Garnet and Gold

Pensacola Bay’s Running of the Bulls

Capt. John Rivers March 30, 2015

Few things in northwest Florida are as popular as the national championship Florida State Seminoles, but giving the ‘Noles a run for their money during the latter part of football season is the massive run of bull redfish. A garnet and gold of a different variety, mature red drum migrate along Gulf Coast beaches and passes every winter in preparation of their annual spawn. While most are glued to the TV on game day, during the coming months redfish take up residence in expansive Pensacola Bay and mayhem ensues as the waters boil in a massive feeding frenzy. The time is now when anglers can catch the redfish of a lifetime every day for two months straight!

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Photo: Captain John Rivers

A phenomenon that occurs along many regions of the northern Gulf of Mexico, massive redfish in sizable schools work their way along the coast until they congregate in the vicinity of area beaches, passes and bays and decide the time is right. The annual spawn is highly dictated by several environmental factors that determine the timing and capacity including water temperature, which is usually around 63 degrees this time of year, water level and salinity, which can be influenced by prevalent rains and river discharges, and the availability of forage. Redfish have been performing the same spawning rituals for decades and choose to spawn in the vicinity of area passes and bays so their larvae can drift into the estuarine systems, giving them the best chance of surviving, reaching maturity and continuing the cycle of life.

Separated from the Gulf by Santa Rosa Island and Florida’s mainland, Pensacola Bay is approximately 12 miles in length and can get downright rough in the winter when stiff winds blanket the region.

One of the largest estuaries in the state, Pensacola Bay is fed by the Escambia, Yellow, Blackwater and East Rivers. Separated from the Gulf by Santa Rosa Island and Florida’s mainland, Pensacola Bay is approximately 12 miles in length and can get downright rough in the winter when stiff winds blanket the region. With an active Naval Station and a channel with depths exceeding 60 feet, this expansive body of water eats bay boats for breakfast so it’s critical you time your efforts based on the forecasted weather conditions. With anything over 15 knots out of the north you might want to consider starting the pregame festivities a little early.

Starting right around Halloween, thousands of bull redfish leave the Gulf of Mexico and filter through Pensacola Bay to spawn and feed on the millions of blood minnows and menhaden that are flushed out of the upper estuary’s river systems. Although slot reds can be caught year-round along area flats, oyster bars, bridge pilings and rock jetties, the Port of Pensacola provides deep water access to the Gulf, and the breeder schools are most often encountered in open water just west of the Three-Mile Bridge, also known as the Pensacola Bay Bridge. We also find concentrations of fish just north of Gulf Breeze along both Deer Point and Fair Point.

There are several variables that contribute to this epic fishery, starting with the copious amount of bait that can sustain the giant schools of breeding redfish. The bay is like a gigantic smorgasbord and the redfish show up in colossal numbers looking for their spot in the buffet line. While I’ve had success during all hours of the day and during any tidal stage, the action peaks on an outgoing tide, which effectively pulls forage from the upper watershed in the direction of Pensacola Pass and into the open Gulf.

Since these are actively spawning fish it’s important you choose tackle that can get them to the boat in relatively short order. Ideal gear for catching brawny bulls consists of a medium-heavy action rod with a 5000 size reel. I like St.Croix rods matched up with Shimano Stradic 5000 reels. For mainline I prefer 30 lb. Spiderwire and attach a short length of 50 lb. fluorocarbon leader. Redfish will go after a variety of natural baits, but during the seasonal redfish run anglers-in-the-know leave the bait at home. This is an artificial fishery and a 2 oz. SPRO jig is the best of the best. I’ve been fishing for monster reds for the past 17 years and have found that the most effective jigs are white, pink or chartreuse, and I always enhance the jig with a 4-inch soft plastic curlytail or paddletail.

I’ve also had great success fishing large topwater plugs when the schools are active on the surface, with the MirrOlure Popa Dog and STORM Chug Bug providing memorable catches in the past. These lures come equipped with 4X hooks, which are crucial when targeting such large fish, but I highly recommend removing one of the treble hooks to make for an easier release since all of the fish encountered will be way over slot. When these big reds crash the surface it also presents the perfect opportunity to throw a fly in the mix, but you better be outfitted with a 12-weight or you’ll stand little chance landing a breeder red over 35 inches.

When looking for action be sure to watch the sky for pelicans diving on schools of baitfish. If you find birds in the bay, you most certainly have found the redfish. Once a school has been located you should observe the commotion from a distance, then slowly ease up to the school once you’ve determined their direction of travel. From here you can pick off fish from the outskirts. Another option is to work ahead of the school, cut your motor and hope the school swarms your boat. I’ve seen the schools work on the surface for hours, but I’ve also witnessed them come up for only minutes at a time. With a little luck, you will literally have hundreds of redfish around the boat and not know what to do with yourself. From here simply drop your jig to the bottom and start reeling. What you don’t ever want to do is run up on a school too fast or run directly through the concentration. I’ve seen it many times and it only sends the spooked school sounding for cover.

With so many fish in these large schools some days it is really too easy. Quite often when one school disappears another will pop up, sometimes only a few hundred yards away. I’ve seen as many as five different schools in a confined area of the bay at one time and if everyone is respectful, numerous fish can be caught before the action dissipates.

Since the commercial ban on redfish in the 1980s the population has rebounded, and it has since become the most accessible and consistent inshore sport fish for anglers across the entire state. While populations are higher than ever and the future looks bright, it’s still important to treat these breeding fish with care. Female redfish are capable of releasing upwards of 40 million eggs per season, and with proper handling and release tactics the species will continue to flourish. Fortunately, the catching is so good during the bull run that it’s possible to release a dozen fish over 35 inches and still make it back to the dock with plenty of time for kickoff. While anglers along the Panhandle have a plethora of worthy venues and species to target on any given day, when the waters of the Emerald Coast turn garnet and gold you know there’s something the cheer about!

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