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.
“There are a bunch of baby stone crabs hiding amongst the oyster shells,” Wilson explained. “That’s the primary food source for these fish. Later in the day, though, as the sun warms up, we also catch reds that are full of bloodworms. So they’re scrounging for whatever they can find.”
Wilson, who has been guiding in the greater Charleston area for 14 years, said the days immediately before and after a passing cold front are some of the best times to target Low Country winter reds. The moon phase doesn’t seem to affect the bite as long as the water is moving.
“Once the tide hits dead low, the bite usually turns off,” Wilson added. “The fish then like to hunker down in the channels and cuts between bars, where they’ll still feed occasionally. But my favorite time is this falling tide, when the visibility clears and you can sight-cast to hungry fish.”
True to form, as the temperatures warmed and the tide kept falling, the reds turned on aggressively. Double and triple hookups were the norm on dark-colored jerkbaits and Gulp! New Penny shrimp. With more than 40 fish recorded between the two boats and barely enough water to float the hulls, we idled to the main channel for the return trip to the marina.
The next morning was another crisp, bluebird winter day, albeit not quite as chilly. My hosts were Scout’s James Pate and Capt. John Crislip. The bite was on again as soon as we got into position in the middle of the large bay.
**”My biggest backcountry red is 23 pounds,” Crislip told me between strikes. “The ‘teenagers’ are up close in the shallows, while the bigger fish prefer the deeper water. But you never know what’s on until you get the fish close. I’ve caught a 13-pounder one cast and on the next hooked a little rat. It’s all good, though, when they bite this well.”
As on the previous day, Dylan was top stick, with a 14-pound trophy among his tally. Shortly after we released that fish, we all watched as a bottlenose dolphin ran it down and crushed it between its jaws. The dolphin threw the big red in the air like a beach ball before finally eating its catch. We called it quits after that.
“This is definitely the best flats fishing in South Carolina,” Crislip boasted on the ride home. He wasn’t getting an argument from us. One-hundred slot reds in two days will warm the spirits of any saltwater sportsman.
Charleston, South Carolina
What:** Red drum.
When: November through March.
Where: Charleston area back bays and tidal marshes.
**Capt. Shane Sinclair
Capt. Chris Wilson
Capt. John Crislip
Rods: 71/2-foot medium graphite spinning rods with fast action, like the Shimano Teramar or Quantum Cabo Inshore; 8- to 9-weight fly rods, depending on the wind and size of the flies.
Reels: 3000-class spinning reels, such as the Shimano Stradic, Daiwa Coastal or Penn Slammer; 8-weight fly reels that hold at least 100 yards of backing, like those made by Tibor, Ross or Temple Fork Outfitters.
Lines: 10-pound braided line with a fluorocarbon leader ranging from 12- to 30-pound-test, depending on water clarity.
Baits: Brined dead finger mullet (or live if available) or quartered chunks of blue crab.
Lures: Weedless jerkbaits, paddle-tail jigs or scented shrimp baits in dark colors like olive, pumpkin or root beer on 1/16- or 1/8-ounce jig heads. Topwater plugs in mullet patterns, such as MirrOlure Top Dog, Rapala Skitter Walk or Heddon Zara Spook.
Flies: Gold, tan, brown or copper Borski Sliders, Toads, Merkin and EP Crabs, and shrimp patterns. Puglisi Mullet flies are also sometimes effective.
|Winter reds are drawn to scent, and no bait puts out more than crab, Sinclair says. Cut the legs off of a fresh blue crab, quarter it and pin a piece to a 2/0 circle hook. Soaked on the bottom, it is irresistible. Live finger mullet or brined dead finger mullet are good substitutes. Sinclair hooks his through the hard part of the nose with a No. 2 hook. He uses a couple of feet of 30-pound monofilament leader for either bait rig and connects the hooks with clinch knots.|
| | To mimic the natural action of bloodworms, a mainstay in the winter redfish diet, Sinclair downsizes his lures. He casts a 1/16-ounce jig head hooked into the nose of a dark-colored D.O.A. C.A.L. paddle-tail grub ahead of cruising fish and lets it sit. The light jig head holds the bottom, while the tail stands up in the current and undulates. Slow, occasional twitches of the rod are the only action necessary with this setup.|
| | Back-bay redfish are wary in the clear winter water. When fly-fishing, Wilson lengthens his leaders to 12 feet and downsizes to 12-pound tippet and smaller flies. Tan, brown and olive EP Crab flies in sizes 2 and 4 are Wilson’s favorites. He ties one on using a loop knot to maximize the action and retrieves with a strip-strip-pause rhythm before letting the fly sink. “The fish usually eat it as it settles on the bottom,” he says.|
| | Muted, natural shades of D.O.A. standard 14-ounce shrimp work well for wary winter redfish. Gold glitter, olive and root-beer shrimp hopped slightly with light twitches of the rod tip draw strikes as they flutter along the bottom.|
| | Midday, when the tide is higher, cast topwater plugs, says Wilson. That’s when the fish are active and likely to chase a surface bait. Look for reds sunning themselves on top of heat-holding oyster bars. A walk-the-dog cadence will draw strikes, but the action must be subtle. Typically the strike comes when the lure is sitting still between twitches.|
| | If reds are reluctant to bite stationary baits, Crislip switches to Gulp! jerkbaits rigged with weedless hooks. These lures let him cover more water and can be worked faster than shrimp. Crislip recommends hopping the jerkbaits slightly, following with a short pause and repeating the sequence.|