Redfish can be found in inshore and offshore waters throughout the Atlantic, from Massachusetts to Key West, and Gulf of Mexico. These fish can live more than 40 years, but they spend most of their early lives in inland bays and estuaries before moving offshore to spawn, usually in the fall when daylight hours decrease and water temperatures begin to cool. Guides typically "sight fish" for red drum. One of the easiest ways to see a redfish is to look for its tail as it roots in the grass beds for crustaceans. After spotting its prey, a redfish will lower its head and raise its back end as it tries to grab the food on the bottom. A trained angler can see this tail raised like a flag from hundreds of feet away.
Florida's red drum fishery is unique because anglers typically catch and keep the young, sexually immature redfish, not the breeding fish usually targeted in other fisheries. Male redfish mature at 1 to 3 years, and females at 3 to 6 years. Biologists have determined that it is better for the long-term health of the species to protect the older fish, hence the current slot limit of 18 to 27 inches.
A mature redfish can reach lengths of 45 inches and weigh up to 80 pounds. Fish caught on the Atlantic Coast are usually larger than those caught on the Gulf Coast.
Redfish helped launch the modern fishery conservation movement. In the 1980s, the Florida Conservation Association led an aggressive campaign to end the commercial take and sale of red drum. The species' population was on the brink of collapse, thanks in part to a "blackened redfish" craze that was driving up demand.
The organization adopted the redfish, with its distinctive black spot on the tail, as its symbol. This powerful new group of recreational fishing interests succeeded in protecting redfish and helping convince state officials to embark on an ambitious rebuilding program. The movement continued to gain momentum in the early 1990s and was again successful in banning nets from inshore waters.
Today, red drum stocks have recovered to the point that the species can support several commercial tournament series. Professional anglers target slot-limit sized reds, transport the live fish in their bait wells to a weigh in, where the heaviest fish wins. The fish are then released unharmed.