1, 2, 3 (Year Old) Reds
No inshore fish in North Carolina strikes and fights with quite the attack dog tenacity of a red drum, and the explosion of highly competitive red drum tournaments throughout the southern part of the state has drawn a lot of attention to just how good the redfishing is in our area. However, the heavyweight reds on the tournament leaderboards can be deceptive, as the fish aren’t always easy to find, especially for the more casual angler, as Fisherman’s Post Publisher Gary Hurley and I know all too well.
With stiff east winds blowing for the four days preceding our redfish trip with Capt. Mike Pedersen, of No Excuses Charters out of Wrightsville Beach (thanks Tropical Storm Fay), we knew the conditions would be tough, but I still stepped onto Pedersen’s 22′ Pathfinder with confidence that his competitive experience in a number of redfish circuits would lead us to some action with the big dogs of the inshore kennel.
The dozens of schools of finger mullet and menhaden dimpling the surface of the ICW only became more numerous as Pedersen piloted the bay boat north up the ICW from Wrightsville Beach, and by the time he pulled back the throttle and eased his trolling motor off its bow mount near the south end of Topsail Island, my confidence seemed justified.
“With this tide so low, it’s a great time to fish these points and docks on the outside of the marsh,” Mike explained, gesturing to all the bait in the area to emphasize why our quarry would be feeding there. The falling tide had just ended, meaning that all the baitfish and shrimp that seek shelter in the marsh on higher water were forced to mill about the ICW nervously, prime targets for the reds.
Mike handed Gary and I each a featherweight custom spinning combo sporting a light jighead and Gulp! shrimp with instructions to cast towards the series of docks jutting from the mainland side of the waterway.
My first cast resulted in a nasty wind knot, and Mike handed me another sleek custom rod with a Gulp! while he took the offensive with the tangle.
“You didn’t tell me there was a flounder on here,” said the captain, lifting a small flatfish from the water just after my second cast landed in the current flowing past the dock.
“We’ve been catching a whole lot of these little flounder,” he continued, pulling the hook from the fish and setting it free. “There’ve been some keepers around too, though.”
With the prospect of a fresh flounder sandwich added to the reds in my mind, I cast again, turning my head only to see Gary set the hook. Another flounder soon came to the boat, and though the fish were small, it was encouraging to see so much action after less that five minute’s casting.
As Mike eased the boat past the next dock, a school of panicked finger mullet showered into the air, an excellent sign that something was chasing them. Sure enough, I got a hearty strike the second my bait hit the bottom on my next cast.
The fish bit with more tenacity than a short flatfish, but yielded to the pressure from the light spinning rod quickly. Soon the day’s first drum boiled at the surface next to the boat, albeit a short one of around 14″.
“There are several schools of these yearling fish that work through this area,” Pedersen told us later, explaining that that little red drum had likely been traveling with peers born the previous year. He went on to explain the presence of separate schools of mid-slot fish (20-25″) in their second year, and third year upper to slightly over-slot (25-30+”) reds feeding in the area.
“Once they get larger than that, they head out to the ocean,” he continued. “Those are the big old drum they get up in the Pamlico, coming back to the sound to spawn.”
After we released the yearling, we cast to the dock a few more times before Mike decided that the newly rising tide would give us enough water to get into a nearby creek system where he’d found good action with some larger reds recently.
As we pulled up to the entrance to a creek snaking off the waterway towards the barrier islands and ocean to the east, a shallow oyster covered bar seemed to block our passage, but the capt. simply trimmed up the motor, hopped out of the boat, and pushed the Pathfinder into the deeper water on the bar’s other side.
“We’re a little bit ahead of the water, but they’ve got to come in here,” Mike explained as he pulled us further into the marsh system with the trolling motor, then used the boat’s Power Pole to hold the boat near two deep cuts snaking past another oyster bar.
Gary’s first cast in the cut to the boat’s starboard resulted in a swift hookset, and he quickly pulled a short gag grouper into the boat.
“There have been plenty of those around here,” Mike explained as the grouper swam away. “Lots of other stuff, too, along with the reds.”
My next cast drew a much harder strike, and the fish swam at me, forcing me to reel speedily to catch up and keep a tight line. The fish definitely had some weight, but at first just came straight towards the boat with the incoming current, staying down in the water and shaking its head.
“That might be a better flounder,” Mike said appearing beside me on the bow with a landing net in hand.
“If it is, it’s a good one,” I replied, trying to lead the still unseen creature to the net.
A few feet off the bow, my adversary decided that the battle wasn’t over, and the unmistakable tail of a red drum boiled the surface as the fish surged upcurrent.
“Oh, nicer red,” the captain said as I tried to turn the fish.
After a few more hearty surges and an attempt to take the battle toward the outboard, the fish surfaced.
“Just lead him to me,” Mike instructed, and I complied, using the rod to pull the red upcurrent and into the waiting net. Thought the spinning outfit weighed little more than the tiny rods I once used to target bluegill and crappie, it had a surprising amount of backbone, with a powerful midsection that made it easy to lead the unwilling fish where it needed to go.
The fish pulled the scale of Mike’s Boga Grip to around 4 lbs.; a healthy red in its second year.
“That’s a perfect fish for the Savannah tournaments (GA’s slot limit only allows anglers to keep reds up to 24″, just longer than this fat fish),” Mike said, and we held the fish for a quick photo before he revived and released it, the drum waving farewell with the powder-blue tip of its tail.
After a few more casts with no action, Mike made the call to continue working our way into the marsh creek with the rising water.
“You can just work the rising tide through this creek system all the way back to the ICW in about four or five hours,” said the captain as we fished our way into the marsh, rounding a turn that led back in the direction of the waterway. “It’s a perfect half day trip if you catch the tide right.”
“The creek mouths of these little feeder creeks are particularly good places for the fish,” he told us as we approached an area where two feeder creeks converged into a series of sand and oyster bars just off the main channel. “I especially like this one.”
Mike dropped the Power Pole again just in front of the bars, and Gary and I made casts landing a few yards apart at the creek juncture.
“That’s the one, right there,” Gary said, repeating a confidence inspiring mantra as his Gulp! landed in the creek.
“No, you’re way off, they’re further down; where mine landed,” I countered when my bait hit the water. Though this “pointing to the fences” exercise is a pretty regular part of our inshore fishing repartee, neither of us often get the results Ruth did when leveling his bat at the outfield wall.
This time, however, Gary immediately reared back on a healthy fish, and I got a savage strike the next instant. As the fish downcurrent of us began using the flow to their advantage, a dozen wakes pushing off of the bars revealed that any cast in the general area would likely have landed on a red’s nose.
The double hookup had us both busy, as these fish made it apparent that they were a little older, tougher, and wiser than the reds we’d seen earlier, and they made the 2000 size spinning reels’ drags sing out in protest with hard runs towards the oysters.
“Keep the rods up and the pressure on them,” Mike urged, although my fish seemed determined to go where it wanted, and a quick glance at Gary’s line streaking out across the creek made it apparent his fish wasn’t giving any quarter either.
“You might need to tighten the drags a little. There are a lot of oysters in there,” Mike coached while I ducked under Gary’s rod as our fish headed for opposite shell beds from where they’d been hooked.
Though I was a little nervous about tightening the drag with a big red on some light tackle, I realized that the captain (and rod builder) surely knew the limits of his gear better than I, and Gary and I both complied, tightening down on the bulldogging drum.
The tighter drags slowed the runs a bit, but both our fish were still in control of this battle. They continued working back and forth in the current, getting nerve-rackingly close to the sharp shells visible just a foot beneath the water’s surface.
After the stand-off wore on for a few more moments, though, we were able to put the tackle to use and begin moving the fish in our direction. Gary managed to turn his fish a bit faster than I could, though, and soon pressured the red into Mike’s net. Mine followed just a moment later, and the results of the double hookup lay on the Pathfinder’s deck, reminding us with a low rhythm why they were named drum.
Both went just over the slot limit (yes, Gary’s was an inch longer), perfect examples of the third year fish Mike had been referring to, although they’d have been just a bit too long to weigh in an NC tournament.
After snapping a photo, Mike began reviving Gary’s fish by holding it into the current, forcing oxygen-rich water over its gills and rejuvenating the fish, which bolted off vigorously. I’d been holding mine on the other side of the boat, and though it gave a decent tail kick, sliding from my grasp, the fish came to a surface float in front of the boat with gills pulsating.
I hoped to see the red swim off after a moment, but Mike took a look and didn’t want to take any chances. “We’re going to get him,” he said raising the Power Pole and cranking up the trolling motor to catch up to the fish.
As we came abreast of the tired red, Mike netted it, and then held it upright by the lower jaw facing into the current while the fish breathed.
After a few moments, the red came to life just as Gary’s had and took off into the current, disappearing in the creek channel.
Just before our doubleheader, we’d both switched to white Gulp! Pogies instead of the shrimp we’d been casting at Mike’s suggestion.
“There were a lot of shrimp in here yesterday,” he explained as he handed us each one of the paddle tail Pogies, “but I’m not seeing them today. There a lot baitfish, though, so the paddle tails might be better.”
While catching over slot drum is a pleasure whenever it happens, fighting them on the gear we were using with Mike was a blast. He custom builds his rods under the Riley Rods brand, both for charter fishing and a multitude of private clients.
The rods we were using are part of Riley Rods’ redfish specific series, using unique blanks that Mike has fine-tuned to the specific actions he wants. The American made blanks are unbelievably light and thin but have fast tapers with some serious power in the mid and butt sections.
When paired with high end 2000 size spinning reels, the outfits really do rival some ultralight freshwater setups in weight, but they are capable of putting a lot of heat on a hard-charging red. Although I had doubts at first, having never fished with an inshore setup that light, the rods proved themselves handily while fighting the big reds against a strong incoming current. And after the release, I felt confident I could have horsed my fish to the boat much faster if I’d had any idea of how much strain the tackle could take.
“If this had been a tournament, we’d have put those fish in the boat in under a minute,” Mike explained after we’d begun casting again.
In addition to his inshore gear, Mike builds a variety of offshore sticks from live bait rods to heavy trolling tackle, with a special focus on some unique jigging blanks Riley Rods also offers.
We worked the marsh for a short time longer; however, with the constraints of a busy Sunday’s worth of work to do, Gary and I had to be off the water early, so we headed for Wrightsville just after noon. While a Sunday on the water anywhere south of Figure Eight Island is usually fraught with plenty of inexperienced and maltempered boaters, we only saw three other boats over the course of the morning’s fishing near Topsail. Only one actually passed us. The rest were just visible over the marsh grass. Our quiet morning was a welcome break from the typical weekend Cape Fear madness.
Along with reds, Mike targets sheepshead, flounder, and other species inshore, and enjoys targeting king mackerel and other species off the beaches when the water cools a bit in the fall.
Fishing on several tournament circuits and over 30 years of angling experience gives Mike the knowledge and instincts to put anglers on fish even when conditions are less than ideal, and the high end custom tackle only takes the angling experience to another level.
If hookups and hard battles with reds, kings, and other saltwater brawlers sound like a good way to spend a late summer or fall day, give Capt. Mike Pedersen a call at (910) 352-2715 to discuss a charter, or visit www.noexcusescharters.com for more information.