5 Carolina Saltwater Best Bets
Saltwater angling action in South Carolina
runs at a heart-pounding pace. Try these tactics to score on
five of our most powerful game fish.
By Walt Rhodes
The swirl in the quiet, dingy water reminded me of a day in
Over 20 years before, positioned in the bow of a dented
aluminum canoe, I had nervously watched carp spawning in the
shallows. Each time a fish's coppery back and tail would swirl
the water, I'd raise my bow in anticipation of a shot.
Now the feeling was the same, but the quarry and weapon had
Softly shuffling my feet forward, my eyes scan the flooded
Spartina grass. Up ahead, the tail of a spottail waves
gracefully before disappearing. I cock my casting arm while
moving closer. There's another supple swirl, and I quickly
cast the gold spoon near the fish.
Wading for spottail bass during a tailing tide is a great
summer fishing adventure in South Carolina. The angling
opportunities don't stop there, however.
While waiting for that big tide, anglers can go after
numerous inshore species. Spotted seatrout and flounder, both
excellent table fare, bite extremely well during falling
tides. Once the tide bottoms out, sight-casting to ravenous
bonnethead sharks is a thrill. Or if you're merely looking for
a new angling challenge, spending a late-summer evening
searching for jack crevalle is another twist to Lowcountry
The choices this summer are only limited by your
Speedy and hard-hitting, jacks
can provide a good fight on spinning gear. Photo by Walt
SPOTTAIL BASSHands down, the
most popular inshore saltwater game fish in the state is the
spottail bass. This copper-backed bruiser, which is also
called a redfish, channel bass or puppy drum, has probably
delighted more people than all of the other creek-dwelling
"Most people want to fish for spottails," said Capt. Thomas
Maybank of Beaufort Inshore Charters. "They like the idea of
catching a large fish that fights hard in shallow water."
Thus, no matter the season, Capt. Maybank, who fishes
around Beaufort and Hilton Head Island, is usually in shallow
water looking for spottails.
"In early spring, the water temperature doesn't affect
fishing as much as the wind and sunlight do," he said. "I like
a bright day because it is easier to see a school of fish
working a flat at low water. Of course, they can see you
better, too. But if you have a soft knot wind that creates
ripples, that will help conceal you," he added.
He prefers to fish for spottails around low tide during
early spring when seeing the large schools is easier.
"Once the water temperature begins to warm in April and
May, the groups of fish stay longer along the grass edges. The
water also gets a tinge and the fish aren't as spooky,"
He recommended targeting these fish with live bait.
"Mud minnows are the most common bait I use because they
are readily available. If you can find live shrimp then, it is
usually pretty expensive."
A type of rig Maybank employs when using bait includes a
"corky." It is a strike indicator often used by flyfishermen
who fish for steelhead. He said a good substitute, since the
commercially made ones are hard to find, is the foam earplugs
used by target shooters.
"I normally use a 3-foot-long leader of 20-pound
monofilament line with a No. 2 Kahle hook for my live-bait
rig. I put the indicator about 2 1/2 feet up the line. The
whole rig is subtler than other rigs that use a cork. I've
found that clients have a very easy time hooking fish with
this setup," Maybank said.
As the season progresses, the schools begin to break up,
and Maybank eyes the "tailing tides" that begin at the end of
"Anytime the tide table reads 7.6 feet or above at the
Savannah River entrance, then the tide is suitable for wading
the grassflats," he said.
"I like to fly-fish for tailing fish. I usually keep four
or five flies in my pocket so I'm prepared for the situation.
If a spottail is in more open water, then I'll use an
unweighted fly. If he's in some grass, I'll quickly switch to
a weighted fly because it can burrow down and be within the
fish's line of sight," Maybank explained.
To book a trip with Capt. Thomas Maybank, visit his Web
site at www.beaufortinshorecharters.com or call (843)
SPOTTED SEATROUT"A good trout
spot is an area that has structure and a steep dropoff next to
the bank," said Capt. Rick Hiott of Charleston. "The closer
the deep-water area is to the bank, the better."
Capt. Hiott explained that these locations are attractive
to spotted seatrout because the fish can forage for bait in
the shallower water and use the deeper water as an escape
area, whether they are trying to avoid weather, boat traffic
"I like to fish for trout during an outgoing tide," Hiott
stated. "There is usually a rip that will form as the falling
tide rolls over the structure, such as a shell bank.
"You need to be as quiet as possible when fishing these
areas," he cautioned. "Many times an angler will pull up to an
area, and just throw their anchor overboard. That big splash
will send trout scattering.
"Position your boat on the deep side of the rip, and ease
your anchor overboard," Hiott suggested. "With the boat
stationary, cast across the rip coming off the point. If there
are no hits, move upcurrent. The trick is to move around the
area until you find where the fish are positioned. Some days
they might be on the deep side, whereas other times they are
Capt. Hiott likes to fish these locations with artificial
baits, but types and patterns will vary throughout the
"Early in the morning I use a topwater bait. Later in the
morning, once the sun is up some, you'll have to switch to a
suspending-type crankbait or lure. It should be a bait that
runs no more than about 8 feet deep," Hiott recommended.
"Grubs also work at this time."
His preferred crankbait colors are black and silver, a
glass minnow pattern or chartreuse. Hiott suggested using a
bright-colored grub, such as pearl green and white, on clear
days and a smoky gray with glitter on cloudy days.
"When I'm using a floating crankbait, I retrieve it in a
darting, erratic pattern," Hiott stated. "Once I switch to a
suspending bait, I use a three-second, stop-and-start
retrieve. The retrieve for the grub is (generally) steady, but
occasionally I will stop and start it."
Spotted seatrout are excellent to eat. Anglers should be
reminded that trout populations are still recovering from the
devastating winter kill of 2000-01, and should only keep an
occasional fish to aid in the species' recovery.
Capt. Rick Hiott fishes all of the waters surrounding
Charleston. You may contact him at (843) 412-6776 or log onto
BONNETHEAD SHARKSTalk about
having an identity crisis and not getting any respect.
Bonnethead sharks are abundant and widespread in the state's
inshore waters, but rarely anyone fishes for them, and when an
angler does accidentally land one, they often incorrectly call
it a hammerhead shark.
Outside the educated eye of a professionally trained
fisheries biologist or grizzled angler, the misidentification
by a less-seasoned fisherman is understandable. The flattened
head, with eyes positioned on the ends of narrow wings, gives
the bonnethead a hammerhead shark look. However, there are
telltale differences between the species.
Bonnetheads and hammerheads are related but the
similarities end there. The three species of hammerheads get
exceptionally larger than bonnetheads, often reaching several
hundred pounds. Bonnetheads, on the other hand, rarely weigh
more than 20 pounds.
The head shape between the species differs as well. The
hammerhead's is essentially flat across the front when viewed
from above. The rectangular-shaped extension out of either
side of the shark's head looks similar to the rear wings of
most airplanes. The shape of the bonnethead's head is rounded,
almost half-moon or shovel-like, and the projections out of
the sides of the head are not nearly as prominent.
While the potential does exist to catch a small hammerhead
in the creeks and sounds, you are more likely to hook a
bonnethead due to their abundance and feeding preferences.
Bonnethead sharks are gluttons for blue crabs. Although
they do eat other prey, they seek out and devour crabs like a
pack of NFL linemen would at a Chinese restaurant
Their penchant for blue crabs makes bonnethead sharks very
easy to catch. Bonnetheads patrol the edge of the marsh grass
for crabs during the summer months, using their keen sense of
smell as radar. You are most likely to spot them hunting
during low tide. It is very common to see their dorsal fins
poking out of water only inches deep.
You can pole or use your trolling motor to search shoreline
areas and sight-cast to individual bonnetheads or you can
simply anchor and wait for the sharks to come to you. The rig
is similar with either method.
Your favorite light- to medium-weight fishing rod -
spinning or baitcasting - is suitable for bonnetheads. Line
between 12- and 17-pound-test is sufficient. Make a Carolina
rig by adding a barrel swivel and 24- to 36-inch leader of
A No. 3/0 octopus hook or similar-sized (or even slightly
larger) circle hook will complete the setup. From a
conservation standpoint, a circle hook is suggested because
nearly all of the bonnetheads landed will not meet legal
minimum size. A blue crab quartered or halved is the best
The weight of the bait should be sufficient for casting if
you are sight-fishing. If a small breeze is blowing, you might
need to add a tiny split-shot above the swivel. If you are
going to anchor and fish, adding an egg sinker above the
swivel to keep your bait in position against the tide may be
necessary. A 1/4- to 1/2-ounce size should be ample.
Bonnetheads provide outstanding light-tackle fun during the
summer when other species have the funk from the heat. South
Carolina regulations place bonnetheads in a group of sharks
that has a minimum size rarely achieved by bonnetheads. It is
best to enjoy these guys for their brawn rather than wondering
about their taste.
Capt. Ben Alderman of Mount Pleasant targets bonnetheads
regularly during the summer. You can contact him at (843)
906-3630 or visit www.superflyfishing.com.
JACK CREVALLEJack crevalle
are comparable to bonnethead sharks in many respects. They are
abundant during the summer, are often overlooked, tireless
fighters and usually not eaten. Some anglers might shy from
jacks because they don't envision a jack on their dinner
plate, but one encounter with a jack's determination will
convince even the naysayers that this fish is worthy of
pursuit on the basis of the sport they provide.
Jacks have been likened to a pack of wolves. They are
speedy fish that hunt in large schools. Jacks strike quickly,
and once they do, there's little left of their prey.
Both the schooling nature of jack crevalle and their
hunting tactics are a benefit to anglers. Jacks are tied
primarily to menhaden schools in Lowcountry waters. Their
arrival at familiar haunts comes shortly after the menhaden
arrive en masse, which is typically late May.
Once the jacks are here, fishermen can find them by
searching for schools of fish on the prowl for something to
eat. Jacks have a distinct habit of circling schools of
baitfish, which piles them into a ball, before they attack.
Sharp-eyed anglers can patrol calm coastal waters looking for
circling dorsal fins of jacks poking out of the water as they
When a school of fish is found, anglers will want to be
careful not to cause the fish to sound. Stay back from the
school and make long casts toward the school. Stray too close,
and the pod of fish will dive, never to be seen again.
Jacks have bloody meat. This characteristic makes them
unpalatable, but is suggestive of their powerful fighting
potential. Stout equipment is needed to land one of these
A medium-heavy baitcasting or spinning rod is recommended.
A rod with a sensitive tip is not needed because the bite is
violent; however, a rod with a stiff backbone would prove
valuable. Reels can be equipped with 20- to 30-pound-test
line, and a properly functioning drag is paramount.
You can sight-cast to cruising jacks with live menhaden. If
you don't want to fool with live bait, or can't find any,
large artificial plugs will do the job. Any large,
shallow-diving crankbait that mimics the size and color of
menhaden will suffice.
The jack crevalle fishery in South Carolina is centered
near Charleston Harbor. Most of the fishing takes place above
and below the Cooper River bridges, often far up the Cooper
and Wando rivers at the I-526 bridges. Because of security
concerns and construction of the new Cooper River bridge,
anglers should avoid this area.
The best ramp to access this fishery is located at Remley's
Point in Mount Pleasant. There is a large parking area, and
hungry jacks can often be found within a stone's throw of the
launch. In fact, one of the most consistent places to find
fish is directly across from the ramp in the shipping channel
upstream of Drum Island.
A Charleston-based guide who targets jack crevalle is Capt.
J.R. Waits. You can contact him by visiting www.fishcall.com
or call (843) 509-REDS.
FLOUNDERSpottail bass and
spotted seatrout can become fickle during the heat of the
summer. Flounder, like bonnethead sharks and jack crevalle,
relish the hot weather, but unlike its heat-loving
compatriots, flounder is good on the table.
Fishing piers are a great place to target flounder,
especially if you don't own a boat. There are numerous piers
up and down the coast, and many are located near favorite
family vacation spots.
Tactics to fish piers are basic, but some equipment
modifications are in order. First, you'll need to add a long
piece of rope to your bait bucket so it will reach the water.
Your landing net is useless from such pier heights. You can
either walk a hooked fish to the beach, which is not
recommended, or play the fish into a circular net lowered over
Trolling is the preferred method to catch flounder. From a
pier, you can duplicate trolling by slowly moving up and down
the pier. If it is crowded, cast parallel or under the pier,
and slowly retrieve your bait. Most flounder will be
positioned around the pier pilings looking for prey.
Flounder have big mouths relative to their body size. While
flounder will take shrimp and mud minnows, the bigger fish
prefer finger mullet and small spots. Any of these baits on a
Carolina rig will put flounder on your stringer this year.
Two popular fishing piers are Apache Pier in Myrtle Beach
(843-497-6486) and Folly Beach Pier near Charleston
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