The Shell Game

When the stench of peeler crabs floods South Carolina backwaters, redfish go on a single-minded feeding tear.

fea_shell1_550x316.jpg

PEEL AND EAT: When the crab bite goes off, redfish will often refuse other offerings.
Photo: Scott Sommerlatte

In the spring of the year, as water temperatures climb, the stench begins to permeate South Carolina marshes. While undetectable by humans, the odor is so overpowering to redfish, it's nearly impossible to resist. The source of the distinctive aroma is shedder or peeler crabs.

Found in brackish waters from Massachusetts to Texas, blue crabs are renowned redfish forage and at no time in their life are they more appealing than during that short period of time in their growth cycle when their shells are soft and their mating pheromones saturate the spartina grass and tidal flats.

"It took a while, but we're on them," Captain Tommy Scarborough of Coastal Georgetown Adventures told me early last April. Scarborough and I were scheduled to fish the coastal Carolina waters near Georgetown the next morning and between the wind and the chill he had been forced to play super sleuth to get in on some redfish action.

Although not nearly as renowned as the giant redfish waters of Indian River Lagoon in Florida or Venice, Louisiana, historic Georgetown, South Carolina, is a red(s) hot angling secret. Lying smack dab between Myrtle Beach and Charleston, Georgetown sits at the confluence of four rivers-the Waccamaw, Black, Pee Dee and Sampit-where they converge on the Intracoastal Waterway.

| |BULL WHIPPED: Captain Tommy Scarborough prepares to release a peeler-caught redfish. Photo: Gerry Bethge| In all, there's more than 50 miles of unspoiled coastline for anglers to explore. Comprised largely of wildlife and waterfowl management areas controlled by the state or federal government, the area has relatively little development. That's a lot of water to fish, particularly when you include the nearby Santee Coastal Reserve, a few miles to the southwest and the sheltered coastal bays within the confines of the Francis Marion National Forest near McClellanville. We opted for this last spot in an effort to get out of the wind.

Shell Yeah!
Although in winter it's not uncommon to find big schools of reds prowling most of the Georgetown area's shallow flats in search of food, warming spring water and the resulting abundance of forage disperse the fish. Now, with food available in great supply, the catching can be difficult. The number-one item on the redfish menu is crabs-more specifically those that are just a day or so away from molting. For many blue claws, the molt seals their fate as reds home in on the pheromone scent and vacuum up the source.

"It's actually a mass shed that takes place for about a two-month period each spring," Scarborough said as I stepped aboard his 22-foot Pathfinder. "The whole population is just coming out of the dormant stage of winter and when the crabs start peeling, it's pretty much all reds want. We'll just pick away at them, and if we can't find any fish, we'll just eat the bait."

Frankly, there was something a bit unsettling about sacrificing one of my favorite seafood meals to the redfish gods, but I got over it quickly.

"There you go," Scarborough shouted moments after I fired a cast far up into the marsh grass. "Is it a thriller (big fish) or a griller (slot fish)?"

The puppy drum battle was far from epic, but getting a fish this early in the game was a good sign.

"Nasty weather with low pressure, heavy winds, muddy water, peeling crabs-I like artificials, too, but these are bait-fishing conditions if there ever were any," he added.

Sign of the Times
Staying on top of the spring shedder bite doesn't happen by accident. It takes a veteran's sense-and a direct line to the commercial crabbers.

| |PLAY THE SLOTS: The South Carolina slot limit on redfish is 15 to 20 inches with a two-fish-per-angler daily bag limit. Photo: Gerry Bethge|

"The local guys at the shedder tables are the first ones to know that it's about to go off," says Scarborough.

Once they do, Scarborough swaps out his artificials for bait rigs. His plain-Jane setup includes 3/0 or 4/0 circle hooks, 1/2- to 3/4-ounce egg sinkers and 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leader.

But what if you just can't bring yourself to soak a shedder?

"You can definitely work artificials during the soft-shell bite if that's what you want to do," says Scarborough. "They probably won't work as well, but I go to Zara Spooks early and late in the day, gold or black Johnson weedless spoons, jigheads, soft-plastics or Redfish Candy."

For a short time on our trip last spring, I gave a wholesale swap to artificials some serious thought. But, just when the crabmeat was starting to look better than our fishing prospects, the tide turned-literally. As water began to rush back through the spartina grass, Scarborough crept the boat through the maze of marsh islands, creeks and oyster bars while I rocketed shedders up onto the flats. The key proved to be targeting casts slightly upcurrent of every fishy-looking spot I saw: oyster points, edges and deep pockets. With my shedder sitting motionless on the bottom, its pheromone-laden scent plume drift-ed to the fish-a bait soaker's delight.

"Let him have it," Scarborough instructed, pointing to my bent rod. "Let him run with it."

I opened the bail, released line and aimed the tip at the red for several seconds before coming tight-the bull rolled instantly at the hookset.

"Man, there's a thriller for you," the skipper shouted. "Just try and keep him out of the grass and you'll be fine."

I did and I was, as was the big bull, which quickly found its way home after a truncated battle. And so it continued until we ran out of peelers. With grillers for the box and thrillers for the memory banks, I marveled at our success despite the conditions.

"It's about time everyone knew about our awesome redfishing," Scarborough said.

I couldn't agree more.

To fish with Captain Tommy Scarborough, call (843) 546-3543 or visit www.captaintommy.com