Then, come March, as the weather moderates and the sun begins warming the water, anglers get the urge to hit the flats again. Trouble is, the redfish stop biting in March for some reason. Theories exist, but nobody really knows the reason for the early spring lull that has frustrated anglers cursing at spot-tails that won't eat anything.
But in April, the redfish start biting again, and the trout become active, too. In this transition, redfish abandon their lethargic, winter feeding pattern and begin chasing bait. Inshore redfish, the ones we catch in the Lowcountry, spend most of their year around feeding time in water less than two feet deep. In the warmer months, redfish still school, especially during low tide, but the schools are often smaller, and some fish drift away on feeding forays by themselves during the higher phases of the tide chasing fiddler crabs.
Capt. Jack Brown of Beaufort is one of the best guides in the Lowcountry for anglers who want to catch fish that they see before they cast: sight-fishing. In April, as he does the rest of the year, he poles his flats boat for schooled redfish on shallow- water, low-tide flats because that's where most of the sight- fishing happens. Lowcountry saltwater that was crystal clear in the winter has not yet fogged with nutrient growth as it will in the summer, but our April winds frequently stir up silt that impairs visibility. On calm days, you can still see the fish when you get close enough, but at other times and at longer ranges,
Brown looks for subtle movements of the water surface: "nervous water." Because the spot-tails are not yet super-aggressive, he also scans for little pushes or V-shaped wakes as cruising fish move toward bait. When a flash of white or light gold catches his eye, it's a sure sign of happy fish. Flashing bellies mean those fish will eat a fly or a jig cast slightly in front of them every time.
Fly-fishing gear or light spinning tackle with jig-and-trailer combinations are the sight-fishing weapons of choice. Brown suggests his fly anglers use dark-colored, weighted flies such as a black or purple Clouser variant because fish see them better in the slightly cloudy water. A weighted fly like a Clouser gets to the bottom faster and drops back down more quickly after each strip.
"Fish the fly very slowly in April, because the fish won't chase a bait too far," said Brown, who ideally wants his anglers to cast well ahead of a school and wait with the fly on the bottom until the fish get to it - and then strip slowly.
For his spinning-rod anglers Brown ties on the lightest jighead that the wind conditions allow - an eighth-, quarter- or at most 3/8ths-ounce - and tips it with a plastic trailer like a Bass Assassin Sea Shad or a Gulp! shrimp or swimming shad. Being old school, or a more kindly description, "a purest," Brown resisted using scented baits for the longest time. In truth, a jig and plastic trailer is just as effective casting to aggressive fish during cast-and-retrieve fishing, but he related an instance when an angler was casting to finicky fish and an off-target cast landed well to the right of the fish's path. When that fish swam several yards beyond the bait, it must have caught the smell drifting in the current, and it turned back and inhaled the bait. That incident convinced him of its effectiveness and, even though he still only occasionally uses it, when the fishing is really tough he opts for Gulp! His favorites are the 3-inch, new penny shrimp and the swimming mullet.
When casting scented or plastic baits, Brown suggests landing the bait 10 feet in front of the fish and allowing it to sit there until the fish arrive. A couple of twitches should get a strike and a quick hookset, especially with Gulp!, will avoid swallowed baits and gut hooking fish.
Low-tide flats and high-tide flats are the normal venues for sight-fishing, but occasionally, you'll see single fish or schools staging along the grass lines and oyster banks during rising and falling tides.
Like most light-tackle and fly-fishing guides, Capt. Owen Plair, who guides out of Bay Street Outfitters in Beaufort, loves to sneak up on spot-tails and pole his anglers within casting range. But not every angler hires a guide or has a fancy flats boat equipped with a poling platform and a friend who enjoys pushing them around. They need to know how to catch fish they don't see in advance. When not sight-casting in April, Plair still targets schooled fish on low-tide flats, blind casting to traditional fish holding areas.
During mid-tide, when most blind-casting is done, he concentrates on oyster outcroppings, working a fly or jig along the edge of the bank, where redfish and trout lurk to ambush bait as it moves in with the tide. This tactic is especially effective in April, because baitfish and crabs are just becoming active in the shallows. Poling the boat or drifting within about 30 to 50 feet of the shells, allows casters to drop lures right on the edge of the oysters and work them back to the boat.
As the tide rises farther, Plair has his clients blind-cast to grass lines. Redfish stage along these edges and move up into the grass following the bait fish. For the fly-caster, a weedless fly is recommended in both situations so you don't get snagged on the oysters or grass. Plair chooses the LC Shrimp, Raz Ma Taz, Dupre Spoon fly, and Bay Street Bunny in darker colors due to murky water conditions.
Working over oysters and into grass lines with jig-and-trailer baits is tricky because of frequent hang-ups. Plair usually threads a Gulp! swimming minnow in chartreuse onto a quarter-ounce red jighead, working it carefully as it lands near the oysters or grass, and then allowing the lure to drop near the bottom where the redfish and trout will be hanging.
For his bait fishermen, Plair's favorite April tactic is using live mud minnows under a popping cork. He slides a Cajun Thunder cork ahead of a 16- to 24-inch leader of 30-pound monofilament, depending on depth, and he adds a split shot ahead of a 2/0 circle hook to hold the live bait down.
This tactic works very well in April because mud minnows are the earliest active baitfish and a major target of both redfish and trout. He works the bait rig around oysters at low to mid-tide and at high tide around grass edges, usually in two to four feet of water. He suggests working multiple spots this time of year, usually giving an area about 15 minutes to find fish that are biting. A major advantage of live bait under a cork is it is effective regardless of the wind conditions, and you don't need to see the fish or pole the boat.
Ask any of the guides what they look for in trout and redfish spots, and they will all mention structure, points, oysters, grass banks and mud flats. In April, focus on the mud flats at low tide, oysters at mid tide and the grass banks at high tide for redfish. April is the transition month for many reasons. It is not the easiest fishing month of the year, but the fishing is getting better, the weather is warming and the sun is shining. Life is good in the Lowcountry.
HOW TO GET THERE - Hilton Head and Bluffton anglers have good access to the Alljoy landing on the May River, in historic old Bluffton and the Chechessee River landing at the foot of the SC 170 Bridge. Beaufort anglers have easy access to the Sam's Point Landing on Lady's Island and the Jenkins Creek landing on St. Helena Island as well as many other free public landings.
WHEN TO GO - Fish low tide any time of year for sight-casting success. Try blind casting and bait fishing for mid- and high-tide action.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO - For fishing info, Boat and Dock Supply, 1734 Ribaut Rd., Port Royal, 843-986-0552; Bay Street Outfitters, Beaufort, 843-524-5250; Grayco Hardware, Lady's Island, 843-521-8060. For guides, Capt. Jack Brown, 843-838-9369; Capt. Owen Plair, 843-821-3656; Capt. Richard Sykes, 843-838-2245; Capt. Tuck Scott, 843-271-5406.
ACCOMMODATIONS -Beaufort Area Chamber of Commerce, 843-986-5400.
MAPS - Capt. Segull's Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855, http://www.captainsegullcharts.com/; Sealake Fishing Guides, 800-411-0185, http://www.thegoodspots.com/; Grease Chart, 800-326-3567, http://www.greasechart.com/; Maps Unique, 910-458-9923, www.mapsunique.com. Top Spot waterproof map number N233, showing details on many of the local shallow water spots, is available from local tackle shops.