Capt. David Cutler doesn't have to be convinced that he saves money by sticking close to his home port of Little River along the South Carolina-North Carolina border. In fact, it's like B'rer Rabbit and the briar patch. Tell him to stay within a few miles of the beach, and he's right at home especially this month, when Spanish mackerel invade the waters close to the state line.
Cutler, of Low Country Fishing Charters in Little River, is perfectly happy to mine the tremendous fishery for Spanish that cranks up and will last for the better part of two months, all within a couple of miles from the shoreline, within sight of the high-rises along Grand Strand beaches.
Cutler and Capt. Ed Elliott of Lucky Strike Charters in Little River, are happy to fill their parties' coolers with tasty Spanish whenever the opportunity presents itself. And that can mean great fishing through June until the real heat of the summer arrives and slows down just about everything with fins.
"They should be here around the end of April; they should show up a little after the bonito and false albacore show up," said Cutler (843-222-7433). "They'll show up a little bit farther out, seven to 10 miles, then they come to the beach, as soon as the water temperature hits 67 or 68 degrees – usually about mid-May. That's when the start moving in."
And that's when Cutler starts sharpening the hooks on his Clark Spoons and Got-Cha plugs and looking off the beach for color changes, birds picking at the surface or even Spanish slashing bait at the surface.
He runs into Spanish at reefs, wrecks and ledges in 35 to 50 feet of water, which can be anywhere from four to seven miles off the beach. That's where the first Spanish show up as their spring migration brings them into the green water. The Gen. Sherman Reef and the 390/390 are prime spots to find early Spanish, but it doesn't take long for them to move close enough to the beach that anyone with a seaworthy center console can take advantage of their presence.
"They start out schooled up on small bait balls. Sometimes you see 'em right on the surface; you look for birds picking," Cutler said. "As the temperature warms, you get a bigger population of fish, and they you'll see 'em start moving in. They'll set up in 25 to 40 feet of water – 25 feet of water is about a mile-and-a-half from the sea buoy, which is always a good place to fish – and they'll stay all summer."
Elliott said the Spanish that show up off Little River not only migrate in from deeper waters away from the beach, they're also moving up from the south; the two-pronged addition puts plenty of fish in the area.
"From the first of May on, it just gets better and better," said Elliott (843-249-2049). "You start seeing them around some of the reefs three or four miles off the beach. Right after you start seeing the little tuny (false albacore) there, the Spanish will be coming; they won't be far behind.
"They're moving in from offshore and they're coming up the beach. You get a little from both. They're following the water temperature and the bait – little cigar minnows."
"You get the bigger ones first; they start out in small pods, and the morning bite is better. I've seen 'em feeding right in the breakers. Sometimes they're right in the inlet, and sometimes they're on either side of the inlet."
Cutler said the bite is excellent when the fish first show up. "They're biting when they first show up," he said. "There's no reason you can't catch a limit."
Cutler's trolling spread is fairly simple. He uses Clark Spoons between Nos. 1 and 00 sizes, trolled at the surface or behind No. 1 planers, small diving attachments that will pull the spoons well below the surface. His trolling speed is around 6-1/2 knots, fast enough to keep bluefish from catching up to the baits instead of the faster-swimming mackerel.
"I fish Star rods, live-bait king mackerel rods, and (Shimano) TLD 15 reels," he said. "The No. 1 planers are small, only a couple of inches long and an inch or so wide. I run the planer in-line, with no bridle. The fish will pop the planer and you can fight them on the rod, which isn't too heavy.
"I like to fish four rods at a time: two down on planers and two at the surface. I like to fish the silver spoon with the chartreuse reflector on the back, but the key is the planer; you'll catch three times as many on the planer."
Clark Spoons will spin, so there needs to be a way to keep line-twist to a minimum, and Cutler attacks the problem from two directions. He'll tie the leader to a barrel swivel, and to make sure the swivel does its job, he'll tie the leader out of 40- to 50-pound fluorocarbon.
"The fluorocarbon isn't because of their teeth, but it is stiff enough that it will cause the swivel to spin instead of getting line twist," Cutler said. "I usually use 15 feet of leader, but sometimes they'll hit it six feet behind the planer, and sometimes you've got to drop it back 25 feet - but 15 is usually average."
Cutler likes a light wind when he's targeting Spanish, if only to ripple the surface and keep the fish from seeing everything clearly – even if they are among the sharpest-eyed fish in the ocean. "A westerly wind is beneficial, but Spanish are not really affected by the wind like kings are. You want it light enough that you can run your baits on top," he said.
Sometimes, Cutler said, Spanish will school by size; every fish in a school will be the same general size. Sometimes, however, a school will hold mixed sizes of fish.
"There's no rhyme or reason," he said. "A lot of the time you'll catch 'em in a school and they're all the same size, then you move to another area and they're all bigger," he said.
Cutler will often run morning and afternoon trips on the same day, limiting out both times – Spanish are managed with a 15-fish daily creel limit and 12-inch (tail length) size minimum. But he definitely wants to be on the water before or at first light.
"Typically, the daylight bite is the best," he said. "The early bird definitely gets the worm. In the morning, they'll be in bigger schools. Boat traffic will stir 'em up. In the afternoon, they tend to be split up more, whereas in the morning, they'll be massed up. As people start to catch 'em, the boat traffic will split 'em up."
Cutler usually looks for birds picking at the surface when he comes out of the inlet, ready to search for Spanish.
"The primary thing I do is troll at different depths," he said. "I like to find little humps off the beach, and the tideline is a good place to look. The tideline will go about two or three miles out of the inlet. I like to troll the clear side; I'll usually ride parallel to the tideline on the clear side, but if I don't catch any, I'll try the other side, or I'll zig-zag back and forth.
WHEN TO GO/HOW TO GET THERE - Little River lies just south of the border between North Carolina and South Carolina. It's easily accessed from US 17 from both directions, and from US 501, US 31, SC 90 and US 9 from points west. Public ramps are on either side of the ICW at the at the US 17 and US 9 bridges. Spanish mackerel usually arrive in the waters outside of Little River Inlet in the latter half of April. The fishing peaks in May and continues through June, or until extremely hot weather causes the bite to slow.
TACKLE/TECHNIQUES - Trolling No. 00 Clark Spoons, either at the surface or below the surface behind a No. 1 planer, is the most-productive way to catch Spanish mackerel. Tackle should be the same used to fish for king mackerel with live bait, rods with a relatively soft tip matched with TLD 15-class reels. Leaders as long as 20 to 25 feet are sometimes required if fish are reluctant to strike. Troll at approximately 6-1/2 knots. If fish are actively feeding at the surface, approach from upcurrent and make long casts with heavy spoons or Gotcha plugs and retrieve as fast as possible. Medium-action spinning or baitcasting gear is preferred.
REGULATIONS - The daily creel limit on Spanish mackerel in both North Carolina and South Carolina waters is 15 fish, with a 12-inch (fork length) size minimum.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES - Capt. David Cutler, Low Country Fishing Charters, 843-222-7433, http://www.lowcountryfishingcharters.com/; Capt. Ed Elliott, Lucky Strike Chartesr, 843-249-2049, http://www.luckystrikesportfishingcharters.com/. See also GUIDES & CHARTERS in Classifieds.
MAPS/CHARTS - Capt. Segull's Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855, www.captainsegullcharts.com; Sealake Fishing; Guides, 800-411-0185, www.thegoodspots.com; Grease Chart, 800-326-3567, www.greasechart.com; Maps Unique, 910-458-9923, info@MapsUnique.com, http://www.mapsunique.com.