Northeast Florida’s St. Johns River is world famous as a top spot for catching oversize largemouth bass. And while that fishing is good in the “upper” river, where the water is sweet and fresh; in the “lower” river near Jacksonville where it flows into the ocean, it offers some of the best fishing for giant red drum available anywhere.
For example, one early September afternoon friend and charter captain Don Dingman, Jody Brandenburg, Keith Lodge, and I left the Mayport, Florida public boat ramp aboard Don’s 26-foot boat. It was 3 p.m., and plenty hot, but Don said giant schools of “bull” redfish were in huge supply.
“I had a 100-fish day recently with a charter,” Don said as he spun the boat, and headed east toward the St. Johns River jetties. “I picked up four guys at 3 p.m., and they were done, completely whipped by 7:30 p.m. It was one of those days you don’t forget. But the fish haven’t gone anywhere. They won’t for at least another month.”
We roared passed the Mayport Naval Station, along the inlet jetties, and bumped through moderate ocean swells rolling through the river mouth. As we neared the tip of the south inlet rocks, many small, anchored boats came into view.
“It’s no secret big redfish are here, and easy to catch,” Don said nodding toward the dozen or so boats of all sizes and descriptions anchored off the tip of the south rocks.
Most boats were safely stationed 100 yards or so from shore, starting at the very end of the jetties and extending west for several hundred yards. There was ample space for anchoring, but we fished during a weekday. Weekends are much more crowded, so require earlier reservations.
As Don maneuvered his high-bow boat for anchoring in a favorite spot, I noticed several anglers in other boats around us with bowed rods fighting redfish. The more I gawked at the fishermen, it seemed the more fish were hooked. Reds were being brought aboard boats everywhere, and in at least two boats anglers fought doubleheaders.
“Looks like we’re right on time,” Don said as his anchor dug bottom, and he began his well-oiled redfish routine.
He grabbed a whole blue crab (big enough to look good steamed on a dinner table), popped off its large shell, broke it in half, and using a heavy-blade knife sliced off all legs tight to the body. Then he quartered the body, and threaded a large chunk onto a circle hook connected to a heavy-duty 7-foot boat road. Weighted with several ounces of lead, Don lob-cast the crab far away from his boat toward the tip of the south St. Johns River jetties.
He flipped the revolving-spool Penn reel into gear, set the rod in a gunnel holder, and started rigging a second rod with a crab bait.
Before he had a third bait out, the first rod was bent tight, and Keith had a fish on. As Keith struggle to gain control of his red, a second rod was jolted, and Jody was hooked up.
And that’s pretty much the way it went for the next three hours. Rarely did we have four rods set out with crab baits on bottom before one or more fish were hooked. Occasionally Don repositioned our boat in the changing tide flow, so schools of deep circling reds would cross over our baits. But rare was the moment someone wasn’t playing a fish, or Don wasn’t landing one.
It was grueling redfish combat from the moment we dropped anchor at the south jetties, to the time when our whole crew , following a pair of busy triples, cried “uncle” from sore arms and backs from winching in oversize reds.
We totaled 27 redfish weighing at least an estimated 15 pounds and several fish pushing 40 pounds. Most weighed 20 to 30 pounds. Not a record redfish day for Dingman, but for reds that size, it was as good as anything I know happening regularly anywhere in Florida for red drum. And it’s available virtually every day in the lower St. Johns River for approximately eight to 12 weeks each year.
Dingman has been fishing such reds in the St. Johns for 30 years. He grew up doing it, and no one knows the fishery better. In a good year he’ll lead clients during that eight to 12-week period to 1,600 redfish, sometimes more. Virtually all of them are released unharmed, since the great majority are mature “bull” reds, larger than the Florida lawful slot limit (18 to 27 inches) for harvest.
Dingman’s reds are spawning-run fish, proven because milt readily spews from fish as they’re carefully brought aboard for unhooking and release. Don says reds swarm into the river in immense schools, segregated to sex and size.
“First smaller males show, starting about mid-August,” he explains. “Those fish are in the 26- to 33-inch range, most are over the keeper slot limit. But in a usual day we’ll catch a few we can take home for dinner. They’re in huge schools, thousands of fish, that I easily mark on my color depth recorder. And they’ve very consistent. Once I locate them on channel drop-offs or holes – in water 25 to 45 feet deep – I can stay on them for a week or so. They move around the lower river a bit, but I usually can stay with them. I fish about 16 different spots – all deep holes right on the edge of the main river channel – and they each turn on at different times. This covers about seven or eight miles of the lower St. Johns.”
Beginning in mid-September, numbers of smaller redfish diminish, and Dingman and other anglers in the know begin catching much larger reds, many fish in the 30- to 40-pound range. This is the time I fish with Don, and such reds are monster bull dogs, especially in the predominantly deep, hard-running tidal spots that he targets, like the river mouth inlet jetties. Don’s biggest red caught over the last few years is a 54-pounder, which likely is about as big as reds run in the St. Johns River. Biologists say such large river-run reds are returning home-bodies from the open ocean, much like salmon. And the farther north along the Atlantic Coast migratory redfish are caught, the larger they run. Thus reds landed in Georgia are bigger than in Florida, ones in South Carolina bigger than Georgia, etc.
While Don fishes parts of the river I thought I knew intimately, he works them completely different than most people. That’s likely why he catches so many huge redfish, while many other nearby anglers are less successful.
“Big schools of heavy reds feed right on sandbar bottoms that drop-off quickly into the main river channel that may go 40 or 50 feet down,” Don explains. “These places are far from shore, sometimes a half-mile or so, in spots where the tide just rips, and not far off the main ship channel where big freighters and oil tankers cruise as they come and go to the port of Jacksonville. Anchoring right on the best spots is critical. And you’ve got to have a good, heavy anchor with plenty of scope. Seaworthy boats are needed, too, because some giant ships throw a pretty good wake.”
Fresh blue crab are Don’s favorite bait for reds. Although mantis shrimp and croakers work, too, and cut mullet baits account for plenty of reds every season. Crabs are preferred by Don because they stay on a hook well and are less likely to be harassed by smaller, pesky fish like catfish or sharks.
Dingman catches reds in all moving tides, ebb or flood, though different locations are better according to tide stage. He prefers mid- to late-afternoon fishing, however. He doesn’t know why, but river redfish seem to feed best in afternoon, compared to morning, and he especially likes the 3 p.m. to dark angling shift.
Catching big reds from deep water in super-strong current isn’t a light tackle game. It’s far from light-line, finesse fishing. No worry about spooking reds in skinny water, or hoping to tempt them with just the right color lures or flies. Don’s river reds are giant fish in massive schools, that jump on natural baits pronto, and are fought fast to the surface using tackle better noted for subduing kingfish and grouper. That’s the best way to deal with valuable giant redfish that are all destined for quick release.
Occasionally some fishermen employ tackle too light, which results in an inordinate amount of time in landing heavy reds, and can unnecessarily weaken them. This makes successful release of heavyweight spawners less likely, so it’s unacceptable to sportsmen in the know. Some greedy fishermen also occasionally thumb their noses at the law and keep oversize spawners. But Marine Patrol officers make the rounds frequently, and hefty-fine cases have been made against law violators in recent years. One recent October a bust was made on a boat that had over a dozen giant St. Johns reds stowed on board. Fines were pushing $5,000 in that case, and many area anglers thought the judge was too lenient.
“These giant reds are the future of our fishing, and have to be protected to propagate the species,” explains Dingman. “That’s why it’s important to maintain this as solely a catch-and-release fishery.
“Redfishing in the river is about as good today as I ever remember it. If a guy wants to make a family trip, or have an outing with some pals and wear out their arms, backs and legs, I don’t know a better place to do it than when the bull redfish run in the lower St. Johns. With a little luck and care, this fishing will be just as good for reds 30 years from now as it is today.”
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