The end of the year doesn't mean the end of saltwater fishing along the coast. Here are tactics to take top winter species in South Carolina.
By Walt Rhodes
Arriving at the boat ramp in a fog as thick as a bowl of she-crab soup, I thought I might be an idiot.
It was December and the air temperature hovered in the low 50s. Normally, I can handle that temperature, but the dampness of the fog and the notion of running over 10 miles offshore to go fishing gave me the chills.
My fishing partner was already backing down the boat ramp at Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant by the time I got my stuff out of the truck. The heavy mist moved past me while I held the boat against the pier.
"This fog is kinda thick," my fishing partner said as he appeared from the parking lot like a swamp creature from a bad B-movie.
Despite the early-morning fog, the weather forecast was promising. Winds and seas were expected to remain calm. The fog was supposed to burn off once the sun got done yawning.
We bumbled around the boat for a minute stowing equipment before the offshore run. The depthfinder was on and the GPS was locking itself onto satellites.
I've idled out of Shem Creek many times before a fishing trip, but this morning the creek stood in stark contrast to those warmer weather trips. The sounds of purring diesels from the shrimp boats and many sportfishing boats that line the creek were missing. Instead of slathering on sunscreen at this point in the trip, I was reaching for my winter stocking cap and pulling my fleece collar up around my neck.
By the time we turned into Charleston Harbor, the fog was already starting to lift. Visibility was well over a quarter mile, so we picked up the pace toward the ocean. At the end of the Charleston jetties, a clear Carolina blue sky opened overhead.
With the calm Atlantic laid out in front of the boat's bow, we headed southeast toward an uncharted shipwreck. The January air bit our faces during the 20-minute boat ride, and we hoped that wouldn't be the only thing biting.
The boat was brought to an idle as the GPS alarm indicated we had arrived at our destination. I unzipped my hunting coat and began peering at the depthfinder as my partner drew circles on the ocean with prop wash while searching for the wreck.
When viewed on a depthfinder, the bottom of South Carolina's offshore waters appears more flatlined than the EKG reading of a corpse.
The business end of a sheepshead has no problem at all dealing with fiddler crabs — an excellent winter bait. Photo by Walt Rhodes
If you find a pulse on your depthfinder offshore, you've hit the jackpot. Fish that spot.
The line of the depthfinder suddenly spiked. It looked like the jagged peaks of the Rockies before it went flat again. We gauged the ocean current, and set the anchor accordingly.
We were on our mark. It was time to see if the fish were ready to cooperate.
Fiddler crabs scurried around the bottom of a five-gallon bucket like a swarm of termites. I reached in and grabbed two crabs, one each for my partner and me. With the bait hooked, we each released the bales of our reels, and the sinkers pierced the water, leaving bubble trails as they pulled the baits to the bottom 50 feet below.
The bait was on the bottom only 15 seconds when the telltale tap of a biting fish registered on my rod tip. No need to set the hook, this hungry fish had bowed the rod. After a pretty sturdy fight, I could see the zebra pattern of a jumbo sheepshead.
Although the sheepshead was probably a veteran of this piece of structure, the elder fish appeared newborn and pure. The black and white stripes were sharp and clear, heightening the contrast. The clear winter sun sparkled on the chilled beads of ocean water dripping from the fish.
This fish was the antithesis of a humid bream from summer. The sheepshead, both large and small, continued to bite that day.
An assortment of other offshore species, including a not-so-common lingcod, also inhaled our offerings.
The supply of fiddler crabs was exhausted shortly after lunch. With a couple of fish stowed in the ice chest, we cinched our coats up and started the wind-chilling ride back home.
A steady fish bite is the perfect cure for cold weather and cabin fever. Fortunately, the South Carolina coast offers fish that are usually willing to bite when the thermometer dips below short-sleeved weather.
Sheepshead are one of the most cooperative species during winter. Most anglers encounter sheepshead inshore during the summer when the fish repeatedly steal baits fished near barnacle-encrusted pilings or other structure. Once the mercury falls, there might still be a holdover fish around such areas, but the majority of the inshore sheepshead population has moved to structure offshore.
The nearest inshore structure that consistently holds sheepshead during the winter is the Charleston Harbor jetties. The fish also should be located at the jetties guarding Winyah Bay and Murrells Inlet.
Each of these locations offers opportunities for small-boat anglers. It is imperative that you are cognizant of the water conditions at this time of year, however. The wave that breaches the gunwale and cools you during summer is the same wave that will freeze you to death via hypothermia during winter. You should never chance it, and this time of year rarely offers you a shot at redemption.
Sheepshead around the jetties will eat a variety of baits during the winter. Fiddler crabs are a year-round favorite of sheepshead. Live shrimp are also very attractive this time of year, but they can be expensive at local tackle shops, if you can even find them for sale.
You will need to use a rig that minimizes your chances of snagging the jetty rocks. You can risk using a Carolina rig with about a 2-ounce egg sinker, but an errant cast or the current could lodge your tackle among the rocks. To fish around the rocks, it is better to suspend your bait under a float rig.
Make an 18- to 24-inch leader out of 20-pound monofilament line, and attach a hook to the end of the line while tying the other end to a barrel swivel. Hook size can range from No. 1/0 to 3/0. Although some floats come weighted, if yours does not, then add an egg sinker to the main line under the flo
Use your float to work the entire slope of the jetties. You can cinch the float close to the bait and present your bait nearer to the surface, or lengthen the distance and fish rocks at much greater depths.
As productive as fishing around the jetties is during the winter, greater treasures await offshore. Sheepshead are notorious for their bait-stealing abilities, a trait that seems to continue during winter at inshore sites like the jetties. However, the fish found offshore seem to slam baits.
It is not difficult to find sheepshead offshore during the winter. The fish can be found at the first chunk of structure off the beach to reefs and live bottom areas as far out as 20 miles.
One of the most predictable spots are artificial reefs. These are good spots for anglers new to the area or inshore anglers who are seeking a new adventure.
A complete list of artificial reefs is provided on the Web site of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources at www.dnr.state.sc.us.
Artificial reefs can get crowded during the summer months, but by winter the masses are gone. Usually, the only anglers you will find out there now are serious locals who know what the reefs have to offer during this season. They should be more courteous than the summer yahoos.
It pays to do your homework before heading to an artificial reef. Many anglers mistakenly think the debris is located directly at the buoy marking the reef. There might be some structure there, but usually it is scattered about the reef site in clumps. The coordinates of the various pieces of structure are provided in reef descriptions.
When you arrive at a reef, spend some time searching around the given coordinates. Many times the structure shifts on the bottom. If you find an oddball piece of debris located off to the side, you should be rewarded with under-pressured fish of larger-than-average size.
Correct anchoring is critical after you locate some structure. Pay attention to both the wind direction and current. Plan accordingly to put your boat right over the structure, since your fishing will be directly below the boat.
If you want to target sheepshead offshore, it would be foolish to use live shrimp for bait. The reefs are going to be holding a multitude of different fish species, and more than likely a non-target species will beat a sheepshead to your pricey offering.
Fiddler crabs are going to be your bait of choice if sheepshead are your preference. You might still land other fish, such as gray triggerfish or black sea bass, but the majority of hits will be from sheepshead.
A Carolina rig works fine at artificial reefs. Because you will be fishing straight up and down below the boat, a tandem hook bottom rig is suitable. Use only enough weight to get the rig to the bottom and keep it there. A 2- or 3-ounce bank sinker is suitable under most conditions.
Hook size will be the same size recommended for the jetties. To hook a fiddler crab, simply grab the crab and poke the hook through the crab's abdomen so that the hook barely pokes through the crab's top shell.
Reef structure can be hard on fishing line. A big sheepshead could take you into, or at the very least against, the abrasive reef material.
Most reef anglers use at least 20-pound-test monofilament line or a braided line.
The last piece of recommended equipment is a landing net.
Sheepshead do have teeth, but they are made for scraping and crushing rather than cutting. Even still, the fish has a small mouth that makes lip-locking nearly impossible. You could cradle the fish into the boat, but the ocean water will be cold and a wet sleeve makes for a miserable day.
To make it easy on everyone, including the fish, use a landing net.
Fishing for offshore sheepshead is mainly a live-bait fishery. Unlike sheepshead, some of the species that bite during the Carolina winter will fortunately take an artificial bait. One such fish that doesn't bat an eye at imitation baits is the spotted seatrout, also known as winter trout.
Spotted seatrout bite best during the colder months, as long as it's not too cold. Nearly 50 percent of the tag returns for South Carolina seatrout are recorded from October through January. During a normal winter, seatrout fishing can be very productive. However, if cold weather sets in over a long period and the water temperature dips to and remains in the 40s, a portion of the seatrout population will begin dying.
This happens on occasion, and a recent case was the winter of 2000-01. According to marine biologists with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the seatrout population fell by 80 percent following that cold winter.
Fortunately, the population was large and many age-classes were represented before the freeze, which helped speed the recovery. In most cases, seatrout populations can rebound in about 1 1/2 years.
Seatrout are a structure-oriented fish, like sheepshead. One of the best places to find them is near oyster bars. This type of habitat is attractive to spotted seatrout because many species of crustaceans and small fish collect around oysters, even during the winter. Seatrout will cruise these spots and along the marsh grass edge searching for prey.
Not all oyster bars are created equal, so it pays to know which ones might be more productive than others. Typically, bars associated with creek mouths and points or ones located near a deep dropoff will hold the most seatrout.
Creek mouths act as natural highways for prey moving in and out of the marsh to escape predators. However, when the prey encounters a creek mouth or a point along a stretch of marsh, they become concentrated. Essentially, this feature temporarily impedes their movements. Spotted seatrout recognize this, and will gather in these spots to nab their next meal.
Most seatrout will be found in shallow water during the winter. The fish will spend most of its time in water less than 6 feet deep; however, it prefers having the security of deeper water nearby. Thus, oyster bars that are situated on a flat but near a drop will be attractive to seatrout.
One trip out in the salt marsh reveals that the coast is riddled with oyster bars at creek mouths, points and quiet coves. The only real way to determine if they hold trout is to spend time fishing them. Pick out the most prominent features to start your search. Over time, you will see a pattern emerge for which areas hold fish under what factors, such as tide, wind and time of day.
Opinion on how to fish for seatrout is divided. One guide I know prefers to use live bait to locate seatrout and then switches to artificials, while another guide does the opposite.
Both anglers are successful, so the choice is up to you.
Food habit studies demonstrate that the diet of seatrout, especially large gator trout, consists to a large extent of fish. Finding live bait this time of year can be tough, but you might luck into a school of mullet with the cast net. A second option is to set a minnow trap in a small creek. Live shrimp is another good bait. You can buy these on occasion or find them in very deep holes in the marsh. Ask locals what areas might hold shrimp or consult a navigation chart.
Live bait can be fished under a float rig or with a Carolina rig. The float rig would be best during high tide because this allows the bait to be positioned over the oyster bars, thereby preventing snags. As the tide ebbs, switch to a Carolina rig and land baits near the edges of oyster bars for cruising trout. The Carolina rig will work as well when you are probing for trout in deeper holes or creek channels.
Because finding live bait can be a tricky proposition during winter, carrying artificial baits onboard is a must. Curly- and paddle-tailed grubs are popular baits for seatrout. A red 1/4-ounce head is the standard with preferred body colors being fluorescent green with flakes, chartreuse, motor oil and electric chicken.
Plastic baits that resemble baitfish should be in your tackle box as well. Because most of the fishing will be in shallow water, stay with lipless baits or very shallow-running ones. Black and silver is a good color combination, but don't be afraid to use hot pink or a red-and-white combination.
Seatrout will hit one color one day only to ignore it the next day in the same location.
There are fish to be caught during the temperate South Carolina winters. Spend some time on the water, and you'll see why cabin fever is a rare disease in the Lowcountry.
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