Sarasota redfish are highly sought after by visiting anglers. These popular inshore game fish are second only to snook.
Sarasota redfish are a hard-fighting and popular inshore species. They are available all year long. Redfish have a distinct seasonal migration. While any species may be caught in any location, the vast majority of Sarasota redfish are caught on the flats and under docks. Redfish may be encountered in singles or and schools of 500 fish or more. They are a common target on Sarasota fishing charters.
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Redfish have an inferior mouth. This means that the mouth is below the nose. This indicates the habits of the fish and the type of feeding that it does. Redfish are built to scour the bottom in search of crustaceans such as shrimp and crabs. However, they are not limited to this diet. Small bait fish are a primary forage as well. This is particularly true as reds grow larger.
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The seasonal migration of redfish is similar to that of both snook and jack crevelle. While more tolerant of cold water then these other two species, redfish will seek deeper water in the winter. Creeks and residential canals will be particularly attractive. Water in these areas is deeper, darker, and generally at least several degrees warmer than the open bays.
As it warms up, redfish will move out of these areas and scatter out onto the open flats. It will inhabit these areas until late summer. At this point, redfish will school up into big numbers on the flats. Many of these fish will be over sized breeder females. These fish will move out into the Gulf of Mexico to spawn. By late October, the schools have broken up and the fish begin to migrate back towards their winter locations.
Sarasota redfish locations
Sarasota has quite a bit of prime habitat that holds redfish. Expansive flats in North Sarasota Bay are great spots to target redfish. On the east side of the bay, Long Bar in the flats north of it produce a lot of reds. Productive flats on the west side of the bay begin at country club Shores and go all the way up to Longboat Pass.
The character of the inshore waters change south of Siesta Drive. The inshore bays from Siesta Drive down to Blackburn Point have less open grass flats and more oyster bars and mangrove shorelines. There are also many docks and canals that attract and hold reds. The Siesta Key area also tends to get a bit less fishing pressure. It is particularly good in the cooler months.
Live Bait for redfish
It is tough to beat a large live shrimp when it comes to catching Sarasota redfish. Live shrimp are available at local bait shops all year long. When available, it is best to purchase “hand picked” shrimp. That means that the largest shrimp are separated out from the other average sized shrimp.
Live bait fish produce redfish as well. Small pin fish and grunts are very effective baits. Occasionally, they are available at bait shops. But in most instances, anglers will have to catch their own. They do so with either a cast net or with small hooks and a tiny piece of shrimp or squid. Live scaled sardines and threadfin herring are caught by anglers using a cast net.
Cut bait can be extremely effective for Sarasota redfish, especially in the heat of summer. Water temperature in the upper 80s can have the fish a bit lethargic. A chunk of freshly caught ladyfish or mullet will often entice a redfish to bite when it is less than willing to chase down a lure or live bait.
Artificial lures for redfish
Artificial lures catch plenty of redfish, especially on the flats. The three most popular lures for Sarasota redfish are weedless spoons, soft plastic baits, and plugs. These three lures cover the water column and will catch redfish all year long and in all locations. Anglers can read Capt Jim’s post on the best redfish lures here.
Weedless spoons are great choice for anglers targeting redfish on the shallow grass flats. Anglers can cast them a long way. This results in a stealthy presentation as well is allowing the angler to cover a lot of water. It is a great bait to prospect a large flat. Gold is the most productive color with 1/2 ounce being the best all-around size.
Soft plastic baits produce Sarasota redfish on the flats, under docks, and along mangrove shorelines. These very versatile baits can be rigged to fish very shallow water as well as deeper holes and canals. They come in a wide assortment of colors, shapes, and sizes.
Plugs are another very effective bait for catching Sarasota redfish. They imitate small bait fish such as mullet and sardines. Plugs come in two varieties, top water plugs and diving plugs. Top water plugs are worked exclusively on the surface. Diving plugs float on the surface, but a lip causes them to dive down several feet below the surface. Plugs should match in size and color the local forage that redfish are feeding on.
Sarasota redfish on the shallow flats
Many anglers enjoy the challenge of targeting redfish on the very shallow grass flats. Site fishing for reds in a foot of water is great sport! However, it requires patients and a time commitment. Fish and water that shallow are very skittish and can be very difficult to catch. But, for many anglers the reward is worth the effort.
Redfish on the shallow grass flats can be caught along the shoreline, in potholes, along the edges of oyster bars, and even over the open grass. Tides are very important when targeting redfish in the shallow flats. Reds will make fairly distinct movements depending on the tides.
On the low tide stages, reds will be concentrated in deeper holes. They have no choice, is there simply is not enough water on the flats for them to swim and feed. Potholes (which are depressions in the grass flats) will hold fish on the low tides. The same is true for drop-offs and deeper areas along shorelines and along oyster bars.
For this reason, many anglers prefer a low, incoming tide when targeting Sarasota redfish. They understand that the reds will be schooled up along the edges of bars and in potholes waiting for the tide to rise. Redfish are easier to locate then as there is less water to search.
As the tide rises, redfish will move out of these deeper areas and scatter out over the flats. While they are in a mood to feed, they are more difficult to locate. Anglers can blind cast these areas as they drift along. Anglers can also wait until they cite a fish and cast towards it. Often times, especially in summer, the larger schools are easily spotted as they “wake” across the flat.
By the time the tide reaches the highest stage, redfish can be anywhere. This can be a difficult time to locate them. The best bet is often to work a mangrove shoreline. Redfish tent to move up under these areas on the higher tide stages. As the tide reverses itself and begins to flow out, redfish will reverse their movements. Reds that are chased off the flat on the following tide can be difficult to catch.
Small small channels and cuts in flats and between oyster bars are great spots to try on a falling tide. Redfish (and other species) will stage in the spots as they are good feeding stations. The current will bring food to them as they lie in these ambush spots.
While live bait can be used when targeting redfish on the shallow flats, many anglers choose to use artificial lures. Lures allow anglers to cover a lot of water in a relatively short amount of time. This is important when searching for fish in a large area. Once fish are located, live or cut bait can be used very effectively.
Live bait chumming is a deadly technique on the grass flats. This involves the angler catching several hundred scaled sardines with a cast net. The angler than anchors up current of a likely pothole, oyster bar, or mangrove shoreline. Live bait fish are then thrown out a handful of the time to attract the redfish and get them in a feeding mood. This technique requires a fair amount of effort, but it can really pay off!
Weedless spoons, soft plastic baits, and top water plugs are all effective baits for targeting redfish on the shallow grass flats. 4 inch to 6 inch soft plastic baits can be fished on a light jig head as well as specially designed swim bait hooks. These hooks have a weight built in that results in the soft plastic bait being presented horizontally. They can also be rigged weedless.
Shallow diving plugs are very effective when fishing slightly deeper water. This would include oyster bars that drop off into three or 4 feet of water as well as mangrove shorelines with a little depth. These plugs are not effective and water less than a couple feet deep as they will hang up on the bottom.
Docks produce Sarasota redfish
Many Sarasota redfish are landed by anglers fishing under docks. Docks provide shade, cover, and food. These are all elements of a great fishing spot. Docks are also generally found in slightly deeper water. Only experience and trial and error will determine docks that produce redfish on a reliable basis.
The best docks are those in water between three and 8 feet deep with good current flow. Isolated docks are better than a row of docks tightly bunched. These will tend to congregate the fish as there is less available structure. Redfish will relate to docks all year long.
There are many miles of residential canals on Longboat Key, Siesta Key, and the mainland. There are also several creeks including Bowlees Creek, Phillippi Creek, North Creek, Hudson Bayou, and Whittaker Bayou that will attract redfish, particularly in the cooler months. All of these creeks and canals have fish producing docks.
Dock fishing techniques
Generally speaking, live bait works best when fishing docks. The best approach is to anchor upwind and up tied of the dock to be finished. The angler can then present the live bait back under the dock in a natural manner. As mentioned earlier, a large live shrimp is a great bait when targeting Sarasota redfish under docks.
Other live and cut baits will produce as well. A live pin fish, grunts, or scaled sardine will produce a strike from a nice redfish as well. The same goes for a chunk of cut bait such as mullet or ladyfish. Cut bait seems to work best when the fish are less active such as when the water is quite warm or cold.
Artificial lures do have a place for fishing docks as well. This is particularly true in creeks and canals or along shorelines were docks are bunched together. It is simply a matter of efficiency. A can take too long to spend 10 or 15 minutes at each dock trying to to determine if it holds fish. Slowly moving along while casting plugs or jigs is a good way to locate productive docks.
Capt Jim has been a fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida since 1991. Anglers who are interested in purchasing the equipment that he uses and writes about in his articles can do so on the PRODUCTS page.
The same inshore tackle that anglers use for snook, speckled trout, and other species will work fine when targeting Sarasota redfish. A 7 foot medium action spinning rod with a 3000 series real and 20 pound braided line is a great outfit. Anglers can opt for monofilament line. However, I find that braided line is a better choice, especially when fishing around docks. Braided line also cast further which can be an advantage when fishing the flats on a clear day.
Redfish get a lot of fishing pressure in this area. Like most fish species, they can be cyclical. As of right now, 2018, redfish numbers are down a bit. Lower numbers of juvenile redfish along with a pretty severe bout of red tide have resulted in the redfish population being below average.
However, nature is resilient and these fish can bounce back quickly. I understand that redfish are good eating, but on my charters I promote catch and release for both redfish and snook. Florida fishing regulations for redfish do change. Anglers can find the current regulations at the FWC site.
In closing, anglers visiting the area should give Sarasota redfish a try. They are a hard fighting, challenging species. However, they are well worth the effort!
Capt Jim Klopfer
1059 North Tamiami Trail Sarasota, Fl 34236