Why is a spottail bass called a red fish? Because it’s a fish of many names!
Fall is finally here and it’s the season for catching redfish in the South Carolina Lowcountry! These fish are available year-round but tend to move from shallow water to deeper inshore waters during the fall.
The redfish, or spottail bass is the Lowcountry inshore fisherman’s most popular gamefish. This highly sought-after saltwater fish has many names, depending on the geographic location. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources refers to it as a red drum. Along with redfish and spottail and red drum, this fish is also known as a channel bass and puppy drum. Why did it get the name redfish? Some say it’s because of the copper color of its scales.
Traditionally in the Lowcountry it was known as a spottail for the distinctive black spot on its tail. Sometimes the fish will have more than one spot. On rare occasions it will have no spot at all. What is the purpose of the spot? The spot resembles an eye. This trick of nature fools predators into attacking the fish from the tail, allowing it a chance to swim away from danger.
This popular gamefish is prized by inshore fishermen in the Lowcountry because it is a great fighter, and it can grow to incredible size. The South Carolina record was caught in 1965, weighing 75-pounds. Fish that size are required by law to be released. It’s the smaller fish that is the most delectable.
How did this fish get so many names? That is a great question. This fish has been a popular catch for anglers throughout our history. It even had more names in the 1930s than it does today. Prior to the 1930s, most Lowcountry anglers called it a channel bass. For some reason, the species was, and still is, known by one name in one locality and an entirely different one just a few miles away.
According to the “Woods and Waters” column from Charleston’s News and Courier, “Along much of its coastal range the fish, which we know as channel bass, is the redfish,” explained one column written in 1938. “This is the name by which it goes along the southwest coast of Florida all along the Gulf and the Texas coasts … The outstanding characteristic of this fish is the black spot, just about at the base of the caudal fin, or tail … Seen in shallow water, the tail of this fish assumes a beautiful shade of blue. In body color, the reddish cast of the scales is plainly apparent.”
“Drum is another name, and it is known as the branded and beardless drum. The name ‘branded’ comes from the appearance of the black spot near the tail, which is always an infallible ‘field mark’ of the fish. The real drum is a different fish, and, as some of the natural histories put it, is possessed of ‘a much larger and more resonant musical organ.’ It is known that the drum can emit sounds which are heard at a considerable distance.”
Angler Robert S. Barnwell, Jr. offered even more colloquial names for the spot-tail in 1933. “In Virginia the bass is called red drum; in Florida red fish; in South Carolina simply bass. We divide them into three classes according to size – school-bass, stag-bass and channel-bass … we fish for school-bass in the creeks, for stag-bass in the surf, and channel-bass in the rips of harbor banks. As a rule, the school bass are below 16 inches, stag or surf bass range from 20-22 inches, and the channel bass above 36.”
It doesn’t matter what you call this fish, there is no doubt about its popularity in the SC Lowcountry, where today it is widely known as the redfish. It has become so popular that a strict catch limit was put in place to keep the species at healthy numbers. In 2018 a limit of two fish per day (per angler) and six fish per boat are allowed. A keeper can only be between 15 and 23 inches long. Most anglers, however, prefer to catch and release. Redfish are a designated state gamefish, therefor if caught in South Carolina waters, redfish cannot be sold. According to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Update to Red Drum (Redfish) Regulations (effective July 1, 2018) they may only be taken by rod & reel and gig. Restrictions on both sport and commercial fishermen allowed the species to rebuild.
According to WRDG Chief Meteorologist and avid fisherman Riley Hale, “Redfish reach maturity around 4 years of age and once that happens, they are able to spawn. Slot redfish between 15-23 inches are less than 4 years of age and are usually the ones caught in tidal creeks and rivers. The slot limit is capped at 23 inches to protect the mature fish that spawn. During the fall, redfish spawn and can usually be found off South Carolina beaches, which makes them a prime target for anglers.” Hale also has good tips for protecting redfish during catch and release. https://www.wrdw.com/content/news/Catch-limit-on-redfish-in-South-Carolina-changes-July-1-486850941.html
Redfish like to feed on crustaceans and other animals that live in the seagrass of the shallow waters. When they do this, their tails have a tendency to extend above the water in a behavior called “tailing”. When they do this, their distinctive spot can be seen on the base of its caudal fin. This is just as exciting as watching a dolphin break the surface. To see an amazing video on fishing for redfish and the tailing behavior filmed by Salt Creek Outfitters visit www.youtube.com.
Redfish also go by the name drum, due to the low, croaking sounds made by the male to attract females during spawning. They make these noises by contracting the muscles attached to its “swim bladder”. Redfish spawn in August and September, then the female will lay around 1.5 million eggs at a time.
Redfish can be found in the SC Lowcountry year-round. For the first three years of their lives they thrive in our marshes, bays, and inlets, feeding on shrimp, fiddler crabs and small bait fish. In the fall of their fourth year they migrate offshore with spawning populations. These fish are immensely powerful and fun to catch. Anglers like to look for them tailing around grassy marsh areas during flood tides when large schools begin to form in the fall.
According to Wikipedia chef Paul Prudhomme made a popular dish of Cajun-style Blackened redfish. The seasoning was then sold commercially. The dish became so popular that redfish were overfished to the point of near extinction in the 1980s. Then, in a 2009 episode of Iron Chef America, redfish was the secret ingredient for competitors, who used the fish to prepare several dishes.
Tony Royal and Tuck Scott from Beaufort’s Bay Street Outfitters had interesting ideas regarding the difference in terminology of our local fish. According to Tony, “The origin of ‘redfish’ most likely came out of the UK, in the 1500’s where they have had a history of referring to things in nature that are red as “Red”. Red Bird, etc. Red Hair as Redhead. Some salmon in Pacific are also referred to as redfish. There is a lake in Idaho called Redfish Lake due to migration of salmon there. The origin of spottail (or spot tail) bass appears to more local, used along the SC coast in particular. It is not a bass but a red drum. There are also black drum. Smaller pinfish are also called spots. They are along our shoreline in warm months.”
Here’s Tuck’s interpretation: “The term Redfish came from Louisiana just like the term Spot tail bass came from here locally, but it is Paul Prudhomme who made it popular enough for places to use “Redfish” over other names and the proper name of Red drum. As a member of the Drum family. Red drum are the only drum that only the male drums.”
Special thanks to Suzannah Smith Miles and Riley Hale for their wonderful articles that educated me on redfish and its many names. Thanks also to Tony Royal and Tuck Scott for their insightful thoughts and Erin Weeks – Media & Communication Coordinator for the SC Department of Natural Resources – Marine Resources Division.
…..not at all confusing…..right?
Interest in planning a fishing trip to the South Carolina Lowcountry? Visit https://southcarolinalowcountry.com/fishing-and-hunting/.