South Carolina's 2019 Saltwater Forecast
Spring kicks off saltwater fishing for most South Carolina anglers and the bite goes on into fall.
Rearing back hard against the unmistakable strike of a big redfish embeds the hook solidly in its hard jaw and sets off the tug of war that beckons us fishermen to the water. Yes, we’ll release this 8-pound fish because it is too large to keep — but that doesn’t matter. It’s all about the thrill of the battle. If we’re lucky there will be a smaller, slot-limit fish or maybe a trout that we can keep for dinner.
South Carolina’s big three (redfish, speckled trout and flounder) and various other inshore fish are swimming in our waters most of the year, but some months they are easier to catch than others. Below is a game plan for targeting the easiest species to catch at certain times of the year, along with techniques that will greatly increase your odds for success.
Anglers 16 years old and older must have a South Carolina saltwater fishing license unless they are fishing from a licensed pier or licensed charter vessel, but resident saltwater licenses are only $10 and non-residents 14-day licenses are only $11.
Redfish, locally called spottail bass or just bass, are the premiere inshore species. There is no closed season and a slot limit applies, so an angler may keep up to two fish per day that measure between 15 inches and 23 inches, nose to tail.
According to Erin Weeks, media coordinator for SCDNR, stocks of redfish remain good but below the long-term average. The recent bag reduction from three to two fish per day should help stocks improve.
You can catch redfish all year, but some months are just easier than others. Spring and fall are the best fishing months, with April through June being second only to October through December.
Fishing is good in the coldest winter months if the weather and the wind cooperate because the water is very clear, making it easier to find schools of bass bunched up on a low tide flat. Just get a lure in front of the schooled-up fish and you should hook up.
March has its “madness,” an unexplained condition where the fish often won’t bite, not even going after perfectly placed bait or lures, but spottails get very active and hungry for the rest of spring from April through June.
Redfish obviously feed in the hot months as they spread out into the entire tidal zone. Good fishing can be had in flooded grass and on high water spots. Unfortunately they are harder to find in the nutrient rich, cloudy water. But when extra high tides (spring tides) cover hard bottomed flats with a foot or more water, redfish begin tailing for fiddler crabs and wading anglers stalk their prey.
Cooling autumn water swarms with maturing shrimp and small baitfish migrating from the shallow creeks toward deeper water. Redfish then binge feed on the cornucopia before winter’s starvation diet. Superb action continues until cold water shuts down the food supply and slows the fish’s metabolism.
Those who fish with bait know catching redfish is mostly a matter of finding them. Put bait in front of fish without spooking them and most often they will eat. Most bait fishermen use a cork rig for floating a shrimp or minnow over likely spots or a Carolina rig to drag bait along the bottom. Both methods are effective. Popular baits are fresh shrimp, mud minnows, finger mullet and legal-size blue crab pieces.
When fishing with artificial lures a little more manipulation is required because wiggling plastic tails don’t look and often don’t smell like food when they just sit on the bottom. Anglers need to impart action or movement to the lure to fool a fish into striking. A lead-head jig with a plastic or scented trailer is the most often used artificial lure for Low Country redfish. Fished slowly with a bouncing action, it imitates a mud minnow, crab or shrimp scurrying for cover. Retrieved more quickly, it looks like a baitfish fleeing from a predator.
In the spring and fall, redfish are best targeted by sight fishing on shallow flats an hour or so before until an hour after the low tide. The object is to find them before you cast by looking for signals of their presence such as roily water, diving birds, rippled wakes (which are called pushes), or jumping shrimp and minnows. When you spot a school, cast a lure near them and retrieve it quickly to prompt an instinct strike. Until you learn sight casting you can try “blind casting” to productive-looking water such as grass lines, oyster out-croppings or creek mouths. When casting to shoreline structure or grass, make the jig just touch the bottom then hop it back for only a few feet, then reel in for a new cast. The productive strike zone for redfish is normally only the few feet nearest the grass, so there is no need to work the lure all the way to the boat.
August and September along the oceanfront beaches and jetties is where bull reds come to spawn and where beach and surf anglers have shots at truly large redfish. You can’t keep them, but playing with a 20 or 30 pound fish for a while before releasing it is certainly fun. Use large circle hooks with bait to avoid gut hooking these monsters.
Speckled Sea Trout
Our second most sought-after species is the speckled sea trout. There is no closed season for them, but they are difficult to catch in very cold and very hot weather. By far the best fishing months are October through December; the springtime action can be very good too. Trout have a 10-fish-per-day and a 14-inch size limit. Trout populations were not drastically affected by the 2018 winter cold spell and biologists praised anglers voluntary catch-and-release response during last year’s breeding season that will speed full recovery of the stocks.
Trout move around a lot with the tide, so the trick is finding them. Some anglers troll slowly along grass lines while others drift bait on cork rigs or cast to likely spots when searching for fish. Focus on moving, clean water since trout avoid clouded water silted up with sand and pluff mud. They like live bottom areas, marsh edges, grass patches, creek mouths, oyster reefs or outcroppings, and channels. They often congregate in schools so once you catch a fish keep working that area.
The hook set with trout should be more of a gentle sweeping motion rather than the powerful strike used to hook the hard-mouthed spottail bass. Trout have large but much softer mouths.
April through June is spawning time for trout and a great time to catch big roe fish in deeper water near structures such as bridge pilings, rocks and fallen trees. Be conservative during the spawn and return any egg-laden fish to the water.
Flounder, both the southern and summer varieties, move to inshore waters in the spring and stay through the summer. In the fall they move back off shore. The migration periods of early spring and late fall are the best times to fish areas close to the ocean. In summer, focus on historic inshore areas since flounder normally return to those good spots every year. The limit is 10 fish per day and the length limit was raised to a 15-inch total length last year. Flounder stocks are below average but still good.
South of Charleston most anglers catch flounder incidentally or accidentally while casting to likely redfish and trout holding areas, but in the Grand Strand region flounder are a major attraction in the summer.
Flounder are very aggressive, ambush predators; as opportunity feeders they will eat almost anything that swims or floats by, but the larger ones prefer eating smaller fish and fight furiously on light spinning tackle.
Flounder tend to locate on the down-flow side of depressions, creek mouths and points. They like a current flowing over them but prefer avoiding strong flows. They can be found on all sorts of bottom structure including shell, rocks and around rip rap, but prefer mud and sand bottom. Float rigs and bottom dragging rigs are normally used with bait. Targeting flounder with a jig and plastic trailer calls for a little slower and more thorough presentation than with redfish or trout. Casting under docks or near rock rip-rap walls can also produce strikes.
Some sportsmen gig flounder on warm summer nights by shining a bright light on the water and stabbing them with a spear.
Black Drum, Sheepshead, Spanish Mackerel, Cobia and more
Black Drum are bottom feeding fish most abundant in spring through summer on sand and soft mud, live bottoms. They feed on shrimp, crabs and small fish. Larger fish are also found near solid structure such as rock piles bridges and docks.
Sheepshead is the vertically striped fish with big front teeth that look like those of a sheep. They are an excellent eating fish targeted from piers, near dock pilings and rock rip rap. Notorious for stealing bait from fishermen with slow reactions, the most active fishery is in the summer. The most popular bait is a fiddler crab but small pieces of clam or shrimp should also work.
Spanish mackerel are another summer-time, fast-moving, school fish that cause a ruckus on the water surface when they chase bait. They are most often found along rip lines in the middle of a river and over sand bars, and their toothy mouths can cut you off when you accidently hook into one.
Cobia fishing in Beaufort’s Broad River is improving but severe limits are still in place. No fish may be taken from south of Edisto including the Broad River during May. There is still an active offshore venue in federal waters for these hard-fighting brown brutes.
Tarpon fishing has improved in late summer in Beaufort’s Broad river with several specialized guides and big fish enthusiasts having success landing the silver kings.
A relaxing trip dunking small baits for bottom feeding fish like whiting or spots is a delightful way to spend time on the water and come home with dinner. Both are targeted with chunks of fresh shrimp or worms on small hooks. Whiting are often found on the edge of a channel drop-off nearer to the ocean while spots are generally found in more shallow, sand or muddy bottomed estuaries. These little fish are plentiful and easy to catch if you find them and are excellent food fish.
There is always something biting in South Carolina’s inshore waters all year long. Have fun.