"Big school to our right!"
Capt. J.R. Waits, using an emphatic-but-hushed tone, commanded readiness and stillness.
Quick movements easily spook winter schools of redfish, which have hundreds of cautious eyes watching for danger in clear, shallow water.
Scanning the surface to our right and toward the grass ine, I couldn't pick out the fish. Then I realized a massive dark area that looked like a grass or a change in the bottom contour actually was the school of fish. They were moving very slowly along a course that would put them in front of the boat - within fly-casting range.
"Cast directly in front of you and let the fly settle," Waits said. Making a couple false casts I laid out my Clouser and let it sink to the shallow bottom. "Good. When the school gets right in front of use, strip the fly once or twice - and be ready!"
By the time the school got in front of us the dark mass had given way to the distinct shapes of redfish, dozens upon dozens of redfish, tightly grouped and moving in one accord in less than 2 feet of water.
It was a good thing that Waits had cautioned me to be prepared. When I tugged my fly line to hop the fly a redfish immediately slurped it in, and when I set the hook the fish began a sizzling run. While redfish movements are generally slowed in the cold water, there's no evidence of slowness after one gets hooked. Several tense minutes later I got the fish close enough for Waits to land it with a set of grippers. We snapped a few photos and then slipped the fish back into the water.
"Winter is a terrific time to fly-fish for redfish and to cast other artificial lures to them," said Waits, a Charleston native and one the best-known inshore captains in the Charleston area. "When the water temperature gets down to the mid 60s, algae and bacteria in the water begin dying and the water gets very clear. As it does the redfish start congregating into big schools, and the schools get bigger and tighter as winter progresses."
The schools could contain 50 redfish or there could be several hundred swimming together. Waits has estimated four-digit counts of mid-winter congregations.
Redfish that live in and around the marsh also stay extremely shallow during the winter, and their movements become very predictable. "They stay mostly on broad shallow flats," Waits said. "Usually, they will be in less than 18 inches of water."
With the water clear and the fish shallow, anglers commonly get to cast to specific fish, watch the strike and then witness the entire fight in a foot of water before going back to searching and getting ready to begin the process anew.
The fish's movements mostly relate to self-protection, not predation, during the winter. Dolphins feed heavily on redfish this time of year, so the fish seek safety in numbers. When any one redfish spots potential danger and acts spooked, the whole school tends to turn and run in one accord. They also spend the bulk of their time in very shallow areas that are difficult for dolphins to reach.
"The redfish move up onto the top of the marsh during high tide, just like they do during the summer when they are feeding on fiddler crabs," said Dr. Charlie Wenner, a marine estuarine scientist at the Marine Resources Research Institute, part of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Marine Division. "However, the crabs are hibernating during the winter. The redfish move up to get away from dolphins."
Prime areas for finding winter redfish are broad shallow bays adjacent to vast areas of spartina grass, Wenner said. The fish cruise the flats during low tide and move higher within the marsh as the water comes up, always staying very shallow. They move almost constantly, but usually at a very slow pace. They eat when food is in front of them, but they aren't really looking for food, and there are no big concentrations any one type of baitfish in the marsh during the winter.
The good thing about winter conditions is that huge groups of fish are fairly easy to spot in very shallow water. The negatives are that that there are virtually no fish scattered away from the big groups, making blind-casting almost fruitless, and that the redfish are much better at spotting fishermen than most fishermen are at spotting them.
"You have to have a boat that has a very shallow draft, and you have to move slowly and quietly," Waits said.
Waits spends a lot a tremendous amount of time on his poling platform during the winter, moving the boat quietly along over shallow flats and watching for the ever-moving groups of fish.
"Often, they just look like big shell beds, but then as you watch you realize the shell beds are moving," Waits said.
Because Waits fishes daily, he typically knows several areas groups have been using, and he will look for different schools from one day to the next.
"If you fish the same group day after day, it won't take long for them to get really spooky and very difficult to catch," he said.
When Waits does locate a school he stays as far back from the fish as possible, while still allowing his clients an opportunity to cast to the fish. "Try to see which direction the fish are going and lead them with the cast," he said. "If a cast lands in the middle of the school, the fish will spook almost every time," Waits said.
His ideal scenario is to spot the fish far enough off that the angler can make a cast well before the fish arrive at a spot and allow the fly or lure to settle on the bottom before the fish get there. "If you wait till the first fish get a foot or so away and then move the bait once or twice, you'll almost always get a hit." Waits said.
Waits' general approach is very similar whether anglers are fly-fishing or spin-fishing. Spin-fishermen have somewhat of an advantage simply because they can cast farther with less motion, making it easier to set up further away and not spook the fish as easily.
A Pflueger Contender spinning combination with a 7560 reel and 7-foot medium-heavy rod is a good choice for winter redfish. Waits spools up with 14-pound-test Cajun Red Lightning. For fly-fishermen, A 9-foot, 8-weight Pflueger Trion rod and 2078 President reel and 8-weight floating fly line is well suited for the job. A straight piece of 15-pound-test mono or fluorocarbon works well for a leader.
For the long-rod approach, Waits prefers Clousers, and he has found dark, natural colors to work best. When the water turns very cold and the fish get extra fussy, he'll turn to sparsely tied, very small flies. "Sometime I'll even pull out my bonefish flies, and the fish may take them when they don't want the bigger flies." He said.
For spin-fishing, Waits typically rigs anglers with soft-plastic jerkbaits. However, he noted that the fish can be caught with a lot of different types of lures, including walking-type topwater lures and spoons. "The good thing about a spoon is that you can cast it a very long distance," he said.
Generally, redfish will feed somewhat opportunistically if something that looks like food drops in front of them - even though they do far less feeding during the winter and rarely chase baits of any kind. When the water gets really cold, however, the redfish will slow down, and getting them to feed becomes more difficult.
"When they really start moving slow, the best thing I've found to do is cast a jerkbait out there and just let it settle," Waits said. "If you move it at all, they won't touch it, but if you leave it completely still, sometimes one will come up and suck it in. I don't know why, but that's what they like when it's really cold."
Wenner said that the best time to fish is during a warm snap in the middle of the winter. A few days of sunshine will warm the shallow water just a couple degrees, and the redfish will bite quite aggressively.
For similar reasons, Waits like to fish mud flats that dry up during low tide on days when the tide is rising in the afternoon. The sun will bake the mud in early afternoon, and that will influence the temperature of the shallow water as it covers that flat with the rising tide.
"I might be fishing in the Intracoastal Waterway while the tide's low and find the fish not very aggressive," Waits said. "Then when I move onto those mud flats with the higher water, the same fish will move up there and feed more aggressively."
Redfish caught from inside waters during the winter are less than about 5 years old and most will weight between 5 and 12 pounds. When redfish reach sexual maturity, they change their habits, moving out of the estuary environment. The older, larger fish spend the warm days around the jetties, in passes and on the front beaches. During the winter, they migrate to deeper waters.
Estuaries populations along the coast currently are in good condition, based on trammel net surveys conducted bimonthly by Marine Division biologists. The surveys, which have been run regularly for more than decade at estuarine sites all along the coast, consistently line up with reports biologists get from fishing guides and other anglers.
A decade ago, South Carolina's redfish stocks were in a state of decline, Wenner said. However, since the implementation of a two-fish daily limit the population has rebounded and has remained in good conditions. Populations fluctuate and size structures vary annually based on specific past year classes, but the long-term trend has been good and overall population appears to be in good condition.
"Our surveys show us that 70 percent of all redfish caught are now released," Wenner said.
Looking at specific recent year classes, the spawning and recruitment in 2001 and 2002 were stronger than in 2003 and 2004. That means there are good numbers of fish in the 5- to 10-pound range in the estuaries and plenty of fish overall. However, some of those fish will begin moving out of that fishery in the next couple years, so anglers may see a modest decline, Wenner said.
Wenner would like to see fishermen become more aware of how to care for fish and protect valuable fisheries. "We have a lot more people fishing who are much better informed about redfish behavior and fishing techniques than used to be the case," he said. "With that, we need greater responsibility on the anglers' part."
Specifically, Wenner would like to see anglers stick with tackle that is stout enough to land redfish in a reasonable amount of time without severely exhausting fish that will be released. He also would like to see live-bait fishermen convert to circle hooks, which are far less likely to gut-hook fish than traditional j-shaped hooks, causing far less delayed mortality.
Through research that is currently going on, researchers have witnessed fish hooked deep with j-hooks that did not bleed or show any immediate signs of stress die an hour or maybe a day later in a holding tank. In most cases they've then found that the hook had punctured some vital organ inside the fish.
Waits would like to see increased participation in catch-and-release during the winter, when the fish are congregated. "Fishermen could really do damage to these schools taking fish home day after day," he said.
The daily redfish limit in South Carolina state waters is two fish, and only fish within a slot range may be kept. Red drum of less than 15 inches or more than 24 inches must be released immediately. A saltwater recreational fishing license is required for anglers fishing from private boats.