Bulls Help Us Beat the Winter Doldrums

Bulls Help Us Beat the Winter Doldrums
This is what a large concentration of baitfish looks like on your bottom machine. Finding bait is almost always the key to finding the bulls.

For the last six weeks or so I have found myself breaking the jetty wearing warmer clothes and often times dealing with a northeast wind that seems to blow right down the beachfront building some of the most confused seas (I call them snotty) that never seem to want to lay into a decent swell. The typical winter day finds me yearning for not only the warmer summer weather but the summer fishing patterns as well.

The days of short king mackerel and red snapper trips seem so far away, like a distant memory. The rigs and live bottom within easy reach seem to be devoid of life as the water temperature drops and we settle in for yet another winter. While the fishing is still good for other species, they require a long run that may not always be possible with the fickle winter weather.

For many, winter brings thoughts of amberjack and grouper. The cold calm days following a strong front make me think of yellowfin tuna around the spar rigs and deep dropping for tilefish. All of these excursions require just the right weather window that is usually short-lived and often times requiring perfect timing to beat the return of the north wind and rough conditions to make it back to port. Not to mention that for me they usually seem to fall when I have other obligations leaving me to just mumble to myself that old lament, "Maybe next time."

During these off-season lulls our minds seem to wander from fishing. Many fight the boredom by spending the time working on their boats, cleaning and repairing equipment, or just other pursuits all together. The marinas are empty and the boat ramps see little use except from the occasional diehard that just refuses to be put off by a little cold weather.

I even find my phone calls begin to slow and at times dwindle to a halt around the first week of November. Those that do call are confused as to what they may be able to catch while down to the coast for a holiday visit. With the first question being, "Can we catch anything this time of year?" The answer to that question is always yes. And for those that are looking to take advantage of a short break in the weather you can do it quite easily, all within sight of the beach.

Obviously, you're not going to fill the box with hundreds of pounds of the more glamorous reef fish, but getting a line stretched and spending a cool winter day in the sun catching fish is not all that difficult to find.

Since the recovery of the red drum in the Gulf of Mexico, The larger specimens, or the "bulls" as we call them, have become one of the most sought after nearshore species after the summer fishing season winds down. In the last several years I have witnessed massive schools of bull redfish feeding at the surface, offering sightcasting opportunities that would raise the heart rate of even the most seasoned veteran.

These fish have definitely recovered with a vengeance and their numbers show absolutely no sign of slowing down in the near future. They even seem to be hearty enough to withstand our recent red tide problems that touched almost the entire Texas coastline. I have seen no mature reds dead or dying here in my home water. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, very few redfish have been included in the mortality surveys they have been conducting ever since this red tide event first showed up about a month ago.

Most people are aware of the annual run of bull redfish along our beachfront and jetties during the fall and make plans every year to take advantage of this incredible fishery. These fish move into the shallow waters of the Texas coast to spawn and it makes for some fast and furious action. The run usually starts in early to mid September and will last well into November at times. The one thing that most don't seem to know is these fish don't just disappear when the spawning has ended. These larger breeding aged fish will linger within a mile or two of the beach through the winter, and in some years I have caught them with some consistency well into April.

I spend many winter days targeting these fish with customers young and old who just want to catch a big fish and spend a day on the water. The tactics for targeting them are not that dissimilar to those you may use during the run. On most occasions it's just the location that changes.

I begin my day just off the beachfront, in about 25 feet of water, slowly motoring my way out to about 40 feet and back again, paying attention to where I am marking bait on my bottom machine. When I find the consistent depth where the bait is present I will drop anchor. I'm not concerned with water depth, temperature or clarity as much as I am with being where the bait is.

Once the boat settles in place it's a fairly simple approach using any oily bait such as sardines, mullet or threadfin shad - Carolina rigged on a large circle hook. I stress the circle hook to prevent hooking these fish in the throat. These are brood stock we are fishing for and the circle hook is a definite aid to insuring a healthy release.

The other key is the use of chum. I chum lightly - just enough to keep a visible slick trailing behind the boat. Although this is not a usual tactic for redfish it can make or break your success once these fish begin to scatter along the beachfront after the spawn.

Chasing bull redfish along the beach my not be as glamorous as a day of chasing wahoo or pulling a big amberjack out of some distant oil rig, but it sure beats sitting at home and falling victim to the winter doldrums. And - It beats working on a boat no matter what time of the year!