Snaring the Red Drum
A saltwater fish provides some of the best freshwater fishing.
By Larry D. Hodge
When it comes to water temperature and quality, Sciaenops ocellatus swims to the sound of a different drum. Unlike other saltwater species such as flounder and spotted seatrout, the red drum is able to survive and grow quite well in fresh water — as long as the water is warm and the right minerals are present.
Fortunately for Texas anglers, several reservoirs in the state meet the red drum’s requirements. All are cooling lakes associated with electric generating plants that provide the conditions the transplanted marine dwellers must have to survive. All have “hard” water — significant levels of dissolved minerals such as calcium, sodium, potassium and magnesium. And all are artificially heated during the winter, which is crucial to red drum survival.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Depart-ment annually allocates between 1.5 million and 2 million red drum fingerlings for stocking into these lakes, primarily Calaveras and Victor Braunig near San Antonio, Tradinghouse Creek near Waco and Fairfield near the town of the same name. Red drum have been stocked into other lakes — Colorado City, Nasworthy and Coleto Creek, to name a few, but the first four named above are the prime freshwater red drum fisheries.
It’s ironic, but if you want to catch a trophy red drum, or redfish, the best place to do so during most of the year is in fresh water. Red drum live in bays along the coast during the first three years of their lives, then head offshore, where they are inaccessible to anglers most of the time. Only during the fall spawning run do mature redfish congregate in the surf around passes where anglers can catch them. Most red drum caught in Texas bays are two or three years old, and only fish that fall inside the 20- to 28-inch slot may be kept. (Up to two oversized fish may be kept using special tags; see the fishing regulations in the TPWD Outdoor Annual for details.)
In contrast, red drum in fresh water can be fished for year-round and can grow quite large, and there is no maximum size limit on freshwater red drum caught in inland reservoirs. Since the fish can live for years, they can achieve hook-straightening, rod-snapping size.
Where conditions are right, hard-fighting red drum provide freshwater anglers with an experience few freshwater species can match. The freshwater state record red drum, caught by Billy Tyus from Fairfield Lake in 2001, was 44 inches long and weighed 36.83 pounds — more than twice as much as the state record largemouth bass. Among game fishes, only blue and flathead catfish and striped bass have weight records greater than 36.83 pounds.
Some people fish for reds from the bank using cut bait on the bottom. When the water warms to 76 to 78 degrees, Dead Tree Point on the south side of Lake Braunig sprouts surf rods with heavy-duty reels spooled with 40-pound-test line, says guide Harry Lamb. Lamb’s clients experience a different kind of fishing. “It’s more of a hunt than a fishing trip,” he says. “I run four downriggers baited with spoons or grubs and troll around until I find them. Braunig is a small lake, and you can cover it all in four hours.”
Lamb scans the lake looking for slicks and bird activity on the surface, both signs of subsurface feeding activity. He also relies on his fish finder to locate packs of roving reds. By mounting the transducer on the front of his 28-foot pontoon boat, he’s able to see fish on the screen in time to adjust his downriggers to their depth and put the baits right in front of them. “Oddly enough, if you don’t see any baitfish on the screen, that’s an indication the big fish you’re seeing are reds,” he says. “When reds move into an area, the baitfish leave.”
Red drum are at the top of the food chain wherever they are found in fresh water. “The average size fish we catch on Braunig is 10 to 15 pounds,” Lamb says. “Bay anglers who catch a 15-pound redfish are stunned.”
Whereas Lamb hunts for reds all over Calaveras and Braunig, Billy Tyus targets specific areas on Fairfield Lake. “I spent weeks finding these places,” he says. “What you look for is a place with a sandbar that drops off into deep water. Reds follow shad up onto the sandbars early and late in the day to feed, but they have to have an escape route. Once you find the right place, they will always be there.” Lamb and Tyus agree that the best time for freshwater red drum is from spring into mid-summer.
Tyus ties a balloon to his line to carry live shad away from the boat and keep it suspended about a foot off the bottom. He uses reels with clickers and lets the line free-spool until a fish takes the bait. “Redfish are very nervous and spooky,” he says. “I work the balloons 40 to 50 yards behind the boat and move only with the trolling motor, or I anchor and let the wind carry the balloons away from the boat. When a redfish takes the bait, the balloon will squat in the water, then come back or maybe travel a bit, and the next thing you know, it’s gone. Wait for the rod to double, then pick it up, turn the handle and start reeling — don’t jerk it, let the rod set the hook.”
Remember you are fishing for big fish — the state record freshwater red Tyus caught on Fairfield Lake was 36 pounds plus. “Set the drag light and don’t tighten it down when you think you have the fish worn down,” he advises. “When he sees the boat, he’ll be gone again. Keep pressure on and let him do whatever he wants to do, or he’ll break you off. I fought my state record fish for 48 minutes, and I had to chase him up and down the lake. And get the big motor out of the water. Every big red knows how to cut your line on the prop and has used that trick several times already.”
Tyus offers one more tip. “If you want to catch big redfish, the best days are Tuesday through Thursday. There’s not as much boat traffic, and they are not as spooky.”
Fishing for red drum in fresh water is a sure-fire way to redline your fun meter. “When the water is in the 70-degree range and you hook a big red, you’ll have an experience fighting that fish,” Tyus says. “Freshwater reds are really tough.”
A Fish out of (Salt) Water
Red drum could well be the “poster fish” for the importance of maintaining freshwater inflows to Texas bays. Freshwater inflows keep estuarine ecosystems alive. The brackish water found in bays is vital to the life cycle not only of red drum, but also of the prey species young reds feed on.
Although red drum spawn in the Gulf of Mexico, tides and currents carry the larvae into bays, where the growing young live for the first two or three years of their lives. There they feed on crabs, shrimp, worms and small fish that live among grasses and oyster reefs. When mature, redfish move into Gulf waters.
“The red drum’s ability to survive in a wide range of water- quality conditions is based on its estuarine existence during the early part of its life cycle,” says Robert Vega, head of TPWD’s marine hatcheries program. “Bony fishes such as red drum must have balanced proportions of water and concentrations of dissolved substances such as sodium and calcium in order to meet the requirements of their living cells. The process of regulating body water and dissolved substances is called osmoregulation. Red drum are very good osmoregulators.”
The ability of red drum to live and grow in fresh water depends largely on the amount of calcium in the water. If calcium levels are too low, the fish’s body chemistry is disrupted, and it becomes unable to regulate the flow of molecules through its cell membranes. The fish loses sodium, potassium and calcium ions (positively charged particles) to the surrounding water and at the same time takes in water. The increased water in the cells leads to even lower concentrations of ions. The low levels of ions eventually cause cardiac spasms and death. In effect, the fish drowns in its own body fluids.
A Hard Drum to Beat
TPWD biologists stock red drum only into reservoirs with high enough water temperatures and a sufficient level of dissolved minerals — “hard” water — for the fish to survive. But it’s not just a matter of dumping fish into a lake and watching them swim off. Research by TPWD fisheries biologist Michael Baird showed that more fingerlings survive when stocked during cool weather and when specific procedures are followed.
The move from salt water to fresh water stresses the fingerlings, and the effect is lessened by a process called tempering. Fingerlings for stocking are hauled in trailers filled with the seawater they were reared in. Tempering slowly replaces salt water with fresh water. When the trailer reaches the lake where fingerlings are to be stocked, its tanks are drained halfway and refilled with fresh water pumped from the lake. The process is repeated four more times at hourly intervals. “At that point salinity has been reduced from perhaps 35 parts per thousand to 1 part per thousand,” Baird says.
In addition, fingerlings are then swimming in water that is the same temperature as the lake. “The more time fingerlings have to get used to the fresh water, the better their survival,” says Baird.
TPWD records show that a few red drum were stocked into some West Texas lakes such as Kemp and Red Bluff as early as the 1950s and 1960s, but stockings were minimal and sporadic until 1981. Since that time Lake Victor Braunig has received more than 4 million fish, Calaveras more than 6 million, Fairfield 4 million plus and Tradinghouse Creek more than 5 million. West Texas lakes such as Colorado City and Nasworthy were also stocked heavily in the 1980s and 1990s but have lost the majority of their red drum fisheries to golden alga kills or low water temperatures.
Braunig, Calaveras, Fairfield and Tradinghouse Creek are likely to be the main red drum fisheries for the foreseeable future. These lakes benefited in 2004 and 2006 from the donation of about 80,000 year-old redfish by Lonestar Aquafarms of Palacios. “These advanced fingerlings really jump-started the fishing, because there appear to be more legal-sized fish now than in the past,” Baird notes.
Freshwater red drum fishing is based on a put-grow-take philosophy. Since the fish can grow but not reproduce in fresh water, there’s no need to protect fish until they reach mature breeding size. The 20-inch minimum length requirement insures anglers will have the opportunity to catch good fish, the three-fish daily limit spreads the harvest over more people, and the unlimited maximum size makes it possible for anglers to harvest a true trophy.
That’s three good reasons freshwater reds are a hard drum to beat.
Current fishing reports.
Billy Tyus, (254) 445-2147, occasionally guides for red drum on Fairfield Lake during the summer months.
Harry Lamb, (210) 633-2801, guides for a variety of species on Lakes Calaveras and Braunig.