Emerald Coast Pier Fishing Guide

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Red Drum – also called Goldfish (Reds) – and when larger Bull Reds are the most sought after drum species on the piers. One of the biggest and toughest fighting fish on the pier is active most of the colder months. These qualities make the Red Drum one of the best fish to look for on Emerald Coast jetties.

Capable of reaching up to 61 inches and over 90 pounds, the red drum can be a killer to fight. They are copper-bronze colored on their backs and sides with large scales covering their entire body. This fades to white on their belly, there will also be an ocellus or spots just at the base of their tail. Although sometimes they have no room at all. Equipped with a powerful lower jaw with small teeth, they mostly chew with powerful pharyngeal teeth that can crush anything they eat. To differentiate Red Drum from Black Drum, an easy indication is the absence of barbels on the rockfish’s lower jaw.

They are the true back story of conservation in the Gulf of Mexico. Prior to the 1980s outside of southern Louisiana, there was not much commercial demand for Red Drum. The greatest pressure they faced came from sport fishermen. That all changed when blackened rockfish was introduced by Chef Paul and a craze for Cajun cooking became popular across the country.

Commercial fishermen have known for decades where the big red bulls congregate offshore to spawn, but these big fish had range meat not worth pursuing. But with blackened rockfish now in high demand, these breeding fish have been caught and sold in the millions. Along with the pressure put on them by sport fishing, red drum stocks have collapsed. After closures and regulatory changes and 2 decades of work, redfish stocks have returned. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see schools of these fish turning the water to gold with the light shining on their scales.

Bull Red reared in the jetty net

Tackle – Red Drum

The pier red drum needs a heavier set of gear than other pier fish. They are usually over 25 inches long and often cling to pilings or form between them. So you need that heavier gear to be able to get them off the pier before they cut you down on a piling. You need a rod and reel that can handle 15 pounds of drag. I recommend a 30lb braid on a size 4000-5000 reel matched with a medium heavy 7 foot rod. Next, have a 20-30 lb monofilament or fluorocarbon leader. You will also need Egg Weights and Swivels to craft Carolina Rigs to target the Red Drum.

Freshly caught squid for Red Drum bait

Technique – Red Drum

Rockfish tend to be a little shallower and stick to the bottom, but can be found all the way to the end of the pier. Laying bait on a Carolina rig in the water around the first “T” of the pier is probably your best bet. Depending on the water conditions, you may see the shoals of Red Drum bobbing under the pier or some distance from it. You can actively toss them on sight and try to place bait in front of their path, but they can be very scary and will run away if they smell something bad. Or, you can find an area around which they are and just place some bait and wait for them to show up eventually.

In any case, you should use fresh bait. My favorite for spring is the freshly caught squid from the day before or if you are there early enough you can catch it in the morning. You will need squid jigs and a bit of patience. The next best bait would be larger live shrimp or very large sand fleas, the problem with both of these baits is that they can be easily separated by small fish. Rockfish will also take live or dead bait such as herring and cigar minnow. All of these should be rigged on a Carolina rig on an 18″ – 24″ leader. You can try targeting them with artificial lures like jigs and spoons, but that’s not how most people catch rockfish.

Live Shrimp also works great for Red Drum

Table Rate – Red Drum

As table dishes, they are a good choice. They have a good quality white meat, firm and with a larger flake. As their visit to the brink of extinction shows, they are excellent blackened or fried. Another popular method of cooking red drum is the half shell. You leave the skin and scales on the tenderloin, then season the meat side of the tenderloin. After which, you throw everything on a grill or in the oven until cooked. This leaves the fish incredibly moist and tender.

Red slot drum taken just after sunset

Farewell Words – Red Drum

Red Drums are incredibly fun to fight and great on the tabletop, but there are a few things you need to know about them. Most Gulf Coast states have a slot size limit for rockfish. In Florida you are only allowed to keep rockfish over 18″ and under 27″, anything larger or smaller should be discarded. Most of the rockfish you catch on the beach docks will usually exceed the slot limit. I’ve had trips where we’ve caught ten rockfish so they’re all above the slot.

Another important thing is to have a jetty net if you plan to target rockfish. They are heavy and you won’t be able to pull them up 20 feet with your fishing reel. You will need the net to lift the rockfish up to the deck and back into the water. DO NOT DROP THEM ON THE SIDE. It’s a long fall into the water and the impact can rupture their swim bladder. I’ve seen too many reds die because someone is lazy and drops them over the rail.

Other than that, expect to lose a lot of terminal hardware. Rockfish are incredibly strong and usually run on the pier. So don’t be discouraged if you lose fish on the stilts. It’s all part of red drum fishing on the pier.

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