Anything Fly Fishing

The Psychology of Redfish

6 Mins read

If you have ever lived with another person for any length of time, you come to a point in the relationship where you can easily sense their mood. After fishing for redfish for over 40 years I’ve learned they also have moods. They can’t give you a come hither, or a look that could kill like one your spouse might give you, but their behavior gives you a strong clue as to how catchable they might be on any given day. Your goal as an angler is to both observe and learn to interpret that behavior.

The fish have a limited range of behaviors, actually. They might be resting in one place. They might be tailing, very aggressively or much less so. They might be cruising, at varying rates of speed. They might be lying at the surface, sunning themselves, a great thing to see! They might be pursuing bait. That’s pretty much it.

A fish might be by itself. Or it might be with one, or three, or a dozen, or 50, or more, others of about the same size. Generally, all the fish in a group of any kind behave in a similar fashion. The size of the group definitely affects their catchability, for better or worse.

Let’s examine the behaviors more closely. The hardest redfish to catch, and this is always true regardless of how many there are, lie motionless (or darn close to it) on the bottom. They’re down deep, or as deep as they can be in a couple feet of water. These fish lack all interest in eating. As far as I can tell (it’s always your best guess, since the fish aren’t talking) they just sit there looking for trouble. Since they focus their attention in the distance, they see you coming. They usually start swimming off before or during your cast. Simply showing them your fly is problematical.

The one rare exception to this is the fish that’s asleep, and I have only found a few of these over the years. These fish (always singles) also lie motionless on the bottom, but they are completely oblivious to everything going on around them. If you put your fly right on their nose you can sometimes wake them up. They usually spook off of it, but sometimes they just wolf it down. Sometimes they respond to nothing until you poke them with your rod tip. They really are that out of it.

Redfish cruising fast, looking for food, in a North Carolina marsh.

When Lady Luck smiles you will find schools of fish that simply maintain their position, finning lazily high in the water column, apparently sunning themselves. A few individuals may have their fins poking through the water’s surface into the air. Don’t mistake these for tailing fish. They are finned out fish, relaxed and happy. A good cast will usually garner a strike.

Redfish often cruise. Sometimes they follow a more or less circular route (usually single fish), sometimes they’re apparently moving from point A to point B (singles to hundreds of fish). If you make it easy for them to take your offering by putting it directly in their path, they usually will take it.

Casting to a laid-up red in Mosquito Lagoon. This fish will be hard to catch.

The fish swimming in a circuit almost always takes a well-presented fly. When they swim in a circuit there are usually small minnows they’re feeding on in shallow water. They come in, crash the minnows, swim back out a ways, turn around, swim in and crash the minnows again, etc. A good cast usually gets a strike.

I’ve had the good fortune on a couple of occasions of watching snowy egrets and redfish playing Pong (Do you remember Pong, the first video game?) with mosquitofish. The reds chase the minnows to the birds, who chase them back out to the fish, who chase them back to the birds, etc. These are circular route redfish at their finest!

I see redfish swimming in rough circles in sandy potholes in seagrass beds sometimes. These fish frequently roll on their side and flash. Again, these relaxed, happy fish will almost always eat if you make a good cast. You can cast to the near side of the hole while they’re on the far side and wait to move your fly until they come back. You will almost always catch this fish.

Flashing is a wonderful behavior to see, since fish that do this are usually relaxed. When you find a large school, the flashes give you good indication of their mood. Tense fish seldom flash. Flashing, relaxed fish usually eat well. Flashes are easy to see, allowing you to keep track of the school’s location while they cruise.

A group of reds tailing in the Indian River Lagoon. Everyone loves to see this!

We all love to find tailing fish. Tails tell you exactly where the fish are, and you know they’re eating. What they’re eating can sometimes be a problem for those occasions when they’re feeding selectively. Ordinarily when they tail shrimp or crabs are the target item, easy enough to imitate. I’ve encountered redfish digging small brown marine worms out of the mud, and only a lucky fly choice that more or less matched the size and color of the worms finally turned the trick.

Other Indicators

Some days if you bother the fish they just leave. When they are schooled this is a heartbreaking event, since you’re unlikely to find singles (all the fish are in the school), and when they’re gone, it’s over. Other days they want to stay right where they are, and if you make them move they will circle like rabbits and within a few minutes come back to the same spot. This never happens often enough for me. You can (and should) keep fishing this same spot over and over until the fish finally wise up or it’s time to leave. Again, their position in the water column gives you a good idea of how tolerant they might be. Up high is good.

Schools of fish offer great possibilities, and great hazards. A single fish works on his own- one pair of eyes, one pair of ears, one pair of lateral lines. If you spook him he’s gone, but he has relatively little effect on other fish that may be in the same area. A school works as a unit. One hundred fish mean two hundred eyes, two hundred ears, and two hundred lateral lines. If you spook one, they all spook.

Many anglers approach these schools much too aggressively. If you push too hard on the fish they usually vacate the premises. A much better approach requires the application of liberal doses of patience. Try to stay about 50 feet off the fish. They usually tolerate this quite well. Any decent saltwater fly fisher ought to be able to make a 50-foot cast with ease, and it’s no problem with other types of tackle.

A school of happy reds, Mosquito Lagoon.

Instead of casting right into the middle of them, work the fish on the edge, or better yet, cast the fly or fly to where they’re going and only move it after they get there. Take the time and trouble needed to obtain the position from which you get a good shot. Especially when fly fishing, casting from behind a school that’s swimming away from you only serves to speed up their departure.

Once the fish have decided to vacate, when the water is calm you can often follow a school of fish if you have an electric trolling motor. They frequently move too fast to follow them with a pushpole. Stay far enough from the fish that they cannot tell you’re there.

Sometimes after swimming a distance the fish, who have notoriously short memories, evidently forget why they’re swimming so fast. They then slow down and start to relax. If this happens immediately put the trolling motor up and approach them with the pushpole again. I have followed schools for literally miles this way, and while sometimes it simply wastes time and effort, it pays off often enough that I try it every single time the opportunity arises.

Battling a big red, Indian River Lagoon.

Redfish Moods and Fly Selection

Sometimes a red will track your fly, following it, evidently trying to make up his mind whether he should take it or not. If you continue retrieving the bait you lead the fish right to you, and after he sees you he’s not taking that bait, oh no. If you stop stripping and the fly hovers in the water column the fish usually turns off. If the fly dives to the bottom though, they frequently pick it right up. For this reason I usually prefer using weighted flies when fishing for reds.

Weighted flies, especially those with dumbbell eyes, make a distinct plopping noise when they hit the water. Aggressive, feeding fish hear that plop and come looking for the groceries, but nervous, spooky fish think the plop is death from above. The first couple of fish you throw to will let you know how they’re feeling that day.

You can pretty much throw anything to hungry fish and they accommodate you. The fussy ones frequently require an unweighted fly that comes down softly onto the water, like a #18 Adams parachute would. I like bendbacks or flash flies for this work, but other patterns will score, too. Let the behavior of the fish tell you what they want.

Tailing red on a flooded Spartina grass flat in South Carolina.

Conclusion

The visual aspect of sight fishing for them is what makes redfish such an exciting target. Learn to observe and interpret the behavior of the fish you seek and you will find more copper at the end of your leader, a gift from God for the astute angler.

The result of understanding how redfish respond to stimuli! Author releasing a redfish. Photo by Mike Conneen.

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