Redfish: Are “Reds” in Our Future? - The Fisherman

Redfish: Are “Reds” in Our Future?

Many local surfcasters like ASAC president and Merchantville Fishing Club member Greg O’Connell head for the Outer Banks in spring and fall when hunting for monster reds.

The author hits a pair of channel bass and wonders if this might be signs of an improving trend.

You never know what you might catch when casting a sandworm into Point Pleasant Canal from spring through fall. Blackfish are the main target from the rocky bottom, but I’ve caught many other species there–even including a juvenile grouper.

Yet, I wasn’t expecting the fish that blasted my barely alive worm on August 6 last year. It was running line off my relatively light spinning outfit (Canyon 3500 reel with a 7-foot Bogey custom rod) like a school striper or bluefish rather than trying to hang me up in the bottom. As soon as I got a glimpse of the pointed head, I immediately thought it was a redfish. That was hard to believe, and I was hoping that it wouldn’t get off before showing its side for a positive identification.

Leaning over the fence that lines most of the canal, I then got a good view of the black spots near the tail that are a sure identification of a red drum. Moving it to a low spot in the fence, I was able to lean over far enough to grab the top of my 30-pound mono leader and swing it over. The redfish (also called puppy drum in the south at that size) was 22 inches long, and I quickly took a couple of ID shots on the ground before releasing my “unusual catch of a lifetime” in the canal. Though this was a Sunday morning when there would normally be lots of anglers fishing, I was alone at the time and had no one available to take a shot of me with the only northern redfish I ever expected to catch.

The few sand worms I had left were completely dead and sticky to the touch the next morning, and I had a hard time getting them on the 2/0 circle hook. Yet, my experience with blackfish in the canal has been that if I can get worms in any condition on a hook with a length hanging off they’ll be eaten. Soon after the worms hit bottom, I lifted them off bottom and had a hard hit. Amazingly, it turned out to be another red drum! It wasn’t the same fish I’d released the day before, as it was only 20 inches.

Once again there was no one around, and I settled for the ID photos on the ground before a quick release. If had desired, that puppy drum could have been kept, as the minimum size in New Jersey is only 18 inches — with a slot limit going up to a maximum of 27 inches.

2018 8 Are Reds Our Future YANIRO MAIN
Ryan Rossi of Wall Township (left) looks over the redfish photos on the wall of Captain’s Quarters Bait and Tackle in Beach Haven owned by Dan Yaniro.

With an amazing two red drum in two days, I had high hopes that there might be a school in the canal, but numerous attempts after that never produced another redfish. Sand worms are an expensive bait to use in the canal, where there are lots of small fish to eat them, but I often have the remains of flats that Chuck Many carries on his Ty Man from Gateway Marina in Highlands, New Jersey when we drift for stripers and weakfish during trips to the Hudson and East rivers.

There were rumors of other puppy drum released in the canal, but the only one I can confirm was on September 17 when I heard some yelling north of me and saw a fish longer than a tautog being yanked out of the water. Another angler shouted “cobia” and I ran to my car for a camera to get a shot of a species I’d never heard of in the canal. It turned out to be a redfish of exactly the same 22 inches I had released the previous month — but much fatter. The angler said he’d hooked it on green crab, and yanked it out of the water because a big bluefish was on its tail and about to attack!

2018 8 Are Reds Our Future YANIRO INSET
Yaniro also owns the New Jersey state record red drum of 55 pounds caught in Great Bay in 1985 before the slot fish regulation came into being. Photo by Jim Hutchinson, Sr.

Expanded Range, or Return?

Just a few years ago, NOAA Fisheries sent out a press release urging recreational fishermen in the Mid-Atlantic to learn how to catch red drum as they’d be moving north as a result of climate change. I remembered reading as a youngster about channel bass (as they were then known in the north) being caught in New Jersey, but after becoming saltwater editor of The Star-Ledger in Newark, there were hardly any reports of red drum except for a regular late summer appearance of a few at the southern end of the state. One year there were a few small redfish caught at Island Beach State Park, and they were even included as an eligible species in the Governor’s Surf Fishing Tournament that was then held in October.

Further investigation was spurred by the 100th anniversary of the Ocean City Fishing Club, which dug up records of the club’s old big fish contests and found the entries were not of striped bass or bluefish — but rather of channel bass. That was further confirmation of what I had read in Campen Heilner’s Salt Water Fishing of surf fishing along the Central Jersey Shore over a century ago when anglers from around the country flocked to the Barnegat area in order to catch trophy channel bass from late summer into the fall. Indeed, the first two world records for the species came from Barnegat Inlet and “New” Inlet.

Scattered large channel bass were also caught along the North Jersey Shore around that time, and were not uncommon on Long Island. That information was included in an article I wrote for The Fisherman about fisheries and climate change.

Local channel bass fishing was quite different 100 years ago. Rather than the puppy drum we’re talking about now, those fish were almost all over 20 pounds. Anglers fishing for weakfish and kingfish with light linen lines that had to be rinsed in freshwater and then dried after every trip regarded the channel bass as nuisances that ran off with their expensive lines. In 1985, Dan Yaniro who now owns Captains Quarters Bait and Tackle on Long Beach Island would hit a 55-pounder in Great Bay, which should stand as the state record for a long time considering the size limit change in the years that followed maxing the allowable size at 27 inches.

One surfcaster reported catching a redfish in the teens while casting bait for fluke at Sea Girt a few summers ago. I’ve also heard of stray large red drum from as far north as Cape Cod during recent years, and Snug Harbor Marina in Wakefield, R.I. weighed a 48.9-pounder in August, 2011 that hit a bunker chunk cast into a breachway for stripers

Likely Bait & Tackle

If NOAA Fisheries is right, Yankee fishermen must be slow learners. Many of us have fished for red drum in North Carolina and Florida, so the learning process shouldn’t be too steep. Not unlike stripers, red drum will hit almost anything at times. If they’re feeding on a particular type of bait they may well be fussy, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. That red drum from Point Pleasant Canal confirms that they will hit crabs. Yet, there are green crabs on bottom rigs there for blackfish almost every day from spring through fall, and that’s the only redfish I’ve heard of being caught on a crab there.

The same techniques used for stripers should also work for redfish at times. Ironically, well before I started using bunker chunks in Raritan Bay for stripers in 1994, I first fished with them years before in Louisiana from a small boat anchored in a shallow pass into the Gulf of Mexico. We were catching 15- to 20-pound red drum, which I thought was great — though my friend was struggling to catch a smaller one that would be edible.

2018 8 Are Reds Our Future THE AUTHOR HORIZONTAL
The author, with one of his southern red drum catches caught while fishing southern waters in the 1970s, hopes to one day break his 40-pound “personal best” someday in New Jersey marine waters.

Small redfish are good eating fish, but their meat becomes coarse as they get larger than about 12 pounds. Southerners called them “old drum,” and that worked out well as the big spawners were protected by their lack of value. All that changed when chef Paul Prudhomme found they were suitable for his blackened fish, which soon resulted in overfishing before the formation of the Coastal Conservation Association that achieved gamefish status for red drum in the south,

Just a few weeks before I got lucky with redfish in the canal, Sea Girt surf pro Frank Conover had released one while casting a paddletail jig from shore in Shark River for school stripers and blues, and Bob Matthews at Fisherman’s Den in Belmar Marina reported his bait supplier had caught two in his spearing seine there. At that point, I was surprised that Vinny D’Anton hadn’t caught a redfish since he had been the only one I know who had done so in the North Jersey surf in recent years. Furthermore, he’d released a total of four while casting small lures for stripers, and three of them were in cold waters.

After Superstorm Sandy he hooked one on January 6, and in 2012 caught one at Sea Girt two weeks in a row during November. The only “normal” redfish was a small one hooked during early fall a couple of years ago at Avon while catching small school stripers by snagging the peanut bunkers they were feeding on.

The “C” Word

Though I suspect that red drum may become more of a target for Mid-Atlantic anglers, that increase may not be entirely tied to increasing water temperatures. According to Global Warming theory, we’ve been in a long-term warming cycle, which means that waters a century ago when red drum were abundant in New Jersey must have been cooler rather than warmer then. Actually, Mother Nature hasn’t complied with predictions based on climate change as the most dramatic changes have been the return of cod to Jersey waters, even during the summer, and a proliferation of cold water spiny dogfish that have become almost a year-round pest even into the surf at night — plus the common appearance of normally cold water whales and seals.

Yet, there’s no reason why red drum shouldn’t expand their range just as they did a century ago. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has determined that the northern stock of red drum (from New Jersey to North Carolina) is healthy and not overfished. Though red drum are often victims of thermal shock in shallow areas of Florida during sudden severe cold snaps, D’Anton’s experiences indicates that the northern stock may be adapted to colder water temperatures.

The 27-inch maximum length set by the ASMFC (though not incorporated into the rules by states north of New Jersey) protects the spawning females that can shed over two million eggs during the summer while spawning at night in nearshore waters. Males mature at 20 to 28 inches in 1 to 4 years, and females mature at 31 to 36 inches in 3 to 6 years. Redfish are also long-lived, as they can live up to 60 years and reach about 60 inches — which would be over 90 pounds. Like other Sciaenidaes (such as weakfish, croakers and spot), they tend to produce big year classes at times, and that occurred recently in 2012.

All of that is a good combination for red drum to return to what used to be their normal habitat. My personal record for red drum is a 40-pounder caught on April 22, 1970 while casting bait from a marsh island in North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound; I’m looking forward to beating that in New Jersey one of these days!

For the past several seasons, the Long Beach Island Surf Fishing Classic has offered a $100 cash prize for the first legal (18 to 27 inches) red drum caught in the nine-week contest. Because that prize has been claimed rather quickly each year, the “Classic” will be awarding a $100 for the largest redfish in each of the three tournament segments between October 6 and December 9.



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