Inshore or offshore, in a boat or off a pier, there are fish to match the way that you fish in South Carolina.(May 2008)
Flounder are a favorite target of inshore saltwater anglers in South Carolina because they are widely distributed, fun to catch and taste good.
Photo by Pete Cooper Jr.
The short days of winter just don't permit enough time to launch the boat and satisfy a hard-to-reach fishing itch.
I constantly think about saltwater fishing. Most of those mental gyrations involve planning a family fishing trip using the boat during the upcoming weekend. Once the days become longer, an after-work trip is also an option.
One way I stretch my fishing time is to fish from the bank during the waning minutes of the day.
Where I live there are several vacant lots, as well as some public access to saltwater fishing spots. All of these places have fish-holding structure, such as oyster bars and barnacle-encrusted piers, that spotted seatrout and spottail bass find attractive.
Grabbing a light-action spinning rod and some grubs, it is only a quick few minutes from the front door to the water's edge. One particular pier at a former vacant lot where I prefer to fish had a "T" section at the end. Trout and spottails could be found holding on either corner, their location dependent on the direction of the tide.
I would quietly walk out on the pier nearly to the end, and make a long cast downcurrent with a grub. I'd work the lure as close as possible to the pier's pilings, and most casts resulted in a fish. With each subsequent fish, I would move a little farther out on the pier.
By the time I worked all sides of the pier, including the far pilings for tying off the stern of a boat, it was almost too dark to see.
I didn't catch fish on every spur-of-the-moment trip down there, but the location was a great outlet to satisfy a fishing urge. However, what was great about that fishing spot is also the epitome of saltwater fishing in South Carolina.
While I fished that spot from the shore, I also successfully worked it on every fishing trip from a boat, be it winter, spring, summer or fall. The winter catch was primarily trout and spottail bass, but warmer weather brought black drum and flounder to the location. Places like this one are replicated up and down the Lowcountry's coast.
The point is it doesn't matter if you fish from shore, a boat or both or if you prefer to fish during the winter, summer or some season in between, you can always find something biting in the salt water of the state.
Spottail bass, also called redfish, puppy drum or channel bass, are the state's No. 1 saltwater inshore game fish, and for good reason. The fish is a tireless fighter, has a widespread distribution, bites 12 months of the year and isn't bad on the table either.
If you are new to fishing for spottails, some of the best money you will ever spend is to hire a guide for the day. Don't go back and mine all of his locations, but rather pick his brain about techniques and strategies to consistently land these fish. Most guides are willing to help.
While large spottails -- fish over 25 pounds -- are found in certain spots, such as near jetties and in shipping channels, it is the 1- to 4-year-old fish that the majority of anglers target. These fish spend nearly all of their time in very shallow water and can top out over 30 inches long and push double-digit weights.
Spottails can be taken from the bank anywhere you have access to a salt marsh or the surf. But most fish are landed from a boat by anglers working the grass edges of salt marshes.
One Grand Strand guide, however, combines the two approaches to land coldwater spottails.
"The marshes of the north coast don't feature a lot of flats," said Capt. Mark Dickson of Shallow Minded Charters (www.fishmyrtlebeach.com or call 843-280-7099) in Cherry Grove. "We have a lot of tidal creeks, and it's fun to sneak up on reds in these creeks."
Dickson uses his boat to reach shallow creeks that might run only 18 inches deep but feature a bend that might have as much as 6 feet of water in it. He ditches the boat and sneaks along the creeks in hip boots.
"The reds will run in the shallows or the straightaway, then go back to the bends if they feel threatened or get spooked," Dickson said. "Once they believe the threat is gone, they move back into the shallows.
"Because the fish are on high alert of dolphins, the fish are very spooky. Fishing from a boat is just too noisy."
Dickson said winter reds could be really lethargic, so you want to fish a slow-moving bait that time of year. He recommended a scented soft-plastic 1-inch peeler crab bait on a circle hook with a Carolina rig. He said to only move the bait inches at a time.
SPOTTED SEATROUTThe most popular time for spotted seatrout fishing is during the cooler months of fall and winter. During the dead of winter, hard-core anglers target the sluggish fish in deeper holes and try to capitalize on the first wave of roe trout that arrive inshore in the spring. Once the weather gets oppressive, a consistent trout bite is normally limited to low-light conditions at dusk and dawn or during the night.
Capt. Judy Helmey of Miss Judy Charters (www.missjudycharters.com or call 912-897-4921) in Savannah ventures over the state line often and said many fishermen don't realize about a productive form of trout fishing.
"During the spring, giant roe trout are along the beachfront," Helmey said. "May is a prime month for these fish.
"Spotted seatrout are sight-feeders, and they look for areas where bait gets disoriented. The clear zone at these spots is where the fish will be feeding.
"Searching for beachfront gator trout is a forgotten type of fishing," she said. "I hardly see anyone practicing today, but it is something I did as a kid, and my guides and I still do it today."
Helmey recommended that anglers search for what she calls "moguls," which are the humps of sand in the surf zone. She said there are 2- to 3-foot breaks in between them, and that's where the trout wi
ll be feeding.
"I would suggest floating a live shrimp or some sort of baitfish in the breaks," Helmey said. "These are going to be big trout, so you can use a big bait. A yellowtail, for example, is not too big."
For anglers along the southern coast, Helmey suggested fishing the fronts of Hilton Head and Turtle Island.
Flounder have much in common with azaleas, baseball and air conditioning. Their arrival in inlets and coastal marshes means winter is officially over, spring is finally here, and summer is only right around the corner. Once inside, they are available to boat- and bank-anglers until well past the last out of the World Series.
The majority of flounder hole up offshore near structure, mostly live bottom spots and artificial reefs, during winter. A few really serious fishermen try for flatties at these spots at that time, but most of us wait for them to come inside once the inshore waters begin to warm.
Flounder are found along the entire South Carolina coast, but there seems to be a strong effort for the fish along the upper coast. Places such as North Inlet, Pawleys Island and Murrells Inlet are legendary flounder fishing holes.
Captain Tommy Scarborough of Georgetown Coastal Adventures ( www.captaintommy.com or 843-546-3543) can't wait for spring to arrive because he knows the flounder will be biting.
"By May, flounder will be moving into North Inlet and around the jetties of Winyah Bay," Scarborough said. "To catch flounder, troll mud minnows along the creeks just inside the inlet or alongside the rocks of the jetties."
Lyn Smith of Capt. Dick's Marina (843-651-3676, www.captdicks.com) in Murrells Inlet echoes much of what Scarborough said about flounder.
"Flounder are the big thing that most people come to Murrells Inlet to fish for," she said. "Trolling mud minnows at the inlet is the best technique. I don't even recommend that anglers leave the inlet for any of the side creeks."
Many anglers still plow the inlets for flounder as summer progresses, but Capt. Rich Harris of The Reel Deal Charters (843-761-7663 or www.thereeldealcharters.com ) suggested that fishermen check out some deep-water spots for flounder.
"Flounder can be found at the mouths of feeder creeks during the summer, but I find them in other spots," he said. "They like to hang around structure, and the Cooper River is loaded with it. During the low tide, I fish for flounder at the base of rockpiles and metal walls found along the river. Some of these spots could be as deep as 20 feet."
To fish for flounder in these deep spots, Harris chooses a rod with 17-pound-test line and a 30-pound-test monofilament leader. While heavier than the conventional inshore rig, it protects against abrasions from the structure. The Carolina rig is completed with a No. 1/0 hook.
"My favorite bait for flounder is finger mullet," Harris said. "The bait's hardiness is hard to beat. I don't hesitate to use a large bait either.
"A 14-inch flounder has no problem inhaling a 6-inch finger mullet."
Although most flounder are taken by boat-anglers, shore-bound fishermen can find success, too. The best places to fish for flounder from shore are fishing piers.
Several piers are concentrated along the Grand Strand, but there is also the Folly Beach Fishing Pier outside of Charleston and a pier located on a tidal creek at Hunting Island State Park near Beaufort. From piers, work mud minnows or finger mullet around all of the pier pilings, especially those near the surf zone where crashing waves disorient prey.
Many anglers find that the hot weather of August makes for tough fishing. If you are after some of the traditional inshore species, you do have to adjust to the conditions. But one of the species that can be hotter than the weather is king mackerel.
"Every single inlet along the coast will hold tournament-quality fish," said Capt. Robert Olsen of Knot@ Work Fishing Charters (843-442-7724 or www.knotatworkfishing. com ) in Charleston. Olsen has a reputation for king mackerel fishing, and he said anglers could get into the action if they fish in the correct locations.
"The fish around the inlets are in the mid-20-pound range, with some into the 30s," Olsen said. "Smaller kings, known as snakes, can be found on any live bottom area in 50 to 60 feet of water or artificial reefs in these same depths. These are what I call "fun fish" because of their size and abundance. You can really have a ball when you get into them."
The main technique for landing king mackerel is trolling live baits at about 1 or 2 knots.
"The most common live baits for king mackerel fishing are menhaden and finger mullet," Olsen said. "The baits during August will be pretty big and it should be no problem finding them.
"If you fish out of the Charleston area, there are usually plenty of schools of bait in the harbor. If you can't find any before leaving the harbor, look from Fort Sumter north to Breach Inlet."
Even though you are fishing offshore, expensive tackle is not needed for king mackerel. Olsen's outfit consists of medium-action spinning rods spooled with 20- to 25-pound-test monofilament line. He said you would want to spool your reels with a minimum of 250 yards of line.
"I prefer a rod with lots of eyelets and a sensitive tip," Olsen said. "Most of my rods run about 6 1/2 to 7 feet long and have eight to 10 eyelets."
The terminal tackle to complete the setup is not elaborate either. Olsen attaches a 16- to 24-inch leader of 40- to 50-pound wire to the main line with a 75-pound-test swivel. Continue the leader wire to rig two No. 4 treble hooks about 6 to 8 inches apart.
Besides starting in the right spot, Olsen said it is important to cover the entire water column.
"I run three baits on the surface and two down deeper," Olsen said. "For the two deeper baits, I normally troll one bait about halfway down in the water column. So, if it's 25 feet, set the bait to run at about 12 or 13 feet down. The other deep bait runs about 5 feet off the bottom on a downrigger."
Olsen suggested that for anglers who don't want to invest in a downrigger, using a No. 5 or 7 planer should be able to put the bait at the desired depth.
Olsen normally fishes around the Char
leston jetties about one hour on either side of high tide. He might also push as far offshore as the first three sets of buoys or move south to the Old Minefield area. At low tide, he suggested anglers troll around the tide line, opting to stay on the side with the greener water.
Weakfish are one of those species of fish hiding right under the rod tips of anglers.
Many casual saltwater fishermen in South Carolina don't even know weakfish exist. Even if they catch one accidentally, they may get close by calling it a trout, but that's about as far as they get.
Weakfish are members of the drum family, making them cousins with the popular redfish and spotted seatrout. Weakfish resemble spotted seatrout in shape, but the weakfish's olive-green back flecked with many dark blotches distinguishes it from its cousin. Two large canine teeth in the upper jaw is a trademark of both species.
Weakfish get their name because their flesh is very tender and easily torn. You may also hear the fish called gray trout or summer trout.
Weakfish are actually fairly widespread locally. The fish tends to inhabit waters deeper than where the majority of anglers routinely fish, such as shipping channel edges and inlet mouths. A study by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources revealed an abundance of larvae in some inlets, indicating a large spawning population.
While weakfish seem to be available in all seasons, it's during the winter when you can really get on top of them -- literally.
"When the water temperature drops, weakfish school up real big on all of the nearshore structure," Olsen said. "There are some fish on the reefs all year but not as many during the warmer months."
Olsen finds weakfish stacked up on any structure from about 45 feet deep or shallower. He concentrates most of his fishing in water measuring from 30 to 45 feet.
At those depths, the fish are in range of many small-boat anglers.
"I've never caught the fish farther than five miles offshore," Olsen said. "The Charleston Nearshore, 4KI and R8 will all hold weakfish during the winter."
Olsen said that any rod used for inshore fishing is suitable for winter weakfish. He uses rods 6 to 7 feet long spooled with 10- to 12-pound-test monofilament line and a Carolina rig, which should be tipped with any live bait, such as mud minnows.
"When the fish are really biting, all you really need is a grub," Olsen said.
To find fish that are really hungry, Olsen starts his search at the biggest piece of structure, and works his way out toward smaller pieces if he's not finding any fish.
"Weakfish will form big schools," Olsen said, "so big that they can fill up the screen of a depthfinder.
"If you aren't finding the fish, then move around some. Weakfish hold on structure, but they will move around it. Sometimes they could be as close as only 100 yards away."
5 Saltwater Favorites In South Carolina
Spottails are one of the most widely distributed saltwater species in South Carolina, occurring not only all along the coast, but well up coastal rivers too. Most anglers concentrate on coastal marshes and inlets.
One of the reasons spottails are popular is that you can catch them all year. Fall and winter schools are composed of various-sized fish, while similarly sized fish will school together during the warmer months.Sight-casting to tailing fish at high tides is very popular.
Many kinds of soft plastics and fly-fishing tackle will work on the flats. Fall spottails will eat bait, with live shrimp or finger mullet under a cork hard to beat.
While management assessments of spottail populations remain guarded, the bag limit was recently made more liberal. The limit is three fish between 15 and 23 inches. The state record is 75 pounds.
A very widespread member of the drum family, spotted seatrout live in coastal waters from Mexico to New York. In the South Carolina portion of their range, they will remain in estuaries throughout the year.
Spotted seatrout are also known as winter trout because the cooler months can produce some fantastic fishing; however, veteran anglers prefer going after the large roe trout during the early spring.
Cold weather makes trout very lethargic. Slow-moving plastic baits fished over trout holding in deep holes work well. Shrimp under floats near oyster beds on points catch trout, but the biggest fish go for baitfish.
Recently, seatrout populations have soared. Regulations were changed in 2007 to take advantage of the high population. The minimum size was raised to 14 inches, ensuring that each fish has spawned.
Both summer and southern flounder are available to anglers in South Carolina. Fish are widely distributed in all estuaries during the summer, but during the winter they tend to move out to artificial reefs.
Flounder fishing ramps up in May and is one of the most consistent fisheries during the summer. Drifting any coastal inlet with mud minnows will put fish in the cooler. The bite spikes again in the fall.
Giggers harvest about as many flounder as rod-and-reel anglers, who troll mostly with finger mullet and mud minnows. Fishing live or large cut baits over offshore reefs in winter will catch huge flounder.
Regulations were changed in 2007. There is per-person limit of 20 but a boat limit of 40 fish, and the minimum size was raised to 14 inches; the change gives the fish a chance to spawn before being caught.
Rather like tourists, king mackerel prefer water temperatures above 68 degrees. Their affinity for warm water leads to long migrations along the coast. They are most common here from late spring to fall.
For nonstop action, nothing compares to fishing near artificial reefs in October and November. Most of these kings, however, will run only 10 to 15 pounds, with an occasional bigger fish throw
n into the mix.
King mackerel are suckers for slow-trolled live baits, usually menhaden. Cover the water column by pulling baits on downriggers and planers, as well as on the surface. Don't overlook fish on tide lines near inlets.
Kings are federally regulated by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, headquartered in Charleston. The minimum size is 24 inches (fork length) and the bag limit is three fish per person.
Weakfish are another of the more than 30 members of the drum or croaker family. Weakfish range from Cape Cod to the Gulf of Mexico, with the greatest abundance from South Carolina northward.
Large groups of weakfish on artificial reefs during the winter produce the most action. Weakfish will also be found along inlet channels at mid-depths for anglers who drop baits a little deeper.
Jigging spoons or grubs near aggregations of weakfish will land the most fish. Weakfish will also take live bait, such as shrimp, small crabs and baitfish. Slow- trolling grubs along inlet channels will catch fish too.
The bag limit on weakfish is 10 fish per person, and the minimum size is 12 inches. The state-record weakfish was taken in 1981 near Parris Island. It weighed 11 pounds, 13 ounces.