In the pitch black of the bedroom, I hesitated to look at my phone. I knew that once I did, it would be even harder to fall back asleep. But at this point, it didn’t matter. My eyes were wide open and my mind was already running at full bore. 4:15am. Almost two hours before my alarm was set to go off. Well, no surprise there. I never get a full night’s rest before a big, long awaited day of fishing. Even less if it’s a guided trip. And if the day in question involves targeting a new species, one that has been on my bucket list for a while now. Shoot, I’m lucky if I get three consecutive hours of shut-eye. Sleep or no sleep, my excitement was palpable. Because today was the day I would finally go hunting Redfish. And in Charleston, SC to boot.
On the Water with Capt. Harry Tomlinson
By the time we launched Captain Harry’s 17’ Maverick HPX Micro skiff, the sun had been up for well over an hour. But there was still a significant chill in the air, especially by South Carolina standards. The water was glass calm as we blasted across a large, open bay to our first fishing spot. Since Ben (my brother-in-law) and I had never fished for reds before, we immediately started peppering Harry with questions. His answers were straightforward, concise and usually laced with a bit of humor. A delivery of knowledge that I always appreciate in a guide.
Our first stop, a wide channel interspersed with sporadic grasses, gave us a good idea of how fast the tide was dropping. We could see a steady current emptying the area. But with no signs of reds tailing or feeding, we moved on quickly.
Harry pointed the skiff across the lagoon towards a small inlet. Without losing any momentum, we entered the narrow tidal creek. As Ben and I exchanged skeptical looks, the stream quickly bent 90 degrees. Harry cranked the steering wheel with surgical precision and the boat did a perfect power-slide, gliding within inches of the grassy bank. Back and forth we went through this liquid luge. It reminded me of skiing trees back in Colorado. At the creek’s terminus, the water opened up into large marshy area pocketed with small pools. Here, Harry killed the engine, removed the 24’ push pole from the side of the skiff and hopped onto the poling platform. The stalk had begun.
Redfish in the Shallows
After several calculated moves with the push pole, the skiff was gently floating through prime redfish habitat. And about 45 seconds later, Harry locked in on our first reds. He gave Ben the direction and distance for his first cast and it was game on. Over the next two hours, that whole area was a hot spot. I can’t even remember how many reds we saw and casted to, learning a little more with each miscalculated strip, spooked fish, botched cast and subtle strike. As we honed our presentation, retrieve and sets, Ben and I eventually put reds in the boat. Looking back on it now, we should have landed at least a half dozen more each. But that’s how it goes. Operator error had a lot to do with it. But there were also plenty of moments when we did everything right and the fish refused or became disinterested.
On the Move
During our fishing frenzy, the tide continued to drop. We could see the grass getting taller as the water got lower. It was time to get out before we were marooned in the marsh. We exited the same route we came in as that was the only option. Now though, the width of the creek had tapered significantly. And the water was moving faster, resembling the streams we were accustomed to out West. Around a corner, Harry spotted some more reds feeding in the current directly below a cut bank. He maneuvered the skiff into a small eddy as Ben and I began to cast. We both had a few strikes. But from our up-stream position, our sets were pulling the fly right of their mouths. No luck…no big deal. We moved on.
Once we got back out into open water, Harry set our next plan into action. We hauled ass across an enormous bay area (which I later found out was actually a river). And as we made an elongated arch around a large, wooded island, we passed several surfacing dolphins. It was a sweet little bonus for us freshwater folk. On the far end of the island, a hooked sandbar jetted out into the flats. This created a partition between the open, deeper water and shallow area we planned to fish. Again, Harry turned off the motor and climbed onto the poling platform.
Schools in the Open Flats
This spot was completely different than the ones we had fished earlier that day. It was enormous, roughly 200 yards by 300 yards, all consisting of water about 2-4 feet deep. All we could see was small, gentle waves across the entirety of its surface. No grass sticking out. No channels. Nothing. Harry told us that during this part of the outgoing tide, the reds tended to group into schools and feed as a pack. Methodically, he began pushing us through the area in long sweeps, paralleling the distant shore.
Suddenly, about 40 yards in front of us, a redfish frantically broke the surface, almost jumping out of the water entirely. We saw a few more boils in the same area and knew that we had found a school. As Harry pushed us towards them, Ben readied himself on the bow. Once he was in range, he casted more or less to the center of the school. With each short strip, he had a strike. And on the third eat, he had a solid red hooked. Rod bent. Line tight. His reel began to scream. It was apparent that this redfish didn’t want to join us on the boat.
Eventually, Ben got the red next to the skiff and we snapped some obligatory grip n’ grin photos. It wasn’t a record breaking specimen but we agreed that it was one of the bigger catches of the day. A flask of bourbon was quickly passed around to celebrate the moment. Then, right back to looking for the next school of reds. As they say, no rest for the wicked…
Capt. Harry’s Guide Tips
Throughout our day on the water, Harry got us into plenty of redfish. And with each new area and stage of the process, he provided excellent insights and guidance. Here’s a list of some of his tips for fishing for reds.
1.) Match your retrieval and sets with the behavior of the fish. If they are moving slowly and making subtle strikes, mimic that energy with shorter and slower strips and sets. Are they feeding more aggressively? Strip faster.
2.) Be ready. There can be mere seconds between having the redfish in range and blowing your opportunity. Have about 30-40 feet of line out at all times and the fly in your hand ready to be casted.
3.) If you don’t get an eat, recast and try again. This applies to reds at a distance and those right next to the boat. They aren’t as spooky as other saltwater game fish.
4.) Make steady, gradual hook sets. Don’t set too hard or too fast. If the red strikes, just pull the fly into its lip. Whatever you do, don’t try a trout hook set.
5.) Let the butt section of the rod handle the fish. Try not to put any of the force directly into the tip section. The power and stability of a rod comes from its base.
6.) Think about boat and angler position in relation to the sun. Avoid facing into the light reflecting off the surface of the water. This way, you have a much better chance of seeing the fish.
7.) Give the redfish a moustache with your line and fly. Cast and strip so that your pattern goes directly in front of their mouth. Depth of fly = depth of fish.
8.) If all else fails, call them in with the fish whistle.
Although this wasn’t my first time saltwater fly fishing, it was my first time fishing for reds. And what I’ve discovered with each new species I target is that they all have their nuances. Being able to adapt and learn on the fly (pun intended) is crucial to success. Below, I’ve listed a few things that I learned from our day of fishing for reds. While most of these insights can be applied to targeting other species, some of them are specific to redfish.
- Reds don’t have the best eyesight. But they can sense vibrations and movement in the water. Be quiet when stalking them. Even talking can keep them out of range.
- It’s all sight fishing, so stay alert. If the reds are grouped up, try and pick one out to cast to. If they are in a larger school, cast to a few of them at a time.
- Stay calm and take a few deep breaths when things start to heat up. It’s easy to get excited and cast too early or strip too fast. Don’t rush and focus on what you’re doing.
- “I see one!” -Ben “Catch it then!” -Harry Once you get used to spotting the fish, you don’t have to wait for the guide to give you specific instructions. He or she is busy working the water, managing equipment and scouting for the prey. If you see a fish, cast to it (there are, however, exceptions to this).
- If unfamiliar with your gear, practice with it before your day on the water. A 9wt rod handles a lot differently than your normal 5wt. And getting some target practice in beforehand will only increase your chances of hooking up when it counts most.
Species & Location
Redfish, also known as red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus), puppy drum, spottail bass or just reds, are a saltwater game fish found throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern coast of the United States. Depending on age, their habitat ranges from inlets and lagoon estuaries to spring fed creeks and tidal flats with seagrass. Juvenile redfish (those roughly 30” or less and about 4 years old or younger) are an inshore species. As they grow older, they then migrate to nearshore habitats and prefer areas with rocky outcroppings or manmade structures.
Over the past 20 years, fly fishing for reds has grown in popularity. And for good reasons. They are strong, fast and opportunistic. For the angler, this means that a variety of patterns and techniques will result in solid eats and first-class hookups. And once you have one on the line, they fight hard and are known for their tenacious and stubborn runs. Given their preferred habitats, wade fishing for reds can be somewhat difficult, especially for those who are new to a particular area. As a result, most anglers and guides favor using a flats boat to get around. DIY fishermen often opt for a sit-on-top kayak as a cheaper alternative.
Like most prized saltwater game fish, opinions vary as to the best locations to fish for reds. States at the top of the list include Louisiana, Florida, Texas, Georgia and South Carolina. Often referred to as the low country, South Carolina boasts over 80,000 acres of pristine coastal and inshore habitats. It is within these marshy environments that anglers are given ample opportunities to hunt reds. Although there are several other regions in South Carolina holding prime redfish populations and habitats, it is hard to beat the Charleston area. And here’s why…
The Charleston Choice
Within a short drive from downtown, fishermen have dozens of water access options. From the bays and flooded grass marshes of the Isle of Palms area to the creek inlets and coves near the Santee Coastal Reserve, the possibilities for stalking redfish are seemingly endless. And given the expansive territory in which ambitious anglers can explore, the fishing pressure is typically low. In short, there is fishable water everywhere. So it is common for anglers to spread out and avoid competing for any given spot.
After a long day of casting a 9wt and straining your eyes to locate your prey, how do you unwind? Do you just go back to your hotel or VRBO and fall asleep watching TV? Hell no! Beyond the top-notch fisheries that Charleston has to offer, the area is renowned for its history, food, nightlife and culture. The downtown area and the boroughs that flank it host a myriad of drinking and dining options. You won’t have to walk or drive far to find classic low country fare in both traditional (Poogan’s Porch) and nuanced settings (Workshop).
Once you’ve filled up on fried shrimp and grits or some crab cakes and collard greens, take a stroll through any of the 5 iconic boroughs. Not into walking? Horse and buggy tours abound in the downtown area. Soak in some local history while kicking back and listening to horseshoes echo off 200 year old buildings.
Keep ‘em wet, handle them sparingly and always appreciate where you are.
Seth Kulas, Vail Valley Anglers Content Contributor, @sticks2snow