Steve Hedrick regrets there aren't many people vacationing at the Grand Strand during the winter.

They may not be missing much in the way of surf, sand and sunshine - or maybe golf - but he and his buddy Mike McDonald know they're missing some of the year's best fishing.

Hedrick and McDonald are inshore fishing guides from Georgetown, and as much as anyone, they understand the opportunity that presents itself to fishermen from Winyah Bay all the way to Cape Romain.

Red drum. Lots of them. And lots of them hungry.

"January is the peak time of the year for red drum down here," said McDonald, who operates Gul-R-Boy Charters. "The fish we have here don't migrate out (into the ocean). They go to flats, and they school all together. Most of the year, they school up by age groups: 1-year-olds, 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds. But in January, you can catch a 16-inch fish with one cast, then the next one may be a 30-incher."

The key, said Hedrick who runs ReelEZ Charters out of Belle Island Marina, is as the water cools it clears, then it actually warms up. And that can turn on a pack of red drum, or "spot-tail bass" like nothing else.

"The fishing is fabulous because of a number of different things," Hedrick said. "When the water temperature gets to 55 or 56 degrees, it kills back the algae bloom in all of these (marsh) creeks, and the water gets crystal clear. Then, when the sun comes up, it warms up the mud flats at low tide. The mud flats will be a degree or two warmer.

"Not only do the minnows go back there, but the spot-tails get up on the flats where they can catch fish without expending as much energy."

The key is the mud, which is common throughout the marshy areas from North Inlet to Winyah Bay, then to the Santee delta and then Cape Romain and the McClellanville area.

When the water cools and the algae disappears, the sunlight can more easily penetrate the clear water, and when it hits the dark, soft bottom, covered by only a few inches of water at low tide, the mud starts to warm up. Then the water on top of the mud starts to warm up. Next, the little baitfish move in, followed by the red drum.

"When the water temperature gets into the low 50s and high 48s, they'll get up on those flats," McDonald said. "On clear, sunny days, even when it's cold, the sun will heat up that mud bottom and the water over them. Then, you get some water going back and forth over the flats. When the tide starts to move out, the drum will all move to deeper holes on those flats. You need at least 2 feet of water when the tide is out to hold them.

"One thing you can do is back off the flat and look in the first hole you come to. The closer you get back to your main channels, the colder the water will be."

Hedrick said there are literally hundreds of places that fit the bill for winter drum. He fishes all the way from North Inlet to Cape Romain - and the southern end of the range is usually extra productive during winter.

"That area can be super good in the winter," he said. "You're really looking for mud flats that catch the morning sun, that face east, because they'll get most of the heat during the day. I like it dead low and rising with all that mud catching the sun. You can take your hand and touch the bottom and feel how warm it is."

The best situation, McDonald said, is a low tide in the morning, which will result in the sun having to penetrate less water to warm up the mud.

"You may have 50-degree water in your main channels, but you get back off a little flat, in a little hole, and you may find it as warm as 60 degrees," he said. "It's more likely to be 6 or 7 degrees warmer, and when it is, they'll go up on the flats, and you'll catch 'em."

When the water temperature hovers near 45 degrees, things start to slow down. Drum, already lethargic in 50- to 55-degree water, turn off. In fact, they're about the only thing left that lives, with little shrimp leaving the area or dying, and often, speckled trout being killed - especially if the cold comes on in a hurry.

But when conditions are right, the fishing can be the best of the season.

"My best day this time of year, personally, is 150 fish - and we were shooting a TV show, so it's documented," McDonald said. "And that day, we had some 30-inch fish.

"You can consistently catch 10 to 15 fish a day, and you can regularly catch 10 or 20 or 30 a day. Once you locate the fish, it's crazy."

Hedrick said he's had days when his parties have landed three to four dozen spot-tails during a single tide cycle.

"I've had days when you're catching so many of 'em your shoulders get tired," he said, "that when you throw in again, you think, 'I hope this isn't a big one.' "

When drum move to the flats, they more often orient at deeper holes. That's when the fun begins.

"Places like that don't show up on the charts; you've gotta go find 'em," McDonald said. "You've got to scout it out because every one of those holes won't hold drum. And if there's too much pressure on (the fish), they'll leave."

Because schools of drum are largely territorial, McDonald said a good spot can produce for a series of several days before the fish leave an area. When he finds that kind of area, he'll get there early, an hour or so before the stage of the tide when he thinks the drum will arrive. He'll set up a long cast away from the boat - he and Hedrick now use 7-foot spinning rods to make longer casts and avoid spooking fish - anchoring from the bow and stern to keep the boat still. Often, McDonald said he can see the fish move in, even though they don't "push" big wakes as they often do during warmer months.

"You've got to look for the slightest movement on the water," he said. "At this time of the year, you'll probably not see them pushing a lot of water. There might just be a light ripple on the water, the kind a few minnows makes. And once you find them in a hole, they'll eat anything you throw at 'em."

Hedrick and McDonald avoid using live or cut bait, fearing that they'll hook too many fish too deeply. And live bait isn't necessary, anyway.

"Artificials are the way to go," McDonald said. "You can use bait if you want, but they'll swallow it. With artificials, you can catch some real numbers."

McDonald fishes a 7-foot, medium-action Quantum Tour Series spinning rod and a Quantum PT Series Catalyst spinning reel spooled with 10-pound Sufix line. He typically uses quarter-ounce jigheads, tipping them with small, soft-plastic baits.

"Instead of a curly-tail grub, I'll go for something more like a slug, something with a rat-tail," he said. "Bass Assassin has one and Strike King makes one. You fish something like a DOA Shrimp or a Shrimposter or something with a rat-tail, you fish it very subtle, just drag it around, and you'll get bit. But if you start digging a curlytail through there - and most people fish too fast - the fish won't expend the energy it would take to try and chase them down."

Hedrick has a favorite color - blue/white - he keeps in his tackle box only for the winter months. He likes a Fin-S or Bass Assassin - the same rat-tail baits that McDonald prefers.

"You don't want a curlytail; you want something that has just a little action," he said. "And if I find fish, I like to fish the same way you would crappie fish. I'll cast it, let all the slack fall out, then twitch it two or three times, reel a little bit, twitch, reel a little, twitch, reel a little. They're so lethargic, you have to fish it that way.

"In January, these fish can be super spooky. On the other hand, they can feed like piranhas. If you can ever get the first one to bite, they might get in a feeding frenzy."

McDonald, who said January is a great time to fly-fish for red fish, likes shrimp imitations, Clausers, Deceivers and a copperhead fly that's tied by Randy Hamlet, a local G.Loomis rep.

"You're fishing real shallow water, so you don't need anything real heavy," he said. "The copperhead that Randy ties is real good. If you're fishing a Deceiver, you want colors that are kind of subtle, a green to an off-white belly."

Besides "hole fishing" at flats, McDonald and Hedrick try a couple of other tactics. They'll fish mud flats, looking for reds that are following schools of mullet minnows, and they'll fish tidal creeks or the Intracoastal Waterway.

"Another thing I like to do is to fish creeks that have 2 or 3 feet of water at the flats at low tide," he said. "And, when I do that, I look for mullets.

"You've got to see them, and you can when you have clear water. You don't see them jumping much but you can see them cruising the bottom - the reds will be right on top of 'em.

"The mullets will cruise a flat, and the reds will suspend above 'em. The mullet will be rooting around eating vegetation on the bottom, scaring up little shrimp and crabs, mud minnows, and the reds tag along and eat 'em up.

"In fact, if you ever see a little red spot on the white belly of a red fish, that's caused by the (pectoral) fins of the mullet. They're real sharp and brittle, and when those reds get right on top of the mullet, they'll stick 'em and break them off in their bellies. That's what makes the red spots."

Oyster rocks are another hot spot - literally.

"They'll get at oyster bards a lot of the time in creeks," Hedrick said. "Oysters are going to grow in places that catch the sunlight, bars that are facing east.

"When I go oystering, the biggest ones are always in the sunniest spots."

"Fish will get around oyster rocks at the flats, but the water is the key," McDonald said. "The only time they'll be in those holes is when the water is low and there's not enough water on the flats.

"If it gets extremely cold, I'll go to the ICW or a deeper creek with flats, a creek where there isn't a very sharp dropoff."

Hedrick and McDonald agreed they never can predict the size of the red drum they'll encounter. Both have caught fish ranging from 16 to 30 inches from the same pod of spot-tails.

Hedrick said that's because fish of all sizes are looking for similar water conditions - unlike the rest of the year when they can live in different places.

"They're all up there looking for the same thing - water that's a little bit warmer and enough bait that they don't have to swim very fast to catch it," he said.