By Walt Rhodes
Most people’s earliest memories of fishing involve a bobber. We stared at it intently, waiting for a fish to pull it under the water.
Of course, even after you grow up, watching some sort of material get inhaled by marauding fish is pretty fun. It’s universal: Put the most die-hard offshore saltwater angler in front of a bobber floating on a bluegill pond, and he’ll start staring at the bobber. In the instant that bobber goes under, he won’t be bored. He’ll be thinking, Set the hook! Set the hook!
Inshore anglers also share the instinctive reaction all anglers have to the disappearing bobber.
The most common inshore species taken with the use of a float is also one of the most exciting: redfish.
Someone who tinkers with floats and redfish is Richie Ferdon, a 26-year-old Georgetown native. He has designed a better mousetrap when it comes to float-fishing for redfish.
“I have been fishing with rattling floats for about eight years,” Ferdon said, “and I finally got aggravated enough that I decided to fix them.”
Ferdon’s discontent with floats came when he had to switch fishing locations or the changing tide altered the water level of a hotspot.
“Every time you had to move or the water changed, you could not adjust the depth of the commercially made rattling floats without taking apart the whole rig and retying it. I hated this because in the process of re-rigging, I was losing valuable fishing time. On top of that, you might get it retied and then the depth was wrong because of an unforeseen oyster bar or something. It was back to re-rigging again,” he said.
Typically paired with live bait, rattling floats work well for redfish because they use sound to attract fish that normally would be too far away to see or smell your bait. The problem with conventional rattling floats, however, is that the float must be tied to the line coming from your reel, then a leader is attached to the end of the line. If you needed to adjust the depth at which you were fishing, you must tie on a new leader. As Ferdon said, that takes time and you don’t always get it right, leading to frustration.
Many redfish anglers are probably familiar with the popular red and white balsa wood floats. These have been the mainstay of inshore fishermen for years. While they allow you to adjust the depth by using a rubber band knotted to your main line or a bobber stopper, they lack the fish-attracting rattles of today’s newer brands.
Another problem with the balsa wood floats comes if you are using a float in a deep-water fishing situation. Drifting a live bait under a float along jetties is very popular, but with today’s floats you are left with several feet of line and terminal tackle hanging from your rod tip when you try to cast because you cannot reel the rubber band into your guides without it hanging.
“Because I use a float for about 75 percent of my inshore fishing, I’ve been thinking about overcoming these problems for a long time,” Ferdon said. “It finally dawned on me when I was in a Mount Pleasant hardware store and saw these brass tubes.”
Ferdon bought some of the material and began tinkering with it. He gathered the other components, such as foam floats and plastic and brass beads, and with the help of a friend, devised a method to attach the brass beads to the bottom of the tube. The first Lowcountry Lightning float was invented.
“The float combines the noise-making characteristics of today’s rattling floats and the adjustable depth feature of the old balsa wood floats,” Ferdon explained.
The thin brass tube has brass beads attached to the bottom below the main float, and plastic beads above the float. The main float slides along the tube, smacking against the beads and mimicking the snap of a shrimp. There is a smaller float above the brass-tube rig that allows the depth to be adjusted.
“Your main line coming from the reel runs through the tube and the depth was originally regulated by inserting a peg into the top float,” Ferdon said. “Some people were complaining about the peg because they lost it, or over time it wallowed out the inside of the top float.
“I now recommend using a slip knot on the main line that you can slide up and down to adjust the depth. You can also reel it through your guides so that the only thing you are casting is the float and the length of your leader, even if the float is adjusted to fish in 5 feet of water.”
When fishing for redfish, Ferdon advocates using a 20-pound monofilament leader about 18 inches long. His main line is usually 12-pound-test monofilament.
“I think the advantage of using a rattling float is you can attract fish from a greater distance,” Ferdon said. “Sound travels real well through water. Fish use sound as the primary sense to locate food, and then they home in on it with sight and smell. Studies have shown that blind fish can survive based on sound and smell alone.
“You probably attract fish from as far as a 20-foot radius from your bait with a rattling float. In our stained water, there is no way a fish could see your bait that far away. By hearing the sound, he moves toward your bait and then the other senses come into play.”
Ferdon, a College of Charleston graduate, has fished from his home waters of Winyah Bay and North Inlet down to below Charleston, including the Wando River. There is no one particular region he prefers, but rather certain fishing conditions.
“What I like best is moving water, no matter where I’m fishing,” he said. “It might be a point that has water moving around it or structure, like an oyster bar, farther down the bank that has water moving over it.
“I know that is a broad description, but what fishermen have to do is think like a fish, look for baitfish, birds or other commotion and be willing to move around until they find something happening,” Ferdon said. “Once you find some fish, remember those conditions because that spot will more than likely produce under those same factors. My preferences are spot dependent, no matter where I’m fishing.”
Most of the year, Ferdon uses a rattling float for redfish. The notable exception is during the winter when fish are schooled or when he is sight-casting.
“When redfish are schooled during the winter, the water is usually very clear and the fish are very skittish. If you lay one of these rigs right on them or make too much noise, they are gone. The same goes for sight-casting situations. A rattling-float rig seems like too much gear to place near a tailing fish,” he said.
Outside of these times Ferdon is normally using a rattling float. He prefers to use live shrimp under the float. He acknowledges that you will get a lot of bites from non-target fish, like pinfish, but he thinks the rattling float is a better fit with shrimp because of the snapping noise shrimp make. If shrimp are unavailable, he will use finger mullet.
“Obviously, I have certain locations that I check out when I go fishing,” Ferdon said. “If these aren’t producing, I’ll move around. If I find some fish busting bait or birds working, I won’t immediately roll up there and toss a rattling float into the action.”
What he suggests doing is to cast the float upcurrent of the action and let it drift into the activity. If there is a lot of activity, he will not bother popping the float much, fearing that it might create a sound counter to what is occurring.
“Rattling the float is attempting to get something going,” Ferdon explained. “There is no need to add another noise if something is already going on.”
Rattling floats can be used for redfish from the edge of the marsh grass all the way out to the jetties that dot the coast.
For more information, you can call Ferdon at (843) 814- 9998.
SOUTH CAROLINA REDFISH
South Carolina saltwater anglers who think they have been catching a few more redfish lately are right. Current survey results indicate that conservation measures recently implemented are having a positive effect on the abundance of redfish in South Carolina’s estuaries.
“They are doing pretty well,” stated Dr. Charlie Wenner, a marine biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and the state’s leading authority on redfish populations. “This is a result of some good year-classes being produced and the change in regulations.”
Information made available by Dr. Wenner indicates that the estimated total catch of redfish in South Carolina is at its long-term average of approximately 250,000 fish, which is up about 100,000 fish from the late 1990s.
“The total catch is composed of two parts,” Wenner said, “the harvest and fish that are caught and released alive. As the more restrictive creel limits that were enacted in 2001 have come into play, the percent of the catch caught and released has increased.
“The percent of fish released has nearly doubled in the 13-year period since 1990. The rate of release the last four years has slowed and appears to have leveled off at about 80 percent. For the last five years, the percent of fish released alive has been above the long-term average of 60 percent,” Wenner stated.
Dr. Wenner, long known for his witty but seriously truthful quotes, said, “When you don’t put fish in the cooler, their abundance usually increases.”
As the percentage of fish that are released has increased over time, the estimated harvest has declined for nearly the last decade. Today, redfish anglers harvest fewer than 50,000 fish annually, over 50 percent less than the long-term average of 100,000 redfish.
The above information is based on surveys and creel checks of anglers. Fisheries biologists also use what they term “fishery-independent sampling.” The biologists actually go out and estimate the status of fish populations using techniques that do not involve fishing. This is a non-biased technique used to determine the health of fish populations.
Supported in part by saltwater stamp monies, SCDNR uses trammel-net sets in seven areas of the South Carolina coast to monitor the status of redfish. At mid-ebb to low tides, nets are set along randomly selected sections of shoreline to catch redfish. The number and size of all fish, including redfish, is recorded and caught fish are tagged and released. Growth, movements, survival and abundance can be estimated using this technique.
“Our trammel-net data also indicates an improvement in the redfish population,” Wenner said. “The most recent data, from July 2002 through June 2003, were slightly higher than the long-term average of just under four redfish per set.”
The data reveals that the average number of redfish caught per set has been increasing since the low period of July 1999 to June 2000. This is good news for anglers.
“As fish increase in abundance, their distribution has a tendency to expand throughout the available habitat,” Wenner explained. “When populations are low, the distribution of fish is typically restricted to areas with the most favorable habitat for growth and survival. When the population expands its distribution, the frequency of occurrence of redfish in our trammel-net sets increases.”
Redfish occurred in over 50 percent of the trammel-net sets for the latest period, which is above the long-term average and considerably above the paltry value from July 2000 to July 2001.
“The data indicates that anglers should find more redfish in South Carolina’s estuaries, but caution should be taken in interpreting the data as indicating that redfish populations have recovered,” Wenner stated.
“The regulations put in place that reduced the creel limit and modified the slot size appear to have had the desired impact on the sub-adult redfish population. The downward trend has been reversed. However, the cessation of the downward trend in abundance has only been demonstrated for two full years.”
Redfish, however, are long-lived and females don’t start reproducing until they are at least 5 years old. As a result, it will take several years at these levels until a sufficient number of fish escape to increase the spawning stock. Most fisheries biologists recommend that conservation measures should be in place for a generation. This allows the age composition of the spawning population to include numerous age groups, which helps guard against overharvest and catastrophic weather events, such as severe winter water temperatures.
Because anglers are seeing and catching more fish for the first time in several years, some have lobbied to have the regulations relaxed. However, examination of regulations in those states that have demonstrated a strong, long-term recovery of redfish populations shows that all have taken a very conservative approach to harvest. Coupled with a stronger conservation ethic practiced by anglers, many more fish are available for everyone.
“Many redfish are caught more than once,” Wenner said. “If the abundant fish that anglers are catching today are harvested, they are not available for others to catch.”
South Carolina’s redfish population seems headed in the right direction. After all, who can argue with seeing their rattling float jerked under a few more times?
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