Well, you're in luck. Within a few miles of S.C.'s shoreline resides a powerful, plentiful and tasty saltwater sportfish.
With a little bit of know-how, anybody can wrestle with this voracious fighter, the Atlantic spadefish.
Sometimes referred to as "bluegills on steroids," spadefish are one of the hardest-fighting fish in the ocean, compared pound-for-pound to other fish of similar size.
Spadefish are commonly overlooked as a recreational opportunity but offer a sporting battle and fine table fare. Once anglers close the gap between a rod and a chunky spadefish, that first fight will be a memorable one that most will seek to duplicate.
Don't worry about waking up before daylight to chase this striped fighter. Although most marine and freshwater gamefish feed early in the morning or late in the afternoon, spadefish like it hot.
They become the most active from mid-morning to early afternoon and peak during mid-day. Slick calm days in July and August, when the weather seems to be more suited for drying tobacco than fishing, are the best conditions to catch spadefish.
Tactics for catching spadefish are different than those used for other kinds of fishing; in fact, fishing for spadefish is a totally new experience because of their preferred food and feeding periods. Most any fish in the ocean will engulf a live shrimp or live fish, but a spadefish may swim past shrimp or baitfish, looking for something else.
However, several special angling techniques will fill a fishbox with spades.
Spadefish are beautiful fish with black-and-white vertical stripes. Pretty enough to reside in an aquarium, they move gracefully through the water in large schools, feeding gently on soft and pliable foods. They appear, at first sight, to be a real pushover of a fish until they snag a hooked bait and turn into the Incredible Hulk. A hooked spade immediately flies into a violent rage.
Known for powerful runs with plenty of endurance , they fight all the way to the boat.
Spadefish are generally found at high-relief bottom areas from 3 to 50 miles offshore. The vertical structure they prefer usually will be an artificial reef or shipwreck with plenty of hiding places. Occasionally, they travel close to shore and frequent jetties at the mouths of inlets.
Spadefish travel in schools of 25 to 500 individual fish. In South Carolina, spadefish range from 1 to 2 pounds but in some instances will weigh nearly 20 pounds.
In July 2005, Stacey Nicholson of Augusta, Ga., caught the state-record spadefish off the coast of Beaufort, a fish that tipped the scales at 14 pounds, 1.8 ounces.
However, many times spadefish schools have much larger individuals. Smaller spades tend to be more aggressive and eat baits quicker than larger fish. Most observers expect a new state-record spadefish to be caught any day. But any spadefish weighing more than a couple of pounds will be a tough opponent for an angler. In fact, because they fight so hard, it's not difficult to imagine why no one has boated a spadefish that totaled more than 14 pounds.
Spadefish eat a wide variety of plants and animals, including shrimp-like amphipods, jellyfish, polychaetes (worms), soft coral and plankton. Cannonball jellyfish, regularly referred to as "jelly balls," and shrimp are the most common baits of choice for spade fishermen in the Carolinas. However, jelly balls are considered candy to spadefish.
Hanging out near vertical structure, spadefish are sometimes confused with sheepshead because of their "prisoner look" (the vertical black-and-white stripes). However, sheepshead are a little more elongated and have teeth that resemble sheep or horse teeth. Not to down play the powerful runs of a sheepshead, but a spadefish probably would win a tug of war with a sheepshead because of the species' dogged endurance. Sheepshead will surrender to an angler much sooner than spadefish.
Fishing for spadefish is fairly easy but can be frustrating for novices.
Since they have relatively small mouths, spadefish are restricted to eat small bites. In the wild, they take turns nipping at the edges of jelly balls like piranhas, breaking apart the ball until it's entirely consumed. As the small fragments float with the current, the spadefish engulf the pieces one at a time.
Basically, fishermen catch spadefish by concealing small hooks inside small pieces of jelly balls then, using light line, they cast into a school of feeding fish.
Any fisherman, if asked would he or she go after a 7-pound bream, probably would answer in the affirmative. That's the proximate experience of trying to land a spadefish.
Not only are spadefish extremely hard fighters, good to eat and plentiful, they're an enjoyable fish for anglers of any age.
"Everybody will enjoy catching a spadefish," said Tommy Scarborough, a veteran fishing guide of Georgetown Coastal Adventures (www.captaintommy.com).
He regularly fishes for spadefish during the summer, as well as other bottom fish, and trolls for other inshore species.
Through years of experience, Scarborough has learned how to outwit spadefish with a proven technique. Since spadefish tend to be finicky at times preferring calm waters and usually feed during the middle of the day, spadefish landings usually are a "Plan B" catch, a bonus species after anglers have caught their fill of other gamefish - or other species couldn't be caught.
Most of his clients never heard of spadefish and don't call to book a trip to bank on a spadefish frenzy. But Scarborough always brings along some spadefish gear and will lasso a bucket full of jelly balls at the inlet, just in case the opportunity arises to catch spadefish. Some days spadefish will be the only inshore species biting with any regularity.
"Dog-day weather is usually the best for spadefishing," Scarborough said.
Wrecks and artificial reefs with vertical structures will hold spadefish during the summer months, but some schools of fish will be more active and willing to feed than others.
Spadefish tend to be finicky and skittish when faced with a lot of surface commotion from boats or when a school of barracudas comes for a visit.
Spadefish feed from the surface to the bottom near underwater structures, and sight casting offers much more excitement and thrills than deeper catches.
Scarborough "runs and guns" from wreck to wreck in search of surfacing spadefish school.
"It is a lot more fun when you can see them," he said. "You pick out a fish, cast to him and watch him eat your bait as you set the hook. Then, you better hold on and hope your tackle is strong."
When he arrives at a wreck and the fish appear to be finicky, Scarborough sometimes will leave but return later.
Some of his favorite spadefish locations near Georgetown are at the Sportsman's Reef, Wayne Upchurch, Hector, Cape Romain and the TCR Wedge.
"One of the most important practices while fishing for spadefish is proper boat location," said Pete Peterson, a long-time resident of Horry County.
He fishes from a 24-foot World Cat that could easily fish the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. But rarely does Peterson's boat travel out of sight of shore. Since Peterson moved back to the Carolinas from his military service in Texas, he has dedicated many days per year chasing spadefish perfecting the art near Murrell's Inlet and Georgetown.
Peterson said there's a lot more to spadefishing than just pulling up to a reef and tossing the anchor overboard. When he arrives at a chosen spot, he checks the current, wind and water depth to determine where to anchor. The boat must be positioned directly over the reef to get spadefish where he wants them.
Peterson continually repositions his boat until it's properly situated before he drops any lines overboard. Spadefish tend to hold close to cover and don't venture far from the protection of a reef.
Just as with king mackerel fishing, chumming or a teaser is required and is probably more important while fishing for spadefish than any other type of fishing. However, leave the frozen block of ground-up fish chum at the dock.
Teasers for spadefish are made of jelly balls. Scoop several jelly balls from a live well, at least four or five, and bunch them together in a daisy chain. Then attach a line to the boat with either a cleat on your boat or to a heavy rod. Spadefish come up from the bottom and begin to peck at at jelly-ball teaser and finally rip it to threads. The scattered pieces of jelly ball flutter in the current and will initiate a bigger feeding frenzy.
Scarborough prefers to attach his teasers to a yellow crab pot buoy because he believes spadefish are attracted to yellow and orient to the buoy. Eventually, usually within 30 or 45 minutes, spadefish will destroy a teaser, and it'll need to be refreshed. When gathering jelly balls at an inlet, be sure to collect enough to keep the teaser attractive to spadefish and enough to bait hooks.
As fish surface and began feeding near the boat, attach a small piece of the jelly ball cap no more 1-inch long with light line and cast it towards a fish of choice. After the fish takes the bait and swallows, set the hook.
Scarborough sometimes will use a Cajun Thunder (yellow) rig with 3-feet of line below the cork and a heavy split shot to suspend the bait among the fish. He prefers hooks from 1/0 to No. 4 sizes. Larger hooks tend to be stronger, but sometimes spadefish won't bite anything bigger than a No. 4.
Spadefish have good vision in the clear waters off the S.C. coast, which means anglers need to use light tackle and gear. Leaders and lines must be light and transparent in water. Hooks must be small and inconspicuous. Small hooks are a must, but strong hooks are just as important.
Spadefish will quickly straighten common wire hooks. Small circle or octopus-style hooks work well. Scarborough prefers spinning gear with 15- to 20--pound-test Seaguar fluorocarbon line.
Spadefish tend to consume first the dark cap of a jelly ball. Some people believe spadefish target jelly balls primarily for the iodine contained within their flesh. The darker regions of jelly ball caps contain high concentration of iodine, which colors them to a light-brown hue. Using small pieces of the darker regions of the cap enables anglers to hide a small bronze hook inside - out of sight of a hungry spadefish.
For the most part, artificial baits for spadefish will result in an empty fish box. However, Scarborough has created his own artificial lure for spadefish that he calls a "sponge fly." And it works fairly well. He cuts up a raw, natural sponge into small pieces, resembling jelly-ball fragments, attaches a small hook, and soaks the fly in jelly-ball juice.
"The sponge fly looks and tastes like a jelly-ball fragment, and the fish eat it just as if it was (a piece of jelly ball)," he said. "The real pieces of jelly ball fall off the hook easily, but a sponge fly always stays intact."
Spadefish travel in schools in which feeding turns on and off for each fish at the same time. As the feeding frenzy begins, the entire school starts eating erratically in formation. However, after a fish is hooked, it'll execute hard side-to-side runs, exhibiting flight behavior, which may startle the school. The entire school usually will retreat to a reef and out of sight.
In order to quickly bring the school back in range, Scarborough will drag a spadefish up to the boat and dangle the worn-out fish in the water. The fish will flutter in a circular motion similar to feeding behavior and lure the frightened school to the boat. After the next fish is caught, he replaces the dangler and keeps the action alive.
Certain days, when seas are a bit rough or when fish are a little finicky, spadefish won't surface but hold tight to structure, which requires a slightly-different technique. Spadefish have fairly good vision, but they won't travel away from a structure without a little persuasion.
Scarborough attaches a lead weight of 1/2 to 1 pound - as much as needed - to his teaser rig and drops it down toward the structure. As the spadefish begin to swarm around the teaser and feed, the line will jump erratically. At this point, he slowly winds the teaser to the surface, closer to the boat. Spadefish will continue to feed toward the surface.
If the fish are spooky and leery of coming near the boat, he attaches a large split shot 2 to 3 feet above his hook and fishes the same depth as the teaser.
As the water warms and spadefish start biting, pesky barracudas often move in to take a piece of the action. Barracudas will position themselves underneath a boat in the shade and slash the first spadefish anglers hoist up, frightening the rest of the school to the protection of the reef.
Sometimes as many as 10 or 20 barracudas will hover underneath a spadefishing boat. But Scarborough has a solution for barracudas. He catches a couple of ringtail porgies or other live bait and attaches one to heavy tackle. Barracuda can't stand watching live bait swim near them and will attack these baits. After anglers catch several barracudas, they learn quickly and will leave the area. However, sometimes anglers need to retreat to a different wreck.
Fishing for spadefish is becoming extremely popular at the Carolinas and is spreading to the north through Virginia and Maryland.
The spadefish population appears to be fairly stable across the Atlantic, but no scientific data currently is available to determine a rise or fall in population density.
Fishermen need to demonstrate conservation and keep only fish they need. Luckily, there's no commercial use for spadefish. However, if a market develops, spadefish have a level of federal and state protection.
The SCDNR has requested that spadefish be included in the Federal Special Management Zone to protect them from commercial harvests. In addition, spadefish are included in the South Atlantic Fisheries Management Council Snapper Grouper Management Complex that protects them with a 20-fish-per-day creel in federal waters.