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Bull Reds in the Surf

For a big-game fish that doesn’t require an offshore boat, check the September surf.

By Larry Bozka

Christine Peugh is accustomed to using her muscles. She is, after all, a licensed chiropractor. Catch is, she’s more used to prescribing the workouts than receiving them.

But when the clicker on Peugh’s squidding reel suddenly begins buzzing like a miniature chainsaw, she bolts from her lawn chair and pulls her 10-foot surf rod from a waist-high piece of PVC pipe driven deep into the beach near Rollover Pass. She gives the star drag a light turn to increase the pressure, and a giant red drum responds with a commanding up-current surge. This is going to be a battle.

It’s hard to imagine that a creature this large can be swimming in the surf only a hundred yards away. Peugh, 35, usually paddles a kayak to carry baits out beyond the third and even fourth sand bars. But she threw this line from the first bar just as the sun was sinking below the western horizon.

As any angler who has hooked one knows, red drum are strong. Hook a sizable redfish like the one on the end of Peugh’s line and you will understand why the big females, with their dogged demeanor and powerful runs, are called bulls.

The fish Peugh is playing this Labor Day weekend is a big one, but not the 54-inch, 50-plus-pound leviathan Peugh took a few weeks ago from this same spot. Still, the fish will measure more than 40 inches. The profile of its head resembles a huge and continuous Roman nose with a blunt snub at the tip and a shining, rock-hard armor of copper-colored scales on the angular top and sides. Her soft white belly sags heavy with eggs. She’s powered by a thick, blue-tinged tail that’s as wide as the blade of a kayak paddle. Like all big redfish, she is built for power more than speed.

Peugh’s surf rod is deeply bowed and glistening beads of sweat are slowly rolling down her suntanned forehead. Although her arms ache, Peugh seems oblivious to the pain. She is smiling, a contented outdoorswoman in the midst of her favorite activity.

Christine Peugh loves this annual workout, so much so that the day I met her at her office we spent an extra 20 minutes perusing her photo album. She and her brother Bob, 41, have caught and released countless bull redfish from the Upper Texas beachfront, mostly between Rollover Pass and San Luis Pass. These two bay-to-gulf passes that jettison tide-driven saltwater with frightening force are among the top autumn surf locales in Texas. The mouth of the Colorado River at Matagorda is also held in high esteem. Depending on the severity of cold fronts, the bull redfish run can extend from September well into October.

A $100 investment in tackle and a basic understanding of how to read the water and interpret the tides is all that’s required for what the late Galveston outdoors writer, A.C. Becker Jr., used to call “the poor man’s big-game fishing.”

It’s the open expanse of beach, the elemental, gloves-off thrill of battling an enraged brute of a fish with scales the size of quarters while your heels are planted deep in the sand, your arm muscles are in spasms and your knuckles are curled white around the spongy grip of a bucking surf rod that constitutes the incomparable thrill.

Peugh times her fishing to the high incoming tides of the fall equinox, when spawning red drum venture amazingly close to the tide line. Their annual journey to the passes is at the heart of the species’ survival.

Traveling through the surf in sizable schools of 50 to 100 with the smaller males, the mature female redfish deposit massive cargos of eggs that are immediately fertilized with thick white clouds of milt released by nearby males.

High autumn tides push the buoyant eggs through the coastal passes and deep inside the vegetated sanctuary of shallow bays and coves. Juvenile redfish spend their first 6 months to a year inside these nurseries. Then, depending upon the season, they move from bay to adjacent bay over the course of the next 3 to 4 years. Again spurred by the tides, they feed on shrimp, crabs, menhaden, mullet and other forage species that seek shelter in the emergent sea grass and coastal wetlands.

Finally, at the age of 4 or 5, a male will grow to a length of as little as 13 inches to as much as 29 inches. Females grow substantially larger, from 30 to 50 inches. During the summer months, schools of mature males and breeders roam the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, but they generally remain close to shore during the other months of the year. In the fall, the spawning instinct kicks in and they swarm through the surf and repeat the timeless ritual of reproduction.

One of the triggers for this cycle seems to be light. Back in the late 1970s, pioneer researcher Connie Arnold of the University of Texas Marine Science Institute at Port Aransas helped unlock the key to tricking captive redfish into spawning. By manipulating the exposure of red drum to light, Arnold could artificially condense the seasons and spur redfish to spawn almost at will. The TPWD coastal hatchery complex uses this technique to produce more than 35 million redfish a year.

That we now have red drum to enjoy in impressive numbers is not coincidental. Not so long ago redfish were in serious trouble throughout the Texas coast. Because redfish don’t spawn until they reach 4 or 5 years of age, the population is particularly vulnerable to decline if it is overfished.

Their tendency to congregate inside small and isolated bay cul-de-sacs made them particularly vulnerable to illegal monofilament nets. From 1975 to 1988, Texas coastal game wardens confiscated an average of 340,000 feet of illegal webbing a year. From August 1982 to September 1983 alone, more than 116 miles of outlaw nets were confiscated.

The passage of House Bill 1000 in 1981, which established the red drum as a game fish, came none too soon. An aggressive restocking program has also helped restore red fish to historic numbers.

But the red drum fishery is still susceptible to major depletion by an excessive harvest of heavyweight spawners. With age, the female’s carrying capacity only increases, and redfish can live a long time. A big bull red is likely to be older than the 30-year old angler that catches her, and she’s carrying 2.5 to 3.5 million eggs. Such fish are too important a resource to catch and keep.

Anglers may only retain three redfish per day inside a 20- to 28-inch “slot.” A fishing license contains a single “trophy tag” that allows the angler to keep one 28-inch-plus redfish per year. Anglers are encouraged to send the tags back the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department so the agency can monitor the fishing pressure on the big fish.

Relatively few anglers use their trophy tags. Redfish longer than 28 inches have coarse meat, and surprisingly little of it is left after head, bones and tail are removed. As for mounts, fiberglass and acrylic replicas can be easily created by taxidermists, all of whom will assure you that such a replica is considerably more durable and will long outlast a “skin-mounted” version of the real thing.

Sure, you can justify keeping a fish if you think it beats the state record of 59.5 pounds and 54 1/4 inches. And sometimes a fish can be too seriously injured in the fight to survive.

But with proper terminal rigging, anglers should rarely kill a big redfish. Using circle-style hooks, anglers can almost invariably assure that not only redfish, but also blacktip sharks, black drum, gafftopsail catfish, jack crevalle and other beachfront roamers are hooked in the outer fringes of the jaw. [see sidebar , above]

Luckily, “trout-green” waters are not a prerequisite to tangling with autumn’s bronze brutes. Redfish rely heavily upon scent to locate their prey, and tidal movement outranks water clarity in terms of importance. Live baits that readily bleed after being hooked — either mullet caught in cast nets or pond-raised but saltwater-resistant baitfish sold at bait camps — are preferred by many. Others use cut bait, fresh dead mullet, menhaden (“pogeys”), squid or even blue-crab halves.

When spawning redfish are on the run and readily feeding, it sometimes makes little difference what bait is used. I’ve heard four rods ignite at once, often after as much as two to three hours of waiting. It happens with all the subtlety of a panicked herd of steers crashing through a rickety wooden fence.

Then again, there are fish like Christine Peugh’s adversary, lone stragglers that snatch an offering from its surf spider-anchored mooring and continue a full-bore run down the nearest between-the-bars gut.

Chris Peugh’s quarry has saved its best for last. After 10 minutes of constant pressure, the wallowing red summons a final authoritative surge. A softball-sized wad of seaweed just above the upper swivel is sucked underwater, the reel drag protests and for a brief moment it appears that woman and fish will fight forever.

Then, just as abruptly, the exhausted redfish rolls to the surface, her ivory-white belly shining softly through the layer of tiny bubbles at the fringe of the timeline.

Almost as exhausted herself, Peugh kneels into the calf-deep water and cradles the mammoth head with her left hand. With her right hand she extracts the hook from its leathery white jaw in a single quick motion.

The red, we realize, was barely hooked.

Peugh looks at the wallowing redfish with admiration, even respect, then gently rocks it with a gentle to-and-fro movement that resuscitates the lumbering fish in less than 30 seconds. With a forceful kick of the tail and a defiant splash of brine, it’s gone.

This is one of eight bull redfish she will release this fine starry evening with its faint hint of fall in air. She stands up, breathes deeply, stares out at the blackened Gulf and says to her brother, “Your turn, Bob.”

As if in response, the reel clicker on the far left side of the four-rod setup erupts with its telltale alarm. Bob Peugh looks over his shoulder at his sister as he sprints toward the waiting rod holder.

“Thanks!” he yells.

Somehow I suspect he’s speaking not only to her, but also to the grand and mysterious beachfront that every autumn so freely offers a chance to catch the fish of a lifetime. Could be another 40-inch red, we surmise. And when this night of battling bull reds is over, Bob Peugh is likely to be very thankful that his sister is a chiropractor.

Tackle Bull Reds with a shock leader

Fishing for beachfront bull reds requires some specialized gear and rigging. Veteran surfcasters tend to use baitcasting or “squidding” reels that afford greater casting distance because they lack level-winds. Those who want to virtually eliminate the possibility of backlashes choose heavyweight spinning rods and large-capacity, open-faced reels.

For convenience in storage, both spinning and casting rods are usually made in two pieces. Newer graphite models are more expensive than fiberglass, but considerably more sensitive and easier to cast.

For the mainline, use 25- to 30-pound-test monofilament. Regardless of tackle style, however, most beachfront long-rodders employ shock leaders. Some use leader material of 100-pound test or more. For years I have successfully used 50-pound-test leader made of super-tough but nearly invisible fluorocarbon.

To rig a shock leader, tie a heavy-duty black barrel swivel on the end of the mainline. Add 3 to 4 feet of leader. Thread a plastic bead (for added color and knot protection) on the leader, add a snap swivel with the line through the swivel so that it slides freely, affix another bead, and then tie another barrel swivel to the end.

On the end of the swivel, tie another 3-foot length of leader. At the end of the leader, affix a circle hook of sufficient size to accommodate the bait. Size numbers vary significantly, as there is, unfortunately, no manufacturers’ standard for hook sizing. Personally, I prefer Daiichi’s 4/0 or 5/0 red “bleeding” hooks of the “wide circle” variety.

Many anglers use improved clinch knots or Trilene knots throughout the rig, hook connection included. I always tie my hook with a loop knot, which allows baits — especially live baits — to swing freely with the current and action of the bait.

The final step is to affix a wire-pronged “surf spider” weight to the snap swivel. The amount of lead necessary depends upon the strength of the current.

Cast the rig with a smooth and forceful swing, using the surf rod’s extended handle for maximum leverage. Let it sink to the bottom. Pull it slowly but firmly to anchor the surf spike deep in the sand, where it will hold the bait in place.

When the fish picks up the bait, it runs a short distance and then abruptly encounters the “shock” resistance of the anchored surf spider. The circle hook will set itself; all you need to do is reel.

And reel, and reel and reel.

By Larry Bozka


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