Capt. Scott Wagner whipped his skiff through the winding turns of the narrow creek like a slalom skier completing a challenging course. Exposed mud banks and spartina grass towered overhead, limiting visibility to a few boat lengths. Without warning, the tunnel opened wide, revealing a sizable slough rimmed with oyster mounds and mudflats that dead-ended a half-mile away. The shallow water, protected by the surrounding marsh, was slick calm and exceptionally clear.
“OK, this is the spot,” Wagner said as he killed the idling engine and scampered atop the poling platform while the sun peeked through the clouds. “Let’s take a look around the cane patch and see where the fish are hiding today. It’s time for their brunch.”
The search didn’t take long.
I met Wagner and his friend Ben Austin earlier that morning at a ramp near Tybee Island, Georgia. The Low Country tidal marsh surrounding Savannah and nearby Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, concentrates large schools of redfish during the winter months in the shallow backwater sloughs on falling tides. The dark, muddy bottom acts as a heat attractor, absorbing warmth from the sun. It also holds what little bait remains — mullet fry, mud minnows, bloodworms — which sustains the reds until warmer weather returns. Most importantly, the shallow water serves as a sanctuary from predators.
“Dolphin eat these reds like candy,” Wagner explained as he poled the skiff farther into the slough, “so they have to stay shallow. I’ve seen reds with their backs sticking out of water an inch-and-a-half deep. When it really slicks off, I like to stay put and let the fish come to me. If you move around, you push ’em ahead of you. I like it best when they forget you’re here.”
In these conditions, a quiet, stealthy approach is critical. Wagner’s 18-foot skiff floats in inches of water, and he uses a graphite push pole to minimize noise and get into casting distance. The majority of his clients target reds with a fly rod, but spinning gear is equally effective.
“Falling tides are the best,” he explained. “The fish drop out of the grass and move onto the mudflats. Our negative low tides in the winter concentrate the fish in any remaining pools. Northeast winds push more water into the marsh and scatter the fish. So I prefer a midday low tide with a light northwest wind. Ideally, you want it sunny so you can see. From 9 until 2 is the prime time for the best visibility. You can sight-fish a little before and after that window, but it’s harder to spot fish. You can still cast to wakes, though.”
As we glided quietly toward the left bank, Austin deftly dropped the bronze shrimp fly ahead of a cruising fish. A couple of quick strips was all it took. The red pounced on the fake crustacean and made several short runs before we released it boat-side. Several dozen of his schoolmates knew something was amiss, but it didn’t take long before they resumed their hunt for something — anything — to eat.
Despite the water clarity, Wagner shuns fluorocarbon leaders. Prior to his last decade guiding in Savannah, he guided for bonefish in the Bahamas and has always favored monofilament.
“Fluorocarbon gets too brittle in the winter and breaks off,” he said. “It’s also hard to set knots in, and it slips. I’ve fished some of the clearest water in the world, and if you make a long, accurate cast with a monofilament leader, you’ll get fish to eat. Sight-casting is mainly a reaction strike anyway.” Wagner uses 9- to 10-foot tapered leaders on 8-weight outfits. A weight-forward floating line allows for quick reactions and ideal presentations in the skinny water.
Medium-light spinning gear also works well for Low Country reds. Armed with a 7-foot rod and a 2500-class reel spooled with 20-pound braided line, I released several slot reds after they ate a weedless white jerkbait twitched in front of their noses. Like a fly, the soft-plastic bait lands with a muffled plop so the fish aren’t easily spooked. Wagner rigs his spinning outfits with a 18- to 14-ounce bullet weight ahead of a 5/0 offset worm hook. The hook point rests atop an Exude Slug’s back to minimize hang-ups with the many oyster shells. A 2-foot section of 20-pound monofilament leader completes the rig.
“I don’t like the leaders too long,” Wagner said. “Otherwise the knot tangles in the rod tip and affects casting accuracy. In the winter these fish aren’t leader shy. They’re focused on finding enough food to survive.”
Over the next couple of hours, we caught more than two dozen redfish pushing 30 inches and 12 pounds before the bite finally slowed and we headed back to the ramp for a late lunch. While we were running, Wagner summarized the Low Country fishery.
“There are no secret spots anymore,” Wagner said. “Anywhere there’s shallow water, from Savannah north to Hilton Head, you’ll find schools of redfish in the winter months. Look for flats with mud bottom, hop up and pole. You’ll find ’em. And if you’re quiet and make good casts, you’ll catch ’em too.”
Is it any wonder why more and more snowbirds are flocking to Savannah every winter? They’re not going on a Polar Bear Club outing — that’s for sure. Nope, skinny-dipping reds are the latest Low Country craze.
“I like sinking flies, mainly shrimp and crab patterns in brown, tan and copper,” Wagner says. “Topwater Crease and Gurgler flies work well too. These reds like fast, long strips. They’re keying in on the bait and moving on. But they’ll eat almost anything as long as they don’t know you’re there. If they see something, they strike.”
Rods: 7-foot medium- to light-action for spinning; 9-foot 8-weight for fly-fishing.
Reels: 2500-class spinning reels; large-arbor medium fly reels with 20-pound backing.
Lines: 20-pound braid for spinning; weight-forward floating 8-weight fly line.
Leaders: 112 to 2 feet of 20-pound monofilament leader.
Lures: White or muted natural-color soft-plastic jerkbaits rigged with a 18- to 14-ounce bullet weight and a 5/0 weedless worm hook.
Flies: Sinking crustacean patterns in brown-and-copper tied on with a cinch knot; Crease and Gurgler flies for topwater action.
“You find these fish in the low-tide sloughs from November through February,” says Wagner. “The water temperatures then are normally 45 to 50 degrees. The last two years have been especially cold, so the mullet haven’t been as thick, which keeps the water clearer. Once the water starts warming up in March, these reds will swim around and check out the neighborhood.”
Moon phases and barometric pressure have little bearing on shallow-water reds as long as tide, wind and sun are favorable. At times, Wagner finds schools of big trout — up to 5 pounds — sunning on the mudflats in four to six inches of water on the first warm day after an extended cold front. But that’s not consistent, he says, plus the harsh winters the last two years killed a lot of them. The redfish seem to have tolerated the cold much better.
When: November through February.
Where: Savannah, Georgia, and Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, marshes and estuaries.
Capt. Scott Wagner
Capt. Greg Davis