By Chris Christian
Whether you call them redfish, red bass, channel bass, reds or just drum, they're one of the most popular saltwater gamefish in the Southeastern United States. They can grow to over 90-pounds, but those big spawners spend most of their time offshore and are not accessible to most anglers. Anglers working inshore waters, however, will readily find them from throwback size up to the 12-pound-plus range. And, the late summer months are a prime time to tangle with them because those reds are in a full-fledged feeding mode!
Reds will not yet have gathered into the larger schools that are common in the fall and winter. They'll be in smaller pods and scattered throughout shallow bays, tide creeks, channel edges and flats. They can be widely distributed, but their movement patterns are predictable. On a rising tide they'll move shallow following baitfish and gorging on crustaceans. As the tide falls they'll drop back to the nearest deeper water. Throughout that movement pattern there is one common factor—oyster.
Reds love oyster and there is no mystery as to why. Between the crustaceans that live there and the baitfish that visit, an oyster bed is as close to an "All You Can Eat" buffet as a red will find. Anglers who discover oyster will likely find reds.
The drawback to fishing oyster is that it loves baits and lures as much as the reds do. The trick is to get your bait in front of the red before the oyster can grab it.
A topwater plug can be a very effective lure if there is several feet of water over the oyster; especially if finger mullet are present. If there's a few feet of water over the shell, a noisy bait seldom spooks the fish. In shallower waters, other tactics may be needed.
One common late summer situation is reds moving on top of shallow oyster with a rising tide. There may be a couple of feet of water, or just enough to cover their backs. They'll often be seen waking or tailing. They're there to feed and if you get a bait to them they'll eat it. The problem is presentation. Drop the bait on their nose and you'll spook them. Put it ahead of the red and the oyster often feeds first. The solution is an inexpensive "bream float."
These are Styrofoam floats that thread onto the line and are fixed in place with a plastic peg. A float measuring about 1.75 inches long and .75 inches wide will carry a 1/16-ounce wide gap jig head. Unlike the heavier metal bead, rattling corks, they are very stealthy and land with no more disturbance than the jig itself. They won't spook skinny water reds. Adjust the height correctly and you can keep a jig, or a baited hook, above the oyster and in front of the red. In slow currents, you can cast it ahead of the red and wait for him to reach it. In faster current, toss it up current and let the water bring it to the red. It's an excellent way to fish a small area where you have reds visibly working shallow oyster.
Another common situation is deeper, scattered, less visible oyster mounds. This often occurs in shallow back bays where the flood tide water depth may be nearly four feet, with numerous small oyster mounds rising a couple of feet off the bottom. A jig under a rattling cork (like the Cajun Thunder) is a good choice here. In these deeper waters, the cork noise will normally draw, not spook, reds and water can be covered fairly quickly.
Putting a bait or jig under a float is an excellent way to deal with small areas where you have found reds. If, however, you need to find that small area, many of the floater/diver crank baits designed for largemouth bass are a better option and can cover large areas of oyster quickly.
Experienced anglers know the mesmerizing effect a wobbling gold spoon has on reds, yet the spoon's lifespan can be brief over oyster. The 1/2-ounce Floating Rat-L-Trap, in a gold chrome finish, has the same effect but avoids the spoon's annoying tendency of becoming a permanent addition to the bottom. It floats at rest and dives to a depth of about two feet. If it taps the bottom, pausing the retrieve allows it to float clear. It's an excellent choice for water depths of three feet or less.
Another shallow oyster option is any of the floater/diver "wake baits" that have been recently introduced for largemouth anglers. These are short, fat, compact lures that float at rest and feature a small flat lip that reminds me of a dog that has spent too much time chasing parked cars. Virtually every hard bait maker offers one. Some are designed to run just inches under the surface (creating a visible wake that is a great imitation of a finger mullet on the surface!), while others will dive to a foot, or so. They can negotiate even the shallowest oyster without snagging. A brown/green crab color is effective, but if the reds are crashing finger mullet, a chrome or gray mullet color pattern is deadly!
If the oyster is deeper, pick a deeper diving crankbait. There are many models that will run between four and six feet. These lipped models can be cranked down to contact the bottom, and then just "ticked" over it. The major forage item on oyster is crabs, and that's what the reds are geared to nail. A lipped crankbait in a brown/green pattern...slowly ticking its way across the bottom...is the best crab imitator available in an artificial lure.
One drawback to lures designed for largemouth bass is their hardware. Reds will destroy light wire hooks and their split ring hangers. Experienced anglers will generally replace the hook hanging split rings with solid stainless steel models, and the hooks with sturdy models like the Mustad 2X. A few minutes at the kitchen table beats changing them out on the water.
As well, don't overlook largemouth bass buzzbaits in a situation where Spartina grass mixes with shallow oyster. Reds will hit any lure a largemouth bass will, including a noisy surface buzzbait. Add at least one trailer hook (two is better) since the reds' enthusiasm to hit these lures often exceeds their aim. The trailer hooks will put more fish in the boat.
Find oyster and you'll find reds this time of year. But fishing oyster can be a challenge. This lure selection makes it a lot easier and a lot more productive.