5 Best Bets For Carolina Saltwater Anglers

From the most popular inshore species to offshore species, saltwater angling in South Carolina has something for everyone. (May 2007)

Photo by Mike Marsh

Running perpendicular off the marsh grass, the long mound of shells had a very prominent hook at its end.

The water inside the hook looked plain fishy. An oyster bar fronted the marsh grass and schools of baitfish swam around inside the confined three-sided pool. If a hungry game fish made it inside the pool, all he would have to do is guard the entrance where he could eat anything that tried to leave until he was full.

My bet was any staging fish would be holding where the tide wrapped around the point of the shells.

The first cast of the MirrOlure yielded nothing. I worked it back in a jerk-and-settle fashion, only to see it through the clear water limping back toward the boat without drawing a strike.

However, the next cast hit pay dirt.

I worked the bait back in the same manner as the first cast, and before it began to settle for the first time, it was nailed. The medium-light spinning rod bent, and it was that all-familiar and pleasant sight of a bent rod and a hooked fish swirling against the backdrop of a marsh.

The 3-pound spotted seatrout's spots were brilliant in color as the fish came to the boat. The 60-degree water shocked my circulatory system when I slid my hand under the fish's belly to cradle and unhook it. One more glance at the fish's sleek slivery body, and it was off.

This seatrout fishing trip was winding up another year of great South Carolina fishing. It had started back in the cold of January, continued through the promise of spring and the heat of summer and was finishing with the shortening days of fall.

It does not matter what month is flipped open on the calendar: There is something biting in the salt water of the South Carolina coast. Most of the cooperative species are located inshore, but what's going on offshore outside of the traditional spring runs of tuna and dolphin might surprise even veteran anglers. Here's a look at five species that should fill your calendar year of fishing.

SPOTTAIL BASS

By far the most popular fish in South Carolina is the spottail bass. This is a local name, and the fish also goes by red drum, redfish, channel bass and puppy drum.

It has wide appeal for several reasons. To the untrained eye, a large spottail could almost be mistaken for a carp. It features bold, reddish-gold scales and a sloping, chiseled head, but the similarities end there.

Beyond the copper back and just before its tail, the fish features a bold black spot, sometimes many more than one. The trailing edge of the tail has a distinctive blue hue to it.

Besides their striking appearance, spottails are known for their fighting abilities. The fish has the attitude of a back-alley brawler that will torture any tackle too light for the task. If you land one and decide to keep it, spottails are pleasing to the palate no matter how they're cooked.

If that wasn't enough, the fish can be caught 12 months of the year. They might be sluggish in February, but you can usually find one that will bite. You can land them on flood tides during the summer, and in the fall, as it is only a matter of putting a bait, nearly any bait, in front of one's nose to catch it.

"Late spring and early summer is a great time of the year for redfish, especially using live bait," said Capt. Reid Simmons (843/452-8844). "The tackle shops will have live shrimp for sale and the next best bait is little menhaden."

Simmons explained that the shrimp found in the creeks this time of the year are normally still too small to use for bait, which is why anglers would have to purchase them. He also likes menhaden about 4 to 5 inches long, and by the start of summer, he said it might be hard to find baits that small.

"I like to fish the baits under a float on an ebbing tide," Simmons said. "Redfish schools will be in smaller bunches than you normally find them during the cooler times of the year. The good thing about this is you can fish the entire length of a shell bank without spooking a whole bunch of fish when you catch one.

"After you catch one fish, you can ease down the bank and there's another one waiting," Simmons said.

Simmons recommends that anglers find as clear water as possible that's dumping out of side creeks. He said that they don't have to be large creeks but should have clear water.

"I don't overlook the flooding tide but it can be harder to pattern the fish then," Simmons said. "As soon as the water is up into the grass, however, I'm back in there with the fish looking for them."

For spottails up in the grass, look for areas of thinner grass, and work a gold spoon or spinnerbait through the area. Flies, such as Clousers, Deceivers or any crab pattern, are effective as well.

SPOTTED SEATROUT

They aren't called winter trout for nothing. Spotted seatrout shine when the temperatures begin tapering off to more manageable levels after the heat of summer.

Spotted seatrout are predatory schooling fish that feed by sight. And the clearer water that comes with cooling temperatures brings this fish into its element. Baitfish are balled up and leaving the creeks for the winter, and spotted seatrout are there to greet them.

Their propensity to bite in the fall makes spotted seatrout the No. 2 inshore saltwater fish in the state. Having a distinguishing spotted pattern that would rival the colors in jewels across the upper half of their rocket-tapered bodies makes spotted seatrout pleasing to eye. Like their spottail cousins, they're good to eat, too.

But good spotted seatrout fishing doesn't have to be an end-of-the-year event.

"The large spotted seatrout will begin showing up in creeks during March," said Capt. John Irwin of Fly Right Charters (843/860-4231 or FlyRightCharters.com) and Charleston Angler in West Ashley. "I usually find these fish in water about 12 to 14 feet deep."

Irwin suggested that fishermen use live shrimp on a Carolina rig to target these big fish. Because live shrimp will not have arrived i

n local creeks this early in the season, you will have to buy them at local tackle shops.

"Besides live shrimp, baby menhaden are another bait," Irwin said. "Once they show up, these are the best bait in my opinion."

Irwin recommended fishing for spotted seatrout around the I-526 bridge pilings on the Wando River during an incoming tide.

South, down the coast, two other guides have some other recommendations.

"The trout bite in November is really good," said Capt. Mike Upchurch of Osprey Charters (843/908-2325 or Carolina-Fishing-Charter.com) in the Beaufort/Hilton Head area. "These fish will feed right into the winter until it gets real cold.

"Berkley Gulp! baits work well for the trout. I like to fish Gulp! shrimp under a float for around three hours on either side of the high tide."

Upchurch normally finds spotted seatrout outside of small feeder creeks along oyster shell banks.

Captain Dan Utley, who is known as the Fishing Coach around Hilton Head (FishinCoach.com, 843/757-2126) trolls for fall spotted seatrout.

"Creek mouths and oyster bars help break up the shoreline," Utley said. "As the tide moves along the bank, eddies are formed around these areas and that's where the trout are located."

Utley trolls a 1/4- or 3/8-ounce grub as slowly as possible along the bank. His favorite colors are metal flake green, metal flake silver and electric chicken.

"You want your bait to run just off the bottom," Utley said. "If you feel it snagging, reel in some line or go with a slightly lighter line.

"During bright days, the trout will probably be found a little deeper than during darker days. Once you pick up a fish or two in a particular spot, go back and anchor off that location. You should be able to pick up a few more fish from the school by free-casting a lure in there."

FLOUNDER

Batting in the third spot on the lineup card of inshore saltwater fish are flounder. Given their wonderful qualities on the table, you would think that they'd be batting leadoff. Their designation farther down the card, however, is probably related to attributes that can make it difficult for casual anglers to get them in the boat.

Flounder are ambush feeders that use their coloration to blend into the bottom. When unsuspecting baitfish swim overhead, flounder grab them with ferocity. They do the same to your bait, but it's what they do afterward that gets novice anglers into trouble.

Flounder will move the bait around in their mouth until they get it into the correct position to swallow. A fisherman who doesn't know a flounder bite will attempt to set the hook while the flounder is still maneuvering the bait, but doing so only yanks the rig right out of the flounder's mouth. You have to give a flounder time before setting the hook.

Most flounder are caught trolling.

"By May, flounder will be moving into North Inlet," said Capt. Tommy Scarborough of Georgetown Coastal Adventures (843/546-3543 or CaptainTommy.com). "You can also find the fish around the jetties at the mouth of Winyah Bay.

"To catch flounder, I recommend trolling mud minnows. You'll see a lot of people drifting with the tide just inside North Inlet. You can drift or troll with your engine just above idle speed. You can do this in any creek or along the rocks at the jetties."

When you feel your bait stop, keep the boat moving as before, but at the same time, begin to let out line. Most successful anglers usually count to 10 before setting the hook. It takes practice, but after some time you'll be proficient.

Besides mud minnows, finger mullet are another great bait. Flounder have big mouths, so don't be intimated by hooking a 4- or 5-inch mullet on a No. 1/0 Kahle hook. Trolling a Carolina rig with just enough weight to hold the rig along the bottom is all that is needed.

Lastly, take a landing net with you. Flounder have a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth, so lipping them like a bass is out. If you try to swing them into the boat, you'll watch your dinner swim away more times than not. And big flounder are pretty wide, so bring enough net.

KING MACKEREL

The high-dollar fishing tournaments along the coast are not limited to billfish these days. When you see 40-foot boats with three engines across the stern and T-tops better equipped than a Hummer on the road, you would guess correctly if you thought a king mackerel tournament was in town.

King mackerel fishing has increased tremendously in popularity. Most boats can easily reach the offshore species and the fish's explosive style and expansive distribution make it particularly attractive.

Long, silver and cylindrical, king mackerel are built for speed. That, combined with an extensive set of teeth, makes king mackerel a terror for schools of baitfish. To find the kings, you have to find the right water and concentrations of baitfish.

Many king mackerel are caught during the hot months of the year near the Charleston jetty and along tide lines just off the beach up and down the entire coast. But if you want real action, it pays to look for these fish in the early fall around artificial reefs.

"Offshore at the reefs, fishing for kings is incredible in October," said Fred Rourk of Sweet Tea Charters (800/768-2495) in Georgetown. "I have seen it where you couldn't put two hooks in the water because there was so much action."

With declining water temperatures, Rourk said mackerel begin concentrating at the reefs. Kings will follow the bait, and will tolerate water temperatures below 65 degrees only if the bait is around.

"The fall kings on the artificial reefs won't be real big fish," Rourk said. "On average, it will be mostly schoolies in the 12- to 15-pound range.

"All anglers have to do is troll large plugs or spoons. If you're not into fish, troll lures on the surface as well as on a downrigger. However, once you locate them, you probably won't be able to fish more than one or two rods.

"This is great fishing for kids," Rourk said. "After you keep what you want to eat, let the kids have a ball catching and releasing the rest."

SAILFISH

Although normally thought about during the warmer months, offshore anglers will be neglectful if they ignore the fall sailfish bite.

"The sailfish bite usually holds right to the end of November. Boats have been flying over a dozen release flags after fall trips during the last two years," said Capt. Mike Able, owner of Haddrell's Point Tackle and Supply in Mount Pleasant (843/881-3644 or www.haddrellspoint.com).

Able said the reason for the incredible sailfish bite is the cold fronts of fall pack the baitfish into tight balls that the sailfish can work. Activity is usually concentrated in 300 to 400 feet of water almost straight out from Charleston on the 400 line.

"I suggest dragging naked small- to medium-sized ballyhoo, a dredge and some teasers," Able said. "Use flying fish or squid with your teasers." These can be fished on smaller trolling rods, since most of the sailfish won't exceed 60 to 70 pounds.

Although no one keeps sailfish these days, their acrobatic performances are what give the fish appeal. Another attraction is that small-boat anglers can catch the billfish, something that most people think is limited to only the big sportfishing vessels.

"Sailfish like clean water in the spread," Able said. "If you are using a boat with an outboard, pull your baits farther back so they are out of the prop wash. The exhaust on outboard engines comes out at the prop. Also, don't troll any faster than 5 1/2 knots."

Able said if anglers can find live baits on the ride out, those baits are good to have to pitch to sailfish that are working the bait spread.

Find more about South Carolina fishing and hunting at: SCgameandfish.com

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