The water is cooling off, trending at or below 80 degrees F, and our resident fish are changing their ways a bit. We are lucky enough to have six bonus days for Red Snapper fishing this month, and the “Running of the Bulls” Redfish Bonanza is due any day. Large Spanish Mackerel are in the Sound and Bay, as are tons of Redfish, Ladyfish, and a lot of other stuff. Bait is thick around structure, and as usual, October is a great month to fish the Emerald Coast.
1. Red Snapper – These fish are aggressive and there are some BIG ones out there. I caught and released a 24-pounder the other day while fishing in Pensacola Bay. My arms are sore… Here are a few tips for targeting these brutes:
a. Fish with large primary tackle. A 4/0 or 6/0 reel on a strong, up to 100-pound class rod, is appropriate. Don’t laugh. These fish can REALLY PULL. My 4/0 Penn Senators are spooled with 60-pound mono, and my 6/0s carry 80-pound. It seems like overkill, but I promise you it’s not. IF you choose to use spinning tackle, I suggest using heavy-weight stuff with strong braided line. I use Penn 850SS reels on Extra Heavy 8-foot St. Croix rods, spooled with 40-pound PowerPro. These setups are strong, but a big Red Snapper or Gag Grouper will kick your bootie faster than you can whistle Dixie, or anything else for that matter. If you want to land the really big fish, use conventional tackle. Spin tackle is just not up to the challenge in my opinion.
b. Terminal tackle – I use 80-pound monofilament leaders, around 6 to 8 feet long, with enough weight to hold the bottom in the current, generally 4 to 6 ounces. Use a quality swivel and tie up a Carolina rig (egg sinker on main line above the swivel). I use 7/0 or 8/0 circle hooks tied on with Perfection Loop knots.
c. Bait – Cut menhaden is usually good, but if you want to really attract the big ones, Gag Grouper included, use live Pinfish, Pigfish, Spots, Mullet, or Croakers if you are lucky enough to find them. Or any Gulf minnow will do just fine.
d. Technique – Get the sinker to the bottom, and reel up 4 or 5 turns. The idea is to suspend the bait just above the structure, but keep the weight up in the water column a little bit. It takes practice, but you can do it. When you get a bite, try to follow the fish down with your rod tip to lessen any pressure on the bait. You want it to feel natural. When you think you’re hooked, start reeling and raise your rod tip. Then the battle begins. The real fight is within the first 10 feet. If you get the fish off the bottom, you have a decent chance of landing and releasing it into the fishbox!
2. Slot-Sized Redfish – Around shallow structure, live bait rules. Shrimp is always good, but you will have to fight through the Lizard Fish, Pinfish, Pigfish, juvenile Gag Groupers, Hardhead Catfish, Needlefish, and Puffers to get to the targeted species. You’ll increase your chances of catching a nice one if you have live baitfish in the 3-5 inch range.
a. For primary tackle I usually use St. Croix 6.5’ Avid series medium power, fast action rods with Shimano Stradic 3000 reels. I spool them with 15-pound PowerPro braid in Forest Green. This setup will allow you to handle an over-slot Redfish if you are lucky enough to hook one, and is a joy to cast. It’s a light and powerful rig, with a wonderful drag.
b. Terminal tackle – I am fond of Owner #2 Mutu Light circle hooks, tied with loop knots to about 4 feet of 20 or 25-pound fluorocarbon. I urge you to learn to tie your fluorocarbon to the braid as well, negating the need for swivels. The simpler your rig, the better. No extra stuff to impair your bait’s ability to appear all natural. No sinkers, no swivels.
c. Technique – This is the big secret. Learn to freeline your bait. I hook my minnow just forward of the tail, so it can swim around naturally. Gently cast toward structure in 3 to 6 feet of water, and keep your bail open with the line resting on your forefinger. When you get a take, release the line, freespool the fish for a couple seconds, close the bail, and raise your rod tip as the line tightens. Then, remember to fight the fish with the rod, not the reel. Reel only when you can retrieve line, not when the fish is running or swimming sideways. It’s a gentle battle. Let the rod do the work.
d. Another Technique – use a popping cork with about 4 feet of fluorocarbon. If you are new to this type of fishing, the popping cork will help you know when you are getting a hit. The negatives are Seagulls swiping your bait (which the cork holds near the surface), Needlefish assaults, and a generally lower strike ratio than freelining. But, it still works great!
3. Bull Redfish – All I can say is WOW. These fish are just plain awesome. When they school, they will eat a variety of baits, lures, or flies. Catching one of these 30+ pound behemoths is an event you’ll likely remember for a while. And they are just starting to show up…
a. Primary tackle should be heavy spinning stuff, like you would use for Tarpon, or 10-weight or heavier fly tackle. This report is mostly about spin and conventional tackle, so that’s where we’ll focus. I use St. Croix Tidemaster 8’ heavy power fast action rods over Quantum Cabo 6.0 reels. These are spooled with 40-pound PowerPro braid, again in Forest Green. Whatever you choose, you need to be able to hold at least 200 yards of line on a good drag system. These fish will test any tackle to the limit. They will also test the angler…
b. Terminal tackle – I prefer to use a secret (it’s green with a long squiggly tail) swim bait on a large jig head, loop knotted to about 5 feet of 60-pound fluorocarbon. Some of my guide buddies use 40 or 50-pound monofilament leaders and catch lots of fish, but I am funny about fluorocarbon. I like it, except when bottom fishing. Some of my pals also use swivels, which are fine, but I like to tie my leader to the braid using an FG knot. It’s strong, super slim, and looks really cool. Of course you can use live bait as well, but most of the time I use artificials. It’s easier…
c. Technique – When the redfish are feeding on the top they’re hard to miss. The water will literally boil with fish action. Just get close enough to cast into the mayhem and prepare for battle. Here is another guide secret for you – watch for Pelicans sitting in the water. Often times they sit on top of Redfish schools that are feeding deep. I am not sure why, but it’s true. So, if you can’t see schools of fish feeding on top (usually surrounded by an Armada of boats) watch for Pelicans as indicators. Or you might choose to blind cast into deeper, fast moving water around points, bridges, or jetties.
4. Large Spanish Mackerel – You might find it hard to believe, but Pensacola Bay is home to some of the largest Spanish Mackerel around. Anywhere. 5-pounders are relatively common, and measure 23-24 inches to the fork. These rockets are as thrilling to catch on light spin (or especially fly) tackle as anything I have ever hooked. It’s interesting that some lower-IQ Nimrods on local fishing forums prove their ignorance by calling me out as a Fish Story Guy (aka liar) about these fish. Their loss. Ask my clients who catch them with me. It’s incredible.
a. Primary tackle is, again, the 6.5 foot St. Croix Avid Medium Fast rod with a Shimano Stradic 3000 underneath. 15-pound PowerPro braid. Or any good 8-weight fly rod (ensure your backing it tied on properly – you’ll need it)! Whatever your choice, you’ll need a great drag system because these fish will have your reel screaming. Really screaming.
b. Terminal Tackle – I like to tie about a foot of AFW Surflon Micro Supreme 26-pound leader to 2-3 feet of 25-pound flourocarbon, which is tied to the braid. Realize you ARE going to get cut off sometimes, regardless of how stealthy your knots are. These fish are super fast, super aggressive, and super toothy. Hence, don’t put anything in the water that will create an additional target – like a swivel. I have had great luck with a variety of flashy objects (spoons), preferably single-hook style (to lessen harm to the fish when unhooking), Buccaneer Glass Minnow jigs in any color, and my personal favorite – a flashy popping top-water plug. I can’t tell you my favorite brand, though…
c. Technique – You can cast or troll spoons and jigs for these predators. Just don’t let me see you trolling a top-water popper… that’s not allowed around here… you’ll lose all your style points… Whether you cast or troll your spoon or jig is up to you, just keep it moving fast. About as fast as you can reel without it skipping along the surface. With the top water popper, just pop it along and get ready for the most violent strike and initial run you can imagine. PS if your popper gets cut off, or I should say WHEN your popper gets cut off, drive over and retrieve it as soon as possible. I have seen recently cut-off poppers, just sitting there in the water minding their business, get demolished. Then your $7 lure is truly lost.
d. Where to fish? I like to find drop offs from grass beds with fast moving water. Any place where bait hangs out and deeper water is nearby. Pensacola Bay and Santa Rosa Sound have lots of areas where these fish feed.
Whatever species you choose to target, be sure to know the laws regarding harvest, and only keep what you’re going to eat today. Redfish have a slot of 18–27”, which means outside-slot and Bull Redfish (breeders) should be revived and released immediately. Red Snappers have to be 16” long to be released into the fishbox, and remember to keep them only on our few remaining “legal” days. Spanish Mackerel are not that great to eat, so consider releasing them all. They are very fragile, so you have to get them back in the water quickly for them to have a chance at surviving. Catching and releasing is a great way to fish, and it preserves our fish stock so we can catch them and their offspring another day.
Tight lines, y’all, I hope this helps.
Capt Dave Yelverton