The Inshore Series By: Paul Presson

The Gold Standard of the Sea

Sciaenops ocellatus; or, you may know them by other names; the red drum, redfish or channel bass. I can think of no better description for them other than, “beautiful bruisers”!  It is unimaginable that years ago these fish were almost on the “trash fish” list. With their magnificent colors, unyielding fight and a culinary delight, red drum spawn some serious fishing.

The red drums’ bodies are sturdy–built for hunting and migrating. Their amazing coloration depends on water salinity, temperature and environment. They are adorned with beautiful skin and protective scales that range from a deep copper gold to an almost iridescent silver. The meaty underside is a pearl white color. They bear unique markings, from having no spots (which is very rare) to over 500 spots located forward of their tails. This is mother nature’s camouflage to fight against predators. The spot resembles an eye, in the hopes that it does not become prey to a larger fish.

These hearty creatures live in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Their territory ranges as far north as the Chesapeake Bay area, all the way down to Mexico. After a red drum hits approximately the four-year mark, it’s time for them “to fly.”  They are on their way to deeper waters. Wrecks and drilling rigs are their dwellings of choice. A 40-year-old, 40-pound fish is not an uncommon occurrence. Any red over 27 inches is referred to as a “bull,” with the smaller juvenile fish called “runts/rats.”

Annually, red drum migrate from deep waters back to the flats and estuaries.  Male reds are “players,” they whisper sweet nothings to Mrs. Right Now by using a muscle attached to their air bladders. They also use the sound as a defense mechanism–hence the name drum fish. The female, in turn, can lay millions of eggs. These eggs flow with currents throughout the mangroves, and the cycle begins again.

The red’s diet consists of crustaceans, fish and mollusks. These eating habits make for delicious table fare. The huge bonus is that they are relatively easy to catch. You can “dead stick” these adversaries with chunks of lady fish, live pinfish, shrimp or crabs. They will also chew on spoons, topwater or soft plastics. An angler’s skill level can range from a seasoned fly fishing angler to a child with their first ”Scooby-Doo” rod and reel.

The tricks to catching red drum are no big secret; look for channel outlets, potholes, oyster beds and sandbars. During high tide, they will chase bait cruising the flats in search of their next meal. When the tide recedes, red drum will seek out deeper troughs and holes.

A red drum bite is very distinctive. Depending on the size of the fish, they can really make your drag scream. Holding to the bottom, the shoulder-to-shoulder pull makes for an exciting battle. When they spot an angler, or realize they have been hooked, hang on for that second run.

There is nothing like seeing that beautiful tail sticking out of the water at a 45-degree angle while they are foraging for food. During spawn migration, it is a sight to behold–hundreds of these magnificent fish “belly rolling” and moving on to their next destination. Red drum are fairly easy to catch, visually beautiful, a fight that won’t be forgotten and a taste that is out of this world. The red drum is truly, “The Gold Standard of the Sea.”

* Red drum (redfish) are catch and release in many areas of Western Florida. Check with FWC to see restricted locations.