Like most fishing guides, Tim Whitfield gets his share of questions at the boat ramp. Folks want to know what's biting and where. And like most charter boat captains, Whitfield won't share his secret spots, but he will tell anglers where to find their own.
Many of his customers are freshwater fishermen, used to catching largemouth and smallmouth bass. Red drum, spotted sea trout and snook -- the big three on the local flats fishing scene -- have a lot in common with the bass.
All are aggressive species. Many of the artificial lures anglers use in freshwater, especially top-water plugs, will also work in saltwater. With water temperatures cooling, Gulf Coast guides like Whitfield target redfish in shallow water. November and December are prime months for big reds, especially for purists who prefer artificial lures.
The red drum is a particularly hardy species. Found from Massachusetts to Key West and throughout the Gulf of Mexico, redfish can measure more than 40 inches and weigh more than 40 pounds in local waters. Fish on Florida's east coast tend to be a little bigger than their west coast counterparts.
Young redfish live in sea-grass meadows and over muddy and sand bottoms in inshore estuaries such as Tampa Bay. Slot limit reds (18 to 27 inches) are considered juveniles and not yet sexually mature. Adult redfish are usually found in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.
Redfish travel in large schools often containing 100 fish or more. When the wind is light and the sea is calm, these giant herds are easy to spot. The trick is to learn how to read the water. It could be something as simple as keeping an eye out for jumping mullet, because where you find mullet, redfish won't be far behind. The carnivorous drum travel with the herbivorous mullet, because the latter "spook" critters such as shrimp out of the sea grass.
Redfish eat just about anything but prefer crustaceans, pinfish and small "finger" mullet. This fish will hit top-water baits (repeatedly, and often without success for the angler), but its favorite method of feeding is head down, nose in the grass as it roots around for crabs and other critters. Veteran guides such as Whitfield know they can always get a redfish to eat by tossing out a chunk of cut ladyfish, but some anglers are more interested in sport than fillets.
But if you're looking for dinner, remember that trick. You won’t be disappointed.