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5 Carolina Saltwater Best Bets

5 Carolina Saltwater Best Bets
Saltwater angling action in South Carolina runs at a heart-pounding pace. Try these tactics to score on five of our most powerful game fish.

By Walt Rhodes

The swirl in the quiet, dingy water reminded me of a day in my youth.

Over 20 years before, positioned in the bow of a dented aluminum canoe, I had nervously watched carp spawning in the shallows. Each time a fish's coppery back and tail would swirl the water, I'd raise my bow in anticipation of a shot.

Now the feeling was the same, but the quarry and weapon had changed.

Softly shuffling my feet forward, my eyes scan the flooded Spartina grass. Up ahead, the tail of a spottail waves gracefully before disappearing. I cock my casting arm while moving closer. There's another supple swirl, and I quickly cast the gold spoon near the fish.

Wading for spottail bass during a tailing tide is a great summer fishing adventure in South Carolina. The angling opportunities don't stop there, however.

While waiting for that big tide, anglers can go after numerous inshore species. Spotted seatrout and flounder, both excellent table fare, bite extremely well during falling tides. Once the tide bottoms out, sight-casting to ravenous bonnethead sharks is a thrill. Or if you're merely looking for a new angling challenge, spending a late-summer evening searching for jack crevalle is another twist to Lowcountry fishing.

The choices this summer are only limited by your desires.

Speedy and hard-hitting, jacks can provide a good fight on spinning gear. Photo by Walt Rhodes

Hands down, the most popular inshore saltwater game fish in the state is the spottail bass. This copper-backed bruiser, which is also called a redfish, channel bass or puppy drum, has probably delighted more people than all of the other creek-dwelling fishes combined.

"Most people want to fish for spottails," said Capt. Thomas Maybank of Beaufort Inshore Charters. "They like the idea of catching a large fish that fights hard in shallow water."

Thus, no matter the season, Capt. Maybank, who fishes around Beaufort and Hilton Head Island, is usually in shallow water looking for spottails.

"In early spring, the water temperature doesn't affect fishing as much as the wind and sunlight do," he said. "I like a bright day because it is easier to see a school of fish working a flat at low water. Of course, they can see you better, too. But if you have a soft knot wind that creates ripples, that will help conceal you," he added.


He prefers to fish for spottails around low tide during early spring when seeing the large schools is easier.

"Once the water temperature begins to warm in April and May, the groups of fish stay longer along the grass edges. The water also gets a tinge and the fish aren't as spooky," Maybank said.

He recommended targeting these fish with live bait.

"Mud minnows are the most common bait I use because they are readily available. If you can find live shrimp then, it is usually pretty expensive."

A type of rig Maybank employs when using bait includes a "corky." It is a strike indicator often used by flyfishermen who fish for steelhead. He said a good substitute, since the commercially made ones are hard to find, is the foam earplugs used by target shooters.

"I normally use a 3-foot-long leader of 20-pound monofilament line with a No. 2 Kahle hook for my live-bait rig. I put the indicator about 2 1/2 feet up the line. The whole rig is subtler than other rigs that use a cork. I've found that clients have a very easy time hooking fish with this setup," Maybank said.

As the season progresses, the schools begin to break up, and Maybank eyes the "tailing tides" that begin at the end of May.

"Anytime the tide table reads 7.6 feet or above at the Savannah River entrance, then the tide is suitable for wading the grassflats," he said.

"I like to fly-fish for tailing fish. I usually keep four or five flies in my pocket so I'm prepared for the situation. If a spottail is in more open water, then I'll use an unweighted fly. If he's in some grass, I'll quickly switch to a weighted fly because it can burrow down and be within the fish's line of sight," Maybank explained.

To book a trip with Capt. Thomas Maybank, visit his Web site at or call (843) 525-1013.

"A good trout spot is an area that has structure and a steep dropoff next to the bank," said Capt. Rick Hiott of Charleston. "The closer the deep-water area is to the bank, the better."

Capt. Hiott explained that these locations are attractive to spotted seatrout because the fish can forage for bait in the shallower water and use the deeper water as an escape area, whether they are trying to avoid weather, boat traffic or predators.

"I like to fish for trout during an outgoing tide," Hiott stated. "There is usually a rip that will form as the falling tide rolls over the structure, such as a shell bank.

"You need to be as quiet as possible when fishing these areas," he cautioned. "Many times an angler will pull up to an area, and just throw their anchor overboard. That big splash will send trout scattering.

"Position your boat on the deep side of the rip, and ease your anchor overboard," Hiott suggested. "With the boat stationary, cast across the rip coming off the point. If there are no hits, move upcurrent. The trick is to move around the area until you find where the fish are positioned. Some days they might be on the deep side, whereas other times they are shallower."

Capt. Hiott likes to fish these locations with artificial baits, but types and patterns will vary throughout the day.

"Early in the morning I use a topwater bait. Later in the morning, once the sun is up some, you'll have to switch to a suspending-type crankbait or lure. It should be a bait that runs no more than about 8 feet deep," Hiott recommended. "Grubs also work at this time."

His preferred crankbait colors are black and silver, a glass minnow pattern or chartreuse. Hiott suggested using a bright-colored grub, such as pearl green and white, on clear

days and a smoky gray with glitter on cloudy days.

"When I'm using a floating crankbait, I retrieve it in a darting, erratic pattern," Hiott stated. "Once I switch to a suspending bait, I use a three-second, stop-and-start retrieve. The retrieve for the grub is (generally) steady, but occasionally I will stop and start it."

Spotted seatrout are excellent to eat. Anglers should be reminded that trout populations are still recovering from the devastating winter kill of 2000-01, and should only keep an occasional fish to aid in the species' recovery.

Capt. Rick Hiott fishes all of the waters surrounding Charleston. You may contact him at (843) 412-6776 or log onto

Talk about having an identity crisis and not getting any respect. Bonnethead sharks are abundant and widespread in the state's inshore waters, but rarely anyone fishes for them, and when an angler does accidentally land one, they often incorrectly call it a hammerhead shark.

Outside the educated eye of a professionally trained fisheries biologist or grizzled angler, the misidentification by a less-seasoned fisherman is understandable. The flattened head, with eyes positioned on the ends of narrow wings, gives the bonnethead a hammerhead shark look. However, there are telltale differences between the species.

Bonnetheads and hammerheads are related but the similarities end there. The three species of hammerheads get exceptionally larger than bonnetheads, often reaching several hundred pounds. Bonnetheads, on the other hand, rarely weigh more than 20 pounds.

The head shape between the species differs as well. The hammerhead's is essentially flat across the front when viewed from above. The rectangular-shaped extension out of either side of the shark's head looks similar to the rear wings of most airplanes. The shape of the bonnethead's head is rounded, almost half-moon or shovel-like, and the projections out of the sides of the head are not nearly as prominent.

While the potential does exist to catch a small hammerhead in the creeks and sounds, you are more likely to hook a bonnethead due to their abundance and feeding preferences.

Bonnethead sharks are gluttons for blue crabs. Although they do eat other prey, they seek out and devour crabs like a pack of NFL linemen would at a Chinese restaurant all-you-can-eat buffet.

Their penchant for blue crabs makes bonnethead sharks very easy to catch. Bonnetheads patrol the edge of the marsh grass for crabs during the summer months, using their keen sense of smell as radar. You are most likely to spot them hunting during low tide. It is very common to see their dorsal fins poking out of water only inches deep.

You can pole or use your trolling motor to search shoreline areas and sight-cast to individual bonnetheads or you can simply anchor and wait for the sharks to come to you. The rig is similar with either method.

Your favorite light- to medium-weight fishing rod - spinning or baitcasting - is suitable for bonnetheads. Line between 12- and 17-pound-test is sufficient. Make a Carolina rig by adding a barrel swivel and 24- to 36-inch leader of 20-pound-test line.

A No. 3/0 octopus hook or similar-sized (or even slightly larger) circle hook will complete the setup. From a conservation standpoint, a circle hook is suggested because nearly all of the bonnetheads landed will not meet legal minimum size. A blue crab quartered or halved is the best bait.

The weight of the bait should be sufficient for casting if you are sight-fishing. If a small breeze is blowing, you might need to add a tiny split-shot above the swivel. If you are going to anchor and fish, adding an egg sinker above the swivel to keep your bait in position against the tide may be necessary. A 1/4- to 1/2-ounce size should be ample.

Bonnetheads provide outstanding light-tackle fun during the summer when other species have the funk from the heat. South Carolina regulations place bonnetheads in a group of sharks that has a minimum size rarely achieved by bonnetheads. It is best to enjoy these guys for their brawn rather than wondering about their taste.

Capt. Ben Alderman of Mount Pleasant targets bonnetheads regularly during the summer. You can contact him at (843) 906-3630 or visit

Jack crevalle are comparable to bonnethead sharks in many respects. They are abundant during the summer, are often overlooked, tireless fighters and usually not eaten. Some anglers might shy from jacks because they don't envision a jack on their dinner plate, but one encounter with a jack's determination will convince even the naysayers that this fish is worthy of pursuit on the basis of the sport they provide.

Jacks have been likened to a pack of wolves. They are speedy fish that hunt in large schools. Jacks strike quickly, and once they do, there's little left of their prey.

Both the schooling nature of jack crevalle and their hunting tactics are a benefit to anglers. Jacks are tied primarily to menhaden schools in Lowcountry waters. Their arrival at familiar haunts comes shortly after the menhaden arrive en masse, which is typically late May.

Once the jacks are here, fishermen can find them by searching for schools of fish on the prowl for something to eat. Jacks have a distinct habit of circling schools of baitfish, which piles them into a ball, before they attack. Sharp-eyed anglers can patrol calm coastal waters looking for circling dorsal fins of jacks poking out of the water as they herd baitfish.

When a school of fish is found, anglers will want to be careful not to cause the fish to sound. Stay back from the school and make long casts toward the school. Stray too close, and the pod of fish will dive, never to be seen again.

Jacks have bloody meat. This characteristic makes them unpalatable, but is suggestive of their powerful fighting potential. Stout equipment is needed to land one of these incredible hulks.

A medium-heavy baitcasting or spinning rod is recommended. A rod with a sensitive tip is not needed because the bite is violent; however, a rod with a stiff backbone would prove valuable. Reels can be equipped with 20- to 30-pound-test line, and a properly functioning drag is paramount.

You can sight-cast to cruising jacks with live menhaden. If you don't want to fool with live bait, or can't find any, large artificial plugs will do the job. Any large, shallow-diving crankbait that mimics the size and color of menhaden will suffice.

The jack crevalle fishery in South Carolina is centered near Charleston Harbor. Most of the fishing takes place above and below the Cooper River bridges, often far up the Cooper and Wando rivers at the I-526 bridges. Because of security concerns

and construction of the new Cooper River bridge, anglers should avoid this area.

The best ramp to access this fishery is located at Remley's Point in Mount Pleasant. There is a large parking area, and hungry jacks can often be found within a stone's throw of the launch. In fact, one of the most consistent places to find fish is directly across from the ramp in the shipping channel upstream of Drum Island.

A Charleston-based guide who targets jack crevalle is Capt. J.R. Waits. You can contact him by visiting or call (843) 509-REDS.

Spottail bass and spotted seatrout can become fickle during the heat of the summer. Flounder, like bonnethead sharks and jack crevalle, relish the hot weather, but unlike its heat-loving compatriots, flounder is good on the table.

Fishing piers are a great place to target flounder, especially if you don't own a boat. There are numerous piers up and down the coast, and many are located near favorite family vacation spots.

Tactics to fish piers are basic, but some equipment modifications are in order. First, you'll need to add a long piece of rope to your bait bucket so it will reach the water. Your landing net is useless from such pier heights. You can either walk a hooked fish to the beach, which is not recommended, or play the fish into a circular net lowered over the railing.

Trolling is the preferred method to catch flounder. From a pier, you can duplicate trolling by slowly moving up and down the pier. If it is crowded, cast parallel or under the pier, and slowly retrieve your bait. Most flounder will be positioned around the pier pilings looking for prey.

Flounder have big mouths relative to their body size. While flounder will take shrimp and mud minnows, the bigger fish prefer finger mullet and small spots. Any of these baits on a Carolina rig will put flounder on your stringer this year.

Two popular fishing piers are Apache Pier in Myrtle Beach (843-497-6486) and Folly Beach Pier near Charleston (843-588-3474).

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