When it comes to surf fishing, Red drum is considered one of the most popular fish to seek when fishing on the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast. Related to the red snapper red drum is a protected species that is forbidden to commercial fishermen but is fair game to private anglers.
The best way to surf fish for red drum is to use a medium-to-heavy action surf rod with the kinds of lures and bait that the red drum is most attracted to. These include surf lures such as metallic spoons, swimbaits, and plugs, as well as live bait like shrimp. Bait cut from larger baitfish like ladyfish is also the right choice for tempting red drum.
Many factors go into successfully catching red drum from the beach, but the following guide will tell you all the essential things you need to know to catch these beautiful, feisty, and delicious fish. To find out more about red drum and how you can catch some for yourself read on.
What Is A Red Drum?
Red drum is found all along the Atlantic coastline of North America throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Depending on where you are, locals may refer to the red drum as:
Red Drum – A Fish by Any Other Name
- Red fish
- Red bass
- Channel bass
- Spot tail bass
- Puppy drum (juveniles)
- Bull red (the mature fish in southern marshes and the surf off of several states)
The fact is, these are all the same fish and are covered by the same protections, regulations, and limits as those that are specific to the red drum.
Red drum can be easily determined by the dark spot or spots located near the base of their tail, which is used to confuse predators into attacking them from the rear instead of at the head, giving the fish a chance to escape.
When young, red drum is usually found in estuaries, eelgrass beds, sandy bottoms, or at the mouths of rivers where they meet the sea.
Young fish live in shallow coastal waters until they reach the age of around three or four years, at which point they head for the open ocean.
Red drum is unique in that they exhibit both solitary and schooling activity, and they’re also known to school with other species as well, such as black drum or tarpon.
The bull reds are what you will generally find in the surf. These are the mature monsters that have learned how to get bait without getting caught. Defining the actual size and weight of a bull red is a bit nebulous.
- In general, the bull red is a red drum that is over the slot limit of 27”.
- Anything between the slot limit and 40” is generally considered an oversized red
- Something over 40”- long and 20-35 pounds is when you actually get into the bull red category
They are also tolerant of a wide variety of environmental parameters, including salinity and temperature.
When to Surf Fish for Red Drum
Like many other species of coastal fish, the optimal time frame for red drum fishing from shore is in an hour or so before high tide, or in times of day with low light conditions (the hour before dawn or the hours of twilight).
In the morning, you can have good luck fishing any time from around four up until nine, and in the evening, you should cast out from five to about eight.
The later you fish in the surf zone after dark, however, the more likely you are to throwbacks such as sand sharks or rays.
The reason that these are the best times of day to fish in the surf zone is that the changing tides force baitfish to go on the move, which in turn gets the game fish hungry and striking.
It’s also an optimal time to fish from the beach since there is less activity from beachgoers, making it safer to cast without having to worry about casting into someone walking behind you.
Where to Go Surf Fishing for Red Drum
The red drum mostly likely to be found close to shore are those that are young, and these young drums spend a lot of their time on sandy bottoms or eelgrass beds, so those are the kinds of areas you should look for when scouting out a place to fish for red drum.
Sandy runs in the surf zone are a favorite hunting ground since the surf in this zone disorients baitfish and makes it easier for game fish to catch.
To find a spot where the red drum is active, you should look for signs of baitfish activity, such as churning water or flocks of birds diving on the surface of the waves. You might also see larger fish jump.
Like striped bass, red drum will hang out around docks, jetties, and breakwaters, because these manmade structures form a natural shelter against rough currents and a ready source of food since baitfish tend to congregate in these places.
Another sign to look out for when hunting a red drum is any area where shrimp are gathering since these are a favorite food source of red drum.
What Supplies to Bring Surf Fishing for Red Drum
To go surf fishing, you don’t need a ton of supplies, but there’s more that you’ll need to bring with you than just a rod and reel. Here are some of the items you’ll want to bring with you for a successful red drum fishing trip on the beach:
- Surf fishing rod and reel (it is recommended that you use heavy tackle)
- Hooks, sinker weights, lures, and any other tackle
- Live bait (shrimp is a good choice)
- Fishing knife
- Bait bucket (an aerated bait bucket will keep your bait alive longer)
- Fishing license
While it might seem like a long list of supplies, most of this gear is little and easily fits into a carrying bag or backpack.
Remember to bring your fishing license, since you can be fined or even lose your privilege to fish if you get caught by a game warden fishing without it.
There’s no excuse not to get a fishing license since they’re cheap and readily available.
Plus, you can feel good about buying one since the cost of fishing and hunting licenses directly contributes to the conservation of the wildlife, you’re taking advantage of.
Tackle and Lures for Catching Red Drum
When it comes to catching red drum while surf fishing, every angler has their own tricks, which means that no matter who you ask, you’re going to get a different recommendation for best tackle and lures to catch them.
Adult red drum can get large—up to ninety pounds. However, most juveniles found in coastal waters that are caught while surf fishing is caught between five and ten pounds.
Because these fish can potentially get large and hunt where other large game fish hunt, you’ll want to be sure you bring tackle along that is heavy enough to, well, tackle the problem.
Otherwise, you’ll risk having your line snap at the inopportune time and losing your catch as well as your tackle.
If you’re not topwater reeling for red drum, you’ll want to use a weighted sinker along with your lure or bait.
This will keep it in whatever position you cast it to even in rough currents, allowing you to maintain control of your lure better during high tide.
Using a weight on your lure also allows you to suspend live or cut bait in the water column.
When you tie it higher up on the line with a hook and a terminal sinker at the end—this keeps the lure from dragging on the ocean floor and potentially getting snagged, especially if you’re fishing in an eelgrass bed.
Here are some lure types commonly utilized in catching red drum while surf fishing:
Spoon lures: Spoon lures are a metallic, concave lure that turns and flashes in the water as it is reeled in, acting as a visual dinner bell to any nearby game fish. Because it doesn’t have any scent, a lure like a spoon can be combined with a cut or live bait to increase its appeal.
Plugs: Plugs are larger hard baits that are designed to move like baitfish and are popular lures for drums and sea bass because they tend to strike at any lure that moves like vulnerable prey.
Plugs tend to be large and heavy lures compared to lures like spoons and jigs, and as such, these lures need a heavier reel and rod to control properly. To go after juvenile red drum, use a smaller plug.
Light Tackle vs. Heavy Tackle for Fishing Red Drum
While it is possible to fish for red drum on light tackle, you should usually use a surf rod that is rated for medium action and a strong line such as a fluorocarbon or braided line.
The red drum is a muscular, aggressive fish that can range widely in size. This means that depending on where you’re fishing. You’re not going to be sure of what size you’re going to land on the line.
Live Bait for Catching Red Drum
One of the best ways to entice a red drum to hit your line is to use live bait, especially shrimp.
Red drum goes wild for shrimp, and chances are if you know there are wild shrimp feeding in the area, the red drum will be there too. Another good option for cut bait is ladyfish.
Shrimp: Shrimp is a good choice for red drum because they are prevalent in Gulf bait shops, and they are the primary food source for many popular kinds of game fish.
To hook a live shrimp, hook through the tail to keep the shrimp alive for as long as possible. This will let the shrimp retain as much natural movement as possible.
Ladyfish: Ladyfish is a larger baitfish that makes up a vital food source for many predatory game fish species. Ladyfish are oily and are good as cut bait because their scent is dispersed throughout the water, attracting red drum like a beacon.
When using cut bait, remember to replace the bait roughly every twenty to thirty minutes.
This is because as you drag the cut bait through the water, it loses its scent quickly, and by the time twenty minutes have passed, you’ll have a much less effective piece of bait than you started out with.
If you lose live baitfish like a bunker to try and catch a red drum, it is recommended to hook the baitfish through the nostrils rather than through the back.
This is because a fish that is speared through the body dies quickly and does not have as much movement and struggling as one that is hooked through the face.
The only problem with hooking a baitfish through the nostrils rather than the back is that they are more likely to tear themselves free, be pulled free during a hard cast, or be jerked off the hook by a larger fish without the larger fish setting the hook.
These are some other good forms of bait you can use when surf fishing for red drum:
Clams and mussels: Eating clams are a good choice for catching red drum because they are easily accessible and put a lot of scent in the water. Clams are a good “bad weather” bait, tempting fish to strike even in conditions when they’d otherwise hunker down.
Cut squid: Like clams, the major advantage of using cut squid for hunting red drum is because it attracts fish through its strong scent. One of the most convenient things about squid is that you can freeze it to save it for later, it’s cheap, and you can cut it to whatever size you like depending on what kind of lure and tackle you’re using.
Whenever you plan on using live baitfish, keeping a bait bucket with a battery-powered air pump handy can help you keep your baitfish and other live bait oxygenated.
While you might not care whether a few of your baitfish suffocate in the live well or not, the fact of the matter is that if the fish are weakened by lack of oxygen, they won’t have much movement on the hook by the time you pull them out.
How to Keep Red Drum from Stealing Your Bait
Like other game fish in their size range, red drum can be aggressive strikers, especially if they’ve been driven into a feeding frenzy by a school of baitfish.
These fish will hit a lure harder than smaller fish like sea trout or surfperch, but they can still learn how to steal bait, especially those that have figured out how to do it by frequenting local fishing piers.
The best way to keep fish from stealing your bait (red drum or otherwise) is to make sure that you match the size of your hooks to the size of your bait.
You don’t want to use a hook that is too small for the bait, or the fish will pull it right off. Likewise, you don’t want to use a hook that is too large for it either, or the fish will simply nibble around it.
Another way to keep fish from stealing your bait is to use a circle hook instead of a J-hook. Circle hooks can be a bit more difficult to set than a J-hook.
But they are harder to steal bait off from, and they are also the best type of hook to use if you intend to do any catch-and-release fishing.
Best Weather Conditions To Catch Red Drum
Many surf conditions affect how well the red drum will bite for you on any given day, things like the wind speed, the roughness of the current, temperature, and barometric pressure.
The most important of these factors is the tide because it determines the best times of day that the fish have for active feeding.
If it is low tide, red drum tends to hunker down and will be less likely to strike a lure. This is also true of especially rough currents or high winds.
During turbulent weather, fish will often retreat a bit beyond the breakers to avoid the roughest part of the surf, so fishing during these periods will require casting out farther than usual.
Surf Fishing for Red Drum in Bad Weather
While fish are less likely to strike during bad weather.
The period of time directly after a storm can be a suitable window for catching red drum as game fish tend to move in towards shore after rough tides to clean up any injured prey or debris that has been tossed up into the surf zone.
If you choose to fish during turbulent weather, please be sure to keep your safety in mind first and foremost.
If you see lightning or hear thunder, it is wise to move off the beach as the beach is a likely place to be struck in a lightning storm.
You should also be careful not to turn your back on the water and do not wade in if there is a riptide present.
A riptide can drag you off your feet in seconds, provided it’s strong enough.
Tips for Catching Red Drum
Red drum is easily one of the most popular fish sought by surf fishermen, and there are many different ways that veteran fishermen swear by to hook the biggest ones or the largest quantity throughout the fishing season.
Here are some of the best hints from weathered surf fishermen for catching red drum:
Cast faster. Red drum can often be tricked into striking a quick-moving lure out of instinct even if they aren’t that hungry. Speeding up how fast you haul in your line can mean the difference between a red drum just watching your lure move by and going after it.
Change locations. If you’ve tried one area for a while and you aren’t having any luck, try moving down the coastline a bit. Surf fishing is a patient sport, and most of it involves testing different spots until you find one that is particularly active with fish feeding activity.
Try using a leader line. While red drum does not have teeth and while not bite off your line when hooked like some toothy pelagic fish will, they do tend to hang around underwater structures, which increases your chance of getting hung up on something.
Video credit: Oceans East Bait & Tackle Shop
You can also avoid having your bait bit off by other kinds of fish that hunt in the same waters as red drums, such as bluefish.
Try chum. Red drum can be driven into a feeding frenzy by chum, especially if you use a chum made of something with a strong smell that they adore like shrimp heads or ground-up crabmeat stretched with cornmeal.
Chumming an area can increase fish activity across the board and generally increase the number of strikes you get from various predatory species.
The most important thing when catching red drum is to make sure you have the right tackle for the job. Larger red drum can be caught on light tackle designed for smaller panfish such as surfperch.
But the subsequent battle often exhausts them to the point of death, so light tackle is an especially poor choice for catch and release of red drum.
You can reel a red drum in much more quickly and with less damage to the fish on a medium-to-heavy action rod and with a lot less energy exerted by the angler too.
Can the Techniques for Catching Surfperches in California be Applied to Catching Red Drum in Surf Fishing?
Regulations by State
The only common regulation is that it is illegal to catch or possess any red drum caught in federal waters. With that in mind, let’s take a look at regulations by the state as they relate to size and catch limits.
Note: These are the regulations as of the time of the writing of this article. To be sure you are following local laws, check with your state’s fish and wildlife site.
|1 bull over 26″ may be kept but counts as one of the three-fish limit. A saltwater fishing license is required for anyone between 16-65.
|A saltwater fishing license is required.
|A saltwater fishing license is required for anyone between 16-64.
|Florida (Zone based Northeast Zone Northwest Zone South Zone
|2 Per person; 8 per vessel; 8 per vessel 1 per person; 8 per vessel
|All Zones 18″ –27″
|All Zone: All Year
|Make sure you know in which zone you are fishing, so you are compliance with local regulations. No commercial fishing allowed. Saltwater fishing license required.
|One bull over 27” can be kept – it counts as one of the 5 fish daily limit. A saltwater fishing license is required.
|All Year unless posted differently
|One bull over 30” may be kept – it counts as one of the daily limit of 3 total fish. A saltwater fishing license is required.
|18” – 27”
|No fish above the slot limit may be kept. A coastal recreational fishing license is required
|15” – 23”
|A saltwater fishing license is required. Gigging redfish between December through February is illegal.
|20” – 28”
|A saltwater fishing license is required, as is a Redfish Tag. One fish above the slot limit may be kept as part of your daily limit.
|18” – 25”
|A saltwater fishing license is required. Bulls are catch and release only.
|18” – 27″
|No Closed Season
|Fishing license required.
Keeping up with the regulations where you want to fish will help you avoid fines and erase any questions you have so you can thoroughly enjoy your fishing experience.
Red Drum Are Great Fun for Surf Fishing
There are many reasons that red drum is one of the most popular fish to aim for on the Atlantic and Gulf coastlines, but the biggest one is fun.
Red drum is plain fun to catch, even if you’re just planning to catch them and let them go again. If you’re not, they happen to be pretty tasty too.
Their size as juveniles makes them an exciting and worthy catch for just about anyone, and as long as you know what to look for in a fishing spot and the weather is ideal, you should have no trouble bringing in just as many red drums as you want.