Suspending baits - Major League Fishing

Suspending baits

Keeping redfish in suspense with slow sinkers
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FLW Redfish Series pro Mike Patterson Photo by Doug Dukane.
November 6, 2006 • John N. Felsher • Archives

People become addicted to redfishing when they see those malevolent, coppery monsters destroy loud, fast-moving baits, but when water turns cold, anglers may need a little more finesse.

In cold water, redfish become sluggish. They hunker down in the mud to keep warm and probably won’t chase baits very far, although they might still gulp a target of opportunity floating within easy reach. Suspending or slowly sinking lures tempt those lethargic lurkers by doing just that.

In either hard plastic, soft plastic or some combination, these buoyant baits hang seductively in the strike zone for long periods. Some jerkbait-type lures float on the surface but dive to a certain level when retrieved. They remain hovering at that level unless disturbed. Only slightly heavier than water, others resemble topwater baits, conventional crankbaits or shad imitations and sink at incredibly gradual rates. Stick-on weights make them sink faster, but often a slow descent works best.

“One of my favorite suspending baits is a Corky,” said Mike Patterson, a Wal-Mart FLW Redfish Series pro angler and guide from Rockport, Texas. “It’s harder than a soft-plastic bait but still pretty soft. It has a wire running through the middle of it. The tail and nose actually bend up and down. Redfish just love them. In fact, when we’re out looking for trout in the wintertime, we can hardly keep reds off them. I’ve A Corky, one of redfish pro Mike Pattersoncaught up to 20 redfish in one day with them before.”

Suspending baits target finicky, non-aggressive fish by offering them an enticing, easy morsel. Basically, they hang in the strike zone at eye level, staring fish in the face and daring them to take a bite. Subtle and hovering like stunned natural prey, they require very little action. Anglers can twitch them or make them dart in quick zigzag bursts between pauses.

As sight attractants, suspending baits don’t work as well in muddy water or at night, although some come equipped with rattles that create a brief ruckus when anglers yank them from side to side. However, if worked properly, most suspending baits don’t need to rattle much since anglers don’t need to work the baits vigorously. In fact, when fish become lethargic, less action often means more strikes.

“During the winter, we try to fish suspending baits as slowly as possible,” Patterson said. “I just twitch the bait. Between twitches, it sits right where it is, hardly sinking at all. It takes about 10 seconds to sink 2 or 3 feet. It gives the fish a long time to stare at it. The fish thinks, `This is too easy. I’m going to have to eat this thing before it gets away.’ One cast can take five minutes to retrieve. That takes a lot of patience!”

Patience is the key to fishing suspending baits successfully. People frequently make the mistake of working suspending baits too fast, but nobody can work them too slowly. After making a few casts without scoring, many people get bored and speed up their retrieves. Big mistake! Suspending baits provoke reaction strikes from non-active fish precisely by their lack of action. Moving a suspending bait too fast defeats the purpose of throwing one in the first place.

“A suspending bait is not something I would throw when fish are aggressive; but when they are lethargic, it’s awesome,” Patterson said. “In a tournament, we only need two good bites. If I’m fishing an area I know holds redfish and don’t get any strikes, I fan-cast and slow down the retrieve even more. Sometimes, it needs to sit right in front of a fish’s face a long time before the fish takes it. I usually give it a double twitch and then let it sit and watch the line. I may count from five to 20 seconds, depending upon the depth, before I give it another double twitch. I let it sink as close to the bottom as possible without snagging.”

Hard-plastic suspending baits work best around sandy flats in clear water, up to about 4 feet deep. They could work in deeper water as long as fish suspend or feed near the surface. Sunlight also reflects off sandy bottoms, warming shallow water. Suspending baits could work over oyster reefs or Redfish frequently hide in grass, especially in the winter, as it absorbs and holds heat from the sun.other hard structure that absorbs heat from the sun.

Grass also absorbs heat from the sun. Frequently, redfish hide near the bottom in thick grass, waiting for crabs, shrimp or other tidbits to flow past them. With dangling treble hooks, most hard baits snag easily, although a good angler can time the descent to allow a bait to barely tickle grass tips. To sink deeper into grass, shift to soft plastics rigged Texas-style.

“We’ve had success with Stanley Ribbit Frogs,” said Anthony Randazzo, FLW Redfish Series pro angler and guide with Paradise Plus Guide Service in Venice, La. “We weight the hook to get the lure to sink slowly beneath the surface. It has incredible tail action; both legs kick up a storm, and it puts off Stanley Ribbit Frogvibration when it moves. When it stops, it just sits there as beautiful as can be.”

Anglers can also use unweighted Texas-rigged soft plastics for tempting tailing fish feeding upon crabs, shrimp or other prey around grass. Slow sinkers, they stay on the surface when retrieved swiftly. With hooks inserted into plastic, they run through most vegetation. When anglers spot redfish, they throw in front of them. A few feet in front of the fish, stop the retrieve to allow these baits to suspend or slowly sink.

During the winter, food often becomes scarce in shallow marshes. However, when temperature drops, so does metabolism in cold-blooded creatures. Therefore, a redfish does not require as much food in winter. With forage often in short supply during winter, downsize baits. A small crab imitation floating irresistibly at eye level might prove too much of a temptation, even for a lethargic redfish.

“I think a redfish will swim a mile to eat a crab,” said pro Bryan Watts of Lithia, Fla. “A Berkley Gulp! Berkley Gulp 2-inch Peeler CrabCrab is probably the greatest thing a person can throw at a tailing or cruising redfish. I use a 2-inch crab. Gulp! is not plastic; it’s biodegradable. It’s food, so it’s more natural. It’s also impregnated with scent and very subtle. That triggers strikes. In Florida, fish are so finicky and picky that we have to use something natural. I can take two bags of Gulp! and catch fish anywhere in Florida – even more so in Texas, Louisiana and Alabama.”

Redfish often find the best food sources in winter by waiting in ambush at the mouths of tributaries. As winter winds push marsh water toward the Gulf of Mexico, ponds drain into mud flats. Fish congregate at the mouths of these tributaries to wait for the tides to flush crabs, shrimp and other forage species from the ponds into their mouths.

During a falling tide, an unweighted soft-plastic crab, shrimp or grub looks very natural flowing downstream. Even suspending hard baits could look like disoriented finger mullet. As tides fall, cast baits as far upstream as possible. Allow the currents to wash them downstream, like real prey drifting with the tide. Let the tide do all the work as baits tumble downstream. Only use a reel to take up excess slack without unintentionally moving a bait.

During winter, reds might not hit baits as hard as they would during spring, summer or fall. As baits drift A red caught on a Berkley Gulp crabwith the tide, keep an eye on the line. In cold water, redfish may only slurp a morsel. Often, anglers won’t even feel strikes, but the line might stop or move in a contrary direction. Don’t set the hook instantly. A fish might hold a soft bait in its mouth for a while. Feel for the weight of the fish before setting the hook.

If fish feed aggressively, anyone can catch them on spinnerbaits, topwater baits or crankbaits. However, when fish hunker down in the mud and don’t chase baits, anglers need to stick to a more methodical strategy.

For booking trips with Patterson, call (361) 790-8026. For booking trips with Randazzo, call (504) 656-9940. Online, see

Redfish tolerate cold temperatures

Redfish can tolerate cold temperatures better than some other fish species, but even redfish slow down when water turns frigid. A brief cold snap won’t affect them, but several days of near- or below-freezing temperatures can make them sluggish.

“Along the Gulf Coast, redfish are common in the marshes until about mid-January,” said marine biologist Jerry Ferguson. “Once we get a really hard freeze, redfish leave shallow water. If temperatures drop into the low 20s for any length of time, it could affect fish. If we get a week or so of warm temperatures, they move back shallow.

Temperatures remain more constant in deeper water. Sometimes, water only a couple feet deeper makes a huge difference to fish. During frosty weather, canals may offer the only relatively deep sanctuary where fish can escape freezing temperatures. Slashing north winds pushing water toward the Gulf of Mexico could almost dry some ponds, leaving little water, except in canals.

Oil companies build many canals to service wells, especially in Louisiana and Texas. Often, they dig deep boat turnarounds at the end of canals. With surrounding marshes holding 1 or 2 feet of water, some turning basins drop to more than 20 feet deep.

“People don’t realize how many fish get into canals during the winter,” said Captain Toby Duet with Cajun Resort in Golden Meadow, La. “Sometimes, we run canals in really cold water and wash fish up against the banks with our wakes. There might be thousands of fish congregated for a half-mile in a canal.”

In addition, a steel well head, if it remains in the basin, could absorb solar heat and radiate that energy into surrounding waters. Rock or concrete dams, riprap or pipes along shorelines could also warm surrounding waters. A temperature change of just 1 or 2 degrees might attract fish.

In the absence of deep water or hard structure, redfish sometimes rub their scales against each other to warm themselves. Frequently, they sit at the bottom of drop-offs, half buried in mud to warm themselves. Black marsh muck absorbs more heat than white sand. In the mud, they may stay put, perhaps not even eating for long periods … unless something presents an irresistible target of opportunity.