While most fishermen target redfish during spring, summer and fall, the bone-chilling winter months offer some of the best action of the year. While skinny water holds large, isolated schools of fish, the edges of easily-accessible deep channels become hotspots, holding gargantuan schools of redfish ready for a carefully-presented lure.
A fish's daily routine revolves around feeding and avoiding predators. Redfish proliferate along the South Atlantic coast by achieving these two tasks in a fairly efficient manner. Feeding becomes less important in the winter, but a limited forage base may be available in select areas. Fortunately, environmental conditions limit areas redfish can frequent. Cold weather dictates what fish will do.
Most young-adult and juvenile redfish overwinter in bays, marshes and sometimes, along the surf zone. Depending on the water temperature, redfish will move as necessary to survive. Ideal areas become valuable to redfish when the water temperatures drop to seasonal lows. Schools can meet or exceed 100 to 200 redfish at the height of the winter season.
Predation and cold death remain the greatest threat for redfish in the winter. Few die from the cold, but it remains a factor in their winter migration scheme. Becoming another predator's prey ranks the highest for redfish in winter, but inshore waters hold few predators, with the exception of their greatest enemy.
Besides man, bottlenose dolphins keep redfish populations in check - to say the least. Since redfish are cold blooded, the cool waters limit their agile nature, and they become more vulnerable to predation than any other time of year. Dolphins and other marine mammals handle the temperature better and carry out their daily business in the cold waters of winter without hesitation. Initially, most redfish locate in spots that dolphins can't reach.
Capt. Tucker Blythe of James Island's Grey Ghost Charters targets winter redfish early on up in small creeks.
"Redfish move up the small creeks to locate trapped forage species and to avoid marine mammals," said Blythe (843-670-8629) .
The backs of these extremely-remote creeks offer refuge for redfish, and angling can be very rewarding. Blythe poles his Ranger skiff into these areas at the low end of the tide cycle and casts soft plastics and hand-tied flies to the corralled fish.
As unpredictable as the weather can be, prolonged periods of cold weather persist. Seasonal fronts refrigerate inshore waters, and redfish, again, will be on the move. Although some of the remote headwater creeks will have an unusually deep refuge areas where they can avoid the cold, most extreme headwaters areas lack sufficient depth. These areas confine redfish on low tides and will expose them, with escape routes, to a dangerous shift in temperature.
Capt. J.R. Waits of Fish Call Charters prefers feeder creeks or shallow flats adjacent to deep water when temperate conditions deteriorate.
"Redfish come out of smaller creeks into the mouths along the large bays near deep water when water temperatures drop," said Waits (843-509-7337). "They will rarely allow themselves to get trapped in the shallow areas."
By the time February arrives, Waits patrols the flats immediately adjacent to these deep channels, relatively close to the places he found them earlier in the winter.
"Reds will rarely travel too far during any time of year," he said.
Blythe targets winter reds along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW).
"The extreme cold water in the middle of the winter drives the redfish out of the shallow flats to the deeper holes and along the waterway," he said.
The ICW provides a deep-water refuge for reds when the mercury plummets. Blythe and Waits concentrate on locating huge schools along the ICW between Charleston and McClellanville. The deep channel provides temperature-stable water and plenty of ways to escape from dolphins. In addition, it offers warmer conditions that attract the available forage fishes.
Even though the ICW is a man-made feature, submerged structure and cover is quite abundant. Oyster-shell beds and submerged aquatic vegetation are commonly found along the ICW. Redfish readily associate with oysters, and the beds adjacent to the ICW are prime winter locations. While Waits targets familiar beds in his normal routine, he pays close attention to the communities of submerged aquatic vegetation, including eel grass, shoal grass and widgeon grass.
"Crabs and small fishes hide in the submerged cover, offering redfish with a readily-available food source," he said.
Depending on the tidal stage, Waits will target redfish in water depths from eight inches to four feet. As the water temperature continues to drop, Waits shifts to slightly deeper areas, further away from the shallow edges of the ICW.
"When the water is really cold, drop into deeper water where creek intercepts bank, where the water is from four to eight feet deep," he said.
Redfish will rarely travel far, but they will travel just far enough to find their preferred water temperature.
The favored water depth and tidal stage will vary depending on the peak of the tides and weather conditions. Generally, the lower end of the tide is preferred: the last two hours of falling and the first two hours of rising water. Fortunately for anglers, redfish will not move very far between high and low stages of the tide. Blythe prefers bluebird days with the low tide occurring in the middle of the day.
"The sun bakes the mud on flats that are exposed to the sun and warms the waters as the tide flows in," he said.
Forage fish and redfish slip onto the warm shoals to warm, and this presents the redfish with a feeding opportunity.
Even though they may feed less frequently during the winter, redfish refuse to resist well-placed, subtle offerings; lures with little built-in action are preferred. Waits and Blythe both prefer scented soft plastics; Berkeley's Gulp! Saltwater Series reigns supreme for bamboozling redfish when the water is cold.
Waits prefers the jerk shad, crazy legs, shrimp or ripple mullet varieties. He tries to use a variety of lighter colors since the water is typically extremely clear, but he will use brown hues under murky, turbid conditions. Baby bass, root-beer gold, new penny, pearl white, pink shine and chartreuse-pepper neon are effective colors.
Lure presentation under winter conditions is very subtle and more of a finesse-type of action.
"The less you move them, the more effective these lures become," Waits said.
Dead-sticking or allowing these baits to sit motionless on the bottom is sometimes the best way to entice a fish to strike. Waits uses as little weight as possible to keep the lure on the bottom.
Soft plastics should be rigged on a 4/0 to 5/0 swimbait hook, which has lead molded to the hook bend and a spring bait-holder. Swimbait hooks give lures a lifelike appearance and prevent snags more effectively than the standard leadhead jig.
Standard gear should include 7-foot, medium-heavy spinning outfits capable of making long casts with light lures. Braided line in 10- to 15-pound braid, preferably Spiderwire Ultracast, should be used, with a 2- to 3-foot leader of 15- to 20-pound fluorocarbon. Braided line offers anglers with supreme abrasion-resistance and zero stretch to instantly detect a bite.