Holding a heavy-duty, offshore fishing rod, Capt. Robert McCarley slowly jigged four jellyballs jellyfish up and down, peering into the water as if looking for treasure. Within a few minutes, several oversized panfish arrived, picking at the jellyballs.

“There they are. Cast your bait right next to the jellyballs,” said McCarley, who operates Reel Tight Charters out of Georgetown, S.C. His client shrugged, as if to suggest that hooking a fish so close to the boat wouldn’t be much of a fight. But he made the cast as instructed and learned quickly that the fight would last much longer than he’d expected.

With his rod sharply bent and line zinging out of his reel, the angler followed McCarley’s advice to let the fish run when it wanted to, then reel when the fish rested or ran toward the boat. A few minutes later, a spadefish was on board, and a second angler was hooked up.

Fishing for spadefish cranks up this month, and you can find them at any of the nearshore reefs that sit just off of Georgetown. The only trick to catching them is having jellyballs. Without jellyballs, you might as well fish for something else, according to McCarley, who likes to carry 10 or 12 jellyballs on any trip.

Once over a reef, McCarley threads about jellyballs onto a coat hanger, ties a heavy line to a bend in the top of the coat hanger, then lowers it until he begins to feel fish pecking at the jellyballs. He reels in his line slowly, trying to make sure the fish follow the jellyballs up through the water column. Once they are in sight, spadefish should be there, too.

“You can use a piece of shrimp or a small piece of a jellyball. Some days, one works better than the other,” McCarley said. “You just want enough weight on your line to allow you to cast the bait to the fish. You can watch them eat the bait, but it’s best to wait until you feel the fish on your line before setting the hook.

“When folks fish this way for the first time, they think they’re going to just yank the spadefish right into the boat because they are so close, but afterwards, they talk about how quickly and how hard the fish runs once it’s hooked.” 

Spadefish are usually plentiful in this area during May, but on some days, McCarley said he has to visit two or three reefs before he finds them. He said he can’t remember a year when he couldn’t find them on at least one of the reefs in May.

The Georgetown Reef, the Georgetown Nearshore Reef, the North Inlet Reef and the C.J. Davidson Reef are all good places to look for spadefish, which offer a tremendous battle on light spinning gear.