The Thrill of Bull Redfish

Everett Johnson | Photos and videos by Danny McGuire
The Thrill of Bull Redfish
One of Pam Johnson’s dozen or more bull redfish this day…and that’s no bull!

What’s the biggest redfish you’ve ever landed?  Does a thirty-pound forty-incher sound exciting?  What if I told you of an almost surefire guarantee to land a dozen or more this size and larger in a single morning?  You might be thinking I’m either the biggest liar you’ve ever met or I’ve got a screw loose upstairs. But hold on…

This is not an exaggerated fish story; it actually happens with regularity, and I’m about to tell you how you can get in on the action.

It happens at Port O’Connor’s Matagorda Ship Channel Jetties several days during new and full moon periods – May through October.  I suspect it also happens at other jettied passes such as Sabine, Galveston, Matagorda, and Port Aransas, although we have never tried our luck at any of these.

The primary key to this incredible fishing is strong incoming tides, which peak in strength during the moon phases mentioned. It’s also all about the smorgasbord of bait fish being swept in from the Gulf on these tides – namely menhaden and ribbonfish. This happens most reliably during the warmer months when these species are in greatest abundance in nearshore waters.

Getting in on the action is really quite simple: Launch at Port O’Connor at first light and head for the jetties – motor upcurrent between the jetties on the inshore side – leave your outboard motor running but slip it into neutral – allow your boat to drift with the current.  It’s rare that you’ll be the only boat present, so just watch what others are doing and follow their lead.

When it’s on fire there’s usually a ton of gulls, pelicans, and even frigate birds wheeling and crash-diving directly above schools of bull reds and jack cravelle hustling bait to the surface.  Where to cast a bait or lure is a no-brainer during surface frenzies. Hookups can be instantaneous when they’re on top.

When the fish are not busting the surface they can often be found with the aid of a side-scanning depth finder, like the Humminbird Solix we use. Once schools are located, either suspended or near bottom, it’s a simple matter to lower bait or lures to that depth. It usually doesn’t take long…so hold on to that rod!

Pretty near any live or dead natural bait will draw strikes. Frozen baits like cigar minnows and sardines are popular but we prefer the artificial route. Spro Bucktail Jigs are our favorites, four and five ounce sizes are very effective for getting down to the fish in the strong current. While these jigs can be effective right out of the package, tipping them with ultra-tough ZMan 7-inch DieZel Minnows and DormatadorZ Curly Tails elevates them to pure dynamite.

A discussion of the proper tackle is in order here, and wimpy trout gear just doesn’t cut it. These are big, strong fish and they can completely strip all the line from a 100 or 150-size baitcaster in a matter of seconds. We recommend 400-size baitcasters and 4000-size spinners (at minimum) spooled with 50-pound braided line. Even if you might be capable of whipping a bull or jack on trout tackle, the prolonged fight and exhaustion they suffer is akin to a death sentence, and releasing them in healthy condition should be a priority. More on this later…

As for rods, we recommend 7-foot medium-heavy and heavy power rating, with fast-action for lots of backbone at the tip. Rods of this caliber greatly enable steering these fish boatside, when they’re likely to make a last-ditch run, under and around the outboard motor. Simply put, don’t go bear hunting with a BB gun.

Terminal tackle should also be 50-pound class, or better. We have found it best to run several feet of 100-pound monofilament leader (minimum) between the braid and the lure, or hooks, with at least one quality swivel. Treble hooks are not necessary, either with natural bait or lures. Strong single hooks are easier to remove and likely to cause less injury to the fish…and the person removing them.

Let’s move on to conservation of these great fish we are targeting. They are breeding stock, the backbone and future of the fishery. As such they deserve our absolute best effort in accomplishing healthy releases. This begins with getting them landed quickly. They should never be gaffed; we use large, long-handled landing nets made of rubbery fabric for scooping them aboard. Keep your pliers and camera at the ready and strive for quick photo shoots. The sooner you can get them back in the water the better.

One of the best ways we have found for successfully releasing them is a strong, headfirst thrust straight down into the water. Then keep an eye on them. Any fish that returns to the surface needs quick attention, not only to revive it but to avoid shark predation. If this happens, place a gripper tool on its lower jaw and hold it upright. Slip the motor in gear at idle speed and trail it alongside for a few minutes. This method forces lots of water through the gills. Their tail thrusts will tell you when they’re ready to go.

Now a short discussion about safety. This should apply everywhere but do not tempt fate by going in marginal weather conditions. This is big water out at the jetties, waves can be dangerous and the currents are surprisingly swift. There will likely be quite a few boats nearby, so a designated driver who remains vigilant at the helm is always a good idea. And always remember you are fishing a ship channel; large vessels throw large wakes…give them plenty of space. 

So there you have it; Bull Red Jetty Fishing 101. Always remember to be a good sport and respect your fellow fishermen. Practice good conservation, be safe, and get out there and have fun.

I told you in the beginning this wasn’t going to be an exaggerated fishing story, so there!

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