PORT ARANSAS, Texas — For Bassmaster fans familiar with freshwater fishing, the Yamaha Bassmaster Redfish Cup Championship presented by Skeeter Nov. 12-14 will shine the spotlight on new targets and tactics. This event promises a fascinating look at the inshore tournament world for the six competing bass pros, along with everyone watching daily Bassmaster Redfish LIVE coverage on Bassmaster.com and FS1.
Many of the event’s B.A.S.S. pros are fairly new to the inshore scene, but their redfish pro partners are well-versed at pursuing these copper-scaled brutes. While fall typically is considered a favorable season for redfish action, those who’ve walked this path recognize several variables demanding attention.
Teaming with Bassmaster Elite veteran Matt Herren, Elite Pro Redfish Tour Championship qualifier Chad Manning of Apollo Beach, Fla., makes his first visit to Port Aransas. Expecting windy conditions, Manning spent Sunday studying local charts to identify protected areas with fish-friendly features.
“I’m going to find leeward areas, pre-fish them heavily and hope I can find and pattern some fish,” he said. “I don’t know much about the area, but from the maps I’ve looked at, it seems very similar to (my home waters of) Tampa Bay. There’s a lot of open water and grass flats, so you’re going to have to get out of the wind.
“A little wind isn’t bad; I prefer a little ripple on the surface, but too much wind stirs up the water and makes it difficult for the fish to see. When that happens, they’re going to move to cleaner or deeper water.”
Ryan Rickard of Brandon, Fla., who pairs with seven-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier Chris Zaldain, has previously fished Port Aransas, so he’s comfortable with the week’s windy forecast.
“I think being patient with the weather and not stressing out over the conditions will be important,” the veteran IFA Redfish Tour pro said. “I’ll be trying to find lee side pockets with cleaner water where the bait is stacking up because that’s where the redfish are going to travel in with (the bait).
“It’s going to depend on which way the wind blows, whether the water’s going to stack there or whether it’s going to blow out. That’s going to be a huge factor. If you pattern fish pre-fishing and they’re in a specific zone, but the wind switches and blows the water out, or it’s opposite of where you pre-fished, you have to know where the fish are going to transition to.”
Hailing from Sargent, Texas, multispecies tournament pro Ricky Bort will compete alongside Elite angler Mark Menendez, who has notched three Bassmaster victories. With a formidable blend of bass, speckled trout and redfish experience, Bort knows that lunar cycles bear critical impact.
As Bort explained, tidal flow (controlled by the moon) moves baitfish around and stimulates redfish feeding. Full and new moons exert the strongest tidal influence, but with a first quarter phase on Nov. 11, tournament days will see increasingly weak water movement, which he says will require anglers to stay mobile and find feeding fish.
“We’re on an (unfavorable) moon cycle; a quarter-moon phase that can delay our bite,” Bort said. “Barring a tremendous cold front, the fish are going to feed; it’s just a matter of what time of day is going to be the prime feed and if you can make some bite during the time that they are not in that prime feed time.”
A change of pace
Former FLW Redfish Championship winner Dwayne Eschete of Lake Jackson, Texas, will partner with Patrick Walters, who holds the all-time Bassmaster Elite record for a winning margin of 29 pounds, 10 ounces (Lake Fork, 2020). With a solid understanding of tournament waters, Eschete said that tournament rules prohibiting the sight fishing towers/platforms common to redfish pursuits will require him to replace the largely visual strategy he typically follows.
“It’s going to be a grind, simply because all these redfishermen are used to sight fishing and this is going to be a (mostly) blind casting tournament; you’re going to be doing a lot of casting and not really seeing many fish,” Eschete said. “I really think that coming up with a plan and sticking with it will be the key.
“It’s going to be important to be in the right place at the right time, so we’re going to be using our pre-fishing days to cover a lot of area to eliminate a lot of dead water.”
Eschete’s top criteria will be clear water and bait concentrations. Pogies (Gulf menhaden) and mullet are the leading finfish forage, while shrimp and crabs also factor into the red’s diet.
Notably, mullet are vegetarians and, while redfish prey on juvenile “finger mullet,” schools of adults often displace finfish and crustaceans as they rumble across shallow flats. As Eschete points out, finding mullet schools often leads anglers to redfish.
Less crowded waters
Considering Port Aransas’ reputation as the “Fishing Capital of Texas,” tournament teams might assume they’ll have to contend with excessive local traffic. Some level of recreational activity is always assumed, but Elite Redfish Trail pro Travis Land makes a timely observation.
“One of the seasonal advantages we’re going to have is the tournament overlaps the opening weekend of deer season in South Texas,” said Land, who partners with former NFL tight end Nicky Savoie. “Hunters are fishermen and fishermen are hunters, so I think we’ll have a lot less pressure on our fishery due to the fact that a lot of folks will be hunting.
“With less fishing pressure, the fish become less spooky of a trolling motor or a boat floating near them. Even without towers, some level of sight fishing could still come into play, because the fish shouldn’t be as pressured.”
Nevertheless, Matt McCabe of Slidell, La., knows that the less he sees of his competitors, the better. Paired with Bassmaster Opens pro Trait Zaldain, the 30-year veteran pro is hoping that solitude will be their ally.
“I think the key will be finding some fish away from the (rest of the tournament field),” McCabe said. “I’ve never fished Port Aransas before this week but all the research I’ve done indicates that a lot of people do the same thing — they’re running these big schools.
“I think the key will be to find some unpressured fish off the beaten path where you can have them to yourself.”
Drawing on his Bayou State experience, McCabe said he knows that redfish living in grass tend to be bigger than those roaming sand flats, as the vegetation tends to hold more food. He plans on sticking to what he knows and targeting those darker colored grass fish.
Using topwater walkers as search baits is redfish 101, but with subterminal mouths, the fish often miss the bite. Weedless spoons (gold, copper, chartreuse) also allow anglers to cover lots of water to locate fish, and their 4-wheel drive versatility means anglers can throw spoons into places an open-hook bait would likely snag.
Rickard plans on throwing a 1/4-ounce spoon along with soft-plastic paddle tails. Rigging his plastics on a 5/0 3/16-ounce wide gap hook, he opts for an ample profile.
“I’m not a small paddle tail guy, but I’m not a huge paddle tail guy — I’ll throw a 4-inch bait,” Rickard said. “I feel like those bigger, heavier fish we’re concentrating on like to eat something bigger.
“Now, depending on what we have in barometric pressure, if we have a supercold front and we get lots of high pressure and bluebird skies, you may have to downsize the bait a little bit and slow your presentation, because they might get a little finicky. But, over the years, I have found that bigger profile bait catches your heavier fish.”
For McCabe, bait selection will come down to identifying fish disposition: “What I’m going to have to figure out is whether these fish are chasing stuff that moves fast or slow.
“I think it will be a matter of finding some fish that will eat. The key thing will be determining whether they’re chasing so we can throw ChatterBaits, spinnerbaits and spoons at them; or are we going to have to go along and see them and flip to them or make long casts with popping cork rigs.”
While he’s never fished the Texas coast, Mickey Gibbs of Dade City, Fla., said he believes his experience on Florida’s Gulf Coast flats will serve him and partner Jeremy Heimes well. With three Team of the Year titles and a 2019 Championship win in the Power-Pole Pro Redfish Series (Florida Division), these anglers will rely heavily on jigs with Strike First or Slayer Inc. paddle tails — the latter made by fellow competitor Chris Cenci.
“I rig these baits on a weighted wide gap bass hook, but I do mine a little differently than most people,” Gibbs said. “I buy one size weighted hook and then I use (various sizes of) a tungsten worm weight and a bobber stop to make the bait whatever weight I want.”
Eschete likes Berkley PowerBait Ripple Shad and Ripple Mullet on jigheads, but he’ll also keep jigs with 4-inch Berkley Gulp! Shrimp handy. The latter’s potent scent formula helps redfish locate the bait, while the dense, streamlined form facilitates the long casts needed for reaching spooky fish.
“When we’re drift fishing (shallow flats), the longer the cast the better opportunity you’re going to have because the fish know you’re there; they feel the boat pressure,” Eschete said. “The longer your cast, the better your chance of getting a reaction strike. When we’re blind casting, most of our strikes come within the first two cranks or on the drop.”
Wherever and however teams choose to pursue their redfish, this small-field event will offer ample opportunity to forge new friendships across industry lines. McCabe said his pre-event discussions with Trait and Chris Zaldain left him eager to make their acquaintance.
“I’m really looking forward to (competing) along with my partner Trait; she’s never done this, but I’m a guide back home, so I’m going to guide her and we’re going to work at it together, find some fish and have a great time,” McCabe said. “I was in communication with Trait and Chris before the event and we became friends.
“I’m excited to spend the week with them, as well as all the anglers, and make some good friends. We’re all competing against each other, but we’re all after the same thing, so I say ‘Let’s go have a go have a great time and have fun.’ I’m excited about this opportunity, that’s for sure.”
Competition hours are 6:45 a.m.-2.45 p.m. CT, with daily weigh-ins set for 3 p.m. at Fisherman’s Wharf. Fans can catch Bassmaster Redfish LIVE coverage all three days of the tournament as cameras capture all of the action. Bassmaster.com will stream live beginning at 7 a.m. CT on Nov. 12. FS1 will broadcast live Nov. 13 from 7-10 a.m. and Nov. 14 from 7-11 a.m. with continuing coverage available on Bassmaster.com.
The 2021 Yamaha Bassmaster Redfish Cup Championship presented by Skeeter is being hosted by the Port Aransas Tourism Bureau & Chamber of Commerce.