When Fred Bricketto of Carolina Backwaters Fishing Charters motored out of the boat basin at Isle of Palms Marina on July 22, heading north up the ICW to Bulls Bay, the radio station said the high that afternoon might reach 102. The only thing that made the sweltering heat bearable was a light wind blowing in off the ocean, just enough to stir the dust and keep the bugs down.
Later that afternoon, the pull of the tides won out over the killing heat. As the water fell out of the marsh grass along the backside of Bulls Island, the reds pulled out and started feeding, first one, then another, until everybody in the boat had felt the tug of a copper-colored brawler.
Bricketto and other guides like Tom Siwarski of Carolina Aero Marine Adventures who ply the waters of Bulls Bay can't exactly take off a few days when the mercury heads toward the top of the thermometer, especially not with a different group of vacationing anglers showing up in coastal communities every week. They just have to take into account how the heat affects life in the marsh and act accordingly.
"Well, wear lots of (sunscreen)," Bricketto said, chuckling. "I guess the first thing is to get there early and try to beat the heat. Then, being patient is the next-biggest thing during the summer."
Mid-summer targeting of redfish presents a set of circumstances much different than with fall, spring or winter fish. Being cold-blooded, reds' metabolism shuts down at both ends of the temperature spectrum, but most fishermen are more familiar with their winter doldrums. Extremely warm water temperatures can cause them to quit biting.
Siwarski wants to be on the water at or just before daylight, even if the tide isn't just right.
"I like fishing early in the morning, because it's not 110 degrees, and early in the morning, they will eat," he said. "You're usually fishing in 2 feet of water or less, and the surface temperature might have cooled off 5 degrees overnight. At its hottest last summer, the surface temperature was in the mid-80s. Cooler water can make a great difference.
"I'd say the perfect situation is to look for an early morning low tide, ideally around 8:30. That way, you've got two hours of falling tide, low tide, then two hours rising off the low."
An early morning high tide calls for a little different approach. Not only are fish scattered out in the marsh with the water up, but they're naturally scattered during the summer.
"During the summer, the schools are broken up; you'll be picking up ones and twos," Bricketto said. "I always prefer to fish on a falling tide, because they'll be coming out of the grass and off the oyster bars, but if I'm stuck with a high tide at 8 a.m., I'll still go as early as possible and try to do something. You need to move around and find them."
Remember that redfish push up over oyster beds as the tide rises and covers them, and they use drain creeks to access flats that are flooded at high tide. You can follow them up, but they usually won't bite as well as they do when you're following them and the tide back out.
"I've seen days when the heat will shut them down on a flood tide because the water's so hot," Siwarski said. "They'll move up, but they don't want to do much. But I've seen days in August when they'll come up and eat, and they definitely bite better in the morning."
Another factor that Bricketto points to as far as fishing more in the morning is that summer weather patterns often include afternoon thunderstorms, caused in part by the temperature rising the longer the sun is up. Fishing in the morning usually takes thunderstorms out of the picture.
"Because the air hasn't heated up, thunderstorms usually don't kick up until the afternoon," he said.
Bricketto and Siwarski stick to a few basic lures and baits when targeting summer reds. When fishing live baits, they both prefer to fish them under a popping cork, floating the baits across and through likely areas.
"I like to fish live shrimp or menhaden under a Cajun Thunder (popping cork), and when I fish artificials, I'll go with Gulp! shrimp and Jerkshad," Bricketto said. "Those are my go-to baits for the summer."
Siwarski said he'll often give reds a chance to hit topwater baits like a Spook Jr. or Skitterwalk if he can catch a low or falling tide in the morning, even later in the morning. Most fishermen restrict topwater baits to the first hour or so of daylight, but Siwarski said you can stretch the bite out a little.
"I'll start with a topwater bait, and sometimes, they'll actually eat them later in the morning," Siwarski said. "They don't seem to be as light sensitive as trout are; you can get away with a topwater bait longer with reds.
"After that, I'm going to switch to a 4-inch Z-Man PaddleZ in houdini or redbone (colors) on a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce flutter hook. I've gone away from jigheads; I don't throw them much because you're fishing fairly shallow and flutter hooks don't get hung up in the oysters as much.
"If they're not eating the PaddleZ, I'll throw a ShrimpZ in the same colors. The live shrimp are all gonna be 3 or 4 inches during the summer. You can throw live bait in the summer if they're really picky. I'll fish live bait on a hook and split-shot or an 1/8-ounce jighead.
"They're not usually very picky; they're eating menhaden, live shrimp, mud minnows and finger mullet. I don't fish cut bait much in the summer."
Bricketto looks for reds in many of the same places he finds them in the winter; he just accepts that instead of seeing a school of 50 or 100 reds working a marsh bank, he's more likely to be dealing with one or two, or a pod of five or 10 fish.
"They won't be schooled up, but they'll stay in the same areas," he said. "During the summer, as long as the bait is in there, they're gonna stay in an area."
Siwarski looks for shallow flats close to deep water, where reds can retreat to find slightly cooler temperatures.
"You're going to look on a lot of flats close to the waterway, because they can get to cooler, deeper water from there," he said. "Any flat next to deep water will hold fish, and they're gonna stay in those places. You won't see 'em in winter schools; you'll see pairs and up to 15 or 20 in a group.
"You'll find 'em in front of small drains, little drains 5 for 6 feet wide, where they can stage as the water falls and feed until the water gets too low. They'll be in a lot of the same spots you catch 'em in the winter, just scattered out. Redfish don't travel a long way from water they like."
The presence of millions of small shrimp in the marsh will help fishermen locate reds, even if the shrimp are small and not easily seen from longer distances.
"To find fish in the summer, a lot of times you'll see birds over them when they're picking," he said. "The birds will be dipping down, eating the shrimp that are popping up. The reds will be pushing down a bank - they may not even be feeding on the shrimp; they feed a lot on finger mullet - but there will be so many little shrimp in shallow water that they're always popping, and the birds will be on them."
Bricketto said reds caught in Bulls Bay during the summer will generally run smaller than in the fall and winter. Smaller, juvenile fish moving out of the estuaries for the first time will join the fray; bigger bull reds won't move in until later in the summer to spawn.
"You've got more small fish and pups than bigger fish," Bricketto said. "Their weights will change a little during the summer, but it's fall and witner when they're really fattening up."
HOW TO GET THERE - Bulls Bay is a huge area of open water and marsh that begins approximately 15 miles northeast of Charleston and runs northeast around 20 miles, joining the marshes of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. It's separated from the mainland by the ICW. It's most easily accessed from Charleston or Georgetown via US 17, and from inland areas via SC 45 at McClellanville and Steed Creek Rd. (SR S10-1032) at Awendaw. Two main public ramps service Bulls Bay, Garris Landing off Bulls Island Rd. north of Awendaw and Buck Hall Landing in the Francis Marion National Forest south of McClellanville. The town of McClellanville also has a ramp; annual permits are available.
WHEN TO GO - The best-possible situation during July and August is to catch a low tide or falling tide at dawn, when the water is at its coolest point of the day and reds are more likely to be feeding. Fish around the outlet of tiny creeks and ditches that drain the marsh or target oyster beds just outside the marsh grass. As the tide falls out of the grass, reds will pull out to the oysters.
TACKLE/TECHNIQUES - Medium action spinning and/or baitcasting tackle will handle most of the redfish encountered in the marshes of Bulls Bay. Topwater baits such as Spook Jrs. and Skitterwalks are good options in low-light situations such as just after dawn. Soft-plastic baits fished on flutter hooks are the best bets for artificials; Z-man PaddleZs and ShrimpZ and Gulp! Jerkshads and shrimp are three examples. For live bait, fish shrimp, menhaden, mud minnows or finger mullet under a popping cork.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES - Fred Bricketto, Carolina Backwaters Fishing Charters, 843-242-8422 or www.fishingcharterscharleston.com; Tom Siwarski, Carolina Aero Marine Adventures, 843-327-3434 or www.carolinaaeromarine.com. Also, see Guides and Charters in Classifieds.