South Carolina's Best Inshore Fishing
May 29, 2018
Inshore fishing in the Palmetto State's coastal creeks and estuaries are alive with fish of all sizes and shapes. Let's go fishing.
Regardless of your preference, it's a good idea to remain flexible. For instance, if the redfish aren't biting in the shallows, you might find trout or black drum in deeper water, or sheepshead nibbling on some dock pilings. You may even spot a surface feeding ruckus from ladyfish, small jacks or Spanish mackerel that are a blast.
If nothing's happening try something different. Try moving to edges, points, mud flats or deep structure. The goal is to make trips about catching fish and having fun.
June's weather is certainly warm, but habitat conditions for fish are much more mild than they will be later during the doldrums of summer. In June, redfish can be successfully targeted on all tides. The productive low-tide flats are still good, but the high-tide wading flats become alive with fiddler crabs.
Inshore redfish normally feed in water less than 2 feet deep and, on the low-tide flats, they almost always roam in schools. You can't see them but you can see signs of their presence, like nervous water, V-shaped wakes, jumping shrimp and minnows and sometimes the flash of a belly. If you see signs of a school get into position and make a cast to the edge of the school.
Mid-tide transition areas along flooded grass banks, oyster banks and points are great places to float bait. Baitfish, shrimp and crabs congregate in these safer havens while redfish often cruise nearby. Floating bait like a mud minnow, cut mullet or crab chunk suspended just above the bottom on a cork rig covers lots of water. Anchor in likely spots and repeatedly cast up current to float the cork and bait along the structure. You can also drift along with the moving tide using a trolling motor to stay close to the cover while making presentations along an entire shoreline.
At high tide try flinging a cork with bait into pockets of open water that are surrounded by grass. Hilton Head guide Dan Utley likes to inch his boat into shallow water within range of these pockets and cast in a cut portion of a legal blue crab on a 2/0 Kahle hook. The scent of the cut crab attracts redfish in the vicinity.
When the "spring" excessively high tides flood enough water onto hard bottomed "wadeable" flats, redfish filter up looking for fiddler crabs and give walking anglers chances at the famous tailing redfish. Wading for redfish requires stealth. If ripples from your movements through the water reach the fish before your cast, it will spook. Generally with jigs you should cast well ahead of moving fish. You cast closer to tailing fish in the flats and then move the jig very little until you feel a strike. Spin fishermen can use the "Gulp!" imitation molting peeler crab or a real crab on a 1/0 circle hook with two medium split shots up the line for casting to these high-tide fish.
Highly efficient fishing kayaks recently burst onto the scene in both fresh and salt water venues, but even a basic recreational kayak makes a pretty good fishing boat during slack tides. Moving water and wind push them around easily but they can get you to good wading spots and provide flexibility to move to another spot if your flat is barren for the day.
Speckled sea trout don't like heat but are still pretty active in June and can be found in 2- to 4-foot-deep water associated with traditional trout locations such as grass lines or shell banks, especially early or late in the day. Mid-day fishing should focus on deeper water related to structure such as bridge pilings, rocks, fallen trees and also along shell banks that reach out from points, especially creek mouths. In deep-structure presentations, trout will hold very near or on the bottom so try using a slip float with long leader or a Carolina rig with a large, 3 to 5-inch finger mullet or big mud minnow strung onto size 3/0 Kahle hook.
Flounder are a summer favorite for their aggressive fight when hooked and especially for their flavorful fillets. During the summer they appear in pretty much the same shallow-water estuaries every year and stay in these favored haunts, moving around of course with the tide but not travelling far. They will remain in these areas until cold water forces them back out to sea in the fall. When you find flounder, mark the spot on a GPS or map as that spot will probably hold fish for years to come.
Flounder hide motionless on the bottom waiting for something to happen by. They relate to slowly flowing water across something such as an oyster rake, sand bar, the down current side of creek mouths, across points and along rip rap walls. Mud and sand bottom is probably favored where they can easily hide. For those who normally fish with bait, a Carolina rig with a mud minnow or finger mullet works well except near shell bottom.
I normally fish with a jig and plastic trailer and have caught them near rip rap, under docks, along grass lines as well as mud bottom flats. Using a 1/4-ounce jig head with a mud minnow is also effective. Anchor in a good-looking spot and make cast all around the boat, slowly retrieving the bait to cover lots of different water. Flounder are very aggressive ambush feeders but will not chase bait very far.
Flounder fishing is good all along our coast in summer but typically excellent in the Grand Strand area inlets like Murrells, Cherry Grove or Hog.
Sheepshead, the vertical striped fish with big front teeth that look like sheep's teeth make for excellent seafood meals. Anglers target them along piers, dock pilings and rock rip rap. They are notorious for stealing bait from fishermen with slow reaction times. The active fishery is in the summer, with concentrations of sheepshead in shallow water after their migration inshore from deeper water. The most popular bait is a fiddler crab, but small pieces of clam or shrimp should also work.
Whiting, the common name for Southern Kingfish, are a popular target for those looking for an easy-to-catch and delicious-to-eat fish. Found at the mouths of coastal sounds, over sand or sand/mud bottom, their peak seasons are during migration of late spring and early fall. Anchor near a channel drop off and lower a bottom rig with a couple of small baited hooks and wait for a bite.
Cobias are now severely regulated with a total closure during May in waters anywhere south of Edisto, including the Broad River. Major efforts, including fish stocking, are under way to restore this once hugely popular drawing card for Beaufort's Broad River. Biologists are hopeful these efforts will work, but will not know if they are successful for several years. Fishing is legal in June but all are encouraged to release any inshore fish caught. There is still an active offshore venue for these hard-fighting brown brutes.
Public pier fishing along the coast is good family fun for visitors and boatless anglers, and under the right conditions productive. Some piers are free and open to anybody with a SC saltwater fishing license, while other charge a fee to fish but for those piers you do not need a license. Around Charleston and north are the Cherry Grove Pier, Apache Pier, Second Avenue Pier in Myrtle Beach, Folly Beach Pier and the Mount Pleasant Pier that can produce flounder, spots, trout, sheepshead and other species at various times of the year.
In the Low Country south of Charleston there are not as many fee-based piers, but there are several spots to wet a line for free. Paradise pier on Hunting Island is fee-based when it reopens but Haigh Pier on Pinckney Island, the Sands Pier in Port Royal, Broad River Pier at the Route 170 bridge all offer access for free. Many other smaller piers and boat landing floats see fishing action and crabbing throughout the season.
Many of the fee-based piers have restaurants, entertainment and sightseeing activities for family members not interested in fishing, along with rod rentals and bait for sale.
Public piers and boat landing floats are also great places to catch crabs. Our local blue crab, a delicacy steamed and eaten plain or fried into crab cakes, can be taken with a variety of inexpensive contraptions by any resident or visitor with a South Carolina fishing license.
Commercial square crab traps are the most efficient way to catch them but they are not legally used close to public boat ramps. There are other traps that do the job well and are fun. The simplest and least expensive is the string and chicken neck method. Any old piece of string tied to an oily bait (chicken necks being standard and cheap but fish heads are wonderful) with a sinker to get it to the bottom will catch crabs. Drop the bait to the bottom and in a couple minutes slowly pull it back up. A crab will be hanging on if they are in the area. Slide a net under the crab and transfer it to your bucket. Do not put water in your bucket or the crabs will suffocate and die.
Various basket style traps also work well. There is the round, floppy basket, the square, drop-sided basket and the pyramid shaped, drop-sided basket, all of which work in the same way. You attach some bait to the bottom and throw the basket into shallow water where the sides fall open and lay flat to the ocean floor. After a few minutes you lift up on the basket rope, which pulls the sides back up to entrap the crabs. There is no limit on the number of crabs you can keep but they must be 5-inches wide, from point to point on the body and any females with visible egg masses, called sponges, must be released unharmed.
Sharks will normally bite when nothing else will. Whether dropping a small bait to the bottom for tiny baby sharks or casting medium to heavyweight tackle to a roaming shark on a shallow flat, sharks are for many anglers a "fall back fish" just to get some action. The most common summer shark found in our near-shore, shallow water is the Bonnethead, a cousin of the Hammerhead.
Most gradual sand flats in the summertime have them cruising with their dorsal fins and tails showing. Bonnetheads don't get too large so regular spinning tackle used for redfish and a circle hook with a crab or chunk of fish will handle them. Commercial Carolina rigs, the kind with egg sinkers and wire, work just fine as do homemade, heavy monofilament rigs with slip sinkers. Circle hooks work best especially when rods are secured in rod holders.
Catching sharks is not difficult; handling them is a little trickier. They are not slippery and small ones can be safely grasped behind the head while removing the hook. Bonnetheads are good to eat but most people release them.
The most productive fishing hours in summer are the morning when it's cooler with less chance of pop-up thunder storms or later in the evening but, as we always say, the best time to go fishing is when you have time.