Five Top Carolina Saltwater Fish

Five Top Carolina Saltwater Fish

Saltwater fishing action is red-hot for these five species right now. Here are techniques to help you land several of South Carolina's favorite game fish.

Spottail bass, or redfish, are frequently caught along the edge of saltwater marshes and will hit live bait or lures.
Photo by Walt Rhodes

Darting through the water with the speed and agility of Navy fighter jets, the dark shadows slashed at the brightly colored bait awash in a swirling splash of water.

Everybody on board peered over the edge of the gunwale watching the action unfold. Nerves tensed, sensing that any moment a hookup was going to occur with one of the hungry predators.

Around in a figure-8 pattern, the angler kept the bait moving just under the surface. Through the commotion of the washing machine-like water, you could momentarily see the bait pause before it was whipped 10 feet back across the pattern. You figured one of the frustrated fish would make a grab when the bait halted briefly.

Wham!

The pink bait, which imitated a squid, barely completed another figure-8 pattern when a hungry fish inhaled it.

The drag screamed in retaliation as the angler leaned back into the fish's pressure. It was a maddening run of powerful proportions, but there were no jumps to identify the hooked critter.

Like two teams of NFL linemen playing tug of war, the fish and the angler gained and lost ground on each other. It appeared a stalemate was brewing.

Ultimately, the fish, while powerful, was not strong enough to overcome the angler, at least not this fisherman. The 30-pound amberjack came to the surface with the appearance of a worn-out marathon runner. It was unhooked and released to go back to its lair to regain its strength.

Amberjacks are only one of myriad species that are available to anglers wishing to try their luck in the salt water of the Palmetto State. Inshore, offshore or even from shore with no boat, there is a fish in the water that will pull your line right now and more than likely will make the foundation of a fine meal, too.

Here are profiles of five species and the techniques to land them that should cover every saltwater angler in the state, no matter whether you have a boat or not.

SPOTTAIL BASS

As the most admired inshore saltwater game fish, spottail bass are like the cheerleaders of the high school football team. The fish is naturally popular. It features a simple but intoxicating color scheme of coppers and blues that is overlaid on a sleek and chiseled frame. The fish speaks of power, both figuratively and literally.

Another attraction of spottails, also known as channel bass, redfish or puppy drum, is that the fish is found in as many types of environments as it has names. This widespread distribution makes the fish available to all sorts of anglers. It can be easily caught from a boat or by the shore-bound fisherman.

"I try to sight-fish for redfish year-round," said Charleston-based Capt. Chad Ferris of Tall Tail Charters, who operates charters primarily north of the city in the Isle of Palms/Sullivan's Island and Sewee Bay areas. "The springtime is a transitional period. The large schools of the colder months are beginning to break up and some live bait is beginning to arrive in the creeks.

"Even though you know warmer temperatures are coming, you have to keep in mind that the water is still cool, and a late cold front can still send a ripple through the normal pattern," he cautioned.

Capt. Ferris has found that spottails tend to bite best once the water temperature begins to reach around 65 degrees or above. This contrasts to spotted seatrout, which he finds feed better than spottails when water temperatures are in the high 50s.

"If I have someone on the boat and I don't know their skill level, a good rig to start out with is an Equalizer cork with an 18- to 24-inch monofilament leader," Capt. Ferris said. "I might put a piece of live bait under the cork, such as shrimp, but that can be expensive. Another choice is mud minnows, if you can catch some that time of the year.

"If live bait is a problem, a DOA shrimp works very well. In fact, I frequently use them all year as locator baits for spottails as well as trout. The other thing about using an artificial bait, especially as the water gets warmer, is the problem with trash fish, such as pinfish, tearing up your baits is reduced," he noted.

Capt. Ferris will move along the edges of the marsh grass or up the guts of small creeks during a falling tide in search of redfish. Once he locates them, he may remain with the Equalizer rig or switch to a mud minnow on the same length monofilament leader with one or two split shot added. He feels spottails search for food more by smell, so he will cast the bait in the direction of the fish and let it remain until a spottail finds it.

After the tide gets low, Capt. Ferris will prowl areas of shallow water, often only 8 to 24 inches deep, looking for redfish.

"It's fun to move through the shallows looking for fish," he said. "What you want to look for are bait sprays from glass minnows or early-arriving finger mullet being smashed by redfish. You can also see the wake of reds as they're moving across the flats looking for prey."

You can offer spottails in these haunts the same mud minnow with a split-shot rig or thread your favorite soft-plastic bait on a flutter hook. Flutter hooks are a hook type that has recently appeared on the saltwater scene. They feature a small amount of weight on the shank that slows the descent of soft-plastic baits, thereby making them stay in the water column longer and above fish-attracting, but bait-snagging, structure like oyster bars.

Spottails are commonly found in the surf as well. This is ideal if you don't own a boat or only have time for a short fishing trip. Although the fish can lurk in the suds any time of the year, the warm Indian summer days of fall can be spectacular.

Spottails, and a lot of other inshore saltwater fish, are eagerly feeding in anticipation of the colder months ahead and the departure of bait from inshore waters. Finger mullet (alive or dead) or live or frozen shrimp are the only bait you will need.

A typical rig for the surf is similar to the mud minnow rig described for the creeks, but you will need additional weight because of the surf. Tie a No. 2/0 wide bend or circle hook on a 2-foot piece of

20-pound mono–filament, and attach this to a barrel swivel. Before tying this to your main line, run the main line through a 1/2- to 1-ounce egg sinker. Some surf-fishermen like to use a heavier pyramid sinker, which prevents the rig from rolling in the waves. I like both equally well, but sometimes it seems that a bait that covers more ground is more effective at times. Experiment with both rigs, and decide for yourself.

SPOTTED SEATROUT

"Seatrout populations have come back very nicely from the devastating freeze several winters ago," Capt. Ferris said. "If some more of the larger female trout are released, I think the fishery will only continue to get better."

Spotted seatrout are the second most popular inshore fish behind spottail bass. However, their populations are subject to much larger swings due to severe winters. The fish has evolved to deal with such situations by spawning at an earlier age and by continuing to spawn throughout the spring and summer.

"During the spring, I'll find trout in the same areas at high water that I find spottails," Capt. Ferris said. "You can catch them on the same baits, too."

After Capt. Ferris finds some trout, one of the techniques he prefers is casting topwater baits. Small baits that mimic the "walk-the-dog" action are his favorite. These baits are especially good after a high tide begins to fall.

Once the water is out of the marsh, seatrout head to deeper holes near their high-water haunts.

"Most people in a boat will cast toward shore," Capt. Ferris explained. "I like to do the opposite when fishing for trout. They're off in deeper water, so what I'll do is move the boat closer to the grass, and turn around and cast toward the deeper water with something like a grub to locate them.

"It's funny. People onshore try to cast as far away from shore, while anglers in a boat try to cast right to shore. Sometimes doing the opposite of normal makes the difference."

AN ANGLING GUIDE TO OUR FAVORITE SALTWATER GAME FISH
SPECIESPRIMARY RANGEBEST FISHINGBEST TACTICSBACKGROUND
SPOTTED BASS Spottails occur along the entire coast. One- to 3-year-old fish, the most abundant size classes, are found in association with oyster bars and marsh edges in water less than 6 feet deep. Action is steady all year for spottails. During the winter months, large schools can be found in the heads of creeks or over dark flats that produce warmer water. Wading flooded grassflats during high tide is extremely productive. Gold spoons or similarly colored weedless flies will tempt spottails "tailing" in these areas for food. Most spottails taken inshore are less than 5 years old, but they can weigh up to 15 pounds. Limit is two fish between 15 and 24 inches long. Catch-and-release fishing continues to aid spottails.
SPOTTED SEATROUT Seatrout cruise areas of structure looking for baitfish. Given the enormity of structure found in coastal marshes, hiring a guide to learn patterns is a good investment. The majority of fish are caught during November and December. Most trophy trout are taken when spawning in spring, but some "gators" are landed later in the year in the Wando River. Trout primarily feed by sight. Brightly colored artificial lures are recommended. Chartreuse and white or pink and white Deceiver or Clouser patterns are suggested for flyfishermen. Minimum size for trout is 13 inches, with a limit of 10 fish per person per day. The state's spotted seatrout record is one of the oldest on the books, 11-13 set in 1976.
FLOUNDER Southern flounder are found in inshore waters during the warmer months of the year. Some fish will remain on nearshore reefs during summer, but most will be near inlets and back creeks. Flounder are one of the most dependable game fish to bite during the hot summer months. A lot of "doormats" are taken offshore in winter by astute anglers fishing live baits around wrecks and reefs. Most flounder are landed by slow-trolling or drifting live baits. When you feel a tap, give the fish time to orient the bait before setting the hook. Shore-anglers can cast live baits from the marsh edge. The minimum size for flounder is 12 inches. The limit is 20 fish per person, but most conservation-minded anglers keep less. The state record is 17-6 set in 1974 in the South Santee River.
FLORIDA POMPANO Despite their name, Florida pompano can be found from Massachusetts to Brazil. It is abundant in Florida waters all year and in South Carolina only during the summer. Every time you go to the beach during the summer take your ultralight fishing rod. Pompano can be caught all summer long, but the larger fish seem to be more prevalent toward late summer. Stand in the surf and cast very tiny jigs. If the water is waist deep, you're too deep. Pompano cruise the chaotic surf zone searching for disoriented mole crabs. Most fish will only average about a pound or two, but well worth the effort to catch. Pompano are one of the best tasting fish in the ocean. State record is 8-12 set in 1975.
GREATER AMBERJACK Greater amberjacks have a very wide range. The fish is found in the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. They are most common in South Carolina waters during spring and summer. Most amberjacks are landed during the warmer months of the year. The fish seem to be particularly easy during late summer, from August into early October. Look for amberjacks around artificial reefs or your favorite live bottom area in depths beginning in water more than 40 feet deep. Most amberjacks are taken on live or cut bait. Few anglers specifically target amberjacks because most wrongly perceive their food quality to be poor. Limit: one fish with a fork-length minimum of 28 inches. State record is 99-11, set in 1998.

FLOUNDER

Flounder are another one of those species that can be caught from a boat or shore. For the boat fisherman, die-hard anglers drift or troll one of the many inlets that skewer the coast. Often anglers catch the flatfish incidental to fishing for reds and seatrout in the salt marsh. Besides a coastal fishing pier, there are some specific spots that bank-anglers can hit for flounder.

"One of the best places I know of to fish for flounder from land is Breach Inlet," Capt. Ferris said. Breach Inlet is the inlet that divides Isle of Palms and Sullivan's Island. Numerous people have died in the inlet, so there are strict rules about staying out of the water. Despite the restrictions, you can still effectively fish the area.

"The rock groins on the Sullivan's Island side are probably the best place around here outside of Folly Beach," Capt. Ferris explained. "Get on the rocks out near the round house, and use curly-tailed grubs, tipped or not tipped with live bait. An Equalizer rig with live bait floated along the rocks is good, too. You are as liable to get a trout or spottail as you are a flounder."

Capt. Ferris recommended fishing this area during a moving tide. He likes it when there is some clarity to the water, which typically occurs on an incoming tide as opposed to an outgoing tide when the marsh is being flushed.

POMPANO

An exciting and tasty member of the jack family that inhabits South Carolina waters in great numbers but is often overlooked is Florida pompano. These are pint-sized versions of the more notable jack crevalle that frequent Charleston Harbor. On light tackle, pompano are a blast.

What is interesting about pompano is they are ignored despite being right under everyone's nose. Pompano are schooling fish that favor the surf zone of beaches, usually in water only knee deep. Here, they find their favorite foods, small-shelled animals, such as sand fleas or mole crabs, living in the upper layers of sand.

Sand fleas rigged on small No. 1 hooks are your best bait, but you're going to have to dig out your own sand fleas. Watch the surf when it rolls out, and dig very quickly where the water bubbles. These are sand fleas burrowing downward. Other people will use a fine-wired mesh rack and hold it in the retreating surf to capture dislodged sand fleas tumbling in the water column.

If you can't catch any sand fleas, don't despair. Although pompano are not attracted to artificial baits resembling tiny baitfish, they will take a whack at tiny, tiny grubs or hair jigs fished in the surf. Lure sizes are 1/16 to 1/32 of an ounce. Make the baits even more attractive by tipping them with a small piece of shrimp.

GREATER AMBERJACK

You are going to need a boat to fish for amberjack, and probably a pretty seaworthy one for that matter. Amberjacks are found in the ocean.

Amberjacks are a member of the same jack family that the Florida pompano belongs to. However, an average-sized amberjack will dwarf even the largest pompano.

There are actually four varieties of amberjacks in South Carolina waters, but by far the most common is the greater amberjack. Its gets its name from an amber-colored stripe that stretches from the eye along the middle of the fish's body. Probably a more distinguishing feature, however, is a dark bar that runs from the snout, through the eye, to just in front of the dorsal fin.

Amberjacks can grow to be very large, powerful fish. An average-sized fish will be between 10 to 30 pounds, but 40- to 60-pound fish are considered common. The largest amberjack in a summer-long tournament in Charleston two years ago was over 70 pounds. When hooked, amberjacks put up quite a fight and do not tire easily.

Unlike other members of the jack family, amberjacks are not normally associated in tight schools. When you find the fish, there will be plenty of others around, but they will be loosely scattered, with fish swimming in different directions rather than forming schools with more choreographed movements.

Amberjacks are found offshore near artificial reefs and areas of live bottom. You might hear some locals refer to the fish as a reef donkey. But unlike other fish associated with reefs, amberjacks don't hold tight to the structure. Rather, the fish is found prowling the water column for prey from just above any structure to nearly the surface of the water. As such, amberjacks can be taken by a variety of methods.

Amberjacks will hit live or cut bait fished on the bottom for species like grouper or snapper. If you are fishing for those species, the No. 6/0- to 8/0-hook rigs and heavy monofilament will be sufficient to hold an amberjack. Squid, cigar minnows, large mullet and menhaden will all tempt an amberjack.

The other method to catch amberjacks is to tease them to the surface. Amberjacks are voracious and very curious predators. If you're over a reef or piece of live bottom, splashes on the water's surface will cause amberjacks to appear.

Take a brightly colored bait that resembles a squid and tie it to a stout rod. You should let out about 15 feet of line, and begin thrashing the water's surface in a figure-8 pattern. You will see the fish begin to rise to the surface, and before long they will dart in and try to grab the bait. The key is to make as much commotion as possible. When you get tired, hand the rod off to another angler.

Amberjacks often get a bad rap when it comes to the table. The reason is the fish is prone to worms that can be common in the meat, especially toward the tail. The worms will not hurt humans but they are unsightly. For this reason, most anglers that catch an amberjack gently release the fish.

You can take your chances on keeping one, and if the fish has worms, you can cut around the worms. The firm flesh of amberjacks makes it an attractive fish for grilling. Properly prepared, such as an hour-long soak in Italian dressing and salt and peppered and placed over hot coals for a few minutes, amberjacks are excellent.

To book an inshore fishing trip with Tall Tails Charters, you can reach Capt. Chad Ferris by calling him at (843) 209-5153 or visit his Web site at

www.fishcharleston.com.

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