The days are getting shorter, and the air is getting cooler as the Northerly winds blow through. For Mid-Atlantic surf casters this means it’s time to target big red drum in the surf!
A large number of red drum migrate to Virginias Chesapeake Bay in the spring to spawn and will holdover throughout the summer and then migrate back out in the fall.
In general, red fish have a very broad range and you can find them as far north as Massachusetts all the way down to Texas. However, some of the biggest red drum are caught in Virginia and North Carolina waters, likely due to the vicinity of the Chesapeake Bay. As they migrate out of the bay in the fall, targeting them in Virginia Beach is a popular destination, as is Virginias Eastern Shore, but the Outer Banks (OBX) of North Carolina is probably the most famous area to target these migrating fish. NC also happens to hold the all-tackle world record at 94 lbs 2 oz, caught while surf fishing.
Here in Virginia, our average big red fish is between 45” – 50” with plenty of fish over 50”. To fight this class of fish in the surf, I rely on two surf rods to get the job done – the TFO Tactical Surf 12’0” Heavy Power (TAC SUS 1206-2) and the Tactical Surf 11’0” Heavy Power (TAC SUS 1106-2).
Both rods are more than capable of not only throwing heavy bottom rigs, but also keeping your line up and out of the surf and fighting and turning those big drum in the wash. We call these rods “heavers” because they serve as a special tactical advantage over other kinds of rods due to their ability to “heave” what we call “8&Bait” (8 oz of lead and bait). They’re also very effective at taming other large gamefish species in the surf zone such as big cobia, stripers, black drum and sharks.
One of the most used rigs in this region is called a “Fish Finder” rig. This is a bottom rig and there are many variations of it. I prefer a shortened, more compact version so that it does not affect casting distance. In general, the rig consists of a 6-10 oz sinker, a large snap swivel, a 100+ lb barrel swivel, 3-5” of 100-130 lb monofilament “bite” leader and an 8/0-10/0 circle hook.
The theory behind this rig is that with a properly set drag (preferably with a clicker) the fish can eat the bait and run with it without having to drag around the 6-10 oz sinker. This also gives you time to run over to your rod to apply pressure that assists in “setting” the circle hook.
The parts of this rig depend on a few factors, but a good general rule of thumb for selecting your sinker is to use the least amount that will hold your bait on the bottom. My everyday preference for this rig is pictured below – an 8 oz “frog tongue” sinker clipped to a large snap swivel and tied to a 230 lb Size 2 barrel swivel that is crimped to a 4” 130 lb monofilament bite leader that is snell knotted to a 10/0 hook.
For bait, the head of a small/medium sized fish is preferable to crab. Why? While crab is a great bait, it doesn’t always hold up to the rigors of casting 80-100+ yards and the rough waters we target. For this, I like to use spot and mullet heads, however, I will sometimes use bluefish, croaker and whiting heads also.
I prefer to catch my own bait and this is where the Tactical Surf 8’0” Medium Power rod (TAC SUS 804-1) gets the call. This rod perfectly handles the job of catching bait from the surf and makes easy work of casting double-drop bottom rigs and detecting the light bites of spot, croaker, and whiting.
The last rod in the arsenal is the Tactical Surf 11’0” Medium-Light rod (TAC SUS 1103-2). I like to use this rod for casting jig headed grubs and buck tails, and sight-casting to schools of Spanish mackerel and bluefish with spoons and jigs. Paired with the right reel and line combo, you can hit the rising sun with a 2 oz lure! In all seriousness, many times pods (schools) of menhaden/bunker will roam in to casting distance with Spanish mackerel and bluefish blitzing and busting them out of the water. To reach these fish, you need to be able to cast a 2-3 oz spoon or jig a great distance to be able to catch them. This rod allows you to do just that and if you don’t catch anything, it’s fun just bombing casts out past the breakers!
Side note – This rod pulls double duty for targeting puppy drum and trophy sized whiting as well. I like to use a paired down version of the fish finder rig utilizing a lighter weight, smaller hook and line.