Beaufort’s Marsh Fishing

Inside the South Carolina Archipelago

Beaufort’s vast marshes and drastic tides offer ample angling opportunities.

From the poling platform, you can always see the channel–on the far side of a maze.
Thomas Maybank graduated from the University of the South, Sewanee two years before the dean handed me a diploma, and his early career inspired me to become the best damn fishing bum I could possibly be. During my junior and senior years, Thomas tormented me with postcards from exotic places where he “worked” as an itinerant fly-fishing guide. He scrawled fish stories on their backs recounting epic battles with species such as Alaskan king salmon, Argentine dorado and Mongolian taiman, and the cards always hinted at the next adventure. He seemed to be on a perpetual quest for an angling paradise, and I lost track of him.

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Last summer, I caught a 43-inch redfish fly fishing in Savannah, Georgia with another old friend, Capt. Scott Wagner. When Scott said, “Wait til I rub this one in on Maybank,” I just about fell out of the skiff. It seems there’s a Low Country rivalry between Georgia guides and their counterparts on the other side of the Broad River in South Carolina, and that Scott and my college fishing buddy are friendly antagonists. Having repeatedly experienced excellent redfishing in Savannah, I wanted to wet a fly line in the Palmetto State. Considering all the places Thomas has fished he surely had settled in Beaufort for a good reason.

On a brisk late-October day, Thomas, Scott and I ran up St. Helena Sound to the Harbor River at the crack of noon. (You gotta love those humongous, Low Country tides; when low water doesn’t happen until late afternoon, they allow for downright gentlemanly fishing hours after a reunion lasts too long.) The river is wider and more sweeping than the Georgia rivers I’ve fished and the watershed seemed at first to lack their diversity of habitats. We flew past many fishy-looking grassy points, but the oyster rakes, mudflats and spartina grassflats that also characterize the South Carolina marshes were still concealed by the flood tide.

To kill time, we stopped where a creek led from one sun-splashed pond to another and worked the mouth for speckled trout. The tide was dead high and the only motion came from a dazzling glare on the wind ridges. Bouncing a Clouser Minnow like a jig off the dropoff quickly yielded a couple of slot-sized trout. Scott and I were content; despite the fact that seatrout fight only slightly better than the French, light tippet has a way of communicating that sharp, initial trout tug so directly that a picture of the ambush forms in the mind’s eye.

After a couple of fish, Thomas told us to change to lighter redfish flies. There was a sense of urgency in his voice that Scott understood. Both Georgia and South Carolina marshes experience tides that exceed 9-foot fluctuations. High water allows for short cuts to hotspots, and, you can’t fish too late into the outgoing tide unless you enjoy skiff camping.

“ Listen to it run,” Scott said. Indeed, by the time I’d changed flies, oyster clusters poked through the surface, and the water hissed around them. While clipping off the tippet’s tag end, an oyster started a belching contest that carried on across the bay as more and more of the mollusks were exposed. (And that’s exactly what they’re doing; without water passing through their siphons they suck air into their innards and must expel it.) We made a 10-minute run up a creek not much wider than the skiff and one channel in a labyrinth. As we ran, the oyster mounds seemed to rise higher and higher out of the skinny water. A seemingly infinite number of round shallow basins form between these monumental mounds—which to the best of my knowledge aren’t found in the complex but open Georgia marshes.

“There’s danger around every corner,” Scott said. “I wondered how much Thomas spends per year on gelcoat.”

There were plenty of redfish around the corners, too.

When the clear tide suddenly ran streaked with mud, Thomas jerked the boat off a plane. He poled around the corner into a basin teeming with redfish. Blue-tinged tails waved with brown mud and black oyster shells in relief. Scott, who spends most of his time guiding anglers to fish, looked eager as a sailor on furlough.

“Show us how it’s done, Scotty,” I said. He fell short with his first cast, and as the white bucktail streamer plopped down, an oyster belched as if booing. Boy, Scott showed that oyster. With his next cast he placed the fly amongst three tails and threw a last-second reach into his cast so the fly line landed to the right of the fish. When the fish are nose down, you can get away with such an aggressive presentation. After a vigorous strip, the three reds must have head-butted each other charging it. The winner raced upstream and around a mound, so Scott raised the rod high overhead just as I have seen him do a thousand times fighting reds in the Savannah marsh grass. Only marsh grass doesn’t peel the coating off of fly lines.

While Scott’s redfish fought in the next basin beyond a wall of mud and oysters, we watched the rest of the school settle in the basin above that one. Taking turns on the bow, we followed the school for several hours and the school joined other schools and then those schools joined others until we finally pinned them in a basin with only one outlet. Thomas hooked a final fish there, and it charged under the boat along with the entire huge gaggle. From the platform, I watched school after school churn through the maze.

By then, the tide was more than halfway out, so we relocated to broader basins closer to the channel where there was less chance of getting stuck. The low mounds and expansive basins gave us a view of Horse Island, and of a scene that is quintessential South Carolina. A dense, mossy hammock of centuries-old live oaks gives way to a rim of spartina grass that falls off into marsh grass and then oyster rakes. A small herd of marsh tacky horses, the ancestors of which date back to the colonial era, browsed the salty spartina grass. Occasionally, a bronze tail waved in the foreground. But, cloud cover had ruined the light.

“Make casts along the edges of the oysters,” Thomas said. “But throw a reach in your line so you don’t line any fish holding along the edge between us and where the fly lands.”

When blind casting along shorelines and bars, it is best to use spinning tackle and weedless jerkbaits or weedless spoons. You can cover much more water more quickly by casting parallel to the shore and retrieving the lure with the rodtip held high so that most of the line is out of the water and unlikely to run across a fish’s back. But we had no conventional tackle on board, so we relied on reach casts for a proper angle. Reach casting is simple: Make your cast parallel to the shoreline and as the leader turns over at the end of the loop lift the rodtip high and away from the shoreline. We shortened our leaders to about seven feet and switched to weedless spoonflies for this application. They are extremely wind resistant, and so not the easiest of flies to cast, but their brightness and fluttering action make them excellent prospectors. The first redfish I caught using this technique hit the spoonfly so hard it knocked the epoxy out of the wire frame.

“Why, those Savannah fish seem downright lethargic by comparison,” I teased Scott, who also goes through tons of epoxy.

We released a couple more redfish before the little eddies behind the clusters of oysters disappeared, and after such a superb afternoon, slack tide seemed like an invitation to cocktail hour in quaint, historic downtown Beaufort. Sipping cocktails under a live oak, I realized fully why my peripatetic fly-fishing buddy settled here. He talked about South Carolina’s successful conservation programs compared to the neighboring states, including the two-fish limit, the scientifically derived slot sizes, and an outstanding stocking program. But, he met his wife here on a visit, plus his ancestors come from the area. And, while gentility permeates the town atmosphere, an immense marine wilderness—more water than you could possibly explore in a lifetime—surrounds it. Thomas Maybank’s easy disposition fits in well here, and the bountiful waters give his free spirit ample freedom.