Sciaenops ocellatus, the fish that single-handedly sparked my conversion into fly fishing, is commonly known as the redfish. If the name redfish doesn’t ring a bell, you’re probably not from the South, but may have heard this fish referred to as red drum, puppy drum, spot tail, or channel bass.
Redfish are found up and down the Atlantic coast from the Chesapeake Bay to the Florida everglades. Texas grass flats and Louisiana salt marshes are well-known redfish habitats as well. Reds are famous for ferocious eats, hard fights, and their iconic spotted tails.
Much of the allure to hunting redfish resides in the phenomenal sight fishing opportunities they’re feeding habits create. Reds prey primarily on baitfish, shrimp, and crabs that occupy the salt flats.
Redfish aren’t particularly picky. They’re a saltwater species likely to smash whatever you put in front of them. The main factors you have to identify when targeting them are water clarity, depth, and feeding activity.
In deeper water, reds will gang up and bust baitfish up and down the water column. In shallow water, they feed angled down, tailfins and backs often entirely exposed, skimming the bottom as they vacuum in baitfish and small crustaceans.
You can fool a red with a lot of patterns, but these are some of the best flies for redfish.
Tried and true. Regardless of the time of year, reds target baitfish like mullet, and with an infinite number of color variations, you truly can’t go wrong with this beloved classic. Heavily weighted dumbbells give these flies a great sink rate for whatever depth you’re fishing.
Popular color options are chartreuse and white, black and purple, or pink and fluorescent green. Ultimately, it’s tough to go wrong throwing a white belly clouser with a neutral color back. After the cast, strip it steady with a couple of bounces and a pause or try a fast retrieve if you notice nervous bait.
If you want to get a redfish seeing red (pun intended), toss a small crab in front of his nose. There are tons of crab patterns out there, so it’s important to understand the fishery you’re chasing them in.
When targeting reds in skinny water flats, you want a lightly weighted crab with some buoyancy, so it has a lively drift to the bottom. Crab patterns are tied in one of two ways. Straight, with the hook perpendicular to the body, or the sidewinder version, where the hook runs parallel to the crab body.
Crabs tied straight are weighted towards the eye of the hook to replicate standing on the bottom in a defensive posture. Strip these patterns with short bumps and long pauses along the bottom to imitate a retreating crab ready for a fight.
Sidewinder patterns imitate a crab swimming through the water column. Use a slow steady retrieve and wait for a follow. Common crab patterns are the merkin, flexo, kung fu, and flats crab.
Shrimp are a huge part of the redfish diet. There’s a variety of shrimp patterns that will do the trick. The classic Seaducer is a personal favorite. Tied with natural colors and a bit of gold flash, it’ll suspend and sweep just like a shrimp in the water column.
The Kwan fly is a great shrimp imitation as well. The Kwan is a hybrid pattern and imitates shrimp, crab, and baitfish. It’s a great pattern for sight fishing. Easy to cast, and light enough to manipulate in a variety of ways once in the water. Other shrimp patterns to consider are grass shrimp and hybrids like redfish Ritalin.
Spoons are popular amongst fly and spin anglers alike for targeting redfish. Spoon flies are tied in all types of variations, but they all have the same purpose; to flash, shimmer, and dazzle.
When stripped slowly, the spoon fly will emit low vibration sounds. Add in a short pause every few strips and let all that flash grab attention. Spoons are attractor patterns, and they trigger instinctual predatory reactions from curious fish.
Cast a spoon on a cloudy overcast day, or in stained water when you need some extra sparkle to radiate through the water column.
Redfish are often tough to entice to the surface. BUT, if you’re able to get them to take on top, you’ll have a smile pinned on your face for days. Few fish explode on topwater flies like reds.
The follow starts slowly, wake increases as they pick up speed, and the take triggers an explosion of liquid fireworks on the surface in a gill flaring blow up. It’s absolute perfection. When selecting what topwater fly to use, consider the water depth, amount of light, and how the fish are feeding.
In deeper water, around dusk and dawn when fish are feeding aggressively, traditional bass poppers will get the job done. Retrieve with strong, foot-long strips where you can really hear the “pop.”
In shallow water, where fish are spooky, try a Gurgler pattern. Quick strips should spark the fish’s attention, and he’s not going to let a shrimp dinner just get away.
These five options don’t cover the whole profile of what flies a redfish will take. They’re a great starting point though, and will give you enough versatility in your box to be successful.
The truth is these fish aren’t stubborn eaters. If you already have some bass flies in your arsenal chances are you’ve got what you need to start chasing reds.
An 8wt rod is the weapon of choice. Floating and sinking lines both work well. Use a tapered leader down to a couple of feet of 20 lb hard fluoro. Redfish are bulldogs, and when you hook into one, strip set hard and get ready for a scrap.
The ability to sight fish these animals in skinny water, paired with their street brawling mentality makes these fish incredibly fun to target.