South Carolina Saltwater Fishing Outlook 2018
March 15, 2018
Redfish and trout start off a busy season of saltwater fishing in South Carolina's coastal waters.
Since last year's holiday season, most salt water anglers in South Carolina have cleaned their gear, stored their boats and settled into wintertime activities.
The fish were still there and cold weather anglers had success on spottails when favorable conditions allowed, but for many April is the traditional start of the new season.
Our most popular game fish — redfish, speckled sea trout and flounder — are all waiting for you, but certain months have ideal conditions for catching them.
Though wisdom says the best time to go fishing is any time you can get out, the below listed months are the easiest times of the year to catch our big three. We also offer insight into other popular fish that have more limited productive seasons and we give some technique tips that will increase your success.
So how's the fishing along the coast?
SCDNR scientists like Dr Steve Arnott quantitatively measure our fish stocks with tramell net surveys in seven major coastal estuaries every other month during the season. Those studies show that, though our fishing is good, it used to be better. We'll look at some specifics later.
Persons 16-years-old and older must have a South Carolina saltwater fishing license unless fishing from a licensed pier or on licensed charter vessel, but saltwater licenses are inexpensive, even for non-residents.
Redfish, aka red drum, spottail bass, puppy drum, reds or just bass, are our premiere inshore species. There is no closed season and a slot limit applies, so an angler may keep up to three fish per day that measure between 15 and 23 inches from nose to tail.
DNR trammel studies show red drum numbers have been declining since 2010 for the sub-adults (those inshore fish less than about 30-inches long) that we most often catch. The coast-wide numbers are resting near the low end of the 1991 to 2017 range.
With our slot limit in effect and a large percentage of the redfish caught being released, SCDNR encourages anglers to learn how to more efficiently handle them. Hot weather, long exhausting fights, extended periods out of the water for photos, accidently dropping fish in the boat, and gut-hooking all add to post-release mortality. Over-slot fish are close to making babies and deserve careful handling.
Anglers catch redfish all year long but spring and fall are the most productive periods.
Starting in April and running through June winter-famished fish begin feeding. The spring feeding period is second only to October through December for fishin productivity. Redfish are active in the hot months but, unlike in the colder months, they spread out and feed throughout the entire tidal zone and are harder to find in the flooded grass and high water.
Whereas the spring bonanza is fueled by hungry fish recovering from winter's starvation diet, autumn concentrates reds on the seaward migration of bait fish that have been maturing in the small creeks and the maturing summer-spawned shrimp.
Those who fish with bait and present it into the right spots know catching redfish is pretty straight forward: If fish are hungry they will eat. Most bait fishermen use a cork rig for floating a shrimp or minnow over likely spots, or a Carolina rig to drag bait along the bottom. Popular baits are fresh shrimp, mud minnows, finger mullet and legal-size blue crab pieces.
When fishing with artificial lures, anglers need to impart some action or movement to the lure to fool a fish into striking. The lead-head jig with a plastic or scented trailer is the iconic artificial lure for the Low Country. Fished slowly with a bouncing action it imitates a mud minnow, crab or shrimp. Retrieved more quickly, it looks like any of our other bait fish fleeing from a predator.
In spring and fall look for redfish schools cruising or feeding near shallow, low-tide flats. When you spot a school, cast a lure near the edge. When you can't find any fish, try "blind casting" to grass lines, oyster out-croppings or creek mouths.
In August and September along the oceanfront beaches and jetties beach and surf anglers have shots at truly large redfish. You can't keep them, but playing with a 20- or 30-pound fish for a while before releasing it is certainly fun. Use large circle hooks and bait to avoid gut hooking these monsters.
SPECKLED SEA TROUT
Speckled Sea Trout, also known as spotted sea trout, specks or just trout, are our second most sought-after species. Trout stocks are adversely affected by very cold weather and our recent mild winters (until last winter) had resulted in very good trout action.
Dr Arnott reports trout numbers were at or above average all along the coast. It is not yet known what effect last January's cold had on the trout, however.
Trout are able to bounce back from winter die-offs relatively quickly. There is no closed season for trout but they are hard to catch in very cold or very hot weather.
By far the best fishing times are from October through December, but springtime warming is very good too.
Trout move around with the tide so look for them over live bottom areas, marsh edges, grass patches, creek mouths, oyster reefs or outcroppings, and channels.
Some anglers troll slowly along grass lines while others drift bait on cork rigs or cast to likely spots when searching for fish.
Focus on moving (but clean) water and once you catch a fish, concentrate on that area since trout generally travel in schools.
April through June is spawning time for trout. This is when big roe trout can be found in deeper water near structure such as bridge pilings, rocks and fallen trees.
Flounder, primarily the southern variety, frequent our inshore waters during the spring through fall months, spending the coldest months in deeper water. The migration periods of early spring and late fall have fish moving through areas close to the ocean, and then they hang out inshore for the summer.
In an effort to improve flounder stocks coast wide, the bag and length regulations were recently changed from 15 to 10 fish per day (maximum 20 per boat) with a 15-inch total length requirement.
As opportunity feeders, flounder will eat almost anything that swims or floats by, but the larger fish prefer eating small fish. They tend to locate on the down flow side of depressions, creek mouths and points.
They like a current flowing over them but avoid strong flows. They can be found on all sorts of bottom structure including shell, rocks and around rip rap, but prefer a mud and sand bottom. Casting under docks or near rock rip-rap walls can also produce strikes.
THE OTHER FISH OF SUMMER
Sheepshead, the striped fish wearing a convict's suit, regularly use their big front teeth to steal bait from pier fishermen. The active fishery is in the summer, with concentrations of fish in shallow water during their migration to or from deeper water. The popular bait is a fiddler crab, which the convict fish commonly strips from angler's hooks. The advice for hooking these sneaky fish from seasoned anglers is to set the hook "just before you feel the strike."
Ladyfish are so much fun to catch and, though virtually inedible, their slashing strikes and thrilling acrobatic leaps are exciting. Diving birds often signal their presence near points or outside of big creeks in the rapidly rushing water of a falling tide. Also look for them near oyster outcroppings where they can corner bait fish.
Spanish mackerel are another summer-time, fast-moving, school fish that cause a ruckus on the water surface when they chase bait. They are most often found along rip lines in the middle of a river and over sand bars, and their sharp teeth can cut you off. If you see a feeding frenzy of Spanish chasing bait fish, switch to a casting spoon with a short wire leader. When you find them feeding they are not hard to catch. Just cast into their midst and reel fast.
Like all mackerel, Spanish are an oily fish, sometimes maligned as table fare. They are different than the light flaky meat of trout or flounder but they are tasty when grilled or broiled fresh from the water and are high in Omega 3's, so they are good for you.
Sharks sometimes save a summer fishing day when guests just want some action and nothing else seems to bite. Most of the time we see bonnethead sharks, small 2- to 3-foot long cousins of the hammerhead, cruising in water less than a foot deep.
They are easy to spot with their dorsal fin and tail tip out of the water. They also hang in deeper holes at junctions of large creeks and main channels. Catching sharks is not difficult, as almost any bottom rig loaded with fresh bait will elicit strikes.
Handling them is a little trickier. Commercial Carolina rigs, the kind with egg sinkers and wire, available at most retailers, and large circle hooks work just fine. Bonnethead and Atlantic sharpnose sharks are very edible and often deep fried as shark tips.
Dr Tanya Darden, Assistant Director of the DNR Charleston research lab reported that it will be 3 to 4 more years until we know if the severe restrictions on Broad River Cobia fishing are effective. Significant stocking of genetically pure, Broad River fish took place this past summer and hopes are high that this immensely popular fish will come back strong, but until then the severe restrictions will remain in effect. No fish may be taken from any water south of Edisto, including the Broad River, during May.
Tarpon is emerging as an exciting August and September fishery outside Beaufort's Broad River. Stocks of fish have increased over the past years and anglers, mostly fishing with bait, are learning how to fool the silver king.
Whiting, the common name for Southern Kingfish, found at the mouths of coastal sounds, over sand or sand/mud bottom, are a popular bottom fish with peak seasons during late spring and early fall migrations. Anchor near a channel drop off and lower a bottom rig with a couple of small baited hooks and wait for a bite.
There is always something biting in South Carolina's inshore waters. Have fun.