Atlantic bottlenose dolphin stalk and relentlessly hunt Lowcountry redfish year-round. The two species play an age-old game of cat-and-mouse, and redfish. The redfish, at the top of their menu, quench an insatiable appetite. These two species play an eons-old game of cat-and-mouse, and redfish instinctively seek shallow, oyster-lined sandbar flats for sanctuary. A flat though, isn’t always conveniently located for a pod of 500-pound starving dolphin encircling and charging the unsuspecting gamefish.
Docks to the rescue!
These structures and barnacle-covered pilings, surrounded by oysters, are like a medieval castle that keep marauding predators at bay.
Anglers are no exception. Get ready to sacrifice fishing line.
Redfish are in their element under and around docks, dodging and darting through jagged pilings like an SEC running back, often cutting lines off against sharp crustaceans.
Targeting redfish around docks often frustrates the most seasoned angler into throwing in the towel.
Ja Malphrus, who guides out of Bay Street Outfitters in Beaufort, embraces the challenge, however, and he and shares his secrets to maximize hook-up-to-landing ratio on man-made structure and save some braid or mono.
Malphrus won the 2011 Lowcountry Redfish Cup with a 23-inch fish caught from under a dock off the Broad River.
“We ran all the way up from Savannah to Rose Island, up around Broad River and got up on a dock,” he said. “It was well worth it.”
Malphrus relies on docks in deplorable weather and sunny, calm days, if the bite is slow in open water.
“Dock-fishing is kind of a go-to area,” he said. “If you’re in a pinch, you’ve always got a go-to dock. It’s usually consistent, and year-round, you can go to them.”
Malphrus admits that choosing the right dock can be daunting, but his go-to spots share the same characteristics.
“Most of the docks I like to fish are not big rivers or Beaufort River or Lands End,” he says. “Most of the docks I fish are decent-sized creeks. They’re not terribly small or terribly big.”
Don’t be overwhelmed by options.
“You might have nine docks side by side with pluff mud and scattered oysters, but on that tenth dock, you’ve got good current, a full oyster rake, and steep drop-off right there,” Malphrus said. “Maybe there’s a feeder creek right by, but something different. That’s always better.”
Malphrus said that three waterways around Beaufort are host to the area’s hottest redfish bite.
“I think Battery Creek holds a lot of fish. There are a lot of fish up and down the creek,” he said. “The Little Chechessee right off the Broad also holds a lot fish. I do a lot of fishing in Beaufort River, too, because there are a ton of fish there.”
Malphrus said some of his most-productive days have been fishing docks, but don’t expect to land a bull red around one.
“Seventy to 80 percent of the fish around here are going to be smaller,” he said. “There are some docks with bigger fish, but most of the fish we catch are 18 to 21 inches.
Malphrus puts clients on docks year-round and tweaks his approach for each season.
“As far as dock fishing goes, it’s a learning curve because you have to know when to fish a dock,” he said.
Regardless of the season, he always starts at the same tide.
“My favorite tide to fish for everything is mid-tide,” Malphrus said. “On darn near every dock, you’re going to be able to catch fish on a dock around mid-tide, especially if there’s grass or an oyster rake nearby.”
Redfish prefer slower-moving water, expending less energy holding behind pilings.
“Every dock is going to have a certain point in the tide when it’s going to be better while water is moving,” Malphrus says. “I like fishing a slower tide; if it’s too hard, you can’t get the bait down.”
The time of day has less of an impact on the action from late fall through the winter.
“I’ve always liked the early morning bite, but I’ve always liked that mid-tide, even if it’s at 12 o’clock,” Malphrus said. “The summer will have more of an effect with the heat, but in the fall and winter, it doesn’t matter. The winter, here, I’ve got a bunch of docks I fish.”
Malphrus suggests exercising etiquette when approaching any private dock.
“Sometimes you may pull up on a dock and there’s a couple laying out on the dock, and it’s awkward,” he said. “I’m the type of person, if I roll up to a dock and there’s a couple there, and I’m fishing their dock, if they talk and are nice, I’ll sit there and fish. If they blow me off, then I’m not going to sit there. I’m always mindful of what they’re doing, and if there’s a big group out there.”
Docks aren’t the easiest places to land a frisky, slot-sized redfish, but Malphrus said the right set-up offers more leverage to yank them out of their fortress.
And less is more.
“I like something a little stouter,” Malphrus says. “On a flat, you want something long and light for sight-fishing. I like to go shorter to be more precise. I’ll go down to a 6-foot rod. I like the Shimano Teramar with braid.”
With redfish on fire in late fall and early winter, gorging before the baitfish menu migrates offshore for warmer water, Malphrus prefers artificial lures, but he mixes it up with bait for less-experienced anglers or in muddy water.
“Typically, if you’re gonna bait-fish with shrimp and mud minnows, I like to go pretty basic with a popping cork,” he said. “In the summer when it can be tougher I’ll use the popping-cork rig and a couple of bottom rigs like a Carolina rig.”
“I’ve always liked to use a shrimp or mud minnow that’s live and going to move around down there, “ Malphrus said. “Plus, with mullet, you’ll need a lot of lead to keep it down.”
His go-to weapon, however, imitates a swimming shrimp.
“My favorite I’ve always liked to throw is a Gulp! mantis shrimp with a chartreuse tail or root beer color,” he says. “About 95 percent of the time, I use a 1/8-ounce jighead to get it down there and let it bounce around.”
The presentation is equally enticing to famished redfish.
“If you’re doing an artificial and you throw an artificial on an incoming tide, it’s more natural reeling it back,” Malphrus says.
Malphrus spools his reels with 15- to 20-pound braid, along with a 40-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon leader.
“I’m always geared more toward the fluoro leader so they can’t see it,” he said.
Malphrus has seen strong numbers of fish in the Beaufort area the past couple of years, along with respect for conservation.
“If (SCDNR) keeps their limitations on them, I see it doing nothing then getting stronger,” he said. “I think there are more and more people catching and releasing fish, including the weekend warrior. And I think there are guys now that may just keep a fish for dinner instead.
HOW TO GET THERE/WHEN TO GO — From I-95, take exit 33 and follow US 21 into Beaufort. Good access areas are the Battery Creek Landing on Parris island Gateway just before the Russell Bell Bridge, Factory Creek Landing on US 21 on Lady’s Island or the Brickyard Landing on Brickyard Rd. Fishing for redfish is good year-round, but the fall and early winter months are perhaps best as fish are feeding up for the coldest months.
TACKLE/TECHNIQUES — When fishing for reds around docks, go with shorter rods, maybe 6-foot, for better casting accuracy, and beef up to medium-action to be able to pull fish away from the structure that’s associated with them. Spool reels with 20-pound braid and use a leader of 40-pound fluorocarbon. Live shrimp or mud minnows fished under a popping cork or on a Carolina rig are hard to beat. Artificials fished on jigheads will allow you to keep your bait near the bottom where reds spend most of the time. if you like cut bait, use pieces of blue crab or mullet.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Capt. Ja Malphrus, Bay Street Outfitters, Beaufort, 843-524-5250, www.baystreetoutfitters.com. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Beaufort Area Chamber of Commerce, 843-986-5400, www.visitbeaufortsc.org.
MAPS — Capt. Segull’s Nautical Charts, 888-473-3855, www.captainsegullcharts.com; Top Spot map N233, is available from most area tackle shops.