Chase mullet to sight-fish for redfish

Allen Jernigan releases a small drum. (Photo by Jerry Dilsaver)

Here’s a different way of sight-fishing

When most fishermen think of sightfishing red drum, they think of stalking into casting distance of those they can see in the shallows, typically in pockets in the marsh. That’s sort of what Capt. Allen “Breadman” Jernigan does when he sightfishes for upper- and over-slot red drum during the heat of the summer.

But it’s not quite the same. Jernigan, of Breadman Ventures Guide Service in Sneads Ferry (www.breadmanventures.com, 910-467-1482) focuses on the big water, not the marshes, as he scours the sides of the New, Neuse and Pamlico rivers for schools of red drum feeding on finger mullet running up and down the rivers. Sometimes he sees the drum and sometimes he sees the mullet. But the action is always where the two come together.

“Look there, at about 2 o’clock off the bow,” Jernigan said excitedly. “There’s a nice size school of finger mullet working up the river, and there’s a shallow bar about 30 yards in front of them. We’ll see pretty quickly if that last school of drum has re-formed and is ready for some more dinner.”

Many anglers are surprised at how shallow big red drum like this one can swim. (Photo by Jerry Dilsaver)

Almost as if on cue, the mullet became nervous approaching the shallower water. Their wakes slowed, but became more prominent as if they were undecided on what to do. They slowed, almost milling in place. Just inshore of the bar, the first redfish grabbed a mullet and rolled. Then, as Jernigan was pointing and calling out where to cast, another half dozen or so tore up the surface while grabbing mullets.

Any doubts about where to cast disappeared. About the time the casts hit the water, a section of the river roughly the size of a house exploded, coming alive with fleeing mullets and chasing redfish.

Knee deep is plenty deep

George Papastrat, owner of Tideline Marine in Jacksonville, was fishing with Jernigan and was the first to hook up. His custom Stillwater rod, made by Jernigan’s tournament partner Capt. Jason Dail, bent deeply. The Shimano reel squealed as a nice redfish felt the sting of the hook and bolted away.  Once Papastrat was connected, Jernigan lofted a weedless spoon to the upriver edge of the commotion and was rewarded with a strike before he even closed the bail on the little spinning reel. His Stillwater rod also bent deeply as the reel sang a heavy metal soprano.

As the two fought their fish, the fracas calmed and the only sign left of the savage attack was a few larger ripples and swirls when the hooked fish rolled.

The fishermen battled their drum across the shallow flat and to the boat where Jernigan deftly netted them and laid the net on the deck. He immediately removed the hooks, snapped a quick picture or two and leaned over the side to revive and release them. Jernigan commented that drum are very hardy fish and handle catch-and-release well. But the hot summer water didn’t hold much oxygen, and he wanted to get them back in and revived quickly.

The anglers spotted this fish crashing mullet, then made an accurate cast, which paid off. (Photo by Jerry Dilsaver)

This happened continually in roughly knee deep water. Jernigan fishes a SCB super shallow draft boat just for this purpose, and it had been in its prime element all day. The mullet were moving up the river roughly 100 yards off the bank. And from years of fishing the river, Jernigan knew the shallow spots well and positioned the boat to be in casting position as soon as a school of drum launched into attack mode.

This fishing requires calm water to give away the location of the schools of mullets and a sharp eye. With polarized glasses, Jernigan could also sometimes see the drum staging for the attack. There was no doubt the deal was on when the drum started crashing the mullet, but the fishermen needed to be within casting range to score. These attacks were fierce and aggressive. But they rarely lasted a minute, and if they weren’t in position, the anglers had to wait until the next attack to get in on the fun.

Skip windy weather

This day almost didn’t happen. The forecast changed overnight and the overnight wind lasted well into the morning. Jernigan kept checking his weather app and told Papastrat to be patient and he would get to see what he had been hearing about.

At the point the wind finally fell out late in the morning, Jernigan told Papastrat to get ready to do battle with some healthy redfish.

Big drum like this can be caught in shallow water, and are easy to spot with polarized sunglasses. (Photo by Jerry Dilsaver)

Jernigan’s optimism was well served, and the catching began almost immediately after the wind died. For several hours Jernigan kept an eye on the schools of moving mullets and kept the boat within casting distance when an attack happened. This wasn’t just fishing, it was catching.

“The action is like this in the New River, Neuse River and Pamlico River,” Jernigan said. “It could be anywhere in the river, depending on where the wind is calm and the mullet minnows are moving that day. We’ve just caught drum today, but some days, really big trout are mixed in with these schools of drum. Of course, some days the redfish schools are so large you can see a reddish tint in the water and cast to them between schools of mullet.”

Jernigan said he learned this type of fishing in the New River. But when he began fishing redfish tournaments, he learned about the other rivers. He said when the fish are feeding, they eat a variety of lures. His favorite is the MirrOlure She Pup. He changes the stock hooks to 4X strong, size 2 VMC trebles.

Mix it up

When the big drum are feeding on top, Jernigan said this special fishing is even better. Red drum have an inferior mouth, meaning it is located on the bottom of their head, and they have to either lunge almost out of the water or roll on their side to hit the topwater lures. Seeing them strike is as exciting as fighting them. Jernigan also uses several types of Saltwater Assassin and Bass Assassin soft plastics, suspending MirrOlures and weedless spoons.

“The fishing in the Neuse and Pamlico Rivers got an unexpected boost several years ago when the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission halted the use of gill nets above the ferry crossings in the rivers,” Jernigan said. “The Neuse River Ferry crosses from Cherry Branch to Minnesott Beach, and the Pamlico River Ferry crosses from Aurora to Bayview. The fishing first was better in the rivers above these boundaries, but has spread downriver below them too. We’re seeing more redfish, trout, flounder and stripers.”

Spoons are always good options when sight-fishing for redfish. (Photo by Jerry Dilsaver)

In the early part of this trip, the fishermen were casting weedless spoons and several types of soft plastics at areas where Jernigan had caught fish previously, waiting for the wind to lay out. They caught red drum, speckled trout and a few flounder that were released. Jernigan said he was surprised they didn’t also catch a striper or two, but blamed that on the stripers being less active in the warmer, summer, shallow water. Once the wind laid out and Jernigan could spot the moving mullets, the catch was red drum for the rest of the day. The fishing was good and seeing all those drum crashing schools of mullet was something special – something special the New, Neuse and Pamlico Rivers have to offer.

Match your tackle to the fish

Captain Jernigan carries two different sets of tackle on these trips. He uses custom Stillwater Rods, made by his tournament partner, Capt. Jason Dail (Team Bumpin’ Mullets, Jernigan and Dail, are very successful redfish tournament competitors). One set is lighter for general redfish, trout, striper and flounder fishing and the other is heavier for handling the larger, often trophy size, redfish. These are paired with Shimano Sustain and Stradic reels in 2500 and 3000 sizes for the smaller fish and 4000 size for the larger fish. He uses 12-pound test Fins Windtamer braided line, with a 20-pound test fluorocarbon leader on the 2500 and 3000 size reels, and 20-pound test Fins Windtamer, with a 30-pound test fluorocarbon leader on the 4000 size reels.

About Jerry Dilsaver 1172 Articles
Jerry Dilsaver of Oak Island, N.C., a full-time freelance writer, is a columnist for Carolina Sportsman. He is a former SKA National Champion and USAA Angler of the Year.

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