There are no caissons, no buglers or regimental flags. No cities have been ransacked along the way, no crops put to the torch. Still, there’s a march to the sea every autumn along South Carolina’s coastline that’s more predictable than Gen. Sherman’s little walkabout almost 150 years ago. When the first cold snap of the fall hits, when the days start to get shorter, when the mercury starts to crawl toward the bottom of the thermometer, flounder that have been living in creeks and ditches and bays and rivers start their own migration; they march to the sea.
As surely as birds head south for the winter and snowbirds work their way toward Florida — the wakes of their yachts wreaking havoc on smaller boats in the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway — flounder make the trip from the backwaters out to the ocean where they’ll overwinters, stacked up on reefs and rocks and ledges and wrecks where they find water temperatures more to their liking.
And because their route and timing is so predictable, there’s no better time for fishermen to plan an intercept that will put a nice filet on a dinner plate between the cole slaw and hushpuppies.
That’s what David Cutler and Mark Dickson count on. The two guides, who work out of Little River, know that the fall migration is the time to really put a hurtin’ on some of the nicest flounder of the season.
"You don’t have to measure many of the fish you catch in October," said Dickson, who operates Shallow-Minded Inshore Fishing Charters. "The biggest flounder of the year will be caught in October."
The key is knowing where to find flounder along the trail they take from the backwaters to Little River, between the twin rock jetties and out into the ocean. Once you’ve got them located, getting them to bite is just a matter of timing. You have to have a bait in front of their noses when they get hungry.
"It’s a continuous push toward the inlet in October," said Cutler, of Lowcountry Fishing Charters. "They’re going to try and stay until the last bit of inshore bait is here, then they’ll follow the bait out. By mid-November, most of them will be gone."
Dickson agrees. "When those fish feel the first cold snap, when the water temperature starts to drop, their biological clocks start ticking, and they know it’s time to start moving," he said. "As they move out, there’s plenty for them to eat: pogies, mullet and shrimp."
As they leave, they move toward the inlet, and little by little, Cutler starts to focus his efforts on the kind of structure that will hold flounder – as long as it’s close to the ocean. Early in the proceedings, he might find himself up the ICW as far as the town of Little River or fishing north to Calabash, Sunset Beach and Ocean Isle, N.C.
One of the primary things he looks for is clear water. Flounder are sight feeders, sinking down into the silt and dirt on the bottom, using that unique spotted camouflage on their backs to blend in and wait for an unsuspecting minnow or shrimp to pass within range, then leaping off the bottom to gulp down their next meal.
"I want to find the cleanest water I can," Cutler said. "Our area is so weird; the water can be so dirty. You have to find places that work the way it’s supposed to."
Once in clear water, Cutler looks for the kind of structure that will attract flounder. His first looks are at private docks and piers that hang over deep water, and for Cutler, "deep" means anywhere from 5 to 12 feet. "They’re always good around piers," he said, expecting to find deeper holes in front of docks and piers where private boats are tied up. The reason? When those boats crank up and the propellors on their outboards start spinning, deeper holes are "gouged" out. "The bottom, the soft mud, is scooped down to the sand," he said.
Second are the deeper holes out in front of drain creeks where they pour into larger creeks or the ICW.
"I like to fish drains, from the creek mouth out to the deep water," Dickson said. "You throw up in the creek mouth and fish your bait back out through the hole. I like to fish water that’s from 6 to 12 feet deep."
Cutler will also look for deep holes along the edges of main creek channels and the ICW. It’s his experience that flounder in the Little River area are never going to bite in relatively shallow water.
"The fish you hear about people gigging up on the shallow flats, those fish don’t seem to bite," he said. "It’s like they’re not up there to feed, but maybe just to get warm or sun. But they’ll bite out in the holes."
The jetties that line both sides of Little River Inlet provide classic flounder structure. The long piles of rocks, if viewed in cross-section, would be roughly triangle-shaped. Flounder will be on the sand bottom just off the edge of the submered rocks that most fishermen can’t see without a depthfinder.
"People are going to say the South jetty is better; that’s what most people believe, but I’ve caught more fish on the North jetty," Cutler said. "Whichever one I’m fishing, I like to drift inside the jetties, with the current."
Dickson likes to target the jetties on a rising tide, not that it positions fish any differently; it’s just easier to maneuver.
"When the tide is falling inside the inlet, the current is running about five knots, which makes it tough fishing the jetties," he said. "If you fish outside the jetties, it doesn’t matter, but I like to fish inside on a rising tide because there’s not as much current."
Most flounder will wind up outside on nearshore structure, and the Jim Caudle Reef, approximately 2-1/2 miles out of the inlet, is probably their No. 1 destination, according to Dickson.
"There have been an incredible amount of flounder caught there all summer," he said. "We’ll drift the reef or anchor up and fan-cast; it depends on the structure. It seems to me that flounder don’t like a lot of relief. Some of the APCs (armored personnel carriers) out there, there’s too much relief. I’ve seen them bite better where you have cement rubble and old barges whose edges have been silted over — stuff without a lot of relief."
Cutler likes to venture to the north and fish deep holes between sloughs outside of North Carolina’s Tubbs Inlet. Dickson likes to fish several submerged "copper barges" off Sunset Beach in about 20 feet of water, plus natural nearshore livebottom off the beach out to about 40 feet of water.
The one frustrating thing about fishing ocean structure for Dickson is that the flounder don’t bite on a set schedule, despite there being tidal influence out to several miles off the beach.
"Out on the reefs, there’s no rhyme or reason when they bite," he said. "You can fish for two or three hours and nothing, and for 45 minutes, they’ll go nuts; it’ll be like catching spot. Then nothing may happen for another two or three hours.
"You can’t pattern them by the tide cycle like you can with redfish. They might bite at a certain time for two days, then it will be opposite the third day."
In the flat water, Cutler has a definite preference for the tides. He likes to fish that last hour of the rising tide and first hour of the falling tide – basically a 2- to 3-hour period when the current is at its slowest. When you run into them biting, don’t leave until the action ends.
"If you catch one, sit on that spot," he said. "We fished one flounder tournament this year where we fished hard all day, and they we caught all our fish in 15 minutes, enough to finish fourth. It was just one right after the other."
One thing Cutler said is important is understanding that as the fall progresses and the water temperature continues to drop, flounder are not nearly as aggressive, and they need the bait to crawl past their noses.
"As the water gets colder, you’ve got to go to a slower presentation," he said. "Instead of trolling, I like to start anchoring up and fishing deeper holes.
One of Dickson’s favorite techniques is something he calls "power drifting." He’ll bump his outboard in and out of gear, just enough to keep it easing along. When he’s fishing the jetties, he’ll position his boat just outside the edge of the submerged rocks and fish almost vertically, keeping his bait along the edge where the flounder will be waiting on the sandy bottom.
"You just try to fish straight up and down," he said, opting for a rig featuring a 3-way swivel over the traditional Carolina rig.
HOW TO GET THERE/WHEN TO GO — Little River is at the extreme northern end of the Grand Strand. It can be accessed from the south via US 17 and from inland via SC 9 and US 501 from Inland. Popular public boat ramps are on either side of the ICW at the SC 9 (Sea Mountain Highway) bridge. The Cherry Grove area south of Little River is an excellent fall spot because it usually holds very clear water; a new ramp at 53rd street provides access to the backwaters and Mud Inlet. Occasionally, fishermen will fish north of Little River around Tubbs Inlet in the Sunset Beach, N.C., area; a new boat ramp is available near the bridge. The peak of fall flounder fishing is typically mid-October, although the bite can start in September if the weather cools appreciably.
TACKLE/TECHNIQUES — Medium- to medium-heavy action spinning tackle is the ticket, matched with a 4000-series reel spooled with 12-pound monofilament. Carolina rigs and three-way swivel rigs are the ticket for fishing live bait; some fishermen will jig with a 2-ounce bucktail and soft-plastic trailer, especially fishing vertically over deeper water. Live mullet minnows and menhaden are the preferred baits, although plenty of live shrimp and mud minnows will be available. Look for the edges of channels or larger creeks or deeper holes where drain creeks empty into the ICW. Deep holes will often be found at the ends of private boat docks. Also, fish inside edges of both jetties that line Little River, positioning your baits on the sandy bottom just off the rocks. Fish will also be, especially later in October, around inshore artificial reefs like the Jim Caudle Reef.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Capt. David Cutler, Lowcountry Fishing Charters, 843-222-7433 or www.lowcountryfishingcharters.com; Capt. Mark Dickson, Shallow-Minded Inshore Guide Service, 843-458-3055 or www.fishmyrtlebeach.com. See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Myrtle Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, 843-626-7444, www.visitmyrtlebeach.com.