Years ago, I heard an angler emphatically state: "If I could teach a redfish to jump, I'd never fish for snook again."
Those poignant words say a lot about the fish that is probably the most common recreational catch in North Suncoast waters. Essentially, the acrobatic snook get a lot of well-deserved press, but these mighty sport fish can quickly turn into snotty little brats that fold their arms and refuse to cooperate.
Reds are certainly not guaranteed to bite, but if you keep your distance and put practically any live or artificial bait in front of them, they're far more likely to bite than the guys with the pinstriped flanks.
A member of the Scianidae family — also including speckled trout and black drum — redfish bring a lot to the table in terms of abundance, diversity and sporting value. In fairness, snook offer better table fare, but reds can hold their own at a fish fry.
Here's a glimpse of what makes redfish the North Suncoast's ultimate inshore gamefish.
YEAR-ROUND ABUNDANCE: Extreme temperatures of summer and winter can stymie popular fisheries such as snook and speckled trout. Redfish, however, can function just fine in practically any Florida conditions.
They may move deeper or shallower to find comfortable water, but with the exception of hurricanes and the high-pressure buzz kill following a cold front, reds are going to eat every day. They will also chew through all tide stages — something that snook rarely do.
Redfish schooling activity takes place each fall when big mature fish called "brood stock" move inshore from their deep water haunts to spawn and mingle with smaller fish within the 18- to 27-inch slot size. Throughout the rest of the year, you'll find reds in smaller groups of a handful to several dozen or more.
Common redfish habitat includes grass flats with sandy potholes, oyster bars, rocks, flooded mangroves and deep troughs adjacent to shorelines.
INDISCRIMINATE DINERS: Live shrimp, pinfish, crabs, sardines, cut mullet — the list of what a redfish won't eat is much shorter. With an underslung mouth and a snout built like a drilling bit, reds are perfectly designed for rooting along the bottom and gobbling whatever crustaceans or bait fish they flush.
They usually do the grazing thing in groups, so if one fish finds something edible, he knows he had better grab it quickly, before one of his schoolmates steals the meal. For anglers, this means redfish don't deliberate — they see it, they eat it.
Reds will also actively chase moving targets. That may be a free-lined sardine or a threadfin herring, or it could be a jig, a soft plastic jerk bait or a noisy topwater plug.
Chunks of cut mullet or threadfins are the can't-miss fallback plan when runs turn finicky. Usually, you can trace any redfish mood change to fishing pressure — someone got too close to the school — or unfavorable conditions such as a slack tide.
Toss out a handful of freebies to gather the fish then cast the bait chunks on circle hooks. No self-respecting redfish will turn down such an easy meal.
TOUGH FIGHTERS: Hook a redfish and any question as to their sporting value will quickly vanish. They won't go airborne, but they'll rip off a bunch of line and stay at that length for longer than most folks expect. Powerfully built, reds will test your tackle and your resolve, but who wants "easy" fishing?
Best part about a redfish is that their soft, fleshy mouth holds a hook well. Once you stick a red, it'll rarely come unbuttoned.
PHOTOGENIC TRAITS: Standard redfish coloration resembles a new penny with a white belly and a distinctive black spot on both sides of the tail. Spot patterns can vary greatly in number and position, so anglers working a school of reds often compete to see who catches the one with the most spots.
A red's dominant coloration will also vary based on where they're living. Those rooting around muddy backwater bays will take on a dark, auburn hue, while those roaming beaches in clear water will turn silvery white with barely a touch of pink on their backs. In any variation, the red's solid frame, shiny sides, pronounced spots and distinctive dorsal fin structure make for great souvenir photos.
Anglers can keep one redfish measuring 18-27 inches a day, but the more you release, the more there will be to catch tomorrow. Reds will often blast away the second you lower them into the water, but when larger specimens come to the boat exhausted, take time to revive them before release.
Hold your fish by its toothless lower jaw and lead it in figure-8 patterns at boatside to wash oxygen across its gills. Redfish are tough, durable fish, so there's a good chance you may catch that fish again someday.