On the outdoor sporting side, hunters are chasing everything that can be legally pursued in South Carolina, while fishermen in the know reap the bonanza of some of the best fishing of the year.
Spot-tail bass - aka redfish, red drum or puppy drum - are the premiere shallow-water game fish in South Carolina's Lowcountry; they're hearty creatures that remain active in December and beyond.
Admittedly, fall is probably the best time to catch them, considering weather and feeding activity, but we're often occupied elsewhere with shrimp-baiting season and the fall speckled trout bite. Expert Lowcountry anglers know late fall and the dead of winter are prime for catching reds, the fish we often see before we cast.
Yes, it is sometimes cold and often windy, but pick a calm day and there is not a better time to fool a boat load of spot-tail bass.
Winter is tough on redfish, and the angler has some advantages. Our water grows crystal clear - not the blue-green clear of Florida or the Bahamas - since our sand mixed with pluff mud is the wrong color, but you can definitely see the fish and yes, they can see you, too.
And they have gathered into large schools, often segregated by year class. You may find a school of yearlings barely reaching the low end of the 15- to 23-inch slot limit in one spot, or a whole school of slot-range fish in another. Often, on the oceanside flats, schools of reds up to 30 inches - large, prespawning-aged fish - will be there - great fun to catch but too big to keep.
Redfish in the winter hardly ever leave the shallows, and low tide is the time to catch them, but the food essentially abandons the area. Shrimp begin disappearing into deep water, fiddler crabs burrow into the sand and most of the mullet have run off, leaving only mud minnows and an occasional crab. Though their metabolism has slowed, fish are still hungry, and they will eat a well-presented lure thrown near them. The sun warms the water faster in the shallows, and when the occasional warm spell lasts three days, you can have a real blowout day.
Just how good is the redfishing in December?
"I love December fishing; in fact, November through January are my favorite times of the year," said Richard Sykes, a guide who works out of Bay Street Outfitters in Beaufort.
Sykes related stories of two unusually productive charters, one with a man and wife visiting over the Christmas holidays. Neither were capable casters, but Sykes spotted some shrimp jumping at the first stop they made near Boyd's Creek in the Broad River. The two relative novices spent the entire trip in that one spot, catching more than a dozen spot-tails on jigs tipped with Bass Assassin Sea Shad trailers in electric chicken color. That's how good December fishing can be when the stars align.
The second charter he related was a quickie with two golfers who had a tee time that limited their fishing time to three hours.
Sykes struck out at the first spot, wasting 45 minutes, but the second spot was a gold mine. The remainder of the trip, the two golfers caught 28 reds and lost a few more, all on jigs and 4-inch chartreuse Gulp! mullet.
"It's not always like that, but December has the potential for some unbelievable action," he said.
Sykes focuses on low- to mid-tide periods, because fish generally do not work up into the high tide grass once the fiddler crabs and shrimp begin disappearing.m Ideally he will work both sides of a mid-day low tide when the sun has had a chance to warm the flats and make the fish more active.
Earlier in December, while there are still some shrimp available, he has his bait fishermen use traditional floats with shrimp in a couple of feet of water, later switching to mud minnows in the same areas.
While poling in slowly from the deeper water, Sykes initially looks for disturbances on the surface that give away a school's location from great distances. Getting closer, anglers may see occasional flashing white bellies and moving shapes, and they can make casts as soon as the fish are in range. If the fish have not spooked, the proper cast lands near their perimeter, where the lure can be moved across or away from the school's path on a medium-slow retrieve. If the fish see you before casting and are slightly spooked, cast into the middle of them and make a fast retrieve, hoping for an instinct strike. Not all the fish in the school will have seen what spooked the others, and they often strike a lure quickly thrown into their midst.
Sykes guides experienced casters, as well as novices. With those who are reasonably proficient casters, he rigs a medium-weight spinning outfit with 15-pound Power Pro braid, which is really skinny. With this light, fine line, his clients can cast the 1/4-ounce jigs he selects a great distance.
December transitions from actively feeding fish taking their last opportunity to fatten up into relatively dormant schools drifting around the flats. The objective with sight-casting for redfish, especially in winter, is to quickly get the lure near the fish and keep it in the strike zone for as long as possible.
Normally, redfish are the primary winter food source for dolphins, so if you find dolphins making a big commotion near a low-tide flat, you've likely found a good redfish spot. Unfortunately, when the dolphins work on them, the redfish get pretty spooked, but sometimes they settle down after the dolphin move away.
Though perhaps understandable, since it's sometimes cold and gray, most fishermen disappear in winter, but the redfish are still there. Tuck Scott, the Bay Street's Orvis-endorsed head guide, knows that winter give anglers three distinct advantages. Redfish are hungry; they are concentrated in large pods; and both guides and anglers can see them before they cast. This is as good as shallow-water fly-fishing gets around here.
A stealthy approach to a flat is very important since fish are spooky. As he points out, the fish may read a boat wake as a marauding dolphin rather that an approaching angler, but they will still become wary. While poling in slowly from deeper water, initially you will be looking for what Scott calls "shaky water" - subtle differences in the surface that give away the school's location. As you approach, you will not normally see tails, but rather moving shadows and dark spots on the bottom.
With fly-fishing, success is a matter of casting well enough to get the fly to the fish. When Scott gets his clients into casting range, he will have them using a popular winter pattern such as an LC Shrimp, the Razmataz, Puglisi Everglades or the ever-popular Dupree spoon fly. In December, the spot-tails will definitely eat a well-presented fly.
Everyone loves December and the holidays, but many dread its aftermath: shorter days, holiday bills, freezing weather and taxes. Not so for those fishermen who have discovered the cold-weather habits of redfish. It's the best time to beat the drum.
WHEN TO GO/HOW TO GET THERE - Winter redfishing is mostly a low-tide sport. Plan to arrive a couple hours before low and fish until a couple hours after. Use care on the falling tide not to become stranded. Fishing is excellent in November and December, and it can be good in January .Fishermen wanting to fish the waters around Hilton Head Island and Bluffton have good access at Alljoy Landing on the May River in Bluffon and the Chechessee River landing at the foot of the SC 170 bridge across the Broad River. In Beaufort, Sam's Point Landing on Lady's Island and the Station Creek Landing on St. Helena Island are excellent, but the area is blessed with many free, public landings.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO - Capt. Richard Sykes (843-838-2245) and Capt. Tuck Scott (843-271-5406) guide out of Bay Street Outfitters in Beaufort (843-524-5250). Boat and Dock Supply on Ribaut Road in Port Royal (843-986-0552) and Grayco Hardware on Lady's Island (843-521-8060) are good sources for information and fishing supplies. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
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.