Redfish are powerhouses, offering year-around duels under a variety of conditions and against almost any backdrop imaginable. And Georgetown's pristine real estate offers anglers seemingly endless opportunities for entering into warfare with one of these prized fish.
January's winter conditions allow fly-fishing artisans a chance to test their skills and experience true angling ecstasy in these waters, but anglers must raise the bar to connect with one of these rivals on hand-tied implements.
The winter offers anglers a prime opportunity to lay a fly in the personal space of 200 spot-tails in just a few feet of gin-clear water. It's sight-fishing at its finest and perfectly ideal for the aspiring fly-fishing fanatic.
But anglers must be extremely careful, as reds are already on edge in these limited holding areas.
Each year, more fishermen join the growing population of fly fishermen in Georgetown's waters, but tossing feathers and hair might be more than a gimmick under winter conditions. The gentle presentation and versatile appearance is a great advantage; it's where spin-casters often fall short in winter, with redfish seemingly always on edge.
As water temperatures plummet into the 50s and below, redfish congregate in large schools in shallow, oyster-laden marsh fortresses to evade dolphins and to feed on any available baitfish. At times, these schools can be extremely dense, with hundreds of fish packed into a small chasm in the back of a creek at low tide. Any unnatural sounds and disturbance will shatter any hook-up opportunity, but some disturbances may be advantageous.
Being able to detect reds at a considerable distance is crucial in winter. Sight-fishing is the name of the game, whatever kind of gear is used, and savvy anglers can quickly connect with one or more of these bruisers by using a stealthy and sly approach after the fish have been detected.
Tommy Scarborough of Georgetown Coastal Adventures (843-546-3543) selects spots around a school to pick fish off.
"Every fish is different, but when casting to a school of fish, try to cast off the edge of the school and draw an active fish of the school," he said.
Since the fish will be in deeper holes at low tide, Scarborough will scan a school and select active fish. According to Scarborough, redfish will change colors based on their activity level.
"The inactive fish on the bottom will be dark gray and cold," he explained. "You will notice the red-colored ones with blue pecks that are lit up and happy - that fish will eat right there."
The darker-colored fish will refuse baits and can't be duped into eating flies, Gulp! baits or even live bait.
Instead, he concentrates on active fish on the outer edges of the school. As soon as a fish is hooked, the commotion alerts other fish, evoking their natural-born tendency to competitively feed.
"After hanging one of these lit-up fish, the thrashing around will wake up several other of the inactive fish and get them in the mood to eat, too," he said. "You can fire up the entire school when you hook a fish."
But tossing flies with fly rod or traditional soft plastics with a spinning rod, the line and accessories can shut down a school of reds in a flash. The fly line, tippet and fly itself draped across a group of suspended fish will usually cause an unpleasant disruption, quickly leading to dismay. Typically, fly fishermen whip several false casts back and forth to present their fly in that perfect spot. But excessive false casts and inaccurate casts can quickly crush an angler's chances at a hook up.
"An accurate, 40-foot cast will put fish in the boat on every trip to North Inlet in the winter," Scarborough said.
Typically, winter fishermen will target the two hours on either side of the low tide. The fish will congregate in large, winter schools in choice creeks with deep pockets in their upper reaches. Many creeks that are chocked full of fish will become impassible, but almost all will have these deeper pockets that hold significant numbers of fish.
While several choice creeks seem to hold fish year after year, it is not unusual for fish to migrate to neighboring creeks between tides or parts of the season. Scarborough will systematically check different creeks looking for fish.
Even though typical winter techniques fall around the low tide, one guide, specifically-catering to fly anglers, has found success on the high end of the tide cycle. Newman Weaver of Kingfisher Guide Service (843-318-0474) is more likely to avoid low tide in winter.
"Low-tide fish get in holes and become very spooky," Weaver said. "Find fish on high tide, and the fish will be happier, in smaller groups and usually in feeding mode."
If redfish could smile, high water would generate a grin for sure. Freedom of movement and fleeing possibilities will keep these fish alive.
"When you spook them, they just charge into grass, but only to come back out a little later," he said.
Low-tide fish have no choice but to retreat to the available water in remote creeks. On higher water, fish have more options to evade predators.
"Grass is best defense for dolphins - their sonar will not allow them to locate reds in grass," Weaver said.
Locating these fish on high tide is fairly simple. Weaver looks in the same creeks where he finds them on low tide; he just looks next to the grass lines and near the surface sunbathing.
"Each low-tide school will break up into smaller schools and go to three to four nearby places on higher water," said Weaver, who looks for fish in places out of the wind with slower current and along grass edges. Scattered shell in the tall grasses and on points will attract fish at higher tides.
The clearer water at high tide promotes detection from long distances, making the ability to see fish crucial for targeting reds. A fly angler must be able to see his target before placing an accurate cast.
"Main thing I am looking for at high tide in wintertime is bright sun," said Weaver, who tries to always keep the sun at his back."
Since the winter sun never gets too far overhead, he can adjust his boat position through the day to promote clear sight to the grass edges. He works the boat to the northwest in the morning and the northeast in the afternoon.
With endless possibilities of flies available, Weaver keeps it simple, fishing a fat-headed toad fly.
"Redfish are rarely picky about what they eat. If it looks edible and alive, they will put it in their mouth," said Weaver, whose custom-tied creations can easily pass for shrimp, mullet or even a small crab depending on how the fly is presented and constructed.
"A slow strip produces lots of wiggle like a mud minnow," he said. "If you let it slowly sink, it looks like a worm, and a fast strip passes for a mullet minnow."
Weaver uses marabou, finish raccoon and rabbit fur to give his flies lots of wiggle, but maintaining their ability to look like something to eat. Often, flies must remain within the strike zone for long periods to entice that strike under winter conditions. He tries to keep his flies weighted just enough - using small barbell eyes - to produce a gentle sinking action. The slow-sinking action accounts for the majority of his bites.
"Toss it in front of the fish and allow it to sink down," he said. "Nine times out of 10, they will eat it before it hits the bottom."
A fly's action will trigger a redfish's natural instincts, but they must be able to see it. While redfish can see, an effective fly color may not resemble native hues.
"Purple and black are the way to go. It casts a good silhouette against the sun, and I know they will see it," he said.
Natural colors are always good choices, especially in the winter. Reds will hold in shallow water, only moving short distances to check out their surroundings for any available food. Scarborough sticks with natural patterns, preferring crab and shrimp patterns in brown, tan and his favorite of all colors, olive.
Winter presentations should be gentle, to say the least, so Scarborough covets a fly with gentle action.
"Fly bites are reaction bites. Use buoyant flies that suspend in front of their noses, and you will win every time," said Scarborough, who ties his flies with little to no lead and uses natural fibers, including deer hair and rabbit fur, because they are lighter than synthetic materials.
The leader material can affect the way a fly settles in the water column. Scarborough prefers tapered monofilament leaders over fluorocarbon.
"Mono leaders just don't sink as much, keeping that fly suspended in the strike zone," he said.
WHEN, WHERE TO GO - Winter patterns begin in December and continue through March. The best action is when the water temperature hovers around 50 degrees, but reds can still in 40- to 45-degree water. High-tide spots are in the backs of creeks along grass lines and in deeper holes in the same creek on lower water. They prefer deep places adjacent to shallow flats exposed to the sun and shell humps in remote areas away from dolphins. Dark mud flats warm quickly in the sun. Feeder creeks draining into Jones Creek, Town Creek and Debordieu Creek in the North Inlet area are ideal, but deeper channels in South Island's interior creeks connected to the ocean and in the Mother Norton area also hold significant populations of winter reds in winter.
HOW TO GET THERE - The waters around Georgetown, including North Inlet, Winyah Bay, Mother Norton and THE Santee Delta, are accessible from two public boat ramps: South Island Ferry southeast of Georgetown on South Island Rd. and the East Bay Park at the ballpark in downtown Georgetown.
BEST FLIES/TECHNIQUES - Optimum conditions are after a 3- to 5-day warming trend on a day void of cloud cover and wind. Toad flies, small Clouser minnows and shrimp imitations are preferred in 1- to 2- to 3-inch sizes. Guide Newman Weaver prefers toad flies due to their versatility. He likes combinations of black and purple, but browns, tans, olive and bronze will also produce bites in winter. Strip speed should be adjusted according to water temperature. Short strips mimic natural movement of bait, and many fish will hit a fly on the fall. Be as stealthy as possible; fish are in large schools and can be spooked very easily. Keep distance and cast to the fish along the edges of the school. Fly rods need to be 8- to 9-foot, 8- to 10-weight. Line needs to be weight-forward, floating, but weighted-tipped line such as striper-stripper line sometimes helps keep a fly near the bottom. Stripping baskets are preferable to keep fly line organized and prevent tangles with boat accessories. Use leaders from 10 to 14 feet long to prevent spooking fish.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO - Capt. Newman Weaver, Kingfisher Guide Service, 843-318-0474 or www.gtownkingfisher.com; 843-318-0474; Capt. Tommy Scarborough, Georgetown Coastal Adventures, 843-546-3543 or www.captaintommy.com.
ACCOMMODATIONS - Georgetown Area Visitors Center, www.visitgeorgetown.com; Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.mbchamber.com; South Carolina Association of Visitors Bureaus, www.discoversouthcarolina.com.