How to catch bull reds on the beaches (surf fishing)
Bull reds can be caught from Louisiana beaches at any time during the year. The keys are putting the right bait in the right spot on appropriate gear to land the fish. Bull reds are primarily bottom feeders, and they are more strongly dependent on scent than on vision, especially in Louisiana waters which tend to be more turbid and cloudy. Bull reds can be caught at any time of day in any tidal conditions. Many anglers prefer to fish for them at night. Fishing during the day reduces the shark by-catch, especially if one fishes with cut bait rather than crab. Sharks can be fun, but they can also be tough on equipment. Before discussing techniques in detail, I should mention that praying for a successful day and asking for God's blessing is probably more important than any specific method.
The Right Bait
You can catch redfish on lots of different baits, but we've found that fresh crab works the best most of the time, followed by frozen crab, and cut mullet. Croaker and sand trout from 6-13 inches long can also be very effective when the water is clearer if you can manage to catch them in the surf. Our side by side tests in the passes show that fresh cracked crab will outfish cut mullet by at least a factor of four most of the time. Our more limited side by side tests from the beaches do not show as large a difference. We'll still go out of our way to make sure we have fresh crab whenever possible.
We cut a whole medium market crab in half, inserting the hook into the body through a leg joint and take it out of the crab bottom shell (the white part). If catfish are tearing up the bait too quickly, a whole crab will last longer, and crab claws can also be effective. We use a phillips screwdriver to make holes in the crab claw for easier insertion of the hook. Due to the extreme forces of surf casting, cut mullet, whole crab, and crab claws are less likely to be slung off the hook in the casting process than cracked crab.
Fresh caught sand trout and croaker are best used as soon as they are caught with a 6/0 11/0 hook through the back, behind the dorsal fin. A more gradual, sweeping casting motion is required here to prevent slinging the fish from the hook.
The Right Spot
Any spot on Louisiana beaches can work well if you can cast into sufficiently deep water. Water 2 feet deep will work if there is minimal wave action, but with breaking waves, we've done better casting into water 3 feet deep or more. Since we don't have the casting skills to sling baits much more than 100 yards, we prefer to pick spots where the water gets deep relatively quickly. If you cannot find a spot where you can cast into 2-3 feet deep water, you will probably do better fishing from jetties, along a shipping channel, or from a bridge or pier. We've also done a bit better on beaches within a few miles of a pass where tidal action brings bait into the Gulf regularly.
Along any given stretch of beach, there are breaks in the sand bar where water drains back toward the Gulf after brought in on waves. These spots are a bit deeper and a good place to cast baits. You can spot them because breaking waves break further out in the shallower spots and don't break until they are closer to the beach where there are drains. You need to either put your baits past the sandbar where the waves are breaking or in the drains.
The Right Gear
We can cast about 75 yards with our 8 ft spinning rods and we catch a few bull reds on these. We can cast over 100 yards with our 12 ft spinning rods, and we catch most of our bull reds on these. It seems more of an even split in calmer conditions, and further is better when there's a bit of wave action. Cracked crab is our favorite bait for bull reds, but we catch a lot on cut mullet also. I will go out of my way to try and have crab for bait. Do some google searches for potato cannon bait launchers and you'll find some neat ideas for really launching baits out there. We hope to report back after we complete construction of our launcher. We plan to launch cut mullet frozen in cylindrical ice 'bullets''; from a 2' diameter launcher.
Most 3000 level and above spinning reels will do the job if the drag can be reliably cranked up to 12-15 lbs and matched with a medium or heavier rod. Drag and line management require some care because 3000 size spinning reels usually only hold a bit more than 100 yards of 30-50 lb power pro, and if you start with most of the line already out, a big red can get close to spooling you in a hurry. Redfish have a lot more energy in the summer than in the cooler water months, and they can make several long runs after the first time they spook at the boat. A stronger drag (20+ lbs) can get them in the net quicker. We prefer 5000-6000 size reels (Shimano Spheros) on our 12 foot surf rods. 40 lb power pro is a good balance of castability and strength. There are far fewer snags on the beaches compared with the jetties and passes, so being able to horse a fish away from structure is not as critical.
Relatively inexpensive ($30-$50) reels from Wal-Mart and Academy can do the job and will likely remain in service for a season or two if rinsed well in fresh water after each trip. However, if you plan on fishing a lot or hope for a reel to serve for many seasons, a higher end reel will stand up better to the strain of landing a lot of bull redfish and drum, as well as the sharks that you'll hook if you fish cut bait. We like Shimano Symmetres, Shimano Spheros, and Penn Battles. Fishing Louisiana since the late 1970s has also given us a lot of experience with rods. Medium, Medium Heavy, and Heavy Ugly Stiks handle the strain of big fish very well and give many years of service. We've eventually broken a few of them, but seldom before the 7 year warranty has expired.
Cutting a 1.5 inch diameter PVC pipe into 3 foot sections and pounding them into the sand with a rubber mallet or driftwood provides handy rod holders which will help keep the line out of the water for a greater distance and reduce fouling with vegetation.
In earlier years, we lost fish to just about every kind of equipment failure you can imagine. Broken line, broken leaders, broken snap swivels, straightened hooks, etc. Attention to detail is important on every critical component between an angler and a big bull redfish. Here's what we've settled on:
30-50 lb power pro as described above
An Spro or Billfisher snap swivel rated at 100-125 lbs
An 80 lb monofilament leader composed of a 100 lb swivel (also Spro or Billfisher), a 3-5 ft section of 80 lb leader material, and a Gamakatsu Octapus 7/0 offset J hook
All knots are uni knots
Bigger hooks (up to 11/0) are available for fresh caught live bait, but the 7/0 is standard for crab and cut mullet. We've used Mustad and Eagle Claw hooks to good effect also. Hooks need to be offset, sharp, stout and relatively short shanked. We've had too many Eagle Claw snaps and swivels fail to use them any more. Circle hooks miss too many hook ups. Treble hooks are too thin and weak. Steel leaders can be used at night, in muddy water, or in deeper water. We've had most brands of steel leaders fail on occasion so we only use them with cut bait and live bait when we're hoping not to lose any sharks.
All leaders should get checked for knicks before each trip. All knots get retied. That's three knots on each pole: the uni knot connecting the braid to the snap swivel, the uni knot connecting the swivel to the 80 lb mono, and the uni knot connecting the hook to the mono leader. In late fall and winter the big bulls are not often strong enough to break the weaker knots, but in spring and summer the big bulls are strong, and the knots are the weakest link conecting the angler to the fish. Retying every knot every trip was the biggest factor in landing nearly every fish.
The braid is threaded through a 1-2 oz egg sinker and then tied to the snap swivel, which may be all the weight needed to hold the bottom in mild current conditions. We have an assortment of pyramid sinkers 2-6 oz to add above the leader (at the snap) if more weight is needed to hold or get close to the bottom. We also have 4 ounce egg sinkers also which some anglers prefer to increase casting distance with the 12 foot surf rods, especially into the wind.
When the Fish Hits
Usually a group of us will spread out along a wide section of beach with each angler fishing two rods, and neighboring anglers ready to assist with netting or getting lines out of the way when a fish hooks up. We keep the drags loose when the baits are soaking to allow the bulls to run with very little resistance. When a fish starts to pull drag, everyone on the beach begins to count to seven out loud: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 before an angler picks the rod and tightens the drag. This gives the fish a chance to fully commit and leads to a very high percentage of hook ups. Attempts to tighten the drag sooner or set the hook often pull the bait out of the bull's mouth and reduce the hook-up percentage. It is sometimes necessary to act faster if the bull is heading for structure, moving to tangle other lines, or at risk of spooling a reel without much line to give.
The angler with the bull on will advise on which lines may need to be reeled in first and whether the fish really requires reeling in neighboring lines (smaller fish may not). The fish should be fought with a 30-60 degree angle between the rod and the horizontal. This allows the fish to pull drag more easily than steeper angles, allows the bending of the rod to absorb sudden shocks, and allows the give of the rod to prevent the line from going slack on a sudden move toward the beach. If the equipment is well prepared, the most common causes of lost fish are spitting the hook due to slack in the line and having the hook pull out due to a sudden jerk or increase in tension. Success requires maintaining healthy levels of tension without slack or jerks.
Most fish require some pumping to bring to the beach. One raises the rod slowly to about 11 O'clock and then lowers the rod tip to near horizontal while quickly taking in line to prevent slack. When the rod goes horizontal, do not point the rod tip right at the fish, but point it to one side to maintain a bit of bend in the rod before the next trip upward. Each cycle will bring the fish closer, but you need to be sensitive to when the fish spooks or sets off on another long run. When this happens, stop reeling, stop pumping, maintain a 45 degree angle with the horizontal, check your drag setting to wear him down without risk of breaking him off, and be ready to take up slack if he changes direction.
Everybody has their favorite theory on netting: head first, tail first, whatever. Either can work on bull reds, but to minimize losing fish it is most critical to get the fish in the net on the first try and not allow the net to touch the line until the bull is in the net. Once it is clear that the fish will not be netted on a given pass, get the net out of the way to deny the bull leverage to come unpinned. We like a big, deep net with an 4-8 ft handle and a 32 inch diameter hoop. The net man invariably needs to go a few feet into the water to net the fish before it can use the beach for leverage. Some netters like to grab the leader, which is ok with 80 lb monofilament or steel leaders, but one needs to take care to have some give and a gentle pull to prevent pulling the hook.
It is common to have two fish on at once, and it can be tricky to land them both successfully without tangling. Other anglers on the beach should assist getting extra lines out of the way, and the two anglers with fish on should walk in different directions to keep the fish separated.
Care and Release or The Ice Box
Louisiana's abundance of bull reds allows each angler a limit of one bull red per day to take home. Once you decide to keep a fish, it is food, and we bury them in ice to cool them quickly rather than throwing them on top of the ice to cool very slowly. You should review some you tube videos and have the required knives if you intend to fillet your catch. I like a stout 6 inch buck knife to separate the fillet from the backbone, and a Dexter Russel fillet knife to separate the fillet from the skin. Careful trimming of all skin, red meat, and other non-muscle tissue ensures the highest quality meat. Black drum also make excellent table fare. Filleting and trimming is similar to bull redfish, except you may encounter 'spaghetti worms' near the tail area and will lose a bit more meat trimming them out. Bulls have much firmer meat than younger fish. The consistency is comparable to chicken, and many of our favorite recipes were originally chicken recipes: redfish paremesan, coconut drum, shish ka bobs, etc. A 120 quart ice chest can fit four 42 inch long bull redfish or similarly sized black drum. We keep 40 lbs of ice in the ice chest and buy more on the ride home if needed to really bury the fish in ice.
Fish to be released should be released quickly. I'm not a big believer in resuscitation and all that, but I do believe in minimizing the time out of the water. We make no attempt to remove hooks from deeply hooked fish, believing that a minute or two less out of water is more important. I cut the leader quickly as close to the mouth as possible and send the fish on its way. If we already know a big bull is to be released, we may forego netting altogether, and either the angler or an assistant can walk out into the water, reach down and remove the hook with pliers (or cut the leader if the hook is deep). I'm not a fan of photo sessions with fish intended for release, especially if angler already has one in the box to bring home. However, if a photo is desired, we use a wet towel, keep the hands out of the mouth, eyes, and gills, and focus on a quick return to the water rather than the perfect background and pose. Flopping around in the sand is not good for survival of released fish.