South Carolina saltwater fishing can be great in inshore creeks and estuaries, which are teeming with fish.
By Capt. John Gribb
It's summer in South Carolina and the weather is perfect for cruising Low Country waters and casting to our plentiful game fish. Unfortunately, while the weather is perfect for cruising and casting, it is not necessarily perfect for catching lots of our favorite game fish like spottails, speckled trout and flounder. But people still want to go fishing and here are hints to make those trips more successful.
We do-it-ourselves-type anglers can take a lead from the guys who are paid to find fish and make outings enjoyable. It pays to be flexible and target what's biting. First off, the best time to fish during the summer is in the morning when it's cooler and there is less chance of pop-up thunder storms. Since many Low Country anglers focus on spottails (red drum, redfish) they often begin their day looking for them.
If you find some and they are biting, stick with it, but when the action slows, consider moving to edges, points, mud flats or deep structure to cast for trout or flounder, while also scanning the area for signs of ladyfish, small jacks or Spanish mackerel. The goal is to make the trips about catching fish and having fun.
So let's look at how and where you and I can catch hot-weather Low Country spottails. Low tide flats are most productive because inshore redfish spend most of their feeding time in water less than 2 feet deep, and on the low tide flats they almost always roam in schools. Seasoned fishermen can spot reds even in the cloudy, hot-weather water. You won't often see actual fish but may catch a glimpse of flashing bellies, V-shaped wakes, nervous water that looks different than the surrounding water, or you will see the jumping shrimp and minnows hat are desperately trying to escape being eaten. Spottails are very active in summer, growing bigger and stronger each month, and they readily strike well presented baits and lures.
During moving tides, in and out, and during high tide periods, spotting redfish is more difficult — but they are not necessarily more difficult to catch. Bait fishermen often have success on moving tides, when the fish are transitioning through grass and oyster edges, by floating a shrimp or baitfish on a cork. At high tide, redfish spread out and they are harder to find in deep water but easier to spot on shallow, high tide flats.
With its obvious appeal to boatless anglers, wade fishing on high tide, in flooded flats, has boomed in popularity among light tackle spin fishermen and fly casters. When summertime full and new moon tides flood a foot or more of water onto hard bottomed flats, redfish enter in great numbers looking for fiddler crabs and other edible critters.
According to expert John Holbrook, a good wading flat has a hard bottom, short spartina grass, two or more entry and exit spots, access to deeper water and the presence of lots of fiddler crabs. Once you have identified a likely flat, Holbrook suggests arriving a couple hours before high tide to watch how the water comes onto that flat. As the water floods into the intermediate weed line — that area of medium-height spartina grass and soft mud bordering the hard bottom flat — look for small channels forming. These are the likely paths the fish will use entering and leaving the flat. Bait fishermen can succeed by floating a minnow on a cork along this grass line.
When fish come on the flats it becomes a game of cat and mouse for the angler. Once you are within range of fish, Holbrook suggests casting well ahead of cruising fish or very close to tailing fish and then moving your fly or jig very little until you feel a strike. Spin fishermen can use the "Gulp!" imitation molting peeler crab or a real crab on a 1/0 circle hook with two medium split shots up the line for casting to these high-tide fish. Casting 6 feet beyond them and very slowly cranking back should get you a strike.
The thousands of kayaks in the Low Country mostly tote trekers through our beautiful estuaries viewing flora and fauna, but they make pretty good fishing boats too. You can fish from them directly, as many people do during slack tides, but moving water and wind push them around easily. Alternately, they make a wonderful tool that expands high tide wade fishing opportunities. Launching your kayak near a prime high tide flat and paddling into position, then anchoring the boat is the way to start. If your first flat proves barren that day simply hop in and paddle to another area, even across deep creeks or broad expanses of tall spartina and pluff mud, giving you access to places that a walking angler get to.
SPECKLED SEA TROUT
Speckled sea trout don't like the heat of summer, so fishing early or late in the day is a key to catching them. Try casting to grass or shell banks with top water lures or a jig and trailer. Accept the fact that any action this time of year will likely be spotty and short-lived. Unlike late fall when schools cruise the shallows, trout, especially the larger ones, prefer deeper water related to structure such as bridge pilings, rocks, fallen trees. They also favor water along shell banks that reach out from points, especially creek mouths.
For deep-structure presentations, trout will hold very near or on the bottom. Try a slip float and long leader or a Carolina rig and 1/4-ounce weight with a large, 3- to 5-inch finger mullet (or the biggest mud minnows you can find) strung onto size 3/0 Kahle hook.
Flounder in our shallow water estuaries are very aggressive. Ambush predators, they only appear docile as they lie camouflaged and motionless on the bottom waiting for prey to swim close by. When food comes by, they are anything but docile, however, attacking prey and, when jabbed by sharp steel, fight furiously on light spinning tackle or a fly rod.
Flounder are everywhere along our coast but the best summer flounder fishing, according to Brad Floyd, fisheries biologist for SCDNR, is in the Grand Strand area. Anglers typically drift with the tide through inlets like Murrells, Cherry Grove or Hog, dragging live bait. He advises that when you get a strike, mark the location and go through again and again because you have found a good spot. Flounder return to essentially the same areas every summer — they drift in and out with changing tides, but do not move very far until they go back out to sea in the fall. Mark any good flounder spots on a GPS or map and it will probably be good for years to come.
Flounder like current flow that brings bait to them, so look for them where water flows across something such as an oyster rake or sand bar. Also check out the down current side of creek mouths, even very small ones, and points. Flounder will hold on all sorts of bottom structure including shell, rocks and around rip rap, but mud and sand bottom is easiest to fish because there are less hang ups. For casting anglers, drag likely areas repeatedly with your lures because flounder do not chase too far. Blind casting under docks or near rock rip-rap walls can also produce strikes.
For those who normally fish with bait, targeting flounder on sandy bottom and shell bottom require a different approach. In smooth bottom conditions where hang-ups are not a problem, a Carolina rig with a mud minnow or finger mullet works well. Anchor in a good-looking spot and cast all around the boat. When working over shells or where hang-ups are likely, however, try using cork rigs adjusted so the bait rides just above the bottom.
Pier fishing is productive at times and there are lots of public piers along the coast. Some are free and open to anybody with a SC saltwater fishing license, while other charge a fee to fish but you do not need a license for them. Biologist Floyd suggested Cherry Grove Pier, Apache pier, Second Avenue Pier in Myrtle Beach, Folly Beach Pier and the Mount Pleasant Pier as productive spots for flounder, spots, trout, sheepshead and other species at various times of the year. Many of the fee-based piers have restaurants, entertainment and sightseeing activities for family members not interested in fishing, along with rod rentals and bait for sale.
Our local blue crabs are one of the delicacies of the seafood world, but in spite of the crab's revered reputation, anyone with a South Carolina fishing license and a string with a chicken neck can catch a bucketful and enjoy them for free. Just walk down to a public dock or shoreline and catch your own. There is no limit on the number of crabs you can keep but they must be 5-inches wide, from point to point on the body, and any females with visible egg masses, called sponges, must be released unharmed.
Though the commercial square traps are the most efficient way to catch crabs, there are many other devices and contraptions that do the job well and are more fun. The simplest and least expensive is the string and chicken neck method. Any old piece of string tied to an oily bait (chicken necks being standard and cheap, but fish heads are wonderful) with a sinker to get it to the bottom will catch crabs. Drop the bait to the bottom and in a couple minutes slowly pull it back up. A crab will be hanging on if they are in the area. Slide a net under the crab and transfer it to your bucket. Do not put water in your bucket or the crabs will suffocate and die.
Progressing up the ladder of crab catching sophistication, are the various basket style traps. There is the round, floppy basket, the square, drop-sided basket and the pyramid-shaped, drop-sided basket, all of which work in the same way. You attach some bait to the bottom and throw the basket into shallow water where the sides fall open and lay flat to the ocean floor. After a few minutes you lift up on the basket rope, which pulls the sides back up to entrap the crabs. It's great family fun and good eating.
Shark fishing from small boats with medium to heavyweight tackle provides action when all else fails. Two small shark species predominate our near-shore, shallow water. Most gradual sand flats are summertime home to Bonnethead sharks that cruise with their dorsal fins and tails showing in very shallow water. Bonnetheads don't get too large so regular spinning tackle used for redfish and a circle hook with a crab or chunk of fish will handle them. Commercial Carolina rigs, the kind with egg sinkers and wire, work just fine as do homemade, heavy monofilament rigs with slip sinkers. Circle hooks work best especially when rods are secured in rod holders.
The second most common shark is the Atlantic Sharpnose, which anglers target in 20 to 30 feet of water over irregular, hard bottom and structure. These deeper water sharks require a stout rod and are not recommended for novices.
Catching sharks is not difficult; handling them is a little trickier. They are not slippery and small ones can be safely grasped behind the head while removing the hook. Bonnethead and sharpnose sharks are good to eat but most people release them.
BOTTOM FISH &
SMALL CHARTER BOAT FISHING
Small charter boat, near-shore fishing over the many sunken wrecks and artificial reefs along our coast, offers mixed bag chances for experienced and novice fishermen. Do-it-yourself owners of sea worthy crafts regularly travel to the wrecks, often welcoming friends willing to share the gas expense, but many small boat charters operate for hire from local marinas. These charters, often called "six pack" boats because they can legally take up to six clients, target bottom fish such as sea bass, porgies, spade fish and small sharks. Designed for families or small groups, they provide an interesting 4 to 6 hours on the water with a good chance of fresh fillets for supper.