Although the weather may be a bit cooler than it is during the summer, guide Chris Chavis makes a good argument why late winter angling for redfish in the backwater creeks and bays surrounding Charleston is often more reliable than spring and summer fishing.
“Most people seem to think our redfishing is only good during the spring and summer,” said Chavis, who runs Fin Stalker Charters. “I can attest that our winter fishery can be phenomenal, with plenty of big redfish and tons of slot fish, and they’re not hard to catch on either artificial or live baits.”
Two factors are in the angler’s favor when searching out coldwater reds: clearer water and the fish’s propensity to bunch together in tight groups from dozens to even hundreds of fish. Finding roaming schools is much easier, and that’s half the battle.
Unlike other inshore species, redfish use the same waters and locations year-round, regardless of the water temperature. The same flats, ditches and creeks that hold redfish during spring and summer will also hold fish in the winter, many times in larger numbers.
“A lot of guys get back in the grass during high tide and sight-fish for reds during the winter,” said Chavis. “My favorite way to sight-fish is to look for those same fish during the three hours on either side of low tide. They tend to stay out of the deeper waters because of the dolphin, so any place you can find a little creek, oyster flat or drainage that leads up into the marsh, redfish can be stacked up (there) during low tide, waiting to get back into the grass.”
Like most guides, Chavis favors searching from an elevated platform on the stern of his low-draft flats boat. The height provides a better vantage point to see fish, while allowing him to pole into position. He can propel the boat and point out schools while his anglers cast to the fish from the bow.
“Sight-fishing is about clear water,” Chavis said. “Ideally, you’ll want moderate tides, not much wind and not a lot of run-off from rainfall. All of these things can cause the water to become murky.”
Whether you fish the areas in Charleston harbor, the Intracoastal Waterway or any of the sounds, flats and creeks behind surrounding barrier islands, Chavis finds there are typically equal numbers of redfish. The deciding factor for most anglers is fishing areas with which they are most familiar.
“Like any type of fishing, there are just certain areas that hold redfish just about all the time,” he said. “In other areas, you might happen across a school by surprise. Even if you spook those fish, you can often let them settle down and then come back later in the day and catch them.”
Whether he’s on a known school of fish or one he’s found, Chavis will position his boat where anglers can cast to them without too much commotion or cast shadows that can spook them. Cold-water redfish are lethargic; that doesn’t mean they won’t eat, but it does mean the presentation has to be slower.
“I tell my clients to cast above and beyond where I’m seeing fish, then bump or crawl the bait naturally back through their path,” he said. “I tell them to start with a normal retrieve, then if they react negatively to that or don’t bite, try slowing down or hopping the bait or just varying the speed. Sometimes it takes a bit to figure out how to get a reaction.”
Chavis is also a big believer in scented baits to help reds both see and smell the offerings. He is a fan of the 2- and 3-inch Gulp! shrimp, rigged on a jighead, or a larger, 5-inch jerk shad, rigged on a flutter hook. Weights range from 1/16-ounce on the flutter hook to 1/8-ounce on the jighead.
When high winds, cold fronts or runoff from the interior of the state, live baits may be the choice when targeting redfish. It’s situations like these that make Jimmy Skinner of Edisto Island’s Fontaine Charters smile.
Knowing how and where to fish live and cut baits has helped Skinner, and finding bait is no problem, since he runs crab traps and sells fresh fish and shrimp from his base at Edisto Seafood.
Skinner’s typical offerings include cut blue crab, whole shrimp, fresh-cut fish, and live mud minnows. Rather than maneuvering his boat in and around likely redfish holding spots to cast artificial baits, Skinner prefers to anchor or nose it up on the opposite bank in the back of a tidal creek and fan cast the cut baits.
“There are days when redfish prefer one bait over another,” said Skinner. “In this case, it’s beneficial to provide a variety and let the fish choose.”
If cloudy or murky water doesn’t allow him to see schools of fish, his lifetime of experience in the Edisto area have taught him where reds are likely to hold.
“A bend in a river or creek is always going to be a great potential redfish holding spot,” said Skinner. “Add in a downed tree or two, an undercut bank or a rock wall, and sooner or later, redfish will show up to feed.”
“You can often get by with lighter tackle if you use the current to your advantage,” said Skinner. “Let’s say there’s a big, nasty tree laying in the water that you think is holding a fish. Cast the bait upcurrent and let it carry the bait’s scent into the tangle. When he get’s hungry enough, he’ll move out of that tree and eat the bait. But if you aren’t on your toes, he’ll turn around and head right back into that tree, and you’re not likely to get him out.”
Skinner prefers a falling tide as redfish move out of grass flats and retreat to deep holes, or a rising tide before the grass flats become accessible to the fish. He will rig several 10- or 20-pound-class rods with Carolina rigs. A 2/0 or 3/0 circle hook completes the rig, so that when a fish picks up the bait, it has a chance to move off and position the hook before he begins reeling against the fish.
“I give each location about 30 minutes,” he said. “If the tide is moving and there’s fish around, it shouldn’t take long for them to find the bait. You might not have any action for a bit, and then a school will move in, and you’ll have several rods go down at one time.”
HOW TO GET THERE — Charleston is accessible from the Midlands and Upstate via I-77 and I-26 and from other areas of the coast via US 17. A number of public boat access areas are available, with Remley Point and Wapoo Cut among the most popular. Edisto is approximately an hour south of Charleston on US 17 and SC 174. For a list of public boat ramps, visit www.dnr.sc.gov/mlands/boatramp.
BEST TECHNIQUES — Sight-fishing for redfish in cold water is predicated on the angler’s ability to see the fish. Clear water is necessary to spot reds moving through shallow bays, creeks and flats as they avoid dolphins which prey heavily on them in winter. A scented, soft-plastic artificial can be very effective when cast ahead of a moving school and worked very slowly into the reds’ path. In murky or stained water, anchor within casting distances of places where reds have historically congregated — the outside bend of a creek or river, especially where a laydown tree is present — and fan-cast live or cut baits into the area.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO — Capt. Chris Chavis, Fin Stalker Charters, Charleston, 843-509-9972, www.finstalker.net; Capt. Jimmy Skinner, Fontaine Charters, Edisto Island, 843-869-3446, www.fontainecharters.com. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Best Western Patriots Point, Mount Pleasant, 843-971-7070; Town and Country Inn & Conference Center, Charleston, 800-334-6660; La Quinta Inn & Suites, Charleston, 843-556-5200; Wyndham Ocean Ridge, Edisto Island, 843-869-2561; Charleston Area Visitors and Convention Bureau, 800-774-0006, www.explorecharleston.com; Edisto Chamber of Commerce, 843-869-3867, www.edistochamber.com.