PHOTO BY TOM EVANS
Breaking over the top of a Lowcountry sand dune at daybreak with a fishing rod in hand was a very comforting feeling to me. Miles of vacant sand and surf lay before me.
Usual summertime scenes on local beaches include hordes of people frolicking in the surf, strolling along the edge of the water, baking in the sun like a hamburger bun under a heat lamp or snoozing under an umbrella. These are great activities for people who love the beach.
If you are an angler who loves the beach, though, it can be nerve-racking. Attempting to fish among all those beachgoers is nearly impossible. You are constantly reeling in and recasting lines for fear of hooking someone.
Each passing group of walkers wants to know if you are catching anything. You politely answer their inquiries and let them look into your bucket, but the whole charade is distracting when you are trying to watch multiple rods for strikes.
Give me the early-morning hours any time for surf-fishing during the summer. If that is not possible, the late-afternoon or early-evening period is a wise second choice. Either way, both times are logical choices.
The crowds either have not shown up yet or they have left for the day and are dining on fried shrimp in a local restaurant. You can have the beach almost to yourself during either time.
Like us humans, fish can get sluggish, too, during the heat of the day. So it’s best just to avoid the beach then, unless you want to go swimming or body surfing, and concentrate your fishing efforts during the cooler times of the day, a period when the fish are probably the most active anyway.
Surf-fishing is different from other forms of saltwater fishing. Think of it as a minimalist activity.
Gulf Stream fishing for tuna and dolphin involves plenty of tackle, a very large boat and a checkbook equally as fat. You can get by trolling the nearshore reefs and other live bottom areas with a more modest setup, but it still entails quite a financial commitment. You can scale down even further when fishing the salt marsh for redfish, spotted seatrout and flounder, but there are still plenty of gadgets to make the fishing more than simple.
The best thing about surf-fishing is anyone can do it. With very little effort and expense, an angler can get geared up and catch a fish from the beach. And no matter where you live, all you have to do is head to the beach to find a fishing hole.
“August is great month for surf-fishing,” said Dee Oliver of Haddrell’s Point West Ashley Tackle Shop (843/573-3474). “Inshore in the marsh things can get slow this month because of the hot weather, but the surf is good. The spottails have started to move into the surf; whiting are always there and this month is the best time for pompano.”
Spottail bass, or redfish, the state’s most popular inshore saltwater fish, are commonly fished for in the surf but usually later in the year.
“Most people fish for spottails in the surf during the fall, around October,” Oliver said. “The fish begin showing up in the surf now and build as the water cools. You can get a head start on them, especially since marsh fishing can be slow due to the heat.”
Oliver suggested fishermen use a fish-finder rig for spottails in the surf. A fish-finder rig consists of a short Teflon sleeve that slides onto your main line. Attached to the sleeve and hanging down is a snap swivel for the sinker.
“The advantage of the fish-finder rig as opposed to other setups for the surf is the fish can pick up the bait and move off with it without feeling the resistance of the sinker. You will want to use enough weight to keep the rig from rolling with the surf.”
After the sleeve is threaded onto the main line, attach a barrel swivel to the main line. The fish-finder sleeve should be free to slide up and down the main line.
“You can catch a pretty good spottail in the surf, so I use a fairly large leader,” Oliver said. “Mine is 40- to 50-pound monofilament line about 24 inches long. Hook size will be a No. 3/0 or 4/0 straight shank hook. You can use a similarly sized circle hook if you prefer,” he added.
Because spottail bass are not picky in their diets, Oliver recommended a variety of baits.
“Baits such as cut mullet or menhaden will work. Live mullet or whole shrimp, alive or dead, are two more good baits. You can even use half of a blue crab.”
Whiting, also known as sea mullet or kingfish to some anglers, are the model fish species for the surf. They are abundant nearly year ’round, require a minimal tackle, eat nearly anything and are darn tasty on the table.
Whiting have a torpedo-shaped body with an under-slung mouth positioned below a pointed nose. The whiting’s pointed sniffer and mouth position allow it to snoop around on the bottom for some of its favorite prey. Don’t look for whiting to get big, with a fish just below a pound about average.
“Rigging for whiting is very simple,” Oliver said. “The standard two-hook rig that you can find in any tackle shop is all you need. It comes with a swivel on the top to tie to your main line and a snap swivel on the bottom for your sinker. You only need to add enough weight to the keep the rig from rolling in the surf.”
Because whiting are small fish, you don’t a big outfit for them. For redfish, you would use a 7- to 8-foot medium- to medium-heavy-action rod spooled with 15-pound-test line, whereas with whiting you could use a 6-foot ultralight or light-action rod spooled with 6- to 8-pound-test line.
“Whiting have small mouths, so you don’t need a large hook,” Oliver said. “If you use too large of a hook, you might miss some bites. I would recommend a No. 2 or No. 4 straight shank hook for whiting. The tradeoff is if a larger fish, such as spottail, picks up your bait you might lose him unless you are patient in fighting the fish.”
You will find hooks already rigged, or snelled as it is called, in local tackle shops. Some will feature tiny red beads and a gold or silver spinner above the hooks. It is a matter of personal preference on whether to purchase this style or hooks without the additional hardware. The flashier rigs might be better when surf conditions are rough and dingy, but experiment for yourself and see what
You can catch a whiting on nearly any type of bait you put in the water. These fish will reliably take cut shrimp, menhaden or mullet, pieces of squid, cigar minnow chunks and bloodworms. The latter are particularly attractive to spots, another species sometimes encountered in the surf.
The premier fish species in the surf this month is pompano. These guys are heat seekers. Pompano begin to move up from the south and appear in the Lowcountry surf when water temperatures get into the 60s. However, the bulk of them are here when water temperatures are in the 80s and approaching 90 degrees, which is mainly in August. They will stick around as long as it remains hot, but the first cool snap of the late summer will send them scurrying back south again.
Pompano are a beautiful fish that feature whitish-platinum sides and a belly and fins that are a striking golden hue. Their buttery flesh makes them very attractive for the table.
Like whiting, do not expect very large fish in the surf zone. Most pompano will only tickle the 1-pound mark. That said, some bruisers do exist. In last year’s Trident Fishing Tournament in Charleston, a 4-pound-plus pompano was tops in the ultralight line-class category. Use the same rod size as you would for whiting.
“You do not need a very big rig for pompano,” Oliver said. “You can use the same commercially-made double-hook rig that you would use for whiting. Hook size will run about a No. 1 or No. 2.
“Sinker size will average about 2 ounces, depending on surf conditions. Some anglers have gone to using a coin sinker,” Oliver said. He described the coin sinker as the size of a quarter with a hole drilled along one edge.
“Most of sinkers used for surf-fishing stick up some from the bottom,” Oliver explained. “This makes them have a tendency to roll with the current, unless they’re very heavy. The idea behind the coin sinker is it lies flat on the bottom and is less likely to be dragged by the water.”
Oliver said you can catch pompano on any of the baits recommended for whiting. But one bait, although not listed for whiting even though a whiting might take it, that stands out for pompano is sand fleas, which are also known as mole crabs. These guys are the little boogers you see burrowing into the sand after the water retreats back toward the ocean following a breaking wave.
There are two methods for obtaining sand fleas, short of buying them. You can enlist your kids to dig them out when you see them burrowing, or you can build a trap. The trap consists of a 3-foot square wood frame filled with galvanized screening. Attach two metal rods to one side that will serve as spikes. As a wave breaks on the beach, spike the frame in about 18 inches of water, where the white foam is located. As the water retreats, the crabs will collect in the frame.
The sand fleas will keep for several days in a bucket of damp sand. If you fill the bucket with water, however, they will die fairly quickly. You want them alive and fresh. Hook a sand flea from its underside up through the top shell.
If you like to be a little more active in surf-fishing, you can cast for pompano. Sweeten a small jig or bucktail with a morsel of shrimp, and cast the bait into the foam and retrieve it.
Another species that is often overlooked in the surf are flounder. Their feeding habits are very different from most species encountered in the surf. Rather than cruise the “crazy” water of the surf zone looking for prey that has been smacked around by the waves, flounder prefer to lie in calmer, clearer areas of the surf zone and ambush prey as it moves past.
Because of their feeding habits, your fishing strategy and where you look for these fish will be different. With most surf-fishing, you cast out a bait and position the rod in a sand spike or hold it and wait for a fish to hit. With flounder you’ll need to move the bait past them.
You can use lightweight tackle and either a spinning or baitcasting rod and reel spooled with 8- to 12-pound-test line. Hook size can be a No. 1 or No. 1/0 Kahle hook, or even larger, since flounder have large mouths. Use 18 to 24 inches of 20-pound-test monofilament line as a leader.
The sinker is where personal preference comes into play. Some anglers will opt for a barrel swivel and egg sinker, called a Carolina rig, while other fishermen will merely use an in-line sinker. Use whatever sinker setup you are most comfortable with, but remember that the rig has to move effortlessly across the bottom as you slowly retrieve it, like it is being trolled from a boat.
Flounder will hit a bait, and then reposition it in their mouth before swallowing. As such, the moment you feel a fish take your bait, don’t set the hook. Pause for a few seconds, and as you feel the flounder move off with your bait, then set the hook.
Flounder are suckers for live bait, especially mud minnows. You can also use finger mullet or tiny spots.
Strips of squid or fillets of larger mullet or menhaden will work as well. Cut pieces about 2 to 4 inches long. To give the strip baits more action, cut them in an exaggerated triangle form, a half inch across one side with two longer tapering sides coming to a point. Hook the baits with the pointed end facing away. As the bait is retrieved, it will flutter in a swimming action imitating a small baitfish.
The key to catching fish in the surf is knowing how to read the beach to determine where the fish will be.
“I like to get to the beach at low tide,” Oliver said. “You want to look for sloughs or ditches that are off the beach. As the tide rises, this is what the fish will follow.
“You want to fish right in the slough. Sometimes if the only slough is not real deep, I might wade through the slough and fish the outer bar of the surf. If you do this, be careful that you don’t get cut off from returning to the beach once the tide is high.”
Whiting and pompano will typically be in the foamy water, sometimes only yards from where you are standing. A redfish might be found this shallow on occasion, but normally they are found cruising just beyond where the waves are breaking.
Flounder, on the other hand, are going to be in calmer areas. Look for them at the mouths of sloughs or along the edges away from the disturbances of breaking waves. You might find them in the main surf, however, on days when the wave action is low.
There are some other considerations for surf-fishing. Since the rod-and-reel setups are rarely complicated, it makes sense that the additional equipment is basic as well. Consider purchasing and learning how to throw a 5- or 6-foot cast net for capturing bait you see in the surf. A few sand spikes for holding rods in place free your hands to capture bait as well as allow you to fish more than one rod. It also permits you to fish more territory in case the fish are occupying different portions o
f the surf zone.
All of this equipment can be easily stowed in a 5-gallon bucket for transportation. Some serious surf-anglers use a commercially-made cart for transporting their stuff, while others merely choose a wheelbarrow.
Around Charleston, Oliver mentioned a few spots for surf-fishing.
“The north end of Folly Beach is very good,” he said. “The south end by Bird Key Stono can be productive as well, since there are not a lot folks at either location.
“Places like Sullivan’s Island or Isle of Palms can be crowded with beachgoers, unless you get there away from peak times. Edisto Beach is another spot that tends not to have a lot of people overall.”
Grab your fishing rod and some bait, get a morning cup of coffee to go and greet the sunrise on the beach. There’s a good chance you will have already caught a fish for supper before most people have even read their morning paper.
Find more about South Carolina fishing and hunting at: SCgameandfish.com.