Hooking Reds in the Surf
While most boat anglers are busy swapping out their summertime fishing gear for colder weather equipment for striped bass, scores of east coast surf anglers are shouldering their sand spikes and 12 foot rods, and high-tailing it to the beach for blazing hot drum action which is unparalleled anywhere. Even many locals are not aware of the incredible red drum fishery thriving amongst the crashing waves and sloughs flanking the sandy shores of Virginia and North Carolina as these whitewash warriors migrate southward to bask in warmer water for the winter.
In any fishing capacity, red drum are a delight for anglers, but in the surf, reds are considered the most coveted of prizes, obliging the angler a tricky battle from land, often prompting a brisk trot down the shoreline to keep up. These red drum surf encounters begin to escalate early in September and continue well through October along the bountiful beaches and barrier islands of southern Virginia, and will continue on through November along the famous seashores of North Carolina.
Red drum, channel bass, or even red fish, whatever you call them, can be found all along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts in a variety of different salt water environments, ranging from shallow back water estuaries to deep open waters. There is no mistaking their identity, as these beauties have a longish robust body sporting a unique coppery hue tipped off with a distinctive collection of one to several black spots adorning the base of their tails. They can grow to a healthy size of over 50 inches, reach almost 100 pounds in weight, and live to a ripe age peaking in the fifties. Smaller reds are adoringly called puppy drum, and in genera, most red drum pulled from the surf qualify as puppy drum size. Whether a puppy drum or a full-sized adult, any size channel bass will offer a strong run and ample battle, so make sure that your sand spike is secure, or you may be racing to rescue your rod disappearing into the wash.
Although most surf anglers target puppy drum for the sport and the fight, smaller red drum are also considered excellent table fare. The regulations for keeping them are tight, with North Carolina allowing one fish per person within the 18 to 27-inch range, and Virginia allowing only 3 fish within 18 to 26 inches. Both states recognize citations for released fish only. In North Carolina, a release citation is earned for a fish reaching at least 40 inches, while in Virginia your fish must stretch to a whopping 46 inches.
When and Where:
It is surprisingly easy to get in on the red drum surf action, and travel time, equipment requirements, and preparation are quite minimal. Because channel bass are a migratory species, in the late summer and early fall, they begin to swarm out of the bays, inlets and estuaries, spawning and preparing for their venture southward. This is when it is most common for red drum, especially puppy drum, to become especially aggressive in the shallow waters closer to shore looking for food as well as a suitable place to disperse their eggs. The best water temperatures for active drum in the surf will range from about 60 to 75 degrees.
Pick a moving tide, either day or night, to target reds cruising the surf waters. Slow moving or slack currents are not compelling for these aggressive feeders. In fact, reds tend to become especially frisky when the water is rough and turbulent. A strong, gusty wind with an easterly flow is usually enough to provoke the reds into full feeding mode. When this type of forecast holds your boating buddies at the dock, turn a busted opportunity into gold and hit the surf for reds!
Equipment and Bait:
Unless you drive your four wheel drive on the beach such as on the renowned shores of Hatteras, or glide up to the bank by way of boat as on the pristine barrier islands of Virginia, then you will most likely tote your equipment yourself as you hike to your surf fishing spot, so pack light.
There are many choices when it comes to rod and reel combinations for channel bass surf fishing, but a medium to heavy action 11 to 12-foot surf rod matched with a spinner in the 4000 range such as Daiwa’s Team Advantage 4500, or a similarly sized bait caster, spooled with 20 to 30-pound test line, is a dangerous ensemble for unsuspecting drum.
As for terminal tackle, reds are most often fooled by a simple fish-finder rig fashioned by tying a 6/0 to 7/0 live bait or circle hook with a short 12-inch, 40-pound test leader to a sturdy barrel-swivel, topped off with a sinker-slide. Sinker selection is relatively important when surf fishing, and your choice will depend strictly on the conditions of the surf. A safe option is always a pyramid or bank style sinker, which will hold bottom without rolling excessively. Weight can range from 2-ounces in mild surf conditions, up to 8-ounces in a heavy surf.
Packing a few extra accessories such as sand spikes can be helpful when using more than one rod, and waders can save the day from a chilly, cutting northerly wind.
For bait, no red drum can resist a fresh morsel of cut bait such as mullet, spot, or menhaden. Keep the bait cool and out of the wind and sun to ensure it is as fresh as possible. Prepare the bait by cutting it into 1 to 2-inch chunks, depending on the size of your hook.
The Cast and Placement:
Look for areas in the surf line where the water rushes along the edges or through breaks in sandbars. Deep holes, sloughs, and natural points are productive, as well as sharp drop-offs right behind the wash-line which often draws fish feeding along its edge. It is not uncommon for reds to charge right up into the wash after crabs, and other small baitfish.
You don’t have to be a long caster to get the job done with channel bass exploring the surf waters. I suggest using two rods; cast one just beyond the wash, and the other further out depending on the beach anatomy. Place the rods in firmly secured sand spikes, and set the drag loose enough to allow the fish to run when he picks up the bait.
Fighting and Landing:
Fighting a hefty fish, especially a feisty puppy drum or a massive bull red in the surf is surprisingly challenging. Balancing the outward pull of the undertow with the rushing of subsequent crashing waves, along with the cleverness of a hooked drum commands skill and anticipation, which results in many catches lost in the wash.
Once the fish hits, immediately establish a tight line with no slack. Position yourself directly in front of the fish at the edge of the water, and be prepared to move in order to maintain that strategic location. You may also need to reel quickly or take a few steps forward or backward as needed. Follow the fish if he decides to run down the beach, maintaining steady pressure and don’t try to stop him. Never crank down on the drag or attempt to horse him in, or he will be gone. As the red comes in close, pay particular attention to the wave patterns as they roll in and out affecting the amount of pressure needed to pull or hold the fish, using incoming waves to help surf the fish up to the shore.
Surf fishing for red drum can be a welcome and exciting venture, especially when windy fall days keep boat anglers off the water. The satisfaction of pulling that trophy bull red from the surf, and watching him swim off to fight another day is certainly worth the short hike over the dunes.