Mission control, we are under attack. An army of well-armed intruders has crept into our territory in the Chesapeake Bay, using keen instincts, rugged armor, and an aggressive attitude. It's not clear they'll ever leave.
And we couldn't be happier about it.
Red drum have always made probing raids into Maryland’s portion of the Bay, and a dedicated angler might expect to run into this species a time or two during the course of a decade. But during the summer of 2012, reds mounted a full-scale Shock-and-Awe style takeover, swarming through the middle Bay in unheard-of numbers. Catches of a half-dozen or more fish in an afternoon were not uncommon, and at times, they seemed to out-number our resident stripers. So what exactly precipitated this unprovoked attack? And more importantly, how can we anglers capitalize on it?
This assault was shocking because we don’t expect our lures to be smashed day in and day out by “exotic” species, especially ones with such gusto. And it was awesome because we love this heightened combat. Don’t get me wrong—we treasure our striped bass, and they’re potent adversaries. In fact, stripers are the undisputed most popular gamefish north of the Mason-Dixon Line. But the average 18-inch redfish brawls like a 22-inch striper. Pound for pound they strike faster, tug harder, and run longer. Which explains why in the south, reds are just as popular as stripers are up north.
So, why did these Confederate cowboys suddenly decide to over-run their northern neighbors? Salinity, weather, and the presence of food surely played major roles, and some will argue that their presence in the Chesapeake is just another sign of global climate change. Of course, I can’t say for sure whether global warming is even real or not. To figure that out, I suggest you try Googling “Global Warming” while simultaneously watching An Inconvenient Truth and listening to Rush Limbaugh; I’ll stand back and watch as your head explodes.
I do know one thing for sure. Many southern species have been making cameos in once-cooler waters. Formerly tropical lionfish have been discovered as far up the coast as New York; recent squid runs along the California coast have been more common and far-reaching than in the past; and during the summer both whales and manatees were spotted in the Chesapeake Bay. Weird. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Alaska proved in a 2010 study that early-migrating pink salmon are replacing late migrators via natural selection, thanks to annual warming taking place earlier in the season.
So while those hordes of redfish may or may not reappear in the bay during any specific summer, it’s a good bet that we’ll be seeing more and more of their type marching into town in the future.
One other established fact: the fish causing this fracas are mostly child soldiers. The bulk of the catch ranged from 14 to 18 inches, and very few of the reds were over the 27 inch maximum size (Maryland has a slot limit, allowing anglers to keep one red drum per day between 18 and 27 inches). That means that the vast majority of these fish ranged from one to two years old. So there's another clue to why they're here: juvenile redfish love feeding on blue crabs. In fact, according to a 2010 University of North Carolina study, field sampling showed that during some seasons blue crabs can make up over 45 percent of a young redfish’s diet. And in the 2012 annual Maryland/Virginia blue crab survey, officials from both states claimed there was a blue crab baby-boom underway with the highest levels of juvenile crab populations in over twenty years.
So while the root cause for the red drum’s sudden appearance can be debated, we know the water was warm enough and the food was plentiful enough for the fish to mount this massive invasion—and it’s likely to happen again.
Armed for the Resistance
If you want to join in the battle next spring, now’s the time to arm yourself. Although you’ll occasionally luck into these reds while applying the tried and true striper tactics common to the Chesapeake, you’ll enjoy a lot more success if you specifically target them. You have two basic choices: fishing bottom with bait, and casting lures.
Bait anglers will have the most success using standard top-and-bottom rigs with #4/0 snelled hooks or “Trout Scout” rigs, which add beads, a spinner, and a bucktail teaser to the hooks. You can’t “match the hatch” exactly because the use of juvenile blue crabs for bait is strictly verboten (Maryland’s minimum legal size for blue crab is five and a half inches during the summer months, which is far too large to use as bait). But you can still tempt the fish with chunks of cut peeler or soft crab. Try drifting it across the bottom on humps and ledges (those covered with oyster shell are often best) in ten to twenty-five feet of water. If you’re catching large numbers of croaker, stick with the spot—they feed in a similar fashion, and often you’ll catch drum in the same places you encounter the croaker.
Lure anglers can get by with three to five inch jigs, artificial shrimp, and twister-tails rigged on leadheads. But the real stand-out lure for catching redfish during the invasion of 2012 turned out to be one that’s more commonly used in freshwater: a spinnerbait. For whatever reason, redfish prowling the shallows of middle-Bay tributaries and shorelines seemed to particularly love those spinnerbaits with half-inch gold willow blades and a three inch plastic body. Hot body colors included chartreuse, white, and blue/white color patterns, but the absolute killer was a 50-50 red/white combo.
Unlike using bait, lures will prove most effective in water that’s five feet deep or less. Redfish will be hunting in the same shallow areas you’ll usually find stripers, particularly during dawn, dusk, and the peak of flood tides. Look for rip-rap along shores and jetties, feeder creek mouths, and unusual or very large piers. If a strong current hits one of these spots and/or there’s deep water access close by, so much the better.
Spinning or conventional rods in the eight to seventeen pound class are appropriate when targeting these fish. Bait anglers should use monofilament line, because the extra sensitivity of braid can tip the fish off when it nibbles. Those casting lures, however, will score better if they have braid line, since they’ll feel the strike immediately and the line won’t stretch on the hook-set. Added bonus: much of the time, red aggression will do the hook-setting for you—these fish attack so fast that before you can even dream of reacting, your drag will be singing as the fish turns tail in a full retreat.
Unlike stripers, most of the reds you encounter in the bay are going to be lone soldiers. Instead of travelling in pairs or platoons, they tend to travel alone. You may take two or three from one spot, but after catching one at a hotspot and then making three or four fruitless casts, it’s probably time to move on.
The Fog of War
For you Yanks who haven’t yet tangled with a redfish, a bit of study will ensure that you know your enemy. Don’t worry, they’re pretty easy to recognize. Just remember that their body shape is that of a croaker, their coloration is bronze on the back with white on the belly, and they have a dark spot or two located on or near the tail. Due to the surprise nature of their offensive in 2012, redfish actually caused quite a bit of confusion amongst unprepared anglers. In fact, talk at the tackle shops was of deformed croakers with weird markings—and one friend even called me in a fluster, claiming he had “discovered” a new sub-species.
Gear up and study up, and next spring you’ll be prepared for a new season of patriotic piscatorial pursuits. Yes, these fish will come after our crustaceans like cruise missiles. They’ll try to bomb our bunker. They’re planning a slaughter of our silversides. And we’ll be loving it.
Banned-From-The-Kitchen Blackened Redfish
So you’ve triumphed over the invaders, and have a prisoner or two in the fishbox? Nice job, soldier. Now, you need to know how to turn that marauder into a meal. Redfish was made famous by blackening, and with good reason—follow this recipe, and you’ll soon be dining on some of the best fish you’ve ever tasted. But beware. It’s called “Banned-From-The-Kitchen” for a reason. If you try to blacken redfish fillets indoors without a potent exhaust fan, you’ll fill the house up with smoke. The best bet is to make this meal outdoors, on the grill.
Ingredients (per fillet):
1. One quarter stick melted butter
2. Two teaspoons chili powder
3. One teaspoon Cayenne pepper
4. One teaspoon black pepper
5. One teaspoon crushed red pepper
6. One half teaspoon garlic powder
Mix the spices in with the melted butter, and put them in a plastic zipper-lock bag or a plastic tub. Add in the fillets, seal the container, and shake it to coat the fillets in the butter-spice mixture.
Heat an iron skillet over high heat. Test to see if it’s hot enough by drizzling on a drop or two of butter; it should sizzle and blacken in a matter of seconds. When you’re sure the skillet is hot enough, drop the fillets on—and stand back! Allow the butter to burn and smoke for 90 seconds. Warning: well-intentioned neighbors may call the fire department.
After the 90 seconds is up, duck into the smoke cloud and flip the fillets. Allow them to cook through (another 90 seconds should do for relatively thin fillets, though larger ones may take two minutes), and remove them from the heat.
You have just greatly expanded your home’s carbon footprint for the day, but you’re in for a great meal.