Chris Dollar on the outdoors: Red drum, a magical fish for anglers

The wind has been relentless, and I lost count how many days it blew a full-blown stink, thereby thwarting any attempts to fish.

The Corsica River spilled over its banks and flooded the public landing parking lot near where my kayak shop sits. We quickly exhausted every trite saying about weather, and thankfully the conversation turned to fishing. We ticked off the basics — snakeheads, the current state of rockfish, menhaden.

The guy I was talking with then began to pick my brain about redfish in skinny water. My eyes lit up. I absolutely love fishing the Chesapeake’s salt marshes for red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus).

Even if the fishing is slow, you cannot help but enjoy nature’s show. Ospreys, willets, egrets, skimmers, and herons abound. Look closely and you may see a marsh hawk slung impossibly low in the sky, scouring openings in the black needle-rush for an easy meal.

Who knows what unseen gems were hidden in the verdant spartina? (Note: If you do travel deep into the Chesapeake Bay marshes during the height of summer, Joseph Conrad style, be forewarned: It’s not inconceivable that demonic hordes of greenhead flies could cart you off.)

Along their Atlantic range, red drum also answer to channel bass or spottail bass. The small ones are called puppy drum, and the large ones bulls. This makes sense because bulls can reach lengths of nearly five feet, reach weights of 90 pounds or more, and live to be 60 years old. It is the mosaic painted on its tail, however, that makes a red drum magical. These markings vary in tint and configuration. No inks are alike.

Chesapeake fishermen can find reds cruising the oyster lumps, marsh points and rips, and grass flats. I’ve caught puppy drum in waters as clear as gin, or as roiled as two-day old coffee. Which, in my experience, makes them different from their cousins, the speckled trout, that do not like the dirty water.

Redfish also hit throughout the tide cycle, though of course the catching at each specific location varies. I shoot for the top of an outgoing tide at the mouth of a creek or marsh gut. Look for nervous water where baitfish swirl. Hunting puppy drum is a stealthy game, and you can easily spook your quarry if your approach is not whisper quiet.

Redfish will gorge on crabs, shrimp, and fish, so in that sense we’re very much alike. That means you should carry a variety of different lures, from soft plastics and popping corks to twitch baits and spoons. In recent years, I’ve mainly tossed twitch baits, such as MirroLures Popa Dog and Heddon’s Super Spook, Jr.

Of course, I ain’t no fool, so I also fish soft plastic paddletails and shrimp imitations in the three- and four-inch lengths. Flies that resemble minnows, crabs or shrimp, tied bend-back style so they ride point up over grass beds, oyster reefs or stumps, are most effective. Spin or baitcasting outfits in seven-foot range loaded with 12- to 14-pound test braided line work fine. Eight-weight fly outfits are your best bet.

Where are they, you ask? Where are they not, might be the better question. I’ve caught them in Eastern Bay and around Poplar Island as well as the bay’s islands — Watts, Tangier, Smith, Foxes, Bloodsworth and Martin. The Lynnhaven, Honga, Piankatank, Annessemex and Mobjack Bay hold plenty of redfish, too.

We’ve come a long way since the early 1980s when the culinary phenomenon known as blackened redfish nearly wiped out this popular game fish. Today, biologists note data gaps remain on the adult population (age four and older), which makes a more complete picture of the stock’s health cloudy. That’s all the more reason to go easy on these special sportfish.

Anglers continue to lead the way to expand a conservation ethic by supporting, and demanding sensible catch restrictions on commercial and recreational fishers in all coastal states.

One last tip. Just when you think the bite will never turn on, that’s when you should be ready. Like a switch, the new tide can carry in an infusion of prey, and all of the sudden the water can explode with baitfish being tossed into the air. Now that’s why I fish for reds.

Through May 23: Spring Turkey Season. Bearded turkeys only. Shooting hours through May 9 are a half hour before sunrise to noon. Shooting hours for May 10-May 23 are a half hour before sunrise to sunset.

May 18: Annapolis Anglers Club. Meeting starts at 7 p.m. Erik Zlokovitz of MD DNR will address invasive species. American Legion Post #7, 1905 Crownsville Road.

June 4: 19th Annual Kent Narrows Fly & Light Tackle Tournament. Register at ccamd.org/kent-narrows-fly-light-tackle.

June 11: Save A Fish, Build A Reef. CCA Virginia Fundraising Dinner. Live & Silent Auctions. 6 p.m. at Arlington-Fairfax Elks Lodge. Tickets at robgallen@aol.com or (703) 626-2668.

June 25-26: 4th Annual Fish N’ Paddle Saltwater Slam Kayak Fishing Tournament. Ocean City, MD. Register at fishnpaddle.com.

Send calendar listings, news and photos to cdollarchesapeake@gmail.com.

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