From the most popular inshore fish to a couple of overlooked wildcard species, saltwater fishing in South Carolina has something for everyone. (May 2006)
Every bit as foreboding as roofing nails are to car tires, the oyster bar beginning to appear on the falling tide revealed danger to my fishing line. But at the same time, it beckoned me to cast.
I knew a fish of some sort, probably a spottail bass, had to be hanging around this structure. The oysters, with their baitfish-hiding crevices, are an oasis for inshore saltwater fish roaming coastal creeks.
My raised rod whipped forward, sending a float rig setup hurling through the humid air toward the oysters.
Despite the pile of hardware and bait, the rig landed rather peacefully. I reeled in the slack, the monofilament line quickly became as taut as a radio antenna guide wire.
The float rig drifted with the tide on the outside of the oyster bar. The fluorescent float seemed like a warning beacon to anything that would stray near the knife-edged oysters.
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Within seconds of landing and barely drifting 5 feet, the float went under like something had swallowed it. The action surged through the line right to my hand already on the reel.
I tried to provide resistance and turn the fish, but all efforts were futile. The fish ran parallel to the marsh grass. Briefly, as if bowing up for another powerful run, the copper back of a spottail fish broke the surface. I was hooked to an inshore freight train.
With a swing of its wide tail, the spottail lashed another swirl of water. That would end the fight. My line went slack. The telltale clean slice of an oyster on the monofilament line allowed the fish to escape.
The fortunate thing about saltwater fishing in South Carolina is the action is normally fast paced. Within minutes, without moving the boat, I was hooked onto another spottail.
Whether you own a boat or not, the salt waters of South Carolina support a multitude of species that make saltwater fishing a 365-day event. Here's a profile of five species that can provide year-round action.
Spottail bass, as they are locally called, are also known as redfish, puppy drum or channel bass. They are by far the most popular inshore saltwater fish in South Carolina.
Their popularity is a result of a combination of brawn, beauty and delectable flesh. Spottail bass are tough looking fish. They feature a broad head with a chiseled snout, large scales and prominent fins. Spottails would definitely be the bully of the schoolyard.
For all their blue-collar looks, they are mesmerizing. A deep copper color lies along the sleek lines of their back. An aqua blue tinge fringes the fins, especially on the tail, and a marble-like spot, sometimes more than one, anchors the rearward section of the fish.
As if that wasn't enough, spottails also taste good on the table. The fish's firm white meat is yummy fried, grilled or baked.
With all of these attractive features one can easily determine why spottail bass are so popular.
There is another reason, however.
"Spottails can be caught all year," said Capt. Peter Brown, a Charleston-based fishing guide who plies several bodies of water annually. "In the winter when the water is clear, we sight-fish for them. Later in the summer, we're usually setting up in known areas.
"Spring is probably the toughest time to catch them. The fish seem less consistent. They are moving around quite a bit when all of the bait begins showing up. This is the time of the year you usually have to experiment daily with different baits to get the fish to eat," Brown said.
Brown notes that as the waters warm different baits arrive.
"Little menhaden show up first," he said, "followed by finger mullet, which is my favorite live bait for spottails.
"When the water is cold during the winter, the fish form very large schools," Brown explained. "As spring arrives, the schools break up, and most people think it stays that way until things cool back down again.
"But I actually think the fish get back together again once the finger mullet arrive."
Brown said he finds spottails from the hot days of mid-June to August up on flats. He said these low-tide flats may only have 2 feet of water or less. Good examples of areas characterized by these flats are the large cove near Fort Johnson on the south side of Charleston Harbor near the mouth and a flat near the Wando Terminal.
"I usually fish these flats with live bait," Brown said. "One rig uses a float setup, like a Cajun Thunder, with a 1- to 1 1/2-foot fluorocarbon leader. Another option is to use a Carolina rig with two split shots and a circle hook.
"If it's windy, the Carolina rig will work best. The wind will constantly push the float rig out of the zone, and you will constantly recast to reposition the bait. With all of that recasting, there is a good chance of spooking the fish."
Brown will tip either rig with a 4- to 6-inch finger mullet. When asked about trash fish, such as pinfish, destroying the bait, he responded that those fish usually don't bother such a large bait. He did admit that you will catch an occasional skate or shark, though.
"Besides a finger mullet, I might also use half of a blue crab," Brown said. "It really seems to be a good bait from mid-April to the end of May."
Brown's strategy is that he waits for the fish to leave the grass and get on the flat.
"I'll pole until we see one fish, and then set up. It is usually always a good-sized fish that you catch with finger mullet as opposed to shrimp. I will switch to some shrimp as we get closer to fall because shrimp are more numerous in the creeks. At that time, the catch is a mix of older fis
h and the younger slot-sized fish."
On high tide, Brown will still use live bait but also might cast artificial baits. Hard plastics that resemble baitfish are recommended as well as scent-impregnated soft-plastic baits rigged with flutter hooks. The flutter hooks allow for fishing over structure without snagging.
The second-most popular inshore saltwater fish is the spotted seatrout. You might hear a few locals call them winter trout or an even smaller minority refer to them as specks.
No matter what you call them, they are beautiful fish. Resembling silver torpedoes, seatrout have eye-popping spots along their upper sides.
As with most creatures, their beauty will deceive you, especially if you are an unsuspecting baitfish. Spotted seatrout are ravenous predators that hunt by sight and feature a wicked set of razor-like fangs for capturing mostly smaller fish.
"If you asked most people, they would say that fall is the best time to catch spotted seatrout," Brown said. "However, I catch the most big trout from April to June."
Brown said that live shrimp under a popping float will work for spotted seatrout, but he prefers to use big mud minnows. Like the big finger mullet for spottails, he notes that the trash fish do not seem to bother the big minnows as much. He speculates that maybe the larger minnows are more active.
"If it is early or late in the day, I will try a topwater lure," Brown said. "Trout seem to be light sensitive, so once it gets bright, I usually switch back to the float rig, but it is hard to do since it is so much fun catching those fish on top."
Brown suggests looking for places where two creeks come together and there is water washing over some oyster shells. He also said another good location would be edges of creeks that feature structure along the bank. For example, the Wando River features many trout-holding spots that are underwater brick piles left over from the plantation days.
"Once the water starts getting warmer, over the low 80s, I usually start fishing deeper spots for trout," Brown said. "I switch to live menhaden about 3 to 4 inches long on a Carolina rig and fish these baits around structure."
Hotspots that Brown describes include bridge pilings, train trestles or even the jetties. He said the key is that the location must have moving clear water. His average depth ranges from 5 to 15 feet deep.
"You will want to use only enough weight to keep the bait on the bottom," Brown said. "At the jetties the water can be moving fairly quickly. I might have as many as three 1/4-ounce pieces of lead on the line."
Spotted seatrout populations took a dramatic hit following the winter of 2000-2001. There was a two-week spell when temperatures never made it into the 40s. South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) marine fisheries biologists estimated that 80 percent of the seatrout population perished.
"I feel like the trout have come back pretty well since 2000," Brown said. "We have had some mild winters since then, and I have seen trout back in areas where I haven't seen them for five years."
When fishing for deep-water seatrout, Brown will occasionally latch onto a dandy structure-loving flounder.
"I will catch a fair number of flounder when fishing around the bridge pilings," Brown said. "When this happens, I will switch from a circle hook to a No. 2 or 4 Kahle-type hook."
Brown said that he catches flounder in many of the same areas that he catches spotted seatrout, but he tends to seek out more structure when exclusively targeting flounder.
"I like to fish for flounder around docks, seawalls, rocks and big piers," he said. "I tend to catch flounder in shallower water than I do trout."
Brown likes to poke around the structure for flounder during low tide. He will usually float a mud minnow, shrimp or finger mullet among, around and off the structure. If he's not using a float, he will use a 1/4-ounce jighead with a piece of bait attached, and slowly work it around the structure and back to the boat.
"Charleston Harbor is loaded with docks," Brown said. "You could spend all day just working the docks along the Mount Pleasant side for flounder.
"When people ask me about catching flounder, I ask them if they have access to a dock. If they do, I tell them to just work the pilings by vertical jigging. They're surprised that you can catch flounder like that."
Brown suggested anglers try the pier at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor or the old coal-loading dock on Town Creek. He also added that any of the groins coming off the local beaches would hold flounder, which is good for shore-bound anglers. He has observed that flounder would normally be found on the sides of the groins and seatrout on the tips. His speculation is that the seatrout preferred the current coming around the tips of the rocks.
The next two species of fish are obliging underdogs of the saltwater fishing world. Black seabass and whiting are cooperative biters that are equally suited for the table.
Black seabass can occasionally be found in very nearshore waters, such as jetties, but most are associated with nearshore reefs and other structure. These fish are suicidal eaters, chomping on nearly anything you drop in front of them, which makes them good targets if young anglers are aboard. They even bite under nearly any condition any month of the calendar.
Because they rarely reach large sizes, as a really nice fish would be about 3 pounds, so you will need a few if you plan to eat them. Despite the appearance of being rather abundant, please be mindful of how many you keep. Also, there is a 20-fish limit with a 10-inch minimum size.
Black seabass can be caught using any sort of cut bait. Small pieces of shrimp, clam, squid or even pieces of other fish will suffice. The bait can be fished on a standard two-hook fish-finder rig with only enough weight to keep the rig on the bottom.
Good populations of seabass are found on any of the nearshore artificial reefs listed by SCDNR. You can get a list of the reefs at the SCDNR Web site. Go to www.dnr.state.sc.us, click on "Fish" at the top and then click on "Artificial Reefs" located along the left margin.
The artificial reefs can receive a lot of fishing pressure, thereby reducing the seabass size and abundance. Fishing outside of the high-pressure summer months helps, but another suggestion is to seek out new areas. When boating in nearshore waters, keep an eye on your depthfinder to locate other areas of structure, which usually tend to be subtle piles of rock. Various commercial maps have been produced that feature many of these areas that might be ignor
ed by other anglers.
Whiting are really overlooked by anglers. If you even mentioned to other anglers that you target whiting, you would probably get a less than gracious glance, which is fine.
Whiting, which may also be called kingfish or Virginia mullet by some, are one of the finest eating fish in salt water, rivaling even the best-made fried flounder sandwich. Other fine qualities of the fish is that it is easy to catch and locally abundant.
Like black seabass, whiting can be caught using a two-hook fish-finder rig. A Carolina rig will work as well. Because whiting are not huge fish, a small hook, such as a No. 1 or 2, will be adequate. Tip the hook with any morsel of cut bait; pieces of shrimp, clam or even an earthworm seem to work the best.
Whiting is a member of the croaker family. They have down-turned mouths and forage along the bottom using barbels, which resemble whiskers protruding from their chins, to locate prey.
Because of their feeding habits whiting are usually found over firm bottom types. Any sort of bottom that is sandy to a mixture of mud and sand is ideal. It is rare to find them over pure muddy bottoms.
Whiting can be found in the surf or inside edges of inlets, which makes them great targets for ultralight-toting anglers who lack a boat. If you own a boat, seek out firm bottom spots, such as outside creek bends. Other sandy areas near creek mouths where mud is scoured away work as well. Areas can vary in depth, but most fish are probably caught in less than 15 feet of water.
These are only some of the options available for South Carolina anglers. Spending the day with a local guide will also help you break down the tactics needed to land any of these fish.
To book an inshore or nearshore fishing trip with Capt. Peter Brown, you may contact him at (843) 830-0448 or visit his Web site at www.saltcharters.com. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He fishes from McClellanville to Beaufort.