It not only provides easy travel from one hot spot to the next but also provides habitat for one of the most sought-after inshore species, the redfish, especially in the winter when the water clears and they gang up in large schools for protection.
Anglers in the Charleston area are blessed with easy access to the redfish-rich waters of the ICW both north and south of the city.
"Honestly, I fish sections all the way from McClellanville to the north to as far south as past Edisto," said Capt. Jeremy Mehlhaff of Charleston Shallows. "I've found some sections better than others, but overall, there is a very healthy redfish population.
"Typically, there has to be some sort of protection for the schools of redfish, and that usually is hard structure. There has got to be something around to stop dolphin from getting straight at the schools."
Capt. Scott Davis of Lowcountry Fly Shop in Mount Pleasant fishes all over the ICW as well, and generally, he searches for particular areas that are likely fish-holding spots.
"Focus on the edges of the ICW, near entrances and exits to flats and creeks," he said. "Mud warms faster than oysters, so concentrate on broad mud flats."
Capt. Chris Wilson of FinAddict Charters often fishes the Isle of Palms area north of Charleston, concentrating on the areas between channel markers 117 to 121.
"I search for reds on lower water a little further off the bank than in the summer months, especially near the corners of the waterway," he said.
For most of the year, visibility is not great anywhere on South Carolina's coast, but when the water turns cold, it clears up dramatically. It's nothing like the clear waters of the tropics, but three or four feet of visibility is not uncommon, especially on calm days.
"We generally look for low tides with a light wind, because the fish have gathered in large schools and are quite easy to see, with large ripples and surface disturbances giving them away," Davis said.
Boat traffic on the ICW is much lower than in warmer months, but generally, it doesn't get started until late in the morning, leaving early mornings for fishermen. On days with heavier boat traffic, the churned-up mud reduces visibility, but areas behind sand bars and oyster beds are often protected, and large creeks that feed the ICW are also worth exploring when that happens.
While clear water makes for easy fish-spotting, it also makes it easier for fish to spot anglers and lines. This requires a change in how fish are stalked. Approaching a school quickly or using corks and heavy line sends fish off in the opposite direction. Using a trolling motor to get within casting range works, but for the ultimate in stealth, nothing is better than poling. Reds can sense vibrations caused by trolling motors, and for a fish that is already on edge from relentless pursuit from dolphins during the cold months, anything unusual might send them tight lipped and looking for safety.
"Push poles work much better for the angler than trolling motors, and while we cannot get as close as we can during the summer, we can get fairly close at times - 30 or 40 feet," Davis said.
When spooky fish are a factor, fly-fishing equipment has an advantage over most artificial choices, especially if sight-fishing. Flies land softly in the water and are less likely to alarm wary reds. Also, the slower action that can be imparted on a fly a fly works better on less-aggressive winter fish that may need more time before deciding to eat.
Two disadvantage are, fly fishing often requires anglers to get close to their quarry, and a heavy fly line is very visible. To reduce the chance of "lining" a redfish Wilson goes with a longer leader.
"I use no more than a 15-pound-test fluorocarbon leader, 12 to 15 feet in length," Wilson said. "(That) is much different than my summer set-up, which is as short as seven feet and maybe 20-pound test."
Because of the ease of customizing and creating, preferred flies vary from angler to angler, but most will agree that darker colors work best. An unscented fly predominantly relies on a fish's sight, so colors like black, purple and brown mixed in with a little flash tend to work better than lighter, hard-to-see colors. Baitfish, crab and shrimp patterns are all good choices, and what works best on any particular day varies, so often discovering the "fly de jour" takes a few fly changes.
Soft plastics are a popular choice for spin fisherman, especially scented baits such as Gulp! that have an action, feel and scent closely resembling live bait. Again, darker colors are often preferred, but because of their fish-attracting scent and action, lighter colors are useful as well, especially on sunny days with good visibility. On warmer winter days, reds can really turn aggressive and action on top is always fun. Casting hard baits such as Zara Spooks and MirrOlures, to a school of hungry reds is sure to get the heart rate up. Generally, if reds are high in the water column and moving a little faster or erratically, it's time to tie on a topwater.
The direction a school of reds is moving is an important factor when deciding on fly or bait presentation.
"The best scenario is an approaching school, since the fly will look fleeing and not coming straight at them," Davis said.
Mehlhaff suggests a medium to slow retrieve.
"I don't like the fly making sudden movements, because it can spook the fish," he said. "With plastics, I prefer a nice, slow retrieve. When my clients ask if it's slow enough, I tell them to slow it down."
Wilson wants the most action achievable from lures and flies, so he uses a loop knot.
"I use a loop knot on everything, because it gives so much more action," he said, "even when I'm not doing anything but letting it sit."
The action imparted on a lure or fly is very important, but the placement of the offering is critical as well. Placing a fly, lure or bait in the middle of the school might lead to a successful hookup, but it will also scatter the school and send spooked fish in every direction. Targeting a single fish or the just the ones on the edges of a school greatly increases the chances of pulling multiple reds from a school, instead of just "one and done."
Wilson will start a day with a fly or artificial, but when fish become wary of the pressure and presentation, he'll change tactics.
"On a good day, we get a half dozen or so shots on artificials, then I switch up," he said, going to a chunk of fresh blue crab, perhaps the most-effective bait ever for a winter red. "I remove the claws, break the shell, use a pair of serrated scissors to cut the crab in half, and insert a 3/0 Owner (hook)in the back paddle and out the body."
Wilson will fish crab chunks on a Carolina rig with a 20-pound fluorocarbon leader and no more than a half-ounce of weight, because the weight of the crab is often enough for casting purposes, and the splash of too big a weight can spook wary reds. If reds are picking at the chunk of crab instead of eating it, he will cut his offering in half again, making it easier for the reds to engulf.
Undoubtedly, February is not the most pleasant month to be on the water, but it is not without its rewards for those who brave the elements. Watching a few hundred redfish in one group and having several fight over a bait, lure or fly is the ultimate inshore experience for many anglers.
Plus, as Davis said, "The fishing is great: no jet-skis, big schools of eager fish, and loads less fishing pressure."
WHERE TO GO: The Atlantic Intercoastal Waterway runs through Charleston and can be accessed from most any landing in the county, but there are few that offer easy access; the Wappoo Cut and Riverland Terrace landings on James island, John P. Limehouse Landing on Johns Island, and Dawhoo Landing on Edisto Island.
WHEN TO GO: Clear skies, low tides, and low winds are best for spotting schooled up reds. Also, reds become more active as the flats warm, so late-morning and early afternoon low tides often provide the most action. The best plan is not to plan too far in advance; watch wind, skies and tide, and when things look like they are coming together; drop everything and go fishing.
TACKLE: Medium to medium-light spinning rods matched with 2500 series reels spooled with 10- to 20-pound braided line and 18- to 20-pound fluorocarbon leaders. Fish soft-plastic baits on 3/0 flutter-style hooks; fish bait on 3/0 to 4/0 circle hooks and Carolina rigs with light weights to keep from a big splash that might spook fish. For fly-fishing, 9-foot, 7- to 9-weight fly roads with floating lines and at least 10 to 12 feet of 18-pound fluorocarbon leaders are best. Large-arbor fly reels keep fly lines from coiling too much in the cold, and a good drag with plenty of backing ensure the big one won't get away. A variety of flies of various weights that imitate shrimp, crabs and baitfish are used to allow fishermen to keep flies in the strike zone longer.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES: Capt. Chris Wilson, FinAddict Charters, 843-224-7462, www.charlestonflyfishingguide.com; Capt. Jeremy Mehlhaff, Charleston Shallows, 843-478-5319, www.charlestonshallows.com; Capt. Scott Davis, Low Country Fly Shop, Mount Pleasant, 843-388-5337, www.lowcountryflyshop.com. See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS: Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-774-0006 www.charlestoncvb.com.