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Patient plugger pursues reds by dawn's early light

The giant school of tailing redfish working the mangrove-lined flat seemed unnerved as Doug Hemmer quietly poled the aluminum skiff within casting range. Trading one pole for another, Hemmer grabbed a small spinning rod and quick-fired his plug 20 feet beyond the massive school of fish. His pole cocked at a 45-degree angle, he walked the torpedo-shaped plug gracefully across the top of the water with short, quick jerks and a steady retrieve. The lure's lazy, side to side movement, coupled with its built-in rattler, perfectly emulated a five-star seafood dinner.

It was more than a fish could stand.

The instant it reached the edge of the school, several wakes emerged, converged, and then BAM! a redfish blasted in, sending the plug and about six gallons of Tampa Bay flying into the air. But no hook-up.

Hemmer twitched the chrome-colored plug. An explosion of water rocked the silent flat as several reds attempted to eat the lure simultaneously. Still no hook-up.

After several spectacular pops, one of the reds finally got a hold of the bait and Hemmer set the hook. Yards of 8-pound monofilament began to melt away from his tiny spinning reel as the fish made a strong run through the knee-deep water.

It would be but one of the many battles of the morning Hemmer remembers as Red Dawn.

With a mouth more suited to scrounging in the mud for shrimp and crabs than sucking in a topwater plug, redfish are generally characterized as bottom feeders. Therefore, most anglers will work a live shrimp, jig or spoon along the bottom when targeting reds. But not Hemmer.

A self-proclaimed redfish fanatic, Hemmer can't remember the last time he fished for redfish with anything other than a topwater bait. There's just something about an armed projectile cruising the surface, he says, that seems to inspire an aggressive streak in reds.

"It's the silhouette," says Hemmer, who has been chasing redfish schools exclusively for the last six years. "The fish see something swimming over them and they just react. It's almost like they want to just kill it, not eat it."

"I'll fish topwaters morning, noon, and night, regardless of tide or weather. The only time they're tough to work is when there's a lot of weeds on top of the water. What I'll do then is rig a lure with a single weedless hook on it and when I get a hit, I'll come back with a normal plug (with treble hooks) to the same area. Hopefully, the fish will nail it before it gets covered with weeds."

Redfish aren't the most graceful surface strikers, but what they lack in finesse they make up for in determination. It often takes a fish three or four swipes before it is able to get a grip on your plug. Green-horn anglers will often rip the plug out of the red's reach before the fish has a hold of it.

"Wait until you see your plug disappear or until you can feel the fish on your line (to set the hook)," Hemmer said. "The last thing you want to do is pull your lure away from the fish. You've worked all this time to find the fish, so you don't want to blow it. After he hits it, just twitch your bait or leave it still and they'll usually hit it again. I've had the same fish nail my plug seven or eight times before hooking up."

Keeping your cool when a 36-inch red crashes onto the scene is easier said than done. But it's that thrill that inspires Hemmer to spend every free minute on the flats, chasing schools of redfish.

"There's something about seeing that tail waving at you in the morning sunlight, the sight of a red when he hits the lure, the bullish fight of a big red," Hemmer said. "It's serenity."

Hemmer employs two game plans when targeting reds. When the fish are feeding in shallow water and can be spotted, he'll quietly move within casting range and then launch his lure.

"You don't want to throw it right on top of them. Lead the fish so it looks like your plug is running away from him. It's unnatural for a baitfish to be running at a red, and it will usually spook them."

If the fish aren't showing, Hemmer will blind-cast. Moving slowly along the flats, he'll make a succession of casts covering an imaginary 180-degree arc in front of him.

"The key when blind-casting is to cover the maximum amount of water with your casts."

A plugger's tackle box is a quagmire of treblehooks and plastic. With a plethora of topwater plugs on the market, a lot of anglers will have at least one of each type, sometimes more. While making an awesome display for human eyes, fish aren't quite as easily impressed.

Hemmer, who has spent thousands of hours beating the salt out of the water with a variety of plugs, now limits his lure collection to a single bait. But out of respect for a generous local guide, he refuses to indulge its identity.

"I was turned on to it by a guide and you don't ever spill out what a guide tells you," he said. "He gave you a secret. Just try different plugs till you find the one that works for you."