Five Carolina Saltwater Best Bets
October 04, 2010
From top to bottom and inshore to offshore, saltwater fishing in South Carolina offers something for everyone.
By Walt Rhodes
The 8-ounce sinker shot through the blue water like a torpedo blasted out of a nuclear sub.
With the heavy monofilament line stripping off the level-wind reel at warp speed, my thumb burned as I feathered the spool just enough to prevent a backlash. Five seconds later - thunk - the sinker had found its mark on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
As if the bait had landed right in the fish's mouth, quickly there was another bump on the line and the fight was on.
I wasn't quite ready for such an immediate - and hard - strike. My rod was slammed into the boat's gunwale. I regained my composure, but line continued to surge off the reel in bursting jerks.
"Keep him out of the rocks!" a fishing partner onboard yelled. As I fought the fish, I barked back, "I'm trying!"
Guesses about what kind of fish I had hooked started circulating around the deck like a roll call.
"Amberjack, snapper, cobia, barracuda."
Most gag grouper are in the 10- to 20-pound range, but some fish can weigh over 40 pounds. Photo by Walt Rhodes
Finally, a mottled-tan hulk was becoming visible through the Windex-colored water. A hefty gag grouper was coming to the surface, lured from its underwater lair by a frozen cigar minnow.
"You must have dropped that bait right on him," said the boat's captain from the bridge.
"I think so," was all I could muster in a tired breath. The idea of grilled grouper fillets danced in my mind.
When the weather gods permit heading offshore, South Carolina's waters can yield bountiful surprises. You never know what's going to take your bait off the bottom. It could be a brawny bottomfish, like a grouper or a snapper, or a surface-dweller prowling the depths, such as a cobia.
The inshore waters offer the same degree of variety. Put a bait next to the marsh edge, and there is an equally good chance that either a spottail bass, spotted seatrout or flounder will run off with it.
The similarities don't end there. Any of these surprises are excellent when it comes to pleasing the taste buds.
Your choices for this fishing can be determined by deciding if you prefer light-tackle fishing and hot grease for frying or heavier angling equipment and glowing charcoal for grilling or both.
The screen of the color depthfinder looked as nondescript as the ocean around us. The squiggle of rainbow lines seemed to match the slight swell.
"Here it comes," said Capt. Mark Brown of the Mount Pleasant-based charter boat Teaser2. "Those right there are fish," he said pointing to the sharp, irregular break in the bottom contour.
Brown made a mental note of the location, circled the boat back around while still eyeing the depthfinder, and then ordered the mate to let loose of the anchor. Bingo! The boat settled right over whatever was causing the blip on the screen.
Lines dropped overboard, and within a minute or two, fish started coming topside. Large black sea bass and red porgies were first. Then someone hit the jackpot: a premium gag grouper. A few more followed at other locations throughout the day.
"Gags bite all year," Brown said. "There seems to be both an inshore and offshore movement as well as a north-south migration during the year. The fish can be as shallow as 40 to 50 feet during the summer and as deep as 250 feet in winter.
The key to finding gag grouper is to locate underwater structure. Brown recommended anglers search artificial reefs as well as bottom features listed on commercially made maps. If you can find the spots, grouper are usually not hard to hook, although keeping the big ones out of the cover they are associated with can be a challenge after the initial bite.
Common baits are cigar minnows, squid and live menhaden. Any sort of cut bait is suitable, too. A big chunk usually deters more ravenous sea bass and triggerfish and favors gags.
"The type of rig is going to depend on the current," Brown said.
"If the current is strong, I suggest using a drop rig.
"You might have to use as much as 1 pound of lead. Put a No. 6/0 to 8/0 hook above the weight on a short dropper line. Your main line should be 80- to 150-pound monofilament."
If the current is slow, Brown uses an in-line sinker and long leader, one as long as 8 feet. This allows the bait to flutter in the slow current and puts it farther away from the main line, something that is key when the fish has time to eye the bait.
Cobia are another fish that spy baits on the bottom and surprise unsuspecting offshore anglers.
Most cobia are caught on the surface by fishermen sight-casting to them around buoys or as the fish shadow sea turtles. Capt. Brown, however, picks them up during bottom-fishing trips with regularity.
"Like grouper, the cobia seem to make an inshore-offshore and north-south migration as well," Brown stated. "I wouldn't say that someone can go out and specifically target cobia on the bottom offshore, but they should not be stunned when one bites. We've caught as many as a dozen in a day. It's sporadic but not surprising."
Brown has taken cobia in 90 feet of water during the fall and as deep as 180 feet during the winter. These are all the same locations that he would be fishing for grouper.
"Baits for cobia vary," Brown said. "They'll take all sorts of live baits, but they really love blue crabs. The bait choice is going to depend on the mood of the fish. If you think cobia might be in the area, you can also drop down a white 4-ounce bucktail and jig it."
The majority of cobia caught in the ocean off South Carolina is by happenstance. You will luck into some from off the bottom, but the key to consistently catching cobia is to be certain that you have something on board to present once a fish is spotted near the surface.
SPOTTAIL BASS The coast of South Carolina used to be viewed merely as a summertime vacation destination. More recently, tourists have been spending a fair amount of time in town during the "off-season."
A lot of the same things can be said about fishing inshore. Most anglers only plied local waters during the spring and summer months, with a few hardy souls braving the elements into November and December. However, word has spread about how to catch inshore fish during the off- season, and now saltwater fishing is a year-round sport.
South Carolina's all-season inshore fishery revolves around spottail bass. Also known as channel bass, redfish or puppy drum, spottails are a complete-package fish. They are colorful, have tremendous pulling power, widespread distribution and taste good, if you prefer to keep one on occasion.
"May is a good time to catch spottails," said Capt. Richard Stuhr, a native who has spent his entire life fishing the waters around Charleston. "The fish are still schooled then, and they will stay that way until the water warms up to around 80 degrees."
During the cooler portions of the year, spottails form large schools as a survival strategy. The "safety-in-numbers" approach helps them survive predation by bottled-nosed dolphins. Once inshore waters warm, other prey species are available and the dolphin back off the spottails.
"I look for schools in shallow bays and flats when it's cooler," Stuhr said. "After the water gets warmer, the fish seek more oxygenated water. Places like the Intracoastal Waterway are good, or look around creeks that adjoin flats where the fish were located during winter."
Stuhr follows spottails right through various habitats as the tide changes.
"During low tide, the fish will lie in shallow indentations. As the tide rises, they'll move from these spots to positions around oyster bars. Eventually, the fish will move up into the marsh grass, and then up on the flooded marsh tailing as they look for fiddler crabs."
Spottails will fall for several different baits throughout the year.
"You can catch finger mullet and menhaden in the creeks by May," Stuhr stated. "During the colder months, you can always buy live shrimp or mud minnows at a local tackle shop.
"I like fishing live bait for spottails, and how I fish it depends on the situation. When the risk of getting hung up is low, I will rig a bait on a 12- to 16-inch leader made from 25-pound-test monofilament. An egg sinker will slide on my main line above the swivel that I use to attach the leader. My main line is primarily 8-pound-test," he added.
After the water floods the oyster bars, Stuhr will add a float rig to his spottail arsenal. This allows him to position his baits around and over the oysters without getting snagged. Most commercially made floats come in various colors and sizes, but Stuhr said he uses floats no bigger than necessary to get the job done. He uses red because it's more visible to him and his clients.
Stuhr suggested using a No. 2/0 hook for finger mullet, but scale down to a No. 1 hook for live shrimp. He said the hook can't be too heavy or it will impede the live bait's swimming action.
Artificial baits will work for spottails if you can't find live bait. Stuhr has luck with rubber-bodied jigs, hard-plastic crankbaits and spoons. His color preferences are shades of gold or copper. You might even find him whipping a fly of the same color on an 8-weight, 9-foot fly rod.
Rather than anchoring and waiting for spottails to come to him, Stuhr likes to go to the fish. He will hunt for spottails by poling his boat or easing along the marsh edge with a trolling motor.
SPOTTED SEATROUTSpotted seatrout are another inshore species that makes year-round fishing possible in South Carolina. Abundant all year, trout really shine during the cooler portion of the calendar. Hence the seatrout's other common name: winter trout.
"I don't move around hunting trout like I would spottails," Stuhr explained. "Trout are fairly site-specific fish. So once you find the pattern and location, you can generally count on them being there again."
One of the reasons Stuhr isn't poling for trout is because his boat position is usually in deeper water.
"Trout like structure that is near deep water. While they can be right against the grass during high tide, they will flee toward deep water if they are spooked. Once the tide drops, they will definitely seek deeper locations."
Stuhr's favorite time to fish for spotted seatrout is during the last of a rising tide or first of the falling tide.
"I'll typically position the boat out about the length of a cast away from whatever we are fishing," he said. "Some areas might be a pier, point or a creek mouth. It is best to cast to all sides of the structure, but the down-tide side seems to produce the most fish."
After the water falls, Stuhr will move to deep-water locations like the edges of channels or holes in the bends of creeks. Rarely anchoring, he fishes these spots by positioning the boat with a trolling motor or merely drifting. If he lands a fish or two, then he might set up by anchoring.
"Live bait is fine for trout, but I usually fish with artificials as long as the fish keep biting them," Stuhr stated. "I use jigs mostly."
With the boat stationed offshore of the intended area, Stuhr casts the jig shoreward. He'll then work it from the shallowest water, which could be as little as a few feet deep, back toward the boat, bouncing it along the bottom as the water gets progressively deeper. This allows him to cover several possible ranges where the trout might be holding. To Stuhr, the location and presentation of the lure is more important than color.
"I think color gets overrated a lot of times. I haven't used chartreuse lately, but I know it catches fish. Almost any color is successful. Copper and motor oil have been good for me recently.
"Don't be afraid to mix it up a little bit, and see if the trout have a preference," Stuhr suggested. "It takes time to learn how to fish an area, but one of the biggest mistakes I see anglers making is they get too locked in on a specific color or pattern. If you fish slowly and deliberately and hit different spots at different tide heights, you will eventually develop your own pattern."
FLOUNDERFlounder are the perfect complement to seatrout: While the trout fishing peaks in cooler months, the flounder flourish in the heat of summer.
"I catch flounder pretty much throughout the year," Stuhr said. "That said, May and June are prime months around ocean inlets."
Drifting or t
rolling is the main technique for pursuing flounder at inlets. You will find just as many anglers who prefer an incoming tide as those that like outgoing water. The keys are moving water, varying the depth of your drift, and finding spots that hold the flounder.
Usually flounder will be in only a few feet of water, and will remain shallow, following the shoal water as the tide moves up or down. You can present your bait on a Carolina rig. A 24-inch leader of 20- to 25-pound-test monofilament is suitable. Before tying the swivel to the main line, slide on an egg sinker. You only need to use enough weight to keep the sinker on the bottom during the drift. A No. 1 to 2/0 wide-bend or Kahle hook completes the rig.
"I catch the majority of flounder when using live bait," Stuhr said. "Mud minnows, menhaden or finger mullet are all good baits.
"Besides the inlets, you will catch flounder where you find spottails and seatrout. Flounder can be found lying right in between oyster bars or on flats where the tide is washing baitfish over it. I have caught the fish in as little as 4 inches of water."
South Carolina saltwater fishing is all about surprises. It might be that cobia that took your grouper bait or a skinny-water flounder snatched a spottail rig, but it shouldn't surprise anyone to find good fishing all year 'round.
If you find good cover, pay attention to the tides, the wind, and where baitfish might likely be, you are apt to find a number of different species of game fish in the vicinity.
To book an offshore trip aboard the Teaser2 with Capt. Mark Brown, you may contact him at (843) 881-9735 or visit his Web site at www. charlestonfishing.net. Charleston-area inshore fishing guide Capt. Richard Stuhr can be reached via his Web site at www.captstuhr.com or by calling him at (843) 881-3179.
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