Bulls on the Beach!

Bulls on the Beach!
Trolling green water inside the jetties yielded this big redfish, but digging out treble hooks is a chore.

That used to be the battle cry in North Carolina when a school of bull redfish suddenly appeared within casting range, with an ensuing scramble of surf fishermen. Along  several hundred miles of our Texas beaches, things are more sedate.

Anglers hoping to add a big redfish to their bucket list, sized XL 44 inches or bigger, should keep in mind that September is prime time. Big ones (mostly females, that size) spend most of their time offshore in winter, even on the snapper banks, but during summer they ease within sight of the beach, busting up menhaden schools and fattening up on them. Then, centered around Labor Day, they gather and spawn at the jetties or in the surf during incoming tides. Preferably during a flood tide that pulls their eggs far into the back bays. Tides like those provided by tropical storms or worse. Which also center around Labor Day…

These big reds have recovered enough from over-harvest in the mid-1980s, to where anglers can now keep one big fish annually. Like a trophy deer, it has to be tagged when caught. Which tag? That tag attached to your saltwater fishing license. Most anglers know these huge fish are tougher to eat than smaller reds, and release them. Others will take the meat anyway; I once took four guys from Pasadena fishing, who filleted them. Kept the heads, to set them on their mailboxes back home, to impress the neighbors. Some people still want an old-fashioned skin mount from a taxidermist. Others know that a fiberglass mount won’t smell and will look great for decades. There are specialists out there with a number of different sized redfish molds, like New Wave Taxidermy. They have 17 redfish molds up to 44 inches with a 28-inch girth. Also access to a 48-inch mold. That’s a big red.    

Back to techniques, because these big reds won’t catch themselves. Catching bulls from the surf requires patience, access to the beach, long (12 feet and longer) casting rods, and flirting with a few hazards like getting the truck stuck in sand or even flooded at high tide. Or a flat tire from catfish spikes. Piers, on the other hand, offer paved parking and easy access. This is no time for using Mickey Mouse tackle; on the piers you want line of at least 40-pound strength and higher, with 50-pound preferable. Lead weights that will hold bottom in different currents. And a rod stiff enough to guide these powerful fish away from barnacle-covered pilings far below. For both surf and pier, a big circle hook pinned to a large mullet head is the ultimate offering that won’t be stolen by catfish and other nibblers.

During this period, finding mullet can be difficult on the upper coast. In Port Arthur we had no beaches on Sabine Lake and mullet made themselves scarce around Labor Day. It was much easier to catch them earlier each summer when they were milling around jetty rocks with their heads out of the water, just sitting ducks for a castnet. Then, freeze them for later use. 

After making attempts at both beach and pier fishing, we found it much easier to catch bull reds from a boat. It didn’t have to be in stormy weather; we’ve been out there on glassy calm, quiet nights when we could hear big male redfish drumming under the boat. Hundreds of them, apparently, because every bait was savagely grabbed the moment it hit bottom. Setting out several rods could result in a tangled mess behind the boat, where the current ran. This action was always in 15-20 foot depths, at Pass Cavallo before it became shallow and anemic. We also did well in 20-foot depths (a depth finder is handy here) in calm water inside the Galveston jetty, 50 yards from the north safety cut.    

They also bite during the day, and there was no rhyme or reason when they would turn on. We’d catch 20 or more fish at one anchoring, then two fish the next day on the same tide. Once, 46 fish without moving the boat on a hot afternoon, until we ran out of mullet. On another trip, 36 bull reds after first fishing offshore for snapper, then anchoring near the beach. That’s what you call a full day, though some would say it was punishing. On both epic trips the tide was going out at a decent rate, because I can still picture my boat’s stern pointing towards the Gulf, with people struggling with bent rods. Those fish hit hard, bending snapper rods to the butt, where it was difficult to pry them out of a rod holder. It was brutal work, especially when big jacks and 40-pound blacktip sharks joined in. We’d use 150- or 200-pound mono leader with 16/0 circle hooks, and that did the job well.   

Those planning a boat trip for bull reds should first consult the tide prediction for a particular day, because a slack tide was just lame. On some days, tidal flow on the Texas coast barely moves at all; the boat wallows or lays on a slack anchor rope, slowly spinning around, tangling lines, and the fish won’t bite. We found the best times were the week around the full moon, or the dark of the moon. If you fish at night, stick with a big moon for safer navigation.

Another plus to our living in Port O’Connor, was that the jetties there are so deep, bull reds will enter the bay as far as Bird Island, often blasting small blue crabs on the surface that are swimming by. We’d ease up with the boat and toss white or green/orange striper bucktail jigs of 1-2 ounces, using 30-pound spin tackle, and rear back into 40-inch reds that put up a serious fight, compared with our bottom fishing with snapper tackle. One morning we landed an even 20 bull reds while slinging jigs---it was four guys from Nacogdoches who had quite a time. When the water was green it certainly helped the bite. On the next trip there I tried trolling big, orange, diving kingfish plugs, and quickly got hooked up, and this was inside the bay. Found out you don’t want to be digging large treble hooks out of redfish, when they’re being released.

This bull redfish action was great fun, and can last into October when the weather finally turns cool. By November, most of those fish are offshore in 50 feet of water. One year we got contacted by the state hatchery, they wanted big female redfish. It was November, late in the season, and more complicated because the fish are deeper, and care has to be taken to deflate their air bladders. Using only a 17-foot McKee Craft, we’d haul five big fish in a big SSI cooler back to Galveston Yacht Basin. A state hatchery truck then hauled them away to Flower Bluff near Corpus Christi. We made a few trips that autumn until they had enough big reds. The following year our work was…handed over to the Dow Chemical plant near Freeport, where redfish were instead caught from their cooling pond.