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Top Targets for Winter Saltwater Action

Top Targets for Winter Saltwater Action

Savvy saltwater anglers know that December is a prime time to leave the warmth of the couch at home and seek the red-hot winter bite for seatrout and spottails.

The day felt like winter when the boat slid cleanly into the water at the landing. But by the time the boat was loaded with fishing gear and the truck parked, the rising morning sun had begun to heat the salt marsh.

The three of us kept our coats on, however, for the short run down the Intracoastal Waterway outside of Charleston, S.C.

Buffleheads frantically took wing like oversized horseflies at our speedy approach, disappearing over the Spartina grass into a hidden tidal creek. Brown pelicans, anxious to go fishing, too, waited atop pier pilings for the tide to be right.

At half-ebb, the tide was perfect for us. The red drum, or spottail bass as they are often called, would be leaving the sanctuary of the flooded marsh grass and filtering into tiny creeks and guts. Heavily preyed upon by bottle-nosed dolphins during the winter, red drum attempt to stay out of harm's way by remaining shallow and near cover.

We knew this, and pointed the bow of the flats boat toward a small creek. By poling up the creek, we hoped to intercept some fish holding in the deeper pools of the creek.

Standing on the bow with my casting finger on the line, I felt like the boat was suspended in midair. Every undulation of the bottom was visible in the office-window-clean water, and seemed to move under the boat so smoothly it was like watching a film of an ocean bed.


Five red drum, swimming nervously in circles ahead, proved otherwise. Boils of muddy water revealed their presence.

Seatrout populations in South Carolina are rebounding after last year's mild winter. Here, Captain Champ Smith and a client admire a good fish taken by the client. Photo by Walt Rhodes

I cocked the bail on the spinning reel, and with a quick overhand cast let the curly-tailed grub fly. It landed with hardly a ripple on the far edge of the pool of water. The bait momentarily sat on the bottom, and then with a slow lift-and-crank motion, I worked it back toward the boat.

All on board hoped a fish would grab it. The chances of that were good - if the fish weren't too spooked.

One of my partners, in a better position on the poling platform, strained his eyes and offered commentary.

"Here he comes," he said. "He's got it."

Instantly, the shock and weight of the red drum's bite traveled through the line to the rod and my hand. I felt like Benjamin Franklin flying his kite and discovering electricity.

The fish surged up the creek. He turned and sought safety again in the deepwater pool. After a few precarious moments during which the fish drove near some oysters, one of my partners cradled the 25-inch fish half out of the water, the grub head moving up and down with each pump of the drum's jaws. Once unhooked, the fish swam away quickly.

We recounted the first fish of the day. The action had warmed us, and during the conversation we were peeling layers of coats. A pelican glided by as if to reinforce that it was time for fishing.

The South Carolina coast is blessed with year-round fishing action. Things can get a little slow during weather extremes - dead of summer or extended deep of winter - but during an average year, something somewhere is biting every month in salt water.

Several species of fish are available to anglers when Santa Claus comes calling. Black sea bass, sheepshead, red snapper, spotted seatrout and red drum are all possible targets.

Spotted seatrout, also known as winter trout (for good reason), and red drum usually grab the winter limelight. Found inshore in every coastal river and marsh, these fish are very accessible to fishermen, even when winter winds begin to howl.

The coast of South Carolina is considered subtropical. As such, winters are usually mild, with temperatures rarely dipping into the 20s.

On occasion, Mother Nature does shake things up a bit and reminds locals and transplanted Yankees what winter feels like.

December 1989 was one of those times. Temperatures plummeted along the coast, and residents were given a once-in-a-lifetime white Christmas.

Some folks thought it was God's way of covering up the devastation from Hurricane Hugo only a few months earlier.

The live oaks looked lovely dappled in snow, but out in the salt marsh seatrout were stunned, literally. Seatrout can't handle prolonged water temperatures in the low 40s, and many of them died.

The trout population recovered, however. Surveys conducted by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) showed spotted seatrout were abundant. They were found in over half of the sample sites, and by the late 1990s, almost three-quarters of the net sites recorded seatrout.

"The mean number of trout caught per net set peaked around five trout in 1999 and 2000," stated Dr. Charlie Wenner, a marine biologist for SCDNR. "The fish were abundant and all size-classes were well-represented."

Unfortunately, the winter of 2000-2001 was cold. There was a two-week span when high temperatures never got into the 40s. Again, the seatrout population took another deadly hit. By the spring of 2001, anglers were concerned that hardly anyone was catching trout. Internet sites bemoaned the lack of seatrout.

"The winter of 2000-01 was hard on trout," Wenner stated. "We estimated that the population fell by almost 80 percent. Fortunately, the seatrout population was in such good shape prior to the cold snap, or things could have been much worse."

Luckily for trout (and anglers), these fish are capable of spawning at a young age, and the fish can spawn several times during the spring and summer. Given good conditions, the population can bounce back fairly quickly.

"If winter mortality is limited to a single year, the recreational catch of spotted seatrout rebounds to more normal levels after one to 1 1/2 years," Wenner explained. "Following the December freeze in 1989, seatrout catches returned to normal in 1991." Since last winter was mild, anglers can expect to see a few more seatrout now.

One angler who has started to see a few more seatrout is Capt. Champ Smith of Nervous Water Charters, a Mount Pleasant-based guide who has plied local waters for all three decades of his life.

"Last spring was brutal, because there were very few survivors from the freeze and their offspring weren't large enough to catch yet," Smith said. "We usually have some good spring action on trout, and then things slow some during the summer before peaking during the fall and early winter."

Smith notes that the offspring of the spawners from 2001 that survived the freeze are just now beginning to reach average size. He expects that anglers along the South Carolina coast will see better fishing now than they did this time last year.

To target winter trout, an angler has to look in the right places and be versatile. Capt. Smith enters the marsh each day with several places to fish and a variety of tactics in mind.

"First off, my best success with trout comes during an incoming tide. I think it is because the tide is bringing in cleaner and clearer water," Smith said. "Also, I seem to do the best during overcast days. A lot of clients won't want to fish because of the threat of rain, but I assure them the trout will bite. By the end of the day, any threat of rain is a distant memory for them."

Smith has found that trout are a structurally oriented fish. They will not be too far from old submerged logs, oysters or other structure.

To locate trout, Smith tosses artificial baits until he locates the fish, and then most of the time he switches over to live bait, provided it is available.

Seatrout in Lowcountry waters are suckers for grubs and jerkbaits. The most popular grub head size weighs 1/4-ounce and is red. Recommended twistertail body colors are fluorescent green with flakes, smoked with flakes, and chartreuse. Electric chicken is another good color.

Any plastic bait on the market today that resembles a baitfish is suitable for locating trout. Stick with lipless baits because most of the areas you will be searching will be fairly shallow. Deeper areas can be dredged with a shallow-diving lipped crankbait. Good color choices are black and silver and red and white, but don't overlook bright colors like hot pink.

"After I've located some fish, I will switch to live bait if I can get it," Smith said. "Early in the winter you might still be able to find some mullet, but later in the year mud minnows are usually the only baitfish available. You can buy live shrimp at times, but they can be expensive."

A renaissance is slowly occurring along the South Carolina coast when it comes to live-bait fishing.

"Once redfish populations began getting low and then the trout took such a hit from the freeze, people began thinking more about catch-and-release fishing," Smith said. "As a result, you see a lot more people using circle hooks."

"The average catch is slightly less than 300,000 trout each year," Dr. Wenner said. "The percentage of the catch that is released alive has grown over time. Recently, it has fluctuated between 40 and 60 percent. It is encouraging that the harvest is approximately equal to the number of fish released alive after capture."

Anglers often wonder how many fish survive after being released. Dr. Wenner discussed a Florida study that provided some answers.

"Over 400 seatrout were caught, the hook location was recorded and the fish were placed in holding pens for 48 hours," he said. "The fish that were gut-hooked suffered the highest mortality, greater than 25 percent of them died, whereas less than 5 percent of the fish hooked inside the mouth or jaw died."

Capt. Smith has been impressed with his switch to circle hooks.

"I've cut my gut-hooking by 75 percent by switching from Kahle-styled hooks to circle hooks. Once you learn how to fish a circle hook, you won't use anything else," he said. The key is to let the fish take the bait and begin bending the rod before you start to reel. You don't set the hook when using circle hooks.

Capt. Smith recommended using a No. 2 or 4 circle hook either on a Carolina rig or under a float for seatrout.

"I use live bait on a Carolina rig around oyster bars," he stated. "If I begin to hang up a lot, then I use a float setup to put the bait over the oysters. When there's some current, you can cover lots of fishing area with a float."

The current limit for spotted seatrout is 10 fish per person per day, with a minimum size of 13 inches.

Slightly over a year ago things did not look good for red drum in South Carolina. SCDNR sampling surveys indicated a rapid decline in the red drum population.

Some measures have been implemented to halt the fall. While the red drum population still has one foot in the casket, there are signs it might be starting to walk out of the graveyard.

"There was a significant decline in our trammel net surveys for the last 10 years," Dr. Wenner said. "The only upward blip came in 1995, which was a result of the strong year-class spawned in 1994. However, there have been some encouraging signs recently."

From its low in late 1999 and early 2000, the number of red drum per set during the last year has nearly doubled to five fish. In addition, approximately half of the net samples caught at least one red drum, which was a 15 percent increase over the previous year.

"The change in regulations couldn't have come at a better time," Dr. Wenner stated. Anglers are only permitted to keep two fish between 15 and 24 inches, as opposed the old rule of five fish between 14 and 27 inches.

"The 2000 year-class (fish spawned during August-September 2000) appears very strong. With these fish further protected by the new regulations, it should help move the fishery forward," he said.

Despite the good news for red drum, anglers should still be conscious of the resource. Based on another study, anglers should consider circle hooks for red drum, too.

"A study was conducted for red drum in North Carolina that essentially mirrored procedures for the Florida study on seatrout," Dr. Wenner explained. "It indicated there was no mortality for red drum hooked in the mouth with circle hooks. There was 15 to 16 percent mortality on deep-hooked fish using conventional J-hooks. Most fish died from massive blood loss and internal damage.

"The results indicate that correctly using circle hooks for red drum, too, will benefit the population," he emphasized. "If we can incorporate circle hooks into the growing practice of catch-and-release fishing, then our efforts will be even more worthwhile."

It is important to use circle hooks that have the hook in line with the shank. Some companies' circle hooks have an offset hook. If you mistakenly buy those, bend the hook parallel to the shank with pliers before fishing.

Redfish are the most popular inshore saltwater fish in South Carolina, and Capt. Smith is not immune to their appeal.

"During the winter the colder water causes the fish to form large schools," he said. "I try to follow the schools on a daily basis. I like to fish for red drum around low tide because they are easier to find. One of the things I do is take a chart and mark which oyster bars are covered at different tide stages. That way if I don't find the fish before the tide gets too high, I still know where to look."

Smith usually searches prime locations from a poling platform while the other anglers are on the bow pitching artificial baits, such as grubs or jerkbaits.

"The key is locating the schools," Smith said. "What I look for from the platform are swirls of mud as the fish move away from the boat or fish pushing water with their bodies as they move about in shallow water. I call it 'nervous water.' " Hence the name of his charter business.

Once the red drum are located, Smith begins tossing live bait like he does for seatrout. Again, mud minnows are going to be the primary bait that is available during the winter.

There are 10s of thousands of places anglers can wet a line for seatrout and red drum in South Carolina. The myriad creeks just north and south of Charleston Harbor and those around Beaufort or Murrells Inlet are all prime locations. You might have to do some searching at first, but once you catch a fish or two, be certain to remember those spots because the fish will be nearby on the next trip.

Although the South Carolina coast typically has mild winters, anglers should still be cognizant of the weather. You can easily get hypothermia and drown in 50-degree water. Avoid open bays and sounds during windy weather. Staying tucked back in creeks is usually more productive and exciting anyway.

To contact Capt. Champ Smith, call him at (843) 849-8988. He fishes from the Isle of Palms Marina, which is located outside of Charleston, S.C.

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