I'm used to pulling the collar of my duck coat up around my neck in December and January when I'm holding a shotgun, not when helping to load fishing rods into a boat.
My wife and I had met Capt. Ben Alderman of Superfly Fishing Charters (843-906-3630) at Garris Landing located north of Mount Pleasant in Awendaw. The tide was still falling, and the three of us were going to chase winter redfish.
Alderman dropped his flats boat off the trailer, and we slowly motored in the ditch next to the long pier that knifes out towards the Intracoastal Waterway. With mud flats and oyster bars already exposed, Alderman explained how we would approach the fishing this brilliantly clear morning.
"With little to eat in the creeks this time of year, dolphins prey on the schools of redfish," Alderman said. "To avoid the dolphins, redfish try to get in extremely shallow water, too shallow for the dolphins to harass them, or move way up into the heads of small creeks. Again, hoping to avoid the dolphins.
"The exciting part about fishing this time of year is that the water is so clear. The majority of the time we will see and catch fish that you would miss during the summer when the water is cloudier."
I thrive on cold weather, but for some anglers that prefer to be in the salt marsh during more seasonal weather, the idea of seeing your quarry before catching it should put a little anti-freeze in your veins.
Reaching the end of the ditch, Alderman scanned the ICW for any southbound yachts whose owners were trying to escape the chill. Seeing none, he gave his neoprene gloves one more reassuring tug, zipped his waxed-cotton coat over his inside layers and hit the throttle.
We raced southward down the ICW towards Copahee Sound, buffleheads scampering to avoid us. After the quick run, just long enough to get your eyes tearing, Alderman slowed the boat and jumped up on the poling platform.
"Grab those two rods and you guys get up on the bow," he said.
Alderman turned us to the west and up into a small non-descript creek. The tide was still draining past oyster bars like water falling down a mountain stream. We crept farther into the creek, the size shrinking to nearly the width of the boat.
"Up ahead; there they are," Alderman said from the poling platform. "Get ready to lay one of those grubs in there."
Just ahead the creek widened slightly to form a small circular basin. In this deeper water I could make out swirling black shadows. A dozen redfish or so milled about in the security of their backwater lair.
The setup was ideal.
Alderman held the boat into the tide, and the sun was over our shoulder blinding the fish to our presence. As long as we didn't make any noise the fish shouldn't spook, something that Alderman had cautioned us about back the boat ramp.
"Lay the grub to the edge of the pool, not in the middle of the fish, and slowly work it back to us," Alderman said.
I gave the grub a pitch, and within seconds a red was fighting against the line. We landed it in less than a foot of transparent water and quickly admired its crisp markings before releasing it.
Alderman, who along with partner, Ronnie Pitts, had two top-five finishes during the 2005 Redfish Cup tournament trail, enjoys the adventure winter-time red fishing brings.
"The winter fishing is based on sight fishing," he said. "It's exciting fishing to seek and stalk the reds in the clear water of winter. I like to do most of my fishing during low tide."
Alderman said the clearest water occurs during the falling tide because it's being filtered as it comes out of the grass. During the low water the fish begin "holing up," as he described it, where they retreat to isolated deepwater areas.
"These fish might be in a pocket that is 4- to 5-feet deep, and you can see them," Alderman said. "They'll use the same place in the summer but because of the murkier water you'll pole right over and spook them."
Alderman fishes mostly the waters near Mount Pleasant north of Charleston. He said the wide-open bays and flats of Copahee and Hamlin sounds and myriad creeks that drain into these bodies of water are ideal locations for winter reds.
Another spot Alderman probes for winter reds is the ICW.
"The ICW banks have a lot of fish," he said. "The reason for this is the hard edge created by dredging of the ICW. That hard edge 'holds' the fish up on the flat until there's virtually no water, helping them to avoid the dolphins. If need be, they can spill over into the deeper water."
Alderman prefers to fish low-tide scenarios because the fishing is more predictable. It's fairly simple to locate most of the reds' regular haunts, and if the fish aren't right there, they usually are nearby. Anglers can locate them by poling or easing along with a trolling motor. During higher water, Alderman said fishing is more disturbing to reds.
"At high tide, the reds are usually up in the grass or right along the edge of it," he said. "Sometimes you can see them ahead of time, but with all that water you have to do a lot of searching and casting to find the fish.
"You can get up in the grass, sneak around and blind cast gold-colored spinnerbaits and spoons over a broad area.
"The problem is there's a lot of activity usually associated with this style of fishing, which increases your chances of spooking fish that are already on high alert. If you're not adept at casting or proficient at pitching, once you find the fish you're usually going to scare them before one bites."
To avoid sending a school to the next creek over and getting lockjaw, Alderman tries to put his clients at high-water places he knows routinely hold redfish. He learns about these places by spending a tremendous amount of time scouting. For anglers that don't guide, he recommended they do the same.
"I might just stake out an area off the bank in 3 or 4 feet of water," Alderman said. "Most anglers would make the mistake of getting too close to the grass and alert fish already there or scare ones that are cruising the grass edge.
"If you see some bait there that only makes the place more attractive.
"You can fish a cut-up mullet, mud minnows or a piece of blue crab on a Carolina rig at a spot like this. If you can't find any real bait, Berkley Gulp baits work extremely well, almost so well you feel like you're cheatin' some days."
Crab and shrimp are the recommended Gulp baits. Popular colors include natural, copper penny and white and chartreuse. Hook types will depend upon bottom conditions.
If there are no oysters Alderman said anglers can use a quarter-ounce jig head. If oysters are a problem, cast baits just off the oysters with a Carolina rig using a No. 2/0 or 3/0 circle hook.
"The advantage of this type of fishing is you don't have to probe the water constantly by casting," he said. "If you know the fish are there, let the bait sit and the fish will take it when they're over it.
"I normally put the baits out and set the rods in the rod holders. I don't know what people do when they're holding a rod, but it seems a rod in the rod-holder will outfish a person 3 to 1."
Back to the low-tide scenarios, Alderman will use 3- or 4-inch Gulps with flutter hooks or whip out a fly rod.
"A flutter hook is a keel-weighted hook," he said. "The hook with a soft-plastic bait attached flutters parallel to the bottom. This is in contrast to a jig head that falls head down.
"A soft-plastic fished on a flutter hook tends to sink slower, so you can work it over oysters and other structure with less fear of snagging. If disturbance is an issue, then you can deadstick the bait and merely have it rest on the bottom."
Alderman doesn't hesitate to use a fly rod during the winter because flies impart more action with little movement.
"You want to use a fly pattern that is billowy," he said. "The reason is there is a lot of life to it if you fish it real slow. Pick a pattern like a Clouser or even something similar to a Wooly Bugger."
To use a fly rod during the winter, Alderman said anglers aren't going to be frantically casting similar to warmer months. Instead, he recommended an intermediate line that will cause the fly to sink slowly towards the bottom.
If you lack a hit during the fall, he said let the fly sit until the fish move over it. Most of the time, he said, the water will cause enough action of the fly for the fish to hit it without the angler having to do anything.
"I prefer a black fly when there are low-light conditions," Alderman said. "If it's bright, I'll pick something that is white, flashy or nearly translucent. It'll look like there is only a hint of bait there."
Anglers who purse winter redfish should find adequate numbers to catch thanks in part to a catch-and-release ethic that has settled with many of the state's anglers and effective monitoring by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. The science behind the monitoring has led to appropriate regulations to conserve current redfish stocks.
When the creeks seem flush with redfish some anglers think regulations shouldn't be so restrictive. However, periodic increases in inshore redfish populations are part of the species' reproductive pattern, not an indication redfish are overabundant.
"Redfish are long-lived fish, living longer than 40 years in many cases," said Dr. Charlie Wenner, a SCDNR marine scientist. "A redfish's strategy is to spawn one time per year and hopefully have a successful spawn once or twice during its lifetime. If a spawn fails one year, it should be no problem because the fish, in theory, will live to spawn another year."
After redfish eggs hatch, the juvenile fish remain in the salt marsh nursery areas for three to five years. This age coincides with an approximately 30-inch fish that weighs somewhere close to 10 to 15 pounds. Once they reach this age, sub-adult fish leave the marsh to join the offshore adult spawning population. They remain offshore the rest of their lives, venturing close to shore to spawn only once each summer.
The spawning strategy of redfish works wonderfully in the absence of fishing. However, the key to making it work with fishing pressure factored in is that enough sub-adult fish must move offshore.
"The problem comes when we have a great spawn," Wenner said. "Some anglers believe there are plenty of fish, so they should be able to keep more. But if you overharvest them now, you'll pay for it later.
"Inshore angling works on three year classes at any one time. For example, in 2005 the redfish in the marshes were spawned in 2004, 2003 and 2002. Most of the fish spawned in 2001 were grown and already left the estuary.
"There seems to be an excellent population of redfish now because the 2000, 2001 and 2002 spawns were good. Uninformed fishermen believe we should be keeping more of those fish, but they don't know what's around the next bend.
"The 2003 spawn was horrible. So about the time anglers want more liberal regulations to take effect, there'll be a lower redfish population, and we'll overharvest the future."
Wenner said three reasons account for the large number of redfish seen lately. There was a good spawn in 2002, regulation changes that reduced the bag limit and slot size, and no hard winter freezes. These factors added more fish to the offshore spawning population, whereby ensuring the future of S.C. red fishing.
Offshore surveys conducted by SCDNR indicate more young adult redfish are entering the offshore spawning population. Wenner said he believes this is an indication restrictive regulations are working, but said this is no time to loosen things up.
"Bad spawns will come in the future," he said. "What you want to guard against is not continually adding enough fish to the offshore population. The more spawning fish you have, intuitively, it'll dampen the effects of a catastrophic spawn.
When you have no spawners you'll have no recruits. Or as Wenner is known for saying,
"There's a good chance you won't have any kids if your parents don't either."