Fishing for winter reds can be particularly good in and around the Beaufort River. Fish can be caught on lures, flies and natural bait. During low-tide phases, reds can easily be found on skinny-water flats, according to Capt. Tuck Scott of Beaufort's Bay Street Outfitters.
"Skinny water warms faster, so on sunny days, fish stay warmer there," Scott said. "Skinny water also provides safety from dolphin, and most importantly, it makes it even easier to see large schools of reds in the clear water."
Not all shallow flats are created the same, and not all will hold fish, but Scott has defined a few key criteria he uses to identify flats that will be the most productive. A flat that contains bait is obviously important, but other not-so-obvious components are equally important, and in some cases, more so.
"Redfish like to have escape routes once the tide rises, so flats that have a lot of grass and small creeks nearby will hold more fish," Scott said. "Also, I like a flat that sticks out but is also further back in."
Translated, that means a flat that isn't in a cove or bay, but one that protrudes into the main channel and is still far enough from shallow water that there is a lot of skinny water to cross to get close to the bank. This gives the reds protection from dolphins and also room to roam. Items such as points and oyster shells near or part of the flat are also indicative of a good flat, and in combination with "sticking out and back in" can be as close to a sure thing as winter fishing gets, according to Scott.
"It is extremely important that the flat holds water on everything but extremely low tides," he said, explaining that redfish will avoid a flat that drops off quickly and forces them into deeper water where hungry dolphin awaits.
Although reds do not frequent the same Spartina grass flats as they do during warmer months, they will still visit the grassy edges of creeks and river banks, especially near points, searching for a meal. They are not easily visible on higher water but are still caught by anglers who know what to look for.
Artificial offerings for winter reds vary in both types and tactics, depending on the type of water fished. For shallow reds, soft baits like Gulp! baits are hard to beat. Guide Owen Plair calls them his go-to baits
"I mainly use the 4- or 6-inch Gulp! baits in shrimp or minnow," said Plair, who prefers colors that stand out in the water like chartreuse, new penny, and nuclear chicken.
Equally important as the visual attraction is the scent. According to Plair, when the water is cold and the fish not very active, using a scented artificial like Gulp! can be, "like putting a piece of chicken in front of a school of piranha; they can't resist it."
Depending on the area being fished, rigs for cold-water reds will differ. Plair fishes an eighth-ounce 2/0 jighead or weedless hook on low-tide phases and the same baits under a popping cork on higher stages of the tide.
"The weighted hooks allow the soft baits to work along the bottom and get the reds' attention," he said. "Both hooks do well in any sight-casting opportunity, but if you get into an area where there are oysters or weeds, the weedless is better."
Classics like gold spoons are affective on low phases of the tide as well, especially on a warm day when fish are active. Also, spinnerbaits like the Redfish Magic are a good choice and one of Plair's favorites.
"A Redfish Magic contains elements of many great artificials like a jig head with a soft-plastic body and a gold spoon," said Plair, who thinks it's a great choice when you want to cover an area quickly.
From middle to high tide, Plair prefers a popping cork, figuring the little extra sound will help draw the attention of fish. He rigs them with a 12- to 24-inch leader of 20-pound mono between bait and cork, the length depending on the depth of water being fished.
"Working grass lines in two to three feet of water with about an 18-inch leader is always a good tactic when targeting reds or trout," he said.
Natural and live-bait tactics are straight-forward and flat-out productive. Areas targeted don't change; just the offerings do.
Capt. Steve Roll of Seas So Shallow Charters often opts for live mullet and mud minnows or cut mullet because of reds' laziness.
"I find most of my fish in super skinny water, but still pick a few out of the grass," he said. "Sometimes cut bait can be better because reds can get lazy and prefer an easy meal over one they have to work for."
Roll's rig of choice is a red jighead tipped with bait; hooked through both lips. This method holds true for cut bait as well, because Roll always uses the head of the cut bait whenever possible.
"Reds will always be quicker to identify the head as food and will eat it much faster than just a chunk of meat on a hook," he said, admitting that he'll rig also rig a jighead with a Gulp! crab.