Throughout the month and continuing into the dead of winter are prime times to fish the shallow-water flats of coastal South Carolina for spot-tail bass. Not only can anglers catch big redfish, they can do it in water so shallow it's easy to see their backs they scour the bottom, looking for an easy meal.
The beginning of winter is a prime time for hot redfish action, said Capt. Ben Alderman, who fishes from his special flats fishing boat the Superfly.
Alderman is a full-time professional guide and spends most of his days on the coastal waters near Charleston, taking clients to sizzling fishing areas for a variety of species. But his first love is redfish.
"The redfish is so exciting to fish for, especially during the cold-weather months," he said. "They're very aggressive and strong fighters.
"There are a lot of reasons why I love to fish for them; part of it is that you can catch them year round. Plus, they're susceptible to many different types of fishing and, during this cold weather time of the year, they school in huge numbers. It's not unusual to see 50 or more fish in a single school.
"When you see the wake made by a huge school of redfish in mere inches of water as they push through the flat, its super exciting."
Alderman said to see that many fish with the "V" wake pushing along in his direction is akin to being in the midst of a wild striper jump at Lake Marion - maybe better.
He said when he casts a lure in front of a redfish school and begins the retrieve, one or more spot-tails may streak toward what appears to be an easy meal.
"When they do, you'll be hooked into several pounds of hard-fighting redfish, often in only inches of water," he said.
It requires a maximum amount of concentration to keep the fish from pulling the line over an oyster bed where a scant brush against the razor sharp shell can quickly end the fight.
Alderman said this time of many options exist for catching reds.
"My preferred way is to have a day when there's not much wind, and I can spot the fish moving along the flats," he said. "In this way, I can get the boat positioned to intercept them, and we can cast lures, live bait or even small flies with a flyrod to them.
"A big redfish on a flyrod makes for an adventure anyone will enjoy and long remember. Moreover you can catch them with artificial lures using light spinning tackle by casting to them.
"Plus, we take them with live bait such as mud minnows. If the client is more at ease using live bait, then that's what we'll do. Also, if it's real windy, we can use live bait and still catch plenty of fish."
Alderman said periods near low tides are best for shallow-water flats fishing.
"I like to fish the last of the falling tide," he said. "We get into some pretty good fishing during that time. But my favorite time is when the water begins to rise but before it gets high enough for the fish to get back into the grass. That's when you can really see them working on the shallow flats, get the boat into position and catch them."
Tides are always a key to success for winter redfish, said Peter Brown, another full-time professional fishing guide at Charleston.
"The tide is the lifeblood of inshore saltwater fishing," Brown said. "Experienced saltwater anglers have learned the sun will rise and set every day, but morning and evening matters little in terms of successful fishing for some species.
"One of the most prominent species in that category in terms of shallow-water fishing is the spottail bass, or redfish.
"The tides dictate what the fish will be doing and when the tide is low, the fish will be out of the grass and working along the shallow flats. This is the time when you can spot the fish, slip in close to them and get them hooked up.
"It really doesn't matter much for redfish whether the low tide is at dawn or if it's at noon. When the water conditions are right, that's when fishermen will be chasing and catching big redfish.
"When the water is high, the fish relate to the grass and they're more difficult to find. But the last part of the dropping tide and the first couple of hours of the rising tide, you can find plenty of areas where the water is out of the grass and the fish will be roaming the flats."
As a professional fishing guide, Brown is on the water nearly every day, which is important in terms of keeping track of where redfish schools are located.
He relies on live bait and artificial lures, such as gold spoons and green jigs, for taking big reds in the flats during this time of the year.
His technique is simple: he positions himself on the high deck at the back of the flats boat and poles through the shallow water, looking for the telltale wake of a red fish - or hopefully a school of fish -pushing through the flats.
"Reds are real spooky and being very quiet is a must," he said. "If you move too fast while searching for them, you may blow them out of the area. Patience and keeping a close watch are keys to success.
"When the water is out of the grass, the reds are forced to cruise the shallows, looking for something to eat. When the tide is higher, they'll spend much of their time back in the grass and are much more difficult to come by.
"You can certainly catch some around the grass edge lines, fishing mud minnows with the float rigs, but generally, we'll have to resort to tactics other than sight fishing during the high tide.
"But a December low tide is an ideal situation to find these fish in the shallows."
Brown and Alderman use bottom rigs and float rigs for live-bait fishing. Plus green jigs and gold spoons are another part of good artificial lures to employ.
Brown uses a specialized rig called "the equalizer" which enables the angler to make a plopping noise when pulling the float. The idea is to make just enough commotion that the hungry redfish comes in to investigate. When he does, there's his meal waiting for him.
Brown said when using the float rig, anglers should have the bait only a few inches below the float because of the shallow water when fishing at low tide. If fishing the marsh grass edges at high tide, anglers should fish 1- to 2-feet deep.
Brown said anglers also can use a mud minnow or shrimp, if they can be found, at the bottom using only a split shot as weight. The key is to stay vigilant and when the fish activity slows in an area, quietly move the boat to a new spot.
He also said when deciding which grass lines to fish, having a drop-off close to the edge is a good spot to try. Also the junction of a smaller creek with a larger one is a high percentage hangout for hookups with reds.
Alderman said when the tide is rising and in the grass, the junction of two small creeks is actually one of his favorite areas to fish.
"This sets up an excellent foraging area as well as creating an eddy," Alderman said. "The water is often clear in a situation such as this and sometimes you'll have to anchor the boat a good distance away and make long casts. Or, depending on the tide flow, allow the tide to take your bait, under a float rig, to the area.
"That 'natural' presentation is sometimes lethal while anything else just doesn't seem to produce at all.
"Be as quiet as possible and precise with your presentation of baits or lures. If not, you may see fish all around you, but not get any redfish hookups."
When fishing shallow flats at low tide, Alderman said the sizes of fish often will vary from one school to the next.
"It's not at all unusual to catch 30-inch-and-larger fish during this time of the year," he said. "In fact, we often catch several that size in a given day.
"The key is to keep moving and looking for these larger fish. Generally, I'll find more of the larger ones during the incoming tide, but you never really know when you're going to get into a good school of larger fish.
"The size of the fish are often similar when you find fish in a given area. If you're happy with that size of fish, you can often catch a good number of fish from a single area. However, if you're after 30-inch plus fish and you're catching 20-inch fish, you need to move. I'll certainly do whatever the client wants, but if I can get them hooked into a fish 30-inches or larger, it's certainly worth all the effort me and the fisherman put into it.
"Big redfish make people happy, and that's what I like to see,"
Brown said another effective method is to fish the surf.
"There are as many ways to fish the surf as there are anglers with ideas," he said. "But one method is to find an area where there's a bit of a drop or shelf about casting distance from the shore. A bit of underwater structure such as this gives the fish a reference point for movement and gives the angler an interception point for presenting his bait.
"Some anglers put rod spikes in the sand and cast out multiple rods and watch for bites from the comfort of a lounge chair. But walking the edge, casting lures such as the spoon or jig, can be effective as well."
Brown said there are almost limitless numbers of areas along the Charleston area coastline that can be productive redfish hot spots. One such place is near inlets where feeder creeks enter the surf. Such an area typically provides a readily accessible food source for redfish and give anglers a definite spot to focus efforts.
Sometimes you may actually find fish right in the mouth of the inlet, and sometimes at one or both sides. But the general area is typically a high-percentage situation.
Another hot spot, and one that Brown relies upon a great deal, are jetties. He likes the jetties in the Charleston harbor, but these type features are found at others areas as well.
As usual, the tides will influence the fishing, but in this case, as opposed to the flats, it merely dictates where anglers should focus their efforts for consistent success.
"The redfish work along these rock formations in search of food and one of the best methods is to locate any areas where the water is rippling over the top of the rocks as the tide is rising," Brown said. "The wave action sets into motion food such as minnows and shrimp and makes them easy targets for the redfish. Another excellent area, and a key spot if you're looking for a super-sized redfish, is the deep holes at the jetties.
"These deeper holes, sometimes found at the breaks in the jetties where boats travel through, are home to some very large redfish. While these fish are obviously too large to keep because of the size limits on redfish, they do make a great trophy via a quick photo and then releasing."
Brown said when he has clients seeking really big redfish, these type areas are his favorites. Fishing action may not be as fast, nor as many fish hooked, but the chances for a really huge fish are pretty good.
South Carolina, as do most southeastern and Gulf states, has strict creel and length limits for red drum. Here, it's a two fish per person creel limit per day and a slot size limit that means a fish must be between 15 and 24 inches to be kept.
Now is the time to catch redfish at S.C.'s shallow coastal flats. Alderman and Brown said the reds will continue to be schooled at the flats until warm weather attracts baitfish back into the shallow waters and the reds begin to scatter because of more abundant baitfish.
Anglers can contact Alderman at his mobile phone number (843-906-3630), while Brown can be reached at 843-830-0448. The captains carry their mobile phones everywhere they go, even in December on the flats while hunting S.C.'s abundant red drum.
Anyone who comes to the Palmetto coast during December and tries red fishing is almost certain to become hooked on a new sport while fighting these feisty critters.