North Carolina’s ocean run of trophy class redfish is a risk versus reward proposition for dedicated kayak anglers. Many people think we’re crazy for going in the ocean with a kayak. We are aware of the many risks but with some knowledge and lots of respect, the reward can be spectacular.
Redfish, red drum, spot tail or channel bass. Bull red or old drum for 36 inches and above. Whatever you wish to call them, in North Carolina they are probably the most sought after fish in saltwater. These fish should always be handled with care by supporting their body and especially the belly where the vitals are. Anglers should be sure to return the fish back to the water as quickly as possible and properly revived after a quick photo.
Most of the breeding stock of redfish spend the winter well offshore of the coast while some travel south for warm water. They start to move in as the water warms. When the water reaches the 60 degree mark there are usually some on the nearshore reefs in kayak range.
As the schools of menhaden start moving through, the reds follow the bait and move closer to the beach. June, July and August are when the breeders move inshore for their spawning rituals. After August is when the fishing gets really good. With a heavy rain from a dreaded almost yearly hurricane, the influx of freshwater gives these fish a big push in search of clean salty water.
They come out of the inlets in hungry swarms and eat almost everything in sight. There are many techniques for targeting these fish, whether it be live or dead bait, to many different artificials. I use three different outfits for different styles. For live or dead bait I like to use a 6000 series reel spooled with 30-pound braid on a heavy action rod. With this I’m using a Carolina rig that consist of 3-ounce egg sinker, 50-pound leader and 9/0 circle hook.
The next two outfits are scaled to the size of lures I’m using. First is a 5000 series reel with 30-pound braid on a medium/heavy rod for larger lures such as Z-man Streakz XL on a 2-ounce jighead and bucktails in the 2- to 3-ounce range. My lighter setup is a 4000 series reel with 20-pound braid on a medium- medium/heavy rod. This is for bouncing 1- and 1.5-ounce bucktails. The lighter setup is perfect to throw a Stingsilver with an extra treble hook above it to snag a menhaden out of the school for bait.
The best place to start looking for reds in the fall is on the schools of menhaden just past the breakers. When they’re in the surf zone, it’s nothing to land a dozen by lunch time. This is where the Hobie Mirage is an ideal game changer. As I’m fishing just outside the break, the swells are trying to push me to the beach. I’m able to face the beach and bait balls with the MirageDrive in reverse to keep myself just out of the break zone.
The first thing I do is snag a bait from the school and drop it back down below the yak on my Carolina rig with a light drag. While that rod is in the holder behind me I’ll work one of the larger lures through the schools of bait. There are days that the fish are picky and will only eat a natural bait and others that they only want an artificial. My only conclusion to the preferred artificial is something that looks a bit different and out of place. It pays to give them options.
Some guys will use a popping cork with a large soft plastic or even a large live bait. If they don’t get bit within a few pops they move on down to the next bait pod. I’ve not found but a few pods that didn’t hold fish in the fall.
When the water starts cooling off in the winter and the schools of menhaden are scarce, the go-to spots are the nearshore reefs. Grey trout tend to flood the reefs during late fall and winter. It’s easy to spot the trout schooled near the bottom on a decent sonar. When these trout are stacked thick I love to bounce bucktails and large soft plastics around them.
We had a day in December 2016 that started out around 25 degrees with water temperatures in the mid-50s. The ocean was flat and it was calling our names. We set course to the reef. It took us a couple of hours to find a school of trout but when we did, we also found the quality reds. There was only a few of us on the water. We never spotted a boat all day. Given the amazing day on the water, I’m not sure the boaters wanted to face the cold ride or if most are unaware of the fishery at that time of the year. You won’t get a complaint out of these Carolina bull red wranglers.
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