Targeting summer redfish is difficult for some South Carolina anglers -- but don't despair. Here's some expert around-the-tide advice on finding the fish.
Photo by Robert Sloan
Fishing the salt marsh during the warmer months of the year can be every bit as frustrating as it is enjoyable.
Granted, it is one of the best times of the year to be on the water. The days are long, the marsh is alive with activity, the sea breeze is refreshing, and save for the occasional thunderstorm, rain rarely interrupts a fishing trip.
The fishing can be as spectacular as the weather and scenery. I can recall numerous trips when it seemed the redfish were at an all-you-can-eat buffet and my baits were the main entrÃ©e. But those trips seem to be more luck than the typical occurrence. Interspersed are many more trips where the redfish seem to be on a hunger strike. Or worse yet, it seemed as if they had evaporated.
Everyone has their favorite fishing holes, and I am no exception. These are those particular points, dropoffs or oyster bars where the redfish always seem to bite. These are the kinds of spots that, when the outgoing tide is halfway down, you just know you are guaranteed a redfish.
I have a couple of those spots, and I had an out-of-town guest a few years ago who was interested in being introduced to Lowcountry redfishing during the summer. We packed the rods into the boat, caught some live bait and proceeded to fish some of these sure-fire holes.
One particular spot that stands out as a favorite is a 100-yard stretch of salt marsh that lies between the mouth of a small feeder creek and a robust point that is guarded by oyster mounds. Along this stretch, oyster bars of varying lengths front the marsh grass.
This spot has produced redfish and spotted seatrout in the past when I drifted live bait under a float or worked artificial baits along the edge of the grass. The fish have bitten on a rising or falling tide.
On this summer day the spot was dry. Pinfish, small bluefish and sharks ripped our live shrimp and finger mullet into chunks, but no redfish. I know every spot isn't supposed to yield fish on every trip, but this spot had always been such a consistent producer.
While we walked the beach waiting for the tide to switch, I thought about why this particular hole might have been unproductive. The one thing that was obvious was that when I had caught fish there before, the marsh grass was golden colored and not the deep green associated with summer. Perhaps it was a spot that was more conducive to redfish when it was cooler.
Out from this stretch of shoreline was nothing but a shallow, featureless mudflat. There was no dropoff or deeper hole nearby. The very thing that made this fishing hole attractive in the fall and winter was what made it unappealing in the summer.
The mudflat provided thermal protection and an escape area during the colder months. During the low tide, the shallower water with its dark bottom heats up more than deeper water. Also, the shallower water makes it harder for bottle-nosed dolphins to catch redfish.
The sun doesn't quit working in the summer. In fact, its effects are even greater. Therefore, the mudflat and nearby shoreline where I routinely caught redfish were probably too hot during the summer for redfish. Possibly, if there had been some deeper water nearby where the fish could escape the heat, they may have staged in the cooler water, then moved up to forage along the shore before retreating again to deeper water.
Apparently, looking for redfish in locations that commonly hold the fish during fall and winter is a common mistake made by summertime anglers.
"In the summer, schools of redfish are found in deeper water," said Capt. Jamie Hough of Flat Spot Charters. "You need to look in dropoff areas, water about 3 to 10 feet deep."
Hough, who offers his clients a guarantee that they will catch a fish or their next trip is free, concentrates his efforts around spots that funnel redfish past his baits.
"I like to fish at the mouth feeder creeks and around oyster shell points," Hough said. "When the tide is outgoing, prey is being flushed from the feeder creeks.
"The redfish also use the feeder creeks to exit the flats during the falling tide, but they feed on the baitfish that are being pulled out as well.
"The points with oyster bars serve dual purposes. They provide cover and eddies for prey to hide and they are areas that everything coming out of the creeks usually has to pass as they exit."
Boat positioning is critical when fishing these sorts of spots.
"Most people mistakenly anchor in the wrong spot," Hough said. "When the redfish exit the creek you do not want the fish going under or around your boat, which will scare them and cause them not bite."
He recommends positioning your boat a fair distance off the bank. The boat should be within casting distance of the bank but be mindful of that slightly deeper water that summer redfish may be using.
With the boat positioned, Hough gives the fish time to bite and he provides them with various choices of baits.
"Because of my fish guarantee, I have to find biting fish for my clients," Hough explained. "I usually give a spot about 30 minutes.
"During that time, I will put out a variety of baits to see if the redfish prefer one bait over another. I will use whole finger mullet, live shrimp and menhaden, and sometimes mud minnows.
"I keep a tub of cut up menhaden handy in case the fish are feeding. If they are, I toss three to four pieces of menhaden overboard in an effort to keep the redfish interested."
While he is anchored at a spot, Hough routinely uses two rods per person. The rods remain in rod holders the majority of the time, and he claims this increases his clients' odds of catching a fish.
"Most anglers get anxious when they feel a fish taking their bait, and they end up missing the bite by setting the hook too soon," Hough said. "About 90 percent of the fish caught on my boat are with the rods in the rod holders." But Hough has another reason as to why he uses rod holders so much.
"I like to cast the baits out there and let them sit," he explained. "Redfish feed more by smel
l than they do sight. If your bait is constantly being cast and retrieved, it is going to be hard for a fish find it.
"I like to put it in simple terms for people to understand what I am talking about. If you are blind but can smell your supper plate in front of you, you will be able to find your food. However, if someone is constantly moving the plate around, you might be able to still smell the food, but you are going to have a tough time sticking a fork into it."
Because Hough employs rod holders, he avoids using j-styled hooks. If you use the j-style hooks, redfish will be hooked in the belly, or gut-hooked as some refer to it, and have little chance of survival when released.
Circle hooks or similar styles are preferred for this type of fishing. Once a fish has a bait in its mouth, even if it's far back, a circle hook moves forward in the fish's mouth, usually avoiding hooking the fish, as the line is being pulled tight when the fish is swimming off with the bait. With the line trailing out of the corner of the fish's mouth, the circle hook snags right there when the line completely tightens.
"I use Mutu-light hooks," Hough said. "They resemble circle hooks, but instead of the hook's point aiming toward the shank, this brand of hook has its tip pointing at the eye of the hook. I think in the long run I hook more fish with this hook because the hook does not have to turn nearly all the way around before hooking the fish. With the point facing the eye, it only has to rotate about half of the distance," he noted.
If the fish are not biting at a location where Hough has anchored, he does not sit around.
"If the fish are not biting at a spot, I am on the move looking for them," he said. "I may go up or downriver to the next point or I start working sections of shoreline."
To do this, Hough will either drift or use a trolling motor. In the summer, however, he does not have his clients beating the shoreline for redfish.
"You have to keep it in your mind that redfish are going to be slightly deeper during the summer to avoid the hot water. When I am on the move looking for fish, I usually use float rigs, such as a Cajun Thunder or Lowcountry Lightning, with finger mullet or mud minnows.
"By using a float you can suspend your bait over the deeper water found off the shoreline. And because the bait is under a float, it moves alongside the boat as opposed to being dragged across the bottom unnaturally where it might snag something."
Once Hough finds biting fish when drifting or moving with his trolling motor, he will anchor.
Hough utilizes these techniques on either side of low tide. Once the tide has risen, he follows the redfish up into the creeks, and eventually up onto the flats if the tide is high enough.
He still fishes on the bottom once he is up in the creeks, but now the baits will be closer to the bank because the water is deeper. After the redfish move up on the flats, Hough changes rigs.
"I get rid of the sliding egg sinker and swivel because it causes too much commotion when it splashes. You have to be more delicate with your presentation when on the flats," Hough said.
"I still use 10-pound line and a 20-pound fluorocarbon leader about 18 inches long, but I join the two different line sizes with a Union knot instead of the swivel. I may add a split-shot or two for weight.
"My favorite bait on the flats is a mud minnow," Hough said. "A mud minnow will burrow down in the grass in front of a redfish and get its attention where he's already looking for food. If the mud minnow is doing its job, you don't have to worry about getting hung up on the weeds."
STATUS OF THE REDFISH POPULATION
As the No. 1 inshore saltwater game fish, redfish have been the beneficiaries of a lot of effort and resources expended in monitoring the health of their population. Because of the fish's popularity, there are some anglers who think when times are good, regulations should not be so restrictive. To understand why the regulations are such, you have to understand the fish's biology.
Redfish are long-lived fish, living longer than 40 years. Given their long life, a redfish's reproductive strategy is to spawn one time per year and hopefully have a successful spawn once or twice during their lifetime. If a spawn fails this year, it is usually no problem because a redfish, in theory, will live to spawn again next year.
This is in contrast, for example, to spotted seatrout, which spawn several times per year but only live a couple of years. Their strategy is to produce a multitude of eggs in a short period of time hoping for some payoff. They spawn fast and frequently because the fish won't live long enough to spawn again if things fail.
Once redfish hatch, on the other hand, they remain in the salt marsh, growing to sub-adult fish, for three to five years. At this point, when they're about 11 pounds or so, they leave the marsh and join the offshore spawning population of adults. They remain offshore for the rest of their lives, venturing close to shore to spawn only once each summer.
A redfish's spawning strategy works magnificently without fishing in the equation. But the key to making it work in the long term with fishing harvest as part of the picture is that enough sub-adult fish must move offshore. Unfortunately, when there is an above-average spawn and anglers think we're flush with fish, they push for more liberal regulations, incorrectly thinking that these young fish are the key to future populations. You overharvest them now and you will pay for it later.
"Anglers pursue essentially three year-classes at any one time," said Dr. Charlie Wenner, a marine scientist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. "For example, in 2005, the redfish in the marsh were spawned in 2004, 2003 and 2002. Most of the fish spawned in 2001 will have grown and have left the estuary.
"Anglers have seen an abundance of redfish lately because the 2000, 2001 and 2002 spawns were good. They think the population is in good shape, and therefore, should be able to keep more fish above the current two-fish limit. But they don't know what is coming.
"The 2003 spawn was horrible," Dr. Wenner said. "So about the time anglers want more liberal regulations to take effect, there will be a lower redfish population and we will overharvest the future.
"If the 2004 spawn was poor, which we won't know until later this year, more liberal regulations will only further hurt the population.
"There are three reasons why the redfish population is doing well now. There was a good spawn in 2002, recent regulation changes that reduced the bag limit and slot size and no hard winter freezes. All of these factors add more fish to the offshore spawning population," Dr. Wenner concluded
The restrictive regulations and the increase in catch-and-release fishing, which anglers should be congratulated for embracing, are beginning to pay off, but Dr. Wenner cautioned that the data does not indicate that now is the time to loosen regulations.
"Historically, not enough redfish were entering the offshore spawning population to ensure survival of redfish," Dr. Wenner said. "Today, it appears more fish are entering the offshore population.
"The offshore surveys indicate that there are more young adult fish in the population that have moved there as a result of restrictive regulations. However, bad spawns will come in the future, and what you want to guard against is not continually allowing enough fish to move offshore. The more spawning fish you have, intuitively, it will dampen the effects of a catastrophic spawn.
"When you have no spawners, you will have no recruits. Or put another way, there's a good chance you won't have any kids if your parents don't either," Dr. Wenner said.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To book a trip with Capt. Jamie Hough, you may contact him by calling (843) 364-1759, e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his Web site at