Kayak Fishing For Bull Reds
By Mike Kogan
If you like catching extreme fish in your kayak, the bull redfish spawn in the fall is a great time to have some extreme fun. From the first full moon of September through the middle of October redfish are actively spawning in the St. John's River. While any redfish over the Florida slot limit of 27" is technically considered a bull red breeder, most bull reds are anywhere from 35"-50" long and from 20-45lbs in weight.
Catching and releasing bull reds takes some preparation and the usual precautions involved when handling large fish in high current environments. The content of this article is the product of advice from a lot of seasoned fishermen including Capt. Kirk Waltz and Capt. Don Dingman of Jacksonville, FL., and my own experiences fishing for bull reds.
Mothership Bull Red at Jetties
Bull reds are found in the St. John's River and at the St. John's Jetties, and both these locations experience some strong currents. There are two ways to go after bull reds - use a mothership charter to take you to an active spot and have the mothership support your fishing in the river or the jetties, or to do it with a partner without the mothership in the river. Bull reds generally will not bite unless there is some current movement, so ideally you want to fish when tidal movement is present but not so intense that you can't control your kayak and fish comfortably.
For the kayak angler forgoing the mothership the best tide to fish is high tide. Since the St. John's River flows north currents are extremely strong during outgoing tides. However, the last couple hours of incoming tide and perhaps the first hour of outgoing are perfect because the tide essentially neutralizes the river current, enabling you to fish safely and comfortably. Just stay out of the river channel and be aware of your surroundings and boat traffic at all times!
Bull reds generally are found along the drop offs in the river where depths go from 20' to about 45', and the number one bait they want is fresh blue crab. While frozen will do in a pinch live blue crabs are the best. Trim all the legs (don't pull them off it removes too much meat), remove the sex organs, peel the shell of the crab, then cut it into two halves. Trim the edges to minimize spinning in the current.
Inshore River Bull Red
For tackle a rod in the 20-30lb medium or medium heavy range is adequate with a reel spooled with 30-50lb braid. I prefer St. Croix Avid rods and have used everything from Shimano Curados and Calcuttas, Penn 525Mags, and Penn Slammers for reels. Tie the mainline braid to a three-way swivel. Use 50lb braid for a 16-18" leader and take another strand of 50lb braid and tie a loop with it to the third link on the swivel. The loop will be for attaching bank sinkers in the 6-8oz range and will facilitate quick changing of your weights. I use 6/0 or 7/0 circle hooks and bait the crab by putting the hook through a leg hole and out the soft portion of the crab.
Position your kayak and let the rig go to the bottom. Lighten the drag and put the rod in a rod holder. You won't need to hold the rod to set the hook, and many times bull reds literally chew on the crab before they move. So leave the rod securely in a rod holder and use your paddle to keep the kayak in position - it shouldn't be too much effort if you've chosen the proper tide. When you see the tip fire off just smoothly engage the fish and tighten the drag a bit, and start the fight. Only use a single rod! There's nothing worse (and unsafe) than hooking up and trying to clear your other line.
The fight with a bull red takes about 5 minutes or so and the key is to maintain even pressure without trying to manhandle the fish. You may have to thrust the rod tip into the water to keep from getting an awkward angle but as the fish comes closer to the surface it will circle and ultimately come right up to the edge of the kayak where you can control it by the leader. Since you are using a circle hook typically the hook is usually set perfectly in the corner of the mouth of the fish and quite easy to remove with a pliers.
After removing the hook have your partner snap a quick victory picture of you holding the red - make sure that you fully support the weight of the fish and do not hang it from a "redfish wrench" or fish grip tool. Bull reds are large girthy fish and are full of everything they need to reproduce. So do your best to be gentle to these giants and get them back in the water quickly performing a fast healthy release.