- Tend to bunch up around the shallow edges of seagrass beds, muddy shoals, and mangroves
The incoming low is a go-to tide for just about any species of fish. But, for the ravenous redfish, the incoming low tide can be a display of impatience as they line up for food at a bbq that isn't quite ready yet. At the very edge of seagrass beds, muddy shoals, mangroves, and other intertidal zones (areas dry during low tide and submerged during high), they push into the shallowest water they can manage.
They'll seek little puddles that will soon fill with water as the tide rises. Crabs, small fish, and other redfish food become trapped in the intertidal zone, just out of reach. During this time, look out for the wiggle of their exposed dorsal or tail fins (known as "tailing") as they slide half-submerged along the bottom, edging closer to their food.
Like people lined up at a lunchtime buffet, Redfish tend to bunch together on lower tides. That means if you catch one redfish in the shallow waters around low tide, there's a good chance a few of his friends are around.
- Tend to spread out and seeks shallow spots along the coast and structures like dock pilings, bridges, and jetties.
Redfish spread out as the tide rises and abandon their low tide feeding areas. You should follow them into the newly formed shallows where their food now hides for protection. Look for shallow points along the coastline that were dry not too long ago but are now slightly submerged. Dock pilings, bridges, jetties, mangroves, and other types of structure also provide cover for redfish prey and can be productive spots during high tide.
Redfish have more room to swim during the high tide, so they won't bunch up the same way they do at low tide. That's why I like to fan out my casts, hitting different points in the same shallow zone and moving on if I don't get a bite.
Check out any rivers, streams, and tidal creeks along the coastline during the drop from high tide. Bait fish get pushed from the safety of these inshore waterways and into the larger body of water. Redfish will wait around the mouth of these streams to pick off bait fish caught up in the outward water flow.
Extreme High Tides
- Coastal zones that are typically dry are now submerged, opening up new feeding spots.
When the tide rises above its average height, it presents an interesting opportunity for targeting redfish. Parts of the intertidal zone that are usually dry, even during normal high tide, fill up with water. This creates a fresh feeding ground, chock full of redfish prey caught by the abnormally high tide. So keep your eye on the tide charts and take advantage of big tide swings that will open up a new world of fishing spots.
- Seek shady spots during the midday
If you gave most fish a preference on meal time, they'd choose sunrise and sunset. The day is at its coolest around these times, and fish would rather not have to sweat it out to catch their food. But instead of taking a break from eating during the midday heat, the redfish appetite doesn't give up that easily. Sure, maybe redfish are the most aggressive during the cooler parts of the day. But they'll still take your bait regardless of the time of day or temperature--if you can find them.
Seek out the shadows. Docks, bridges, mangroves, and other coastal structures cast cooling shadows where redfish like to feed when it's hot.
- Sunrise/sunset during the summer
- The hottest point of the day during spring/winter
On cold days in the spring, fall, and winter, the hottest part of the day becomes the most productive fishing times. And if you're looking to land a big bull redfish, the prime time is the late summer into early fall fishing season. During this part of the year, big bull redfish move from offshore spots into the shallows, where spawning conditions are ideal. This bull redfish run is the best time of year to bag a big redfish.
Best Bait For Red Drum
Redfish have a varied diet but the best bait for red drum is whatever is in the water around your fishing spot. I’d recommend learning how to use a cast net to catch your own bait. Or, call into your local bait shop to ask what's been working for other local anglers.
Live or fresh cut mullet is a go-to favorite for targeting redfish. Live mullet is more effective than fresh cut mullet but may be more difficult to find. Frozen mullet gets mushy and comes off the hook when it thaws, so, if possible, choose fresh mullet when using cut bait. If you're targeting big bull reds, consider using a full mullet head on a fish finder rig.
Live crabs, specifically blue crabs, are a great option for targeting redfish because other fish species don't normally eat them.
Redfish have teeth designed for grinding up hardshell food like crabs.. Just keep in mind that crab size makes a difference if you're targeting a specific size redfish. Big Crab = Big Red.
Mullet gets a special mention because it's a redfish favorite, but other baitfish are also effective. Pinfish, killifish, menhaden, spot, pilchards, greenies, and pogies are some of the most popular.
Look into what baitfish are around your fishing spots. Catching baitfish with a cast net directly from your fishing spot is ideal and reduces the cost of fishing.
Redfish love shrimp, but so does everything else. Live shrimp is one of the most common live baits you'll find at a bait shop and one of the cheapest.
Hooking a live shrimp is more effective for redfish than frozen shrimp and is worth the extra money. If you want to catch redfish and don't mind also catching other species, shrimp is a convenient, catch-all bait choice.
Similar to shrimp, squid is another catch-all bait that redfish will eat. Fresh cut or frozen squid doesn't have the advantage of natural movements like shrimp, and other live baits do. However, it's cheap, easy to find, and convenient to store and transport.
If you're fishing for redfish with a spoon lure, I recommend hooking a squid strip as a trailer. It adds scent and some extra appeal to the lure presentation.
Bait For Puppy Drum vs. Bull Reds
Puppy drums, slot reds, and bull reds will all take the same bait. However, changing the size of your bait presentation is the most effective way to catch your target redfish size.
When using fresh cut or frozen bait, cut the bait up into 2 to 4 inch pieces to target puppy drum/slot reds and 6-8 inch pieces for bull drum bait. If you're using live bait, try to use large bait for bulls and smaller for puppy drums.
Best Lures And Artificial Bait For Red Drum
Owning a diverse arsenal of artificial lures is a great way to target redfish. It allows you to quickly switch up tactics when jumping between different spots or if you're not having luck with a particular presentation.
Here are some of the best lures for targeting redfish and some advice on how to fish them.
- Great for shallows and structures prone to snags with heavier drum lures
- Topwater splash action can help draw in fish from spots nearby.
How to fish it: Reel, then jerk. Alternate reeling speed and jerking frequency before giving up on the spot.
- Great around structures, streams, & inlets
- Baitfish-imitating lures mimicking an injured fish
How to fish it: Jerk, pause, reel. The jerk pulls the lure down, and the fish will most likely strike on the pause as the lure floats up. Try multiple jerks before reeling, and make sure to wait!
- ¼ to ½ ounce
- Great for darker water
- Make sure to use a concave lure (weedless) fishing around grassy beds & weeds.
How to fish it: Consistent reel retrieve. Alternate reeling speeds between medium and fast before giving up on the spot.
Artificial Shrimp And Crab
- Hooked on a bait rig or jighead
How to fish it: Let it sink to the bottom, then lift and lower the rod in a slow, smooth motion. The effect is the lure to rise slowly off the bottom and then sink back.
- Great for clean water spots
How to fish it: Slow and steady retrieval.
- Soft plastic jerk shads are the best for redfish.
- Rigged on a ⅛ to ¼ ounce jighead
How to fish it: Let it sink to the bottom, then give a couple of quick jerks, pulling the lure off the bottom and closer to you. Pause as the lure sinks back to the bottom, then reel in the slack
The Equipment You Need
- 6-8 feet casting or spinning rod for puppy drum & slot reds
- 7 feet or more for bull reds
- Medium to medium-heavy power
- Moderate to fast action
Average Recommendation: 7-foot spinning rod - medium heavy power - fast action
- 2500-3500 size reel
- Smaller for puppy drum &slot reds
- Larger for bull reds
Average Recommendation: 3000 size reel
- 8 to 15-pound monofilament line / 30 to 50-pound braided line for grassy & muddy shoals
- 15 to 25-pound monofilament line / 50 to 80-pound braided line for fishing around structures like bridges, jetties, docks, & oyster beds
- 20 to 30-pound fluorocarbon leader is optional but recommended when fishing around structures or with light line
Average Recommendation: 12-pound monofilament line with 20-pound fluorocarbon leader
Redfish are a popular game fish for a reason. They're aggressive fish that put up a good fight, taste great, and can grow to an impressive size. So whether you're looking to bag your first red or trying to improve your targeting of this predatory fish, I hope you've found some of this advice helpful. My parting suggestion is to put the time into learning your fishing area. Walk or paddle the coastline at high, low, and mid-tide. Learn when certain features present a good opportunity to target redfish, then give it a go. In no time, you'll learn where to find your consistent fix of redfish fights.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.