Even with what felt like the early stages of frostbite in my fingers, the subtle tap telegraphing up the thin braided line was impossible to ignore. Then the circle hook found its mark, the line came tight and the redfish bolted for open water. Energized by the cold and well-matched to the light spinning gear, the 25-incher made several strong runs and one last spurt boat-side before we released it.
"Way to break the ice, Dave, pun intended," said Capt. Shane Sinclair. "That was the advance scout coming out of the grass. The main school should be showing up shortly. Once that tide gets lower, they're really going to turn on. When that happens, we'll switch to artificials."
An hour earlier, as we'd left the Isle of Palms marina at 9 a.m. on the run to back bays near Charleston, South Carolina, the temperature was a frigid 28 degrees. The wind chill was worse as we motored along at 35 mph. I wore five layers of clothes, and it was still the coldest ride I've ever had in a boat. Sinclair and I were accompanied by Dylan Wallace, a skilled junior angler who looked like a camouflaged Michelin Man in his hunting coveralls and boots. Capt. Chris Wilson and Dylan's dad, Dave Wallace of Scout Boats, were fishing near us in a companion 191 Scout bay boat. The boats' shallow drafts and roomy casting decks would soon prove their worth. As the tide fell, a maze of oyster bar mounds and soft, dark bottom appeared. Not long afterward, the first coppery shapes came gliding through the shallows.
"Ideal water temperature is around 65 degrees, but it's much lower than that today," Sinclair explained. "These fish come out of the marsh grass as the tide falls, and the bite is good until the water bottoms out. The first couple of hours of the incoming can be good too. The key is moving water."
With dark mud-sand bottom and an abundance of oyster shells, the back-bay habitat acts as a heat sink against the winter chill. Crabs, bloodworms and minnows provide the forage. Averaging 6 to 7 pounds and often weighing in the mid-teens, back-bay reds form schools of up to 100 fish.
A nautical chart of the greater Charleston area reveals the bays and estuaries that can concentrate big numbers of reds throughout the winter. The Intracoastal Waterway is another predictable spot, as the adjacent mudflats also hold fish from November through March.
As the tide dropped and the visibility improved, we switched from bait to lures and moved into open water. Pods of reds fell out of the marsh and feeder creeks to fan out across the shallows. Dylan, a multiple-tourney winner, showed off his skills by catching one redfish after another on soft jerkbaits. "It's amazing that these fish bite in this cold water, but they've got to eat sometime," Wilson said. "You can't use anything flashy or vibrating, though. They spook from spinnerbaits or spoons. It's got to appear natural."
Soft-plastic jerkbaits, paddle-tail jigs and scented shrimp lures in olive, pumpkin, motor oil and root beer are the go-to artificials. Depending on the depth, the lures are rigged weedless or on 116- to 18-ounce jig heads. Walk-the-dog-style stickbaits in mullet patterns are also effective at times. Fly-anglers get in on the winter action too. Gold, brown and copper Toads, Merkin and EP Crabs, Borski Sliders and shrimp patterns are the top flies. Puglisi Mullet patterns also work occasionally.