September is a perfect on-the-water month in the Lowcountry. In fact, it is just about perfect everywhere in September.

Fish are biting, shrimp are jumping, crabs are nipping, doves are darting and even the secretive marsh hens are sneaking around.

"So many choices and so little time" accurately describes a sportsman's quandary. A person could easily spend day and night chasing some sort of game or fish.

But three favorites from saltwater are prime targets this month: redfish, speckled seatrout and white shrimp over bait.

Lowcountry residents are blessed with an abundance of wild shrimp much of the year that professionals harvest, but it is in the fall - when the white shrimp mature and fill the estuaries - when everyone can net their own.

Ralph Davis, who was raised on the plantations of Wadmalaw Island, spent most of his adult life plying Lowcountry waters near Beaufort. Able to speak the native Gullah language fluently, he learned early and well the local hunting and gathering traditions related to the barrier and Sea islands.

Casting for shrimp over bait is a sport almost unique to South Carolina, where regulated shrimp-baiting is permitted for 60 days each year, with this year's season beginning on Sept. 14.

The $25 special license allows a South Carolina resident to set out 10 long poles, used as locators, and to drop bait balls typically made of fish meal and commercial clay molded into softball-sized lumps along a tidal drop-off or grass line.

Any sportsman with a regular saltwater fishing license can catch shrimp with cast nets from May 1 through mid-December, but the big draw of shrimp-baiting season is the prospect of harvesting a year's worth of sweet white shrimp in just a session or two.

Davis has been shrimp-baiting well over 30 years, many times with his good friend, Pierre McGowan.

They like moving water that spreads the smell of the bait downcurrent and attracts more shrimp. Often in the evening, they pick a rising- or falling-tide spot, preferably protected from the wind, to set up where they can cast into 2 to 8 feet of water.

The bottom of the water column should not be cluttered with oysters that will quickly tear the monofilament nets.

Davis said he often finds larger shrimp as high-tide water begins draining from the grass and larger quantities of smaller shrimp when low tides drain small creeks.

When they arrive at a likely site, they set their poles near a drop-off, often starting with only a pole or two and a couple balls of bait to test the action.

After 10 minutes or so, they cast to the test site and, if productive, they set out and bait their remaining poles.

They drop a bait ball or two about 4 feet inside each pole, so when they land the edge of their 8-foot cast net right at a pole, it drops centered over the bait. They then back off and wait a few minutes before running the poles.

With one person ready to cast from the bow, the other maneuvers the boat in an upcurrent direction close to each pole, positioning the boat perfectly without jerking their mate into the drink.

When the tide is running, it is a dance of powering forward and drifting back as the net man casts and then retrieves.

Davis and McGowan unload each net into a galvanized wash tub with drain holes punched into the bottom, which allows quick culling of crabs and unwanted by-catch.

Once through the poles, it is back to the start for another go-around.

A good cast to a baited pole during a productive tide often captures about a quart of shrimp. Davis' personal record is 28 casts for a limit, but an outstanding evening would be making 40 casts to fill a legal limit-sized, 48-quart cooler with live shrimp.

 

Spotted seatrout

According to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the spotted (speckled) seatrout spend their summers with the opposite sex on their minds. They congregate from May through August in deeper water around structure and strong currents to spawn and only feed actively at night.

That's why finding them is so hit or miss in the summer, but that all begins changing in September. Their preoccupation becomes food - and they go to where the food is.

In 2010 and 2011, South Carolina experienced two brutal winter cold spells that reduced the trout population so dramatically that the SCDNR advised anglers to release all trout during the April to September 2011 spawning season in hopes that the population would have a good recruitment year.

"We found good schools of mixed-sized trout last fall, ranging from 11-inch young-of-the-year to mature, 21-inch fish, indicating the spawn last summer was successful," said Doug Gertis, one of the most-experienced and knowledgeable fishermen in the Beaufort area.

This year should be much better.

When the water is high, trout follow shrimp and baitfish up into the grass where they are somewhat protected, at least from anglers. When the water drops out of the grass, the shrimp and bait are forced into the open water or into some other cover such as oysters or a tidal creek that is running dry.

As the water recedes farther, they move to the creek mouths and oyster bars adjacent to drop-offs.

Beginning in September and continuing through late fall, schools of trout cruise these areas, often taking up positions in 2 to 4 feet of water at the edge of the grass, at the mouths of the creeks and at the edges of oyster bars adjacent to drop-offs to wait for the shrimp and small baitfish to arrive.

Trout fishermen often fall into either the run-and-gun group or the slow-and-steady group. Those who have favorite drops fish them slowly and thoroughly from anchored boats, confident that fish are around and will begin to bite. Others like to move around, choosing to troll along drop-offs or drift along shorelines searching for bites.

Each approach has its merits.

Live bait, shrimp or minnows work almost all the time if trout are in the area. In the fall, cast-netting a few minnows and live shrimp is easy, especially near low tide.

Use them to locate fish, but when you find trout in a feeding mood, try switching to artificial lures or flies for a little more sport.

For bait fishing, Gertis likes a brightly colored popping cork in pink, fluorescent orange or yellow with large, 3- to 5-inch finger mullet, big mud minnows or shrimp strung onto size 3/0 kahle hook.

For plug casting in the shallows, try Gertis's favorite MirrOLure 52M FT plugs for some fast action. He suggests Archers Creek, Ballast Creek and Battery Creek.

 

Spot-tails

Cooling temperatures and shortening daylight that forewarn spot-tail bass of coming hard times certainly contribute to improved fishing in September, but an equally big factor is the massive accumulation of the maturing native white shrimp in the shallows.

Shrimp have been there for a while, but as they grow into meal-size bites, their presence makes them easier to find and easier to fool.

Reds will jump all over live shrimp or shrimp imitations worked in a hopping motion.

Shallow flats are the favorite place to target spot-tails, but they are not the only place to catch them in the fall. Around the shallow pilings of boat docks, riprap walls and along shoreline oyster rakes that define the transition from shallow to deep water are also good targets.

These spots are best fished by casting a jig-and-plastic or a jig-and-bait right against them and slowly retrieving it along the bottom.

Spot-tails relate to structure much the same way as freshwater largemouth bass, so they also fall for saltwater versions of spinnerbaits, and floating or suspending stickbaits.

Though artificial baits are popular, most spot-tails are still probably caught with bait. For baitcasting, the choice is either a float rig or a bottom rig, and they both have their place.

On shallow mud flats and places relatively free of oysters, the bottom rig is preferable, while along shorelines and drop-offs, drifting bait on a float gets hung up less often.

The most-effective bottom rig is a lightweight Carolina rig. It has a small bullet or egg sinker (1 ounce or lighter) threaded on the line ahead of a swivel. Below the swivel is 18 to 24 inches of 20-pound fluorocarbon and a circle hook. Cast it into a likely spot and wait.

For the float rig, you can chose a popping cork or a light cork - each float a bait at a desired depth around structure. A light slip sinker or split shot attached to the leader gets the bait near the bottom.

Live mud minnows, finger mullet and shrimp are favorites, but fresh dead shrimp or cut bait will also catch estuary spot-tails.

With three Lowcountry favorite treats occupying the same territory at the same time, it's no wonder so many people spend so much time on the saltwater in the fall.

This seafood horn of plenty remains in saltwater estuaries for the next couple of months. It's the Lowcountry's prime time, and everyone should get out and enjoy it.

 

DESTINATION INFORMATION

WHEN TO GO - Fish low tide any time of year for sight-casting success on redfish. Trout fishermen seem to score better with moving water both in and out of the grass. Shrimp casting without bait around docks and oysters is best near low tides.

HOW TO GET THERE - Hilton Head and Bluffton anglers have good access to the Alljoy landing on the May River in old Bluffton and the Chechessee River landing at the foot of the SCS 170 Bridge. Beaufort anglers have easy access to the Sam's Point Landing on Lady's Island and the Station Creek landing on St. Helena Island, but we are blessed with many free public landings.

GUIDES/FISHING INFO - Bay Street Outfitters, Beaufort, 843-524-5250; Boat and Dock Supply, Port Royal, 843-986-0552; Grayco Hardware, Lady's Island, 843-521-8060; Capt. Jack Brown, 843-838-9369; Capt. Owen Plair, 843-812-3656; Capt. Richard Sykes, 843-838-2245; Capt. Tuck Scott, 843-271-5406. See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS - Beaufort Area Chamber of Commerce, 843-986-5400 or www.beaufortsc.org.

MAPS - Capt. Segull's Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855, www.captainsegullcharts.com; Top Spot waterproof map N233, showing details on many of the local shallow water spots, is available from local tackle shops.