Sharks and flounder offer outstanding inshore fishing for Carolina anglers, and often both kinds of fish can be caught in the same area. Here's how.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Terry Madewell
With a tremendous diversity of fish species cruising South Carolina's inshore waters, it's sometimes difficult to make a choice as to which species to select. While there's excellent fishing for a variety of species, two very different fish - flounder and shark - offer great opportunities for inshore anglers to battle with plentiful numbers of fish. You can enjoy the best of both worlds . . . great fighting and potentially huge fish from the sharks and great-tasting and rather feisty fish like the flounder.
A shark fishing trip last summer turned out to be exactly what I'd hoped for in terms of action, although it was a classic example of "the big one getting away."
The simplicity of shark fishing is certainly one of the attractants for me. Our setup was on a point where two creeks intersected, the currents combining to create an eddy around the mouth of the point. We anchored in about 8 feet of water, where we could cast toward the shoreline, as well as to the deeper water. We baited with cut mullet (the bloodier the better) and whole shrimp and did not have to wait long for the action to begin.
The first fish we hooked turned out to be a hammerhead, the next was a blacktip and soon we'd hooked and landed a sand shark. We were releasing all the fish that day, which as you would expect, has to be done very carefully to keep both the shark and the angler (particularly the angler's fingers) in good condition. We'd started fishing just after the tide had bottomed out and begun to rise and the action stayed excellent until the tide got high enough to get back into the grass.
While the shallow-to-deep pattern will certainly change from one trip to the next, we began catching our fish on the shallow side of the boat and as the water rose, the action seemed to get better on the deep-water side. In fact, we were located adjacent to a very deep hole in the creek and the fish seemed to retreat to that deepest water as the baitfish made their way back into the grass. However, according to several shark fishermen I've talked with, the pattern could be reversed the next trip. The bottom line is to keep bait shallow and deep until you establish the pattern for your specific trip.
We used simple bottom-fishing rigs that work well for most shark fishing adventures. A big, very sharp hook is one key, along with a wire leader. The size of the hook should correlate with the size fish you expect or hope to catch. A lot of sharks get really big; if you are after a big one, you'll need a very big hook with a huge piece of cut mullet for bait, as an example. However, you need to scale it down when fishing for more moderately sized shark: We were using 2/0 to 4/0 hooks, for example.
The hook and wire leader should be attached to a barrel swivel with a sliding sinker above the barrel swivel. Again, the size of the sinker will vary with the depth and current where you're fishing. You'll want to keep the rig on the bottom.
Despite catching several sharks in a short period of time at a couple of different locations, we didn't land the big fish we'd hoped for. Our buddies in the second boat did hook and fight a huge shark, but finally lost it in a line-breaking run. They did agree that regardless of the outcome of the fight, that fish, several feet long, was not coming over the gunnels of their 16-foot aluminum boat.
But that's the fun part of shark fishing: There are lots of them and some of them get really, really big.
All the shark fishermen I've talked with agree - that's a rarity among any fishing clan - that you need a good tide current to have the best chance for success. Sharks are scent feeders and can detect minute traces of scent in the water. The current will help get the scent of your bait out and the sharks will come. Generally speaking, the best shark action is on the low-water end of the tides as well, with the last of the dropping and first of the incoming tides producing consistently best for the anglers.
Bonnethead sharks are becoming a very popular species for inshore anglers and these fish are often caught in the 10- to 15-pound class, which make them excellent fighting and eating size. Current regulations stipulate you can keep one bonnethead shark per boat per day, but check the regulations every year for possible changes.
Bonnetheads seem to prefer a different type of bait than most sharks; they go for more fresh bait over the bloody cut bait. Whole mullet, whole shrimp and perhaps their favorite, fresh crab, are all excellent choices.
Bonnetheads are frequently the species of shark you see cruising the edges of the creeks and waterways and are often spotted with their dorsal fins protruding from the water. If you want to target this species, get upcurrent from the fish quickly when you spot one and set up a bait rig with one of the type baits they prefer and cast it near the shoreline. Often you'll be able to mark their progress as they cruise the edge line searching for food.
Don't worry about them not detecting your bait. If you've got a crab - or my preference, a half of a crab - hooked up anywhere near their line of travel, they'll pick up the scent and engulf the bait. Then the game is on.
If you've seen these sharks patrolling the area previously, it's not a bad idea to set up on a point and give them an opportunity to come to you. You don't necessarily have to see them coming, so this can be very effective. But if you see one of these sharks working an area while you're motoring from one place to another, you can quickly set up if you've got your rod rigged and ready. This type of sight-fishing is tremendously exciting.
Let me add a couple more words of caution regarding shark fishing. You do need to take care when handling sharks. The smaller ones can inflict a good bite on you if you're careless and it's obvious what a large shark can do . . . we've all probably seen Jaws far too many times. Typically, a good dose of common sense is sufficient. Just simply not being reckless is a real key to safety.
Also, since there are highly specific regulations regarding sharks and keeping them, most of the fish will have to be released. To do so, you'll need to treat the fish with some care to ensure it will survive to fight again another day.
Before going shark fishing, check the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) regulations very carefully regarding shark fishing. There are very clear guidelines for each individual species of shark, which are much too lengthy to discuss here. If in doubt, carry a copy o
f the regulations in the boat for reference. Also, many piers do not allow shark fishing. It's best to check first if there's any doubt.
If you do catch a species legal to keep, sharks do make excellent table fare. Many of the species have a texture of meat that make them great for cooking on the grill, as well as for broiling, baking or frying. If you enjoy cooking on an outdoors grill, I highly recommend you give the grilled version a try.
Remember, you can think as big as you want in terms of shark fishing. Most of us prefer the moderate size of fish, up to 20 to 30 pounds, because chances of hookups are good and they offer plenty of fun on most sporting tackle. However, several species of sharks have posted state records well over 100 pounds. For example, the record lemon shark weighed in at 370 pounds and was caught in 2002 near Charleston. The top hammerhead weighed 588 pounds, caught in 1988 near Charleston and the record sandbar shark weighed 199 pounds, 4 ounces, and was also caught near Charleston. Catching big fish inshore and along the coastline is certainly a possibility, but typically, you will need specialized equipment and much more detail than we have room for to discuss here to consistently target the outlandish-sized fish.
DON'T FORGET FLATFISH
By this time of the year, flounder are also found throughout our inshore waters. These unique fish are among the most popular of all summertime fish species. They're good fighting fish, great eating and generally not all that difficult to target and catch. As with any species, having a good game plan is the key.
For flounder, that game plan will include consolidation of forage, tides and structure into your strategy. Plus, you need the basic understanding of how flounder prey on their forage. The flatness of flounder enables them to ambush their prey from a stationary position on the bottom substrate. Their coloration is great for camouflage and they blend well with the shell, mud or sand surroundings and when a potential meal swims by, they quickly strike.
Flounder can be taken on high or low tides, but you'll need to change either locations or tactics depending on the tide. One that I like best is a high-tide tactic that would enable an angler to effectively fish for shark on the low tide and flounder on the high tide.
Focus your efforts near a major inlet from the inshore waters to the ocean and look for the mouths of smaller creeks feeding into the main inlet.
Look for points that are rather shallow around the mouth of the creek but drop off to deeper water. It is along these deeper areas that the flounder will often play their hide-and-ambush game. Specifically focus your efforts on areas where oyster shell beds are close to the grass. The founder have a strong tendency to set up their ambush sites between the oyster beds and the marsh grass during high tides, often right next to the grass when the tide is high enough. If there is a bit of sandy bottom between the shell bed and the marsh grass, you have found an ideal place to locate the flounder.
This specific structure is an ideal spot for them to ambush myriad forage species they feed on and these areas are usually at water depths fishermen can fish effectively. One proven method is to anchor the boat off the shoreline where you can easily cast to the area you've targeted as a prime place.
There's a pre-made float rig called the Equalizer, which is very effective, but you can rig your own easily enough. Tie the 1/0 Kahle at the bottom of a 14- to 18-inch leader below a barrel swivel. Put a sliding float above it and a bobber stopper, which can be a piece of rubber band, at the depth you want the float. Set the float position so the bait will be just off the bottom. Best baits for flounder include mud minnows, finger mullet, small menhaden or shrimp.
Cast the rig slightly upcurrent of where the target area is, or right at the area it begins and allow it to drift along the edge line of the grass and shells. If that doesn't produce action, rig the float a bit deeper and work slightly deeper water. If working progressively deeper for a couple more casts does not produce any action, pull anchor and move to another spot.
When you do find a productive spot, it's not unusual to catch several fish from the same general area when fishing this method. Thus, if you catch one fish, don't automatically haul the anchor and move.
One good flounder in the cooler warrants a few more casts to that general area before leaving. When the action slows, often all you'll need to do to get back into the fish is to move the boat a very short distance and begin fishing again.
If you're feeling real sporty, work the same type area with a jighead and a grub or substitute a mud minnow for the grub. Bounce the rig along the bottom back to the boat. This way, you actually work the bait instead of letting it drift, but you'll feel the flounder strike. Sometimes this technique works well as a fish-finder tactic. If you get a couple of bites in an area, switching to the float method may produce additional fish.
You can also work the larger creek mouths in the same manner. Alternatively, many anglers will drift or troll these areas to cover more territory.
No matter what your technique, a real key is to keep the bait close to, if not on, the bottom. Remember how the flounder sets up to feed and you'll know the strike zone is going to be near the bottom.
Use the tidal current when you can to work over the larger points. In many cases, you can drift or troll multiple rigs. However, your hookup rate will likely be higher if you hold the rod in your hand. By doing so, you can react more quickly to the bite and improve the hookset opportunity. On lower tides, move farther off the point and work around drops and ledges into deeper water. When the tide falls, the flounder will retreat to these areas, especially during the daylight hours.
Because flounder are a stationary ambush feeder, they do not have a tendency to move around a lot. To be consistently effective on flounder, the angler must do most of the moving and searching. I know with many saltwater species (redfish being one example) you can sit stationary with live bait along the grass line and have a reasonably good chance that the fish will cruise through the area and take the bait.
Generally, either the flounder are there on the tide you're working or they're somewhere else and not likely to come to you. They may move to another spot when the tide falls out of the grass and begins to get low. They often set up in a totally different area on the next tide. But they are like many fish species in that once you locate areas that produce fish, those same areas will be consistent producers on return trips. Simply study how the shells, grass, points and water depth are working in combination and go find another similar area.
Jetties are another prime area for flounder and are found at the major harbors along the coast. Charleston and Georgetown, for example, certainly have excellent fishing along their jetties.
The basic technique is to anchor the boat and cast toward the rocks and let the current work the bait along. Work around areas that are slightly deeper than the rest of the area. Often a subtle difference in depth will attract the really big flounder. Another key is to work the area right at the base of the rocks where it meets the flatter bottom substrate. This is the prime travel route for a lot of forage species, so you can expect Mr. Flatfish to be set up right there, waiting for them. Live bait as well as the jig and mud minnow method work well here.
If you're looking for fun fishing along the South Carolina coast this summer, you've just seen the highs and lows . . . at least in terms of tides. By fishing for shark at low tide and flounder at high tide, you can have a diversity of fishing fun and productivity hard to match.
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