Aboard these crafts lifeless anglers baked in the late-morning sun with their fishing rods pointing idly towards the sky.
Watching from a stretch of beach near the inlet's mouth, an angler opted this day for some time at the beach with the family instead of fishing. The only apparent movement on one boat was a solitary landing net standing in a rod-holder, blowing in the freshening sea breeze like a pirate flag. No one seemed to be catching fish.
Standard flounder fishing to the masses is repetitive and addictive. At any moment, the main ingredient for a fried-fish sandwich may hit a bait. So each drift of the tide is repeated, and the flounder fleet continues 'round and 'round, like pieces nailed to a gigantic nautical carousel.
If flounder fishermen aren't drifting on the current, they're trolling in a similar fashion. They'll troll against the tide at a small tidal creek up to some self-defined location. At that point, baits are retrieved, and the boat is hustled back down the creek to the starting point where the process is begun again. Having made the circuitous route several times during a tide cycle, a flounder angler could probably complete the pattern with his eyes closed by day's end.
Drifting or trolling baits for Palmetto State flatfish is the most popular method, along with gigging, to land these tasty fish. Anyone taking a flight along the coast any given day would find a fleet of boats dragging baits for flounders. Despite the tactic's popularity, and, at times its success, it's not the only way to put flounder in a boat.
"I like to take a freshwater approach to fishing for flounder," said Chuck Bennett, who along with his brother, Russell, owns LEHI Bait Company at James Island (www.lehibaits.com or 843-225-LEHI (5344)).
"Flounder are structure-oriented fish, and flipping to them at structures is a productive technique that rarely anyone uses."
Despite having a set of dental work that's similar to the teeth of speedy predators such as king mackerel and barracudas, flounder aren't hunt-and-chase feeders. Rather, flatfish are ambush hunters that use the amazing adaptation of having two eyes on one side of their head and the ability to change colors to melt into the bottom, invisibly lying in wait for prey to venture close.
"Flounders hang around structure because of the baitfish," Bennett said. "Baitfish, such as mud and mullet minnows, are attracted to structure for cover to protect them from predatory fish. To find flounder, anglers have to think about locating structure."
Fish-holding structure comes in many shapes and sizes. Bennett said anglers often overlook numerous types of structure that hold flounder while concentrating on certain common forms.
"If you ask your typical flounder fisherman where is the best place to catch fish, he'll probably say to search near oyster bars," Bennett said. "Oysters bars are good spots. Changes in bottom contours at inlet mouths are good too, but they're not the only places to find fish. These are common responses because most anglers are used to trolling or drifting for flounder.
"The thing is flounder are attracted to tons of man-made objects that are repeatedly ignored by anglers. I like to search for fish at rocks, docks, piers, old pipes or even a single pole."
Bennett told a story where he, his brother and a nephew caught a flounder from one pole sticking out of the water.
"A single pole doesn't seem like a spot that would hold lots of fish," he said. "But I caught a flounder after my first cast; then my brother caught a fish from the exact same spot the next cast. My nephew felt left out but he caught a flounder after his first cast. Often, any piece of structure will hold more than one fish."
If anyone has been gigging or visited a large local aquarium, they'd see why Bennett's experience is grounded in fact. Flounder position themselves closely together, sometimes overlapping each other, when baits are plentiful at a particular area.
Even though Bennett is borrowing a page from run-and-gun, structure-pitching bass fishermen, he takes a more patient approach, opting to thoroughly work areas before leaving a spot.
"I prefer to move around and hit all angles of a piece of structure," he said. "Flounder normally lie facing into the current, but your bait might not come into their view perfectly. By completing working the area, you better your chances that a fish will see your bait.
"The other thing is that flounder seem to either all of sudden turn on or move into a location. I'm not sure which it is but I do know that I can be fishing at a spot with no action and then all of sudden things turn on and I quickly catch a couple of fish."
Because of this tendency by flounder, Bennett recommends that anglers not abandon structure that they have already fished during the day.
"I fish a lot of docks, for instance," he said. "I'll fish a dock, and then move to the next one along the shoreline. After I'm finished fishing a run of docks I'll just turn around and go back in the other direction. I'll pull a fish from a dock I didn't even have a hit from earlier. I don't know how many times this has happened."
Bennett said a multitude of structure exists in S.C. inshore waters for flounder anglers.
"The Cooper River has a lot of structure in it," Bennett said. "There is old dredge pipe lying on the shore across from the old Navy Base. You can see the stuff at low tide. There are a lot of rock piles and old pilings and piers, too. Old range markers or any of that stuff, all of it will hold flounder.
"You have the same stuff in Charleston Harbor, in addition to all the piers at residential houses. At the Mount Pleasant side, you could spend all summer fishing over there."
To tackle structure, Bennett keeps an eye peeled for certain baitfishes. If he sees bait schools, he maneuvers between areas with a bow-mounted trolling motor rather than anchoring.
"I don't use an anchor because I think it can spook the fish when it's tossed overboard," he said. "A trolling motor allows me to stay mobile so I can cover all angles of a structure.
"With a pier, most fishermen would merely anchor offshore of it and cast to it. If they didn't catch anything, they'd move on, thinking there were no fish holding on it. I'll fish all sides of it, not just out in front."
Bennett's favorite bait for fishing structure is a grub presented with lightweight tackle.
"I usually use a 6 1/2-foot-long spinning rod spooled with 10- to 12-pound test monofilament line," he said. "My brother sometimes goes as light as 6-pound test line, which gets everyone on the boat mad because we have to stop fishing so we can chase his fish.
"I don't use any leader. I like to use the lightest grub head possible. Routinely, I'll use a 1/8-ounce head. And all of our heads are plain lead. We pour our own and nothing is painted."
His grub bodies are a different story. His favorite color is anything - as long as it's chartreuse.
"I like chartreuse with metal flake or chartreuse with a fire tail or white," Bennett said. "For some reason, anything chartreuse just seems to work better."
Armed with a grub and the ability to saturate structure with casts from all angles, Bennett is fond of skipping his grub into and underneath hard-to-reach places.
"I have caught a ton of fish by skipping a grub up under a dock," he said. "Most people will cast next to a dock and leave it at that; I'll get it up under a dock. You'll be amazed how many fish you'll catch.
"A flounder will usually take the bait on the drop. If they don't, I'll slowly work the grub back to the boat with a slow bounce along the bottom. Most of the time, I only move my rod tip between the 10 and 11 o'clock positions."
To make a grub more appealing, Bennett sometimes tips the lure with a 3-inch finger mullet or mud minnow. In an attempt for the bait stay alive longer, he'll hook it through the upper lip only and come out the nostril. His theory is if the bait can breathe, that gives more time to wiggle at the bottom.
Bennett also noted anglers should be mindful about how a flounder takes bait.
"Flounder normally hit with a thud," he said. "They usually hold it in their mouths until the bait quits moving, which can be as long as 15 to 30 seconds.
"My cousin has a routine where when a flounder hits, he opens a pack of Lance crackers before he sets the hook. He knows how long it takes and how many crackers he needs to eat before he sets the hook.
"You have to let the fish take the bait before setting the hook."
Bennett has had moments when he felt a fish hit and shortly began reeling in the line. Thinking he didn't have anything, he'd see a flounder that was mouthing the bait spook when it saw the boat.
"Big flounder are like fighting a boot," he said. "You might feel a bite, wait the right amount of time before setting the hook, and then think you don't have anything.
"But once that fish sees the boat he's going to bolt. So you have to make sure your drag is set and working properly."
Bennett also suggested anglers have a net on board. Trying to swing a flounder into the boat is an exercise in futility. Despite their large mouths, attempting to land one with a Boga-Grip is about as useless as well.
Breaking away from the traditional form of flounder fishing should put more doormats in front of any angler's door.
"Not a lot of people really fish like this," Bennett said. "In addition to flounder, you'll pick up more spot-tail bass and trout as well."
Large Flounder Decline
"Really, the number of 3-pound-plus flounder is down," said Dr. Charlie Wenner, a marine biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources at Charleston.
"I think it is a real decline," he said. "We rarely see big fish in our samplings, and you don't see big ones in the tournaments any more either. We've been sampling at tournaments since 1983, and the flounder that have won have gotten smaller."
Wenner said about 75 percent of the total recreational harvest of flounder in South Carolina measures between 12 and 15 inches, with the average being slightly less than 14 inches.
"It is hard to get a complete picture of how well the flounder population is doing," Wenner said. "This is in part due to the presence of the gig fishery.
"To get an accurate assessment of the flounder population you need such information as the number of participants, size and age of the fish harvested, number of fish harvested and the number of trips people take. This would be for the recreational hook-and-line fishery as well as for the giggers."
What's missing is the information related to gigging. . Wenner said research in North Carolina indicated the estimated harvest of flounder taken by gigging was equal or slightly more than the hook-and-line anglers.
"We have some very limited information about gigging in the state," he said. "There doesn't appear to be any difference in the biological data. The fish were of about equal size and roughly the same sex ratio, but we don't have a measure of how many are actually taken by gigging.
"However, giggers usually take what they see because the limits are so high. If they think (a flounder is longer than) 12 inches, they stick them and let God sort 'em out. A hook-and-line fisherman isn't that efficient because not every flounder they encounter bites their hook."
Wenner theorized the reason for the lack of larger fish in the overall population is from increased pressure by flounder anglers.
"There are more people fishing today," he said. "Along the Grand Strand and down to North Inlet, between the gigging and numbers of anglers, a flounder hardly stands a chance.
"If you kill them when they're young, they don't grow up to be big fish."
To see an increase in the number of larger flounder in the population, Wenner said the limit would have to be lowered and the minimum size increased.
Currently, S.C. anglers are allowed 20 flounder per day with a 12-inch minimum size limit.
Just to the north, N.C. marine officials imposed more stringent harvest restrictions (eight flounder per day, 14 inches minimum length) on giggers and inshore recreational anglers in an attempt to improve a fishery that's been overharvested for 10 years.