SEBASTIAN -- These are redfish like you have probably never seen them: 40-inchers rolling on the surface of Sebastian Inlet, slapping their black-spotted, coppery tails like tarpon. It’s mesmerizing and heart-pounding unless you don’t have a pulse.
That’s what’s been going on here off and on since early May and is likely to continue for another month or more: huge ocean-going red drum feasting with gusto on several varieties of small swimming crabs flushing out of the Indian River Lagoon on the outgoing tide.
No light-tackle charter captain is more dialed in to the oversized redfish bonanza than captain Glyn Austin of Palm Bay. Austin, who skippers a 23-foot Shoalwater skiff with a tower, has been releasing big reds in the double digits on topwater plugs, live crabs and even fly rod since the fish first showed up this spring. His customers’ largest fish so far was 49 inches long with a 25-inch girth estimated at 38 pounds. Fishing with Austin last week, I went two for four — both 36 inches.
“About an hour into the outgoing tide is when they bite best,” Austin said. “It’s better around a full moon and new moon.”
But just being in the right place at the right time doesn’t ensure success. With news of the rolling reds cascading like a flash flood on social media, we found a couple dozen boats jockeying for position in the small, narrow inlet over the relatively short time window that the bite lasts. It seemed that not many of the boats hooked up.
More than a few of these would-be redfish anglers were motoring up and down the channel using their outboards directly over the tide line where the fish tended to surface, spooking them.
Austin only used his outboard when we had completed a drift down the inlet, and even then, he motored well away from the prime fishing grounds. Then he shut off the motor and used the i-Pilot function on his bow-mounted electric trolling motor — much smaller and quieter — to hold position.
The inlet waters were very clear in the early stages of the outgoing tide on the day we fished, probably owing to a clear plume of Gulf Stream water that had flowed in on the high tide. To Austin, those conditions called for using live crabs for bait and 30- to 40-pound fluorocarbon leaders.
“What happened earlier [this season] was that the water wasn’t nearly as clean, so you could get away with using a plug,” he said. “I still have caught them on plug, but they’re not eating them as good as they have. I think that’s because there are so many crabs, and there’s also a lot of boat traffic, too.”
Austin’s favorite plugs are Rapala Skitterwalks and large Storm Chug Bugs. But we didn’t have much success with them; a couple fish appeared to swipe at them half-heartedly. All four of our bites came on live crabs.
Austin’s gear of choice is medium spinning reels in the 20- to 40-pound class on soft-tipped rods for ease of casting. Spools are loaded with 20-pound braid connected to four feet of fluorocarbon leader, which is tied to a 5/0 VMC circle hook. A cork float is placed just above the bait to keep it close to the surface.
Neither Austin nor I had any trouble keeping the reds pinned on circle hooks, despite their underslung mouths.
“Relax, let them eat it,” he said. “Don’t set the hook — either with the plug or the circle hook. I always tell customers, ‘Wait for the weight.’ I don’t like gut-hooking any fish. Our hook-up ratio is excellent with circle hooks.”
On our first redfish hit of the day, our quarry swung and missed. Our second fish gobbled our floating crab but dived for the rocky bottom and broke the line after a giant pontoon boat drifted over it. The third fish smacked my live crab so hard it drove it up the leader without crushing it, and I fought it successfully to the boat in about 10 minutes. The fourth fish did something I’ve never seen and Austin said he’s only witnessed a few times.
We had been drifting for about 10 minutes without a bite, and Austin told me to reel in my crab. As I began to crank, I saw what looked like a wall of water cresting behind my bait. I stopped reeling for a split second to gape … and suddenly the rod bent and drag started zeeee-ing out.
“He was chasing it! At full speed! And ate it!” I screamed excitedly.
Austin eased up to the fleeing fish, and we caught and released it.
On one occasion this season, Austin said he released a big red on an 11-weight fly rod. The fly pattern was an ugly, dull green creation that looks like a blob of algae with a crab clinging to it. That was before the hordes of hopefuls descended on the inlet. However, fly fishers could still find success on a sunrise or evening tide when boat traffic thins out.
In any case, it’s fun to see really big redfish acting like meth heads. Go check them out before they revert to their usual lazy and unmotivated demeanor.