Seasonal Overview of Saltwater Fly Fishing in South Carolina
Beginning in early Winter and throughout the colder months until March, it is not uncommon to see huge schools of Redfish grouped in numbers reaching into the hundreds. The water gets very clear this time of year. Sight fishing to these large schools of redfish is exciting. This can be some of the best fishing of the year.
Beginning in Spring, extremely high tides, called “tailing tides” by locals, take place at the new and full moons of each month. These tides, which average from 6-18 inches above the mean tide, enable the angler to access the flooded Spartina grass. Redfish are now feeding on bottom-dwelling marine life, especially crabs. As they feed, they appear to be doing “head stands,” exposing their tails tike a waving flag, almost seeming to welcome anglers.
As Summer temperatures rise in the Lowcountry, the warmer local waters lure in additional species. The angler can see great action during these months, with Spanish Mackeral, Bluefish, Ladyfish, Cobia, and big Tarpon making their way in and around Charleston’s harbor and jetties. Reds and Sea Trout continue to be caught, while schools of potential IGFA world record Jack-Crevalle enter our waters and remain into September.
In the early Fall, the water temperature begins to drop, and the Reds begin to school in great numbers on shallow water mud flats. They can easily be spotted by birds flying above the schools as the Reds gorge on shrimp. This is the time of year that we commonly catch redfish on poppers. The size of the fish and school will usually vary, however, it is not uncommon to see teeming schools consisting of 25, 50, or more fish. They also can be sighted pushing large wakes. The large spawning fish which run twenty to sixty pounds can also be targeted in the surf and structure just offshore. Large numbers of Speckled Trout can be caught this time of year as well.
Places to Look for Redfish – by Jamie Dickinson
Along the coast of South Carolina, from the Savannah River in the south to Winyah Bay near Georgetown, there’s a superb fishery that is continually being developed and discovered by the fly fishers of the Low Country. The bays and estuaries along the Intracoastal Waterway-where the black waters of the Edisto, Ashley, Cooper, and Santee Rivers meet the Atlantic-create a perfect environment for the “puppy drum.”
When I moved to the Carolinas in the early 1990’s I was distressed that I was leaving behind the recovering striped bass fishery of New England. After my first visit to Charleston, South Carolina my fears of not having good saltwater fly fishing nearby were quickly dispelled. Mike Abel of Haddrell’s Point Tackle & Supply in Mt. Pleasant, just across the river from Charleston, introduced me to the teeming marshes and creeks of the Low Country-and to the redfish. The most notable thing about this fishery is that it will produce redfish 365 days a year, and there are three or four other species to be found in the same waters. This fishery is every bit as good as its more famous cousins to the north and south. The wonderful sights and sounds of Charleston, with its history, unique bed and breakfast inns, and dozens of superb restaurants, are a perfect base for a foray into the waters that surround the city.
I met Mike Abel in 1991, and in the fall of that year he informed me that the redfish action was about to start picking up. This seemed unusual to me because at this time of year the saltwater fishing in New England is beginning to shut down. But off we went into the creeks and salt marshes behind Isle of Palms in the kind of flats boat you’d expect to find in Florida.
That first trip was spent chasing schools of redfish that were up in the spartina grass due to an extreme high tide. As the water fell out of the grass the fish moved out onto mud flats and cruised the edges looking for bait. The most effective flies were those that had some weight-Clouser Minnows, Bendbacks and Seaducers with lead wire underbodies-and flies with a lot of sparkle as well as rattles. The most important thing I learned on that trip is that redfish look down. Mike and his friend Gary Visser were out-fishing me two to one until I figured out that if your fly is not down on the bottom you’re really not fishing. After I changed to a heavily weighted chartreuse and white Clouser, and bumped it along the bottom, things improved dramatically.
The next few excursions to Charleston were during the late fall and winter. As with any fishery that runs through the winter, you have to keep one eye on the Weather Channel. Avoid the cold fronts that will shut down the fishing if the water temperatures drop too quickly, or stay too cold for an extended period of time. The one thing that sets this fishing apart from what you’ll find here in the late spring, summer, and early fall is that the water has really cleared up. This means that there’s a great opportunity for sight fishing. There will not be a lot of tailing fish, but there will be schools of fish cruising the shallows. If there are a few days of warm weather the fishing can pick up dramatically.
The cool water temperatures may make it necessary to slow down your presentation and retrieve. If you move the fly too fast the fish simply will not pick it up. But if you can get the fly in front of the fish they’re usually in the mood to eat. Also, if it’s extremely cold you’ll need to pay attention to reviving the fish before releasing them. If you simply drop the fish back in the water it is probably not going to survive.
The next serious attempt we made at fishing for reds was in June in the Ashley and Cooper Rivers surrounding the peninsula that is Charleston. During the months of June and July, jack crevalle show up in Charleston Harbor, and fish up to 40 pounds have been caught on fly rods. That was very interesting, but what really got my attention was that these fish were being caught on poppers! The plan was to fish two or three hours of falling water for reds, our primary targets, then move out into the bays to look for the jacks, finishing the day with a few more hours of fishing the edges for reds.
After a 20 minute run from the boat ramp we arrived at the first mud flat. It was 200 yards long, and 100 to 150 yards across from the grass to the main river channel. At the north end was an old broken up rock jetty, and the south end was marked by a grassy point with three oyster bars extending out towards deeper water. The largest one had a few old pilings sticking out of it. Between the two ends of the flat the water was 10″ to 20″ deep. We moved up onto the flat near the rocks and immediately saw a few fish milling around in the shallows. We picked up a couple of spunky small fish near the edge of the grass, but it wasn’t until we were half way down the flat that things got really interesting. A wake from a boat in the main channel moved up onto the flat and as it did it startled a school that must have had 200 fish in it.
There were actually too many fish. There were singles, cruising pods, tailing fish, and groups chasing bait. With the morning sun at our backs, we could see into the water quite well enough to count spots on tails and see tags on fish behind their dorsal fins. As we moved down the flat we kept spooking fish, which in turn spooked more fish, and it finally got to the point where fish were swimming in circles scaring each other! The fly of choice was again a medium weight Clouser Minnow. The technique that really worked was to let the fly sink a couple of seconds before making deliberate 18″ strips with a short pause in between each one. The redfish on this flat were in the mood to eat. When a fish charges the fly it’s important to keep stripping until you can feel him, and then set the hook by stripping and sweeping your rod to the side.
That afternoon, as we unsuccessfully searched for the schools of Jacks, Mike explained an interesting technique to use when the reds are feeding on crabs. When you find a fish, pod, or school that is tailing and rooting around in the grass, cast your crab imitation relatively close to the fish. When the fish hear the fly hit the water with a gentle “plop” they’ll swim over to investigate-and you simply do nothing. Just make sure that there’s no slack in your line. The fish will look at the fly sitting on the bottom, and when it doesn’t move, stick his head down in the mud and eat! This works because a crab’s natural reaction to a predator is to hunker down and try to look like the bottom. Think like a crab, and don’t move your fly.
As we moved down the flat we kept spooking fish, which in turn spooked more fish, and it finally got to the point where fish were swimming in circles scaring each other!
The pioneers of this fishery can be found in and around Charleston and Hilton Head Island. In the Charleston area the most complete fly fishing outfitter is actually in Mt. Pleasant, just across the Cooper River. Haddrell’s Point Tackle & Supply (803-881-3644) is located on the way to Sullivan’s Island, where the new I-526 connector meets Ben Sawyer Boulevard. Some of the best guides in the area work out of Haddrell’s Point.
In the Hilton Head area there’s a new store that actually isn’t on the island, but has one of the most interesting product mixes I’ve seen. Low Country Outfitters (803-837-6100), run by Tavers Davis, is on the left before the bridge onto the island. Here’s a place where you can talk fly fishing or bird hunting, and top it off with a high quality cigar!
This list is only intended as base point of reference for the fly angler traveling the southeast coastline.
by Farrow Allen
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815 Bay Street, Beaufort SC, 29902, 877-501-5001
885 Ben Sawyer Blvd., Mt. Pleasant, SC 29464, 800-881-5201
654 Saint Andrew’s Blvd, Charleston, SC 29407, 843-571-3899
2227 Augusta Rd · Greenville, SC 29605 · (864) 370-3474