On the night of 3 March, 2013, Jay and Doug set out of the Bayside Launch on the North Side of the 3 mile bridge in Pensacola, FL. Wind was approximately 5mph out of the north with a moderately outgoing tide. Thermometer was hovering around 60°. The target: Bull Redfish. The vessel: A heavily modified Hobie Tandem Island with both amas, custom wooden hakas, custom roll bar with rod holders, and no sail. There was a light ripple on the murky brown bay from recent week long rain showers. This is a typical indication that the bite may be difficult at night because of the decreased visibility. There was something about this late winter night that made sense, call it angler intuition, nonetheless a subtle feeling of good things to come. We struck out with high hopes, and we got what we bargained for and then some.
Working south along the well-lit pilings just beyond the northernmost hump, we started casting in clear view of and almost tauntingly out of reach of the fishermen on the Pensacola Fishing Pier. There is a running joke that the first line in pulls a Red right off the bat. Not tonight. We moved further south, keeping close watch on the fish finder screen for the tell-tale signs of schooling bulls. Long, thick wavy bands of sepia goodness that would expose our prey hidden in the murky water below. For the next 20 minutes there was little action, and by little I mean in the form of a single 10” white trout. This little guy was placed with care on a simple Carolina rig on light tackle back down to the first third of the water column. Why? Simple. Bull Reds love ‘em. That’s why they come here twice a day with the tide. Night time is the best. Baitfish are attracted to the brightest lights that run the 3 mile length of the Pensacola Bay Bridge. It’s all about the food chain. Fish by nature are eating machines, and light sources after the sun goes down affords more opportunities to feed. The contrast of moving things in water that is lit piques the curiosity of hungry fish. It’s simple science, but not always easy. Ask any angler, you can have perfect conditions and all the right gear and come home empty handed. Sure experience and all of the other variables aligned increase your chances but it’s called fishing because of the added element of luck, otherwise it would be called catching.
So we have 3 different techniques employed in our array, covering all possibilities of tasty morsels a passing bull red might dine on this evening. Diversity of offerings is another crucial component. Now all we need is a little luck. Hmm, about that luck…..ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz….the reel sings that oh-so-familiar tune, and it’s off to the races. I’ve got a live one on Mr. White Trout that I put down. The circle hook sets itself as I tighten the drag to impede this bull’s progress. He’s been here before perhaps, hooked lip and all and lived to tell his fish friends about it. Bull Redfish is just a moniker for a Red Drum that is over the slot limit. In the state of Florida, Red Drum can only be harvested if they are in the slot, which means measuring between 18”-27” from tip to tail. A bull is any redfish over that. Not only are these older fish less desirable table fare, but are protected because they are the breeding stock. This is typically a fish that is over 5 years old, and around here, this likely isn’t his first rodeo. Instinctively, the Red makes a beeline for the closest set of pilings in an attempt to take cover among the rubble. On board the SS Yangler, the crew is doing its best to keep him out of that very rubble. One wrap around a piling will cause the line to be sliced by the resident barnacles resulting in loss of line, tackle, and most importantly a possible trophy fish.
Having a craft with 2 anglers simplifies this process. While I tend to the fish on the line, Doug clears the remaining lines quickly and we both work to get the boat away from the bridge. Hobie Mirage Kayaks make this task much easier by way of the mirage drive. This allows us to pedal to propel the kayak while keeping our hands free to fish. This situation can be a bit trickier with a paddle craft. We manage to get the kayak at a safe fighting distance from the bridge, and I continue to fight this fish. I’m using a light tackle combo consisting of a Stiffy 7’ short handle medium-fast action rod married to a Shimano Symmetre 2500FD topped off with 20lb. Powerpro Braid. Anyone can horse in a large fighting bull with heavy gear but nothing rivals the experience a kayak angler can get fighting a fish using light tackle. You have to know how to properly administer drag, based on the strength of the fish and the limitation of your gear. The sound of the drag as the fish surfaces in a last ditch thrashing effort to spit the hook create an eerily pleasant symphony that will keep you coming back again and again. As the mighty bull tires, I gain line and bring him safely to the side of the boat. Now to get him in the boat. There was a time when my nickname was “Boatside”. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why I was given that name.
With experience I have greatly increased my landing probability, and this specimen was no exception. Wearing boot waders, I simply dipped my leg into the water and let the fish slide into the space between my leg and the hull, and in a swift lift of my leg our gilled friend is in the kayak. A quick measurement for potential bragging rights and points in Kayak Wars puts this bull at 38.5”, a mere inch and a half away from trophy status. Maybe next time, but certainly not without a photo-op worthy of making top 10 on awkwardfamilyphotos.com. Jokes aside, Red Drum are actually quite docile when out of the water and as a result they are quite easy to handle quickly for a popular conservation method known as CPR or Catch, Photo, Release. Attention to the amount of time a fish is out of the water and careful handling help ensure the fish is healthy when returning them to the water. However, after a long fight one may notice a fish, especially a Red Drum, will not dart away once placed back in the water. It is best to hold the fish around the base of the tail, righting it in the water and slowly moving the fish back and forth, promoting oxygen enriched water to pass through the gills and bringing our catch back to his senses. In a flash, he whipped his tail to get on his way to whatever it was that I’d made him late for.
Rinsing my hands and securing bottom rig line back to my pole, we pedaled back toward the bridge for more action. As we approached the outside halo cast by one of the lights, I saw what I was looking for on the fish finder. It looked to me as if we had front row seats to the Redfish parade just below. They were high and thick in the water column, and I told Doug to give it a try up on top. With laser precision, he casts his lure, banking it off the piling wall right into the target zone. He didn’t even have time to get the bail flipped back over and ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz………………I put my rod back into the rod holder and was about to start pedaling away from the bridge again when I hear another reel go off. ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz, but where was it coming from? My 3” glow Gulp shimp that Doug had reeled in for me earlier was sitting in the opposite rod holder, with only the tail of the Gulp in the water no more than 3 feet from the boat. A Red came up to the kayak and snatched it. Double Hookup! Both fish were running toward the pilings and were treating us to a good ‘ole Pensacola sleigh ride. Since we were a little further away from the bridge we let them wear themselves out dragging approximately 600 lbs. through the water. Doug was fighting his fish from the haka in true Yangler fashion while I was still planted in the rear cockpit. Doug tells me he is wrapped in the pilings and I’m certain he’d lost the fish. My fish takes off parallel to the bridge and I am pedaling as fast as I can away from it. Doug, letting just a bit of slack out preparing to be broken off, is pleased when his fish unwraps the piling, takes off under the boat and away from the bridge. We continue fighting and land both fish, taking care to remove the hook from their jaw. Mine is in the slot at 24.5” while Doug had a fat bull at 38”. This was Bull Red fishing at its finest.
We fished for a solid hour and a half and were able to pull in another dozen bull reds including a long 39.5” from Doug, and another slot red. We could have kept going but it was a weeknight, and we had to wake up early to go to real jobs. We made the 15 minute pedal back in with our chins high and shoulders sore.