When it comes to inshore fishing in South Carolina, the redfish is king. They’re aggressive feeders willing to take numerous baits, and hard fighters, especially on light tackle.
But a redfish only spends part of its life inshore. After three to five years of age, around 28 to 33 inches long, they reach sexual maturity and start the move to offshore waters where they will spend the remainder of their lives — except for the fall when they move closer in to spawn and feed before winter arrives. This Lowcountry version of the running of the bulls is a much- anticipated event, making it absolutely prime time for hitting the beach.
What do fishing guides do on their days off? They usually go fishing. Every fall, Steve Roll of Beaufort’s Seas So Shallow guide service heads down to Hunting Island State Park for a little rest and relaxation on the beach, with rods in tow.
“I have caught bull reds up and down the beach, but I think the fishing is a little better closer to Johnson Creek down past the campground,” Roll said.
Setting up near Johnson Creek is easy enough if you’re camping at the state park. Otherwise, it requires a hike of a few miles from the day-use beach near the lighthouse. Like Roll says, however, while the fishing may be a little better around Johnson Creek, really, anywhere on the beach can be great, so anglers who do not feel like hoofing gear a long ways need not worry; good fishing is often just a short walk away.
Surf fishing in the fall is a long-standing tradition up and down the coast of both Carolinas. Many older fisherman also have stories of beaching giant spot-tails in their youth and coming home with enough fish to feed a small army. The fish are still there, but bringing them home is no longer an option, with a 15- to 23-inch slot limit in place to protect them. You’re not likely to catching anything in the surf that doesn’t substantially exceed the upper limit of the slot.
However, there is more to fishing than just keeping fish, and the thrill of tussling with a truly big fish from the beach is simply enough for many anglers.
“Reds hit hard in the surf just like they do inshore, inhaling the bait, but unlike most reds inshore, these fish are averaging around 25 pounds,” Roll said.
It is in the angler’s nature to want to make long casts. Rods designed for fishing from the shore are well-suited to the task, coming in rocket-launching lengths anywhere from 8 to as much as 15 feet. Roll doesn’t subscribe to that methodology, saying, “A lot of folks don’t catch many fish because they are fishing way to far out, but the reds are usually concentrated around the second wave, so I just use 7-foot rods.”
Reds are not hanging around the surf just so they can catch a wave or two; they are there because that’s where the food is. In the fall, mullet migrate down the beach, and redfish follow closely. Searching for mullet jumping or swimming just under the surface close to the beach, experienced anglers know just where to place their baits, and it is often much closer than many fishermen might expect.
Some fishermen tend multiple lines in sand spikes, and while that may increase the number of bites in a day, it may cut down on the chance of landing fish because of the chance for some fascinating tangles when a few fish hooked simultaneously started running up and down the beach. Sometimes, less is more.
“I only fish two rods at a time” Ross said. “I keep one in the holder on the cooler and one in my hand, so I rarely have too much to handle.”
With mullet running up and down the beach, the bait of choice is not hard to figure out; big chunks of cut mullet. Roll uses Penn Slammer rods, 6000 series Shimano spinning reels loaded with 50-pound Power Pro braid, 4- to 6-ounce barrel weights, 18 inches of 60-pound monofilament leader and 5/0 circle hooks. The same basic set-up he uses on his boat in the Port Royal Sound and Broad River works well for bull reds from the beach.
Unlike hook-and-cook, catch-and-release challenges anglers after the fight is over as well. How fish are handled after they’re caught is just as important as catching them in the first place. Fortunately, redfish are heartier than many gamefish, and releasing one safely is easily done with a little common sense.
“If you aren’t wearing the fish out by using gear that’s too light, there isn’t a problem, and reds are usually ready to rock and roll as soon as released, even after a couple of pictures,” Roll said.
Reds that are moving in and out of the sounds where they spawn and cruising the beach to feed in the fall are often big, really big. Reds weighing 40 to 50 pounds aren’t uncommon. Besides cut mullet, blue crabs and live pinfish are great baits.
Fishing for bull reds in the fall may not put food on the table or add to an angler’s waistline, but they can give so much more than nourishment and make for fond memories. A tug of war on the beach with a great fish on a brisk fall day is not something that is easily forgotten.
WHERE TO GO/WHEN TO GO — Hunting Island State Park is at the southern end of the mouth of St. Helena Sound, best accessed via US 21 through Beaufort across St. Helena Island. Two good areas of the beach to fish are near the campground on the northern end of the island near the mouth of Johnson Creek, and at the lighthouse. Prime time to catch bull reds in the surf is from September through November. Most-productive time period is two hours before and after the low tide — especially if that time period coincides with early morning or late afternoon.
TACKLE/TECHNIQUES — Medium-heavy to heavy action spinning rods with 5000 or 6000 series spinning rods spooled with 50- to 80-pound braid work well for surf reds. A heavy Carolina rig with a 4- to 6-ounce barrel weight should keep your bait on the bottom. Leaders should be 18 to 24 inches of 50-pound monofilament. Large chunks of cut mullet are the best baits, although shrimp or crab will work in a pinch.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO — Capt. Steve Roll, Seas So Shallow Guide Service. Ladies Island, 843-252-3882, www.seassoshallow.com; Capt. Josh Boyles, Southern Drawl Outfitters, Hilton Head, 843-705-6010, www.southerndrawloutfitters.com; Grayco Hardware, Ladys Island, 843-521-8060, www.gracoinc.com; Beaufort Boat and Dock Supply, Port ROyal, 843-986-0552. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Camping is available at Hunting Island State Park. Visit www.southcarolinaparks.com/huntingisland or by calling 843-838-2011. Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce, 800-638-3525, www.beaufortsc.org.