Riviera Redfish

Riviera Redfish

(That’s the Redneck Riviera, and big bull reds in shallow water)

  • By: Walter Kirkland
  • Photography by: Walter Kirkland
  • , Tosh Brown
  • and Greg Thomas
Big Bull Red

Looking forward to the late fall and winter, my neighbors in Fairhope, Alabama, duckaholics for the most part, work themselves into apoplexy anticipating the beginning of their annual bird slaughter. Those not as mad at them ducks might turn their attention to catching redfish in Louisiana or Texas. But, I don’t care for freezing my butt off in futile attempts to blast mallards from the sky, nor for hauling my boat down to the Biloxi Marsh to stalk fickle redfish that disappear on anything other than a perfect bluebird day.

Instead, I focus on something closer, easier and less frenzied: catching monster reds that cruise the beaches in vast numbers between Gulf Breeze, Florida and Dauphin Island, Alabama during fall and winter.

My friend Howell Raines, former editor of The New York Times, whom most avid fly fishers know from his classic book, Fly Fishing Through the Mid-Life Crisis, bought a winter residence in Fairhope last year. I was thrilled because he suffers from the same mental illness I have, i.e. Chronic Need to Fish Syndrome, or CNFS. Since I moved from New Jersey in 2005, I have loved living in lower Alabama (LA), the westernmost stretch of the “Redneck Riviera.” However, most of my new friends are younger and working, and it’s been difficult to secure the necessary therapy to ameliorate the symptoms of CNFS, those being irritability, cat kicking and drunkenness. With Raines around, life is good, and our cats are safe. When he invited me earlier this year for some late winter fishing in Pensacola, I was ready to go.

Oddly, the opportunity to take big redfish during fall and winter is mostly overlooked by locals. I attribute this to a couple of things. Firstly, when the weather cools, SEC football heats up. By early October, Auburn and Alabama fans (which includes every native) turn pathological. Duck hunting doesn’t interfere because they can kill their limit by 8:30 a.m., come into camp, turn on the satellite TV and watch the game.

Secondarily, the thin-blooded locals think it’s too cold to fish during fall and winter. Too cold? I mean, a cold day down here in December is in the 50s. Having lived in the Northeast for 32 years, the Southern winter seems balmy and I’ve become quite smug about it. I now openly scoff at those enduring short days and freezing nights while the closest they get to fishing is tying up a few flies.

Northerly winds almost always prevail on the Panhandle and LA during winter, which makes fishing in the Gulf near the beaches as calm as fishing on a farm pond in summer. While the chop might be heavy on Mobile Bay, the Gulf beaches are as flat as glass and the waters crystal clear. Since fall 2010, there have been no appreciable amounts of oil to spoil the beaches or nearby coastal waters.

In fact, winter conditions along the Florida beaches are so benign, they provide an ideal opportunity for wading and kayak fishermen. There is literally no surf. The Gulf Islands National Seashore is a combination of seven barrier islands in Mississippi and western Florida. The Florida district is home to some of the most pristine beaches in North America. Kayakers launch their craft from access points on Johnson Beach, that part of the National Seashore west of Pensacola Pass, or from Fort Pickens State Park on Santa Rosa Island, east of the Pass. Reds and false albacore show in skinny water only yards off the beach. Imagine sight fishing on Andros, but instead of three-pound bones, you’re casting to eight-pound albies, and reds that average more than 15 pounds.

These aren’t the redfish that land in a cast iron skillet, blackened a la Paul Prudhomme. They’re bigger, tougher, meaner than the eatin’ kind. Chef Prudhomme’s redfish recipe nearly caused the collapse of the fishery 30 years ago, when commercial netters were directed by airplane to corral those fish in masses.

Fisheries management policies restored the resource to pre-Prudhomme abundance and, like then, the current schools are balled up in fall and winter for spawning purposes. These are the breeder bunch, the bull reds. Regulations still prohibit the taking of any redfish in federal waters, but who would want to anyway? These fish are the future of the estuarine fishery.

Last winter Raines and I met our guide, Baz Yelverton, at a launch a few miles from the Pensacola Naval Air Station, home of the Blue Angels. An added benefit to fishing the western Florida Panhandle is the free air show the Blue Angels provide. As we motored away from the ramp, four F-18 Hornets streaked over our heads no more than 500 feet off the deck. Baz headed down the bay to Pensacola Pass, and our first stop was at the far western end of Santa Rosa Island, where we experienced fishing that is representative of a day on the water during winter in the South. Baz anchored, and we set up for cruising reds and jack crevalle. Baz’s 18-foot Hewes Redfisher was perfect for the conditions, but sometimes when the fish are particularly spooky in ultra-calm waters, Baz dumps his clients on the beach to wade-fish. Wearing waders during winter is OK, but during October and November shorts and sandals are perfectly comfortable.

I had a 9-weight loaded with a floating line and popping fly, and an 8-weight with a sink-tip and chartreuse-and-white rabbit-strip streamer, a Geaumeau (pronounced “go-mo”), available only from Rob Rogers, of Deep South Outfitters, in Birmingham. The Geaumeau gets its name from an angry critter born out of Cajun folklore that thrives in the nightmares of Cajun children. A snake with a snarling head at each end, and hence chronically constipated, he’s naturally nasty, stinky and downright mean. Rogers only sells me the chartreuse-and-white Geaumeau, claiming he has a secret color reserved only for him. Fine with me. Down here, if it ain’t chartreuse, it ain’t no use as far as I’m concerned.

After about 45 minutes of no action, we pulled up and headed for the sandbars in Pensacola Bay. This was classic sight fishing, Baz poling along the bars and spotting fish. Almost immediately we saw large reds. Before too long, Howell hooked up with a monster on his 10-weight. After 15 minutes we brought the red alongside, measured, photographed and released it. Baz chose not to use the Boga-Grip. He said it could injure the fish’s jaw, but at 42 inches long and an estimated 30 pounds, Baz determined that it was a boat record. I was up next and soon hooked up on another goliath. But with an 8-weight, horsing the fish was out of the question. I loosened up on the drag and, in a matter of seconds, I was down to the last 50 yards of backing. Baz cranked up, and we went after my fish. Twenty minutes later, this big boy’s head was in the net and his tail in the guide’s grip.

Meat fishermen were anchored up for sheepshead, but there were no other fly fishers near us. An operative in Baz’s fishing intelligence network called and alerted him to hordes of schooled-up reds just west of the Pensacola Pass, only a few hundred yards off the beach. Baz put away his push pole and we scooted out to the Pass. Three boats were chasing the schools, including one flats boat manned by a single fly fisher, Baz’s informant. No birds, but the palette of perfectly hued turquoise water and sugar-white beach was stained with several bronze patches the size of basketball courts. Gently motoring up to one such patch, we saw hundreds of steroidal reds in a school. They weren’t busting bait, just warming up to lovemaking, I presume. This phenomenon, with the numbers and sparkling beauty of these fish brilliantly visible only inches below the surface, struck me nearly catatonic. Raines got down to business with his 10-weight and a streamer, and I came back to earth.

Almost immediately, we had a fish on. Raines moved to the back of the boat, I moved up, cast and hooked up. We repeated the drill three or four times, then Raines switched to a popping fly. Crash! A redfish of 30 pounds or more hit the topwater fly and the fight was on. This red would supplant the boat record, but the fish had other ideas. Five minutes into the fight, he was gone.

Time was running short, and Baz wanted to try for some large jack crevalle, so we headed back to the spot where we started, the western tip of Santa Rosa Island. As we eased up to the beach, Baz spotted a school of jacks not more than 10 yards from the shore. Raines threw that popper on a 12-weight and it was crushed by a sizable jack. The big jack headed south to the open Gulf and we held on. He literally pulled the boat behind him. Fifteen minutes later, we brought the fish alongside, and Baz hoisted him aboard for weighing and pictures. That jack tipped the scales at 29 pounds. Baz anointed him the boat-record jack.

Toward the end of the day, the stinging pain in my casting and fighting arm reminded me I had had elbow surgery only two weeks earlier. And as we headed in, Baz offered me a cup of his special “coffee.” I told him I’m not a coffee drinker, but he insisted. I’m glad he did. His concoction—a blend of special spirits, brandy and coffee—eased the pain and intensified the day’s experience.

Baz isn’t the only one taking advantage of this winter redfishing—Dan Kolenich moved to Fairhope in 1979, from Indiana, and he’s guided full time on Mobile Bay for the past 12 years. He doesn’t chase redfish until January; in the fall he’s too busy with the speckled trout in the delta. This delta, fed by five rivers, is the second largest in North America, covering more than 270,000 acres. In the fall, the specks chase white shrimp and provide great sport for fly fishers. Those fish are easily found under diving birds, and would take a pigeon feather if you added a hook.

From Fort Morgan Point, Kolenich goes east in 16 to 20 feet of water. He’ll go about 10 miles to a landmark condominium, The Beach Club, where the shoreline turns slightly, about 10 degrees, north. He looks for diving pelicans, which typically feed on the same bait as reds. In shallow water the bait, and hence the reds, have no escape route. It’s not uncommon to heave 10 casts into a school. If Kolenich doesn’t spot any bait balls or birds, he heads out two or three miles to water depths of about 60 feet. Out there, approaching the schools requires more stealth, and 60-foot casts. Once the fish know you’re there, they’re gone. You might have only one shot before the reds and the bait disappear. This style of fishing ain’t rocket science, and any competent angler should be able to wear his or her arms out wrestling these big fish.

OK, so it’s not sneaky flats fishing. But it’s a helluva lot better than sitting and dreaming about the spring after you’ve just shoveled three feet of snow from your driveway. Forget about Islamorada, with its howling winter winds and scarce, spooky bonefish. Grab a fleece vest, your fly rods and sunscreen and head to the central Gulf Coast for Riviera Reds.

Wally Kirkland moved from Atlanta to New Jersey in 1975 and learned how to fly-fish. Thirty-two years later he moved to Fairhope, Alabama and learned how to fly-fish in the winter.