The water rumbles, copper sides glimmer, and you really don't want to be a pinfish, shrimp, crab or pretty much anything else edible.
Late summer through early fall sees redfish gathering in huge schools throughout the North Suncoast region. With oversized adult fish coming in from offshore abodes, smaller inshore fish will bunch up and mingle with their mature relatives.
Targeting the big fish — many weighing 20 pounds or more — is a whole different ballgame However, the smaller fish are generally in the legal slot size of 18-27 inches, so the same inshore gear you've used all year will fill the bill.
Where to look
Large schools of hungry fish typically remain mobile because their collective appetites quickly deplete local forage.
Nature will replenish its baitfish and crustaceans in short order, but impatient redfish will keep moving and grazing, so make note of where you find fish each day and you'll often discover a pattern.
Look for redfish schools on large flats with broken bottom and sandy potholes. Flats close to deep water ensure good current flow brings food and clean water to the reds.
Good spots to check include the east sides of barrier islands from St. Joseph Sound through Anclote Key and shoreward haunts like Sand Bay, Wall Springs and Boggy Bayou.
Expect the best action on the outgoing tide through the first half of the incoming. These are the periods of strongest feeding motivation, as reds slide off the flats with the falling water then return with the incoming cycle.
Northward, through areas such as Aripeka, Bayport and Chassahowitzka, target rocky island points with good water flow. Fish the south sides of the points on outgoing tides and switch to the north sides on rising water.
What to look for
The good thing about schooling redfish is they're usually fairly easy to locate. Moving fish push a distinctive, purposeful wake that stands out clearly from that of ambling mullet. When the fish are milling around an area, their motion causes surface ripples or "nervous water."
Feeding fish are less subtle, so keep an eye out for reds busting bait and boiling at the surface.
From a distance, you'll often spot random glints of silvery white. Known as "belly flashes," these subtle indicators occur when reds tilt and turn laterally.
Sometimes they're rubbing parasites off their scales. Other times they're jockeying for position in the crowd. Sometimes they're just getting frisky.
In any case, belly flashes, pushes, wakes and boils tell the tale of redfish proximity.
What to throw
The weedless gold spoon will produce in practically any redfish scenario. Just cast and wind; the wobbling, flashing metal does the rest.
Topwater plugs will also tempt redfish, and the response will tell you much about the fish's disposition. If several fish attack the plug, it's a green light. However, if the sound of a surface lure sends the fish packing, put that one away and try a subsurface bait.
Topwaters can be effective in deeper areas where you can't actually see the school. Reds sometimes boil under a bait without biting, but this provides a clear casting reference for subsurface lures.
Whatever you throw, cast around the edges of a school to avoid scaring your quarry. Plop a bait on someone's head and it's game over. Spook one redfish, and you'll spook them all.
Soft plastic jerkbaits work well. Let the bait sit in the grass and hop it as the fish approach. Scented soft plastics will help the sharp-nosed redfish locate your bait when school movement muddies the water.
Fly-fishermen have a definite stealth advantage, as the non-intrusive presentation of sink tip line and a light offering rarely offends redfish. Fly poppers and wide profile baitfish fly patterns work well.
Cut bait works well on schooling reds. Stick a chunk of fresh ladyfish, mullet or pinfish on a 3/0 circle hook, fling it in front of an advancing school and just wait for the rod to bend.
The right approach
For your benefit, as well as that of adjacent anglers, minimize boat noise and approach schooling reds with supreme stealth. Particularly in shallow areas, reds know their numbers make them easy targets for ospreys, dolphins and sharks, so don't give them any flake-out excuse.
Use a push pole to ease into range then anchor or stake out to work the school. Never run your boat through the shallows to "bump up" schools of redfish, as this scares the fish and sends them into deep water retreats.
Above all, never chase redfish. If the school moves out of range, make a big loop around their perimeter and ease ahead of the mass for another presentation.
Redfish will feel the surge from a boat advancing from their rear and that usually makes them run. Fish patiently, give the reds time to settle into a spot and then enjoy the nonstop action of school time.