Drifting onto the flat, you can see them, 50 or more, finning almost motionless in a foot of water that is so clear you can almost make out individual fish - but mostly it is just a mass of dark spots.

Standing on the poling platform, you work ever so carefully to close into casting range, while your partner readies his 8-weight fly rod. Closing enough, you push the boat slightly to the right for an ideal forehand cast that your buddy delivers right on the nose of a spot-tail bass on the outside edge of the school, which is now clearly visible and may contain 200 fish.

He strips the large Deceiver fly, a mud minnow imitation, just once before it is snatched by the hungry fish. At the instant of the "strip strike" hookset that sends the big spot-tail into escape panic, all the others scatter in all different directions.

That's sight-casting for redfish. Don't worry, it's the dead of winter and they won't go very far, so you'll have other chances.

Spot-tail bass - aka redfish, red drum, puppy drum - are the only shallow-water gamefish in South Carolina's Lowcountry that stay active year-round, but they take on a different character depending on the season. Ask a group of Lowcountry anglers about the best time to catch them, and maybe one in 10 will say winter, but that person would be right if we were talking about sight-fishing especially with a fly rod.

February is sight-fishing's high season, when you see huge schools drifting around low-tide flats. The water is crystal clear, and the redfish spend their days looking for scant meals and avoiding the rampaging bottlenose dolphins that focus on them intensely in the winter.

Obviously, redfish are less aggressive than in summer, and they will not fight as long nor hard, but they will still eat a jig or fly dropped into their midst - sometimes. Getting them to bite in February can be frustrating, and yes, the weather can be bad, but hitting a low-tide flat on a warm winter afternoon can turn into a bonanza day.

Why would anyone want to make catching a challenging gamefish any more difficult? Casting to visible fish with a fly rod is a learned skill that requires practice, but it is not rocket science and does not require super human strength. Any reasonably fit and coordinated man or woman can master the art of throwing the 40 to 50 feet of fly line that is generally required to catch winter redfish.

Without questioning the fact that presenting a fly is more difficult than casting a jig or flipping a popping cork, the delicate entry of a fly onto the water is actually a big advantage over jigs or bait in the cold months. The fish are moving more slowly and less likely to swim far away when spooked, but they are also less likely to eat. A jig landing near a school that would elicit a strike in warmer water will often be ignored. Often, the only way to get strikes on jigs is to cast well away from the school and hope they move that way. If the fish do move near the jig, give it a small hop, and that may illicit a strike.

Capt. Marv Copeland was one the area's early fishing guides, working out of Shelter Cove on Hilton Head Island. Together with Fuzzy Davis, they guided the inshore and nearshore action in the May, Cooper and Broad rivers and around Calibogue Sound. After 18 years of full-time guiding and tournament fishing, Copeland now only guides part-time with mostly friends.

Along with four other guides, Copeland contributed to the chart - still available from tackle shops and marinas - that details hot fishing spots in the Beaufort/Hilton Head area, so he knows where the fish typically congregate and how to catch them.

His opinion of February fishing for spot-tails bass?

"February is easy, especially with a fly rod," he said. "The fish are schooled at low tide, and the water's clear, and there is normally very little competition.

"One problem with cold-water redfish fishing (is) sometimes the fish just won't bite anything."

Many anglers will refuse to leave a school and continue casting endlessly, but that is not wise, according to Copeland. When they have lockjaw - and you can't get a strike with any bait or lure in 20 minutes - he suggests leaving them and finding a more cooperative school.

Copeland, like virtually all winter spot-tail fisherman, is a low-tide angler. His favorite part of the tide is when it is falling to low, but the added risk of getting stuck is present. He suggests beginning about two hours before low and stopping when the rising waters gets back to the grass.

Very few food creatures remain on the flats in winter - only mud minnows and a few crabs remain - and the redfish do not feed aggressively. For that reason, Copeland opts for long casts with a gold spoon when spin-casting, or he will go with a fly rod when he can approach fish more closely.

When using spinning gear, Copeland picks a light-tackle outfit with 15-pound test line and a ¾-ounce Johnson gold spoon. He uses a heavier spoon since he will be making very long and high casts, well beyond the schooled fish, so they will not be spooked by the splash. He retrieves the spoon back to the school at a fairly rapid pace, then slows it to a fluttering crawl while moving through the school. When he has mud minnows available, he will tip the spoon with a live minnow, hooked through the skull, so it isn't slung off on the cast. This kills the minnow, but it stays on the hook much better, and it is still effective.

When he can get close enough without spooking the fish, his first choice is the fly rod. He admits he is not a great fly-caster, but winter conditions don't require either long or particularly accurate casts since there are so many fish in the schools.

February can be cold in the Lowcountry, but there are often magical days when the wind slacks to dead calm and a morning sea fog is lifted by the warming sun. What begins in a morning chill often evolves into light jacket weather. The flats warm as the sun lights up the clear water and you will see swarms of fish. If you have always wanted to catch a spottail on a fly, February is a perfect time to try.

 

DESTINATION INFORMATION

WHEN TO GO: Pick a falling tide when the wind is light and plan arriving an hour or so before the ebb. Fishing should be good for about three hours, or until the water gets too deep to visually spot fish.

HOW TO GET THERE: Anglers working the Broad River flats often use the excellent landing on SC 170 at the Chechessee River Bridge, half-way between Bluffton and Beaufort. Many other free public landing options are available.

GUIDES/FISHING INFO: Beaufort Boat and Dock Supply, Port Royal, 843-986-0552; Bay Street Outfitters, Beaufort, 843-524-5250; and Grayco Hardware, Lady's Island, 843-521-8060, are good sources for information and supplies. For guides, Capt. Tuck Scott, 843-271-5406, Captain Owen Plair 843-524-5250, Capt. Jack Brown, 843-838-9369 and Capt. Richard Sykes, 843-524-5250. See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS: Beaufort Area Chamber of Commerce, 843-986-5400.

MAPS: Capt. Segull's Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855, www.captainsegullcharts.com; Top Spot Waterproof map N233, is available from local tackle shops; Waterproof Charts, Chart 93F, Hilton Head/Beaufort, 800-423-9026, www.waterproofcharts.com.