"It can be 70 degrees or it can be 40 degrees."
Typically, it's somewhere in between, and that leaves Charleston-area fishermen with a winter buffet of redfish and speckled trout that's enough to satisfy the angling appetite of nearly anyone.
Waits, who operates Fish Call Charters, and Chris Condon, who runs Strike Zone Charters, point to February as a fantastic month to sight fish to schools of redfish that cruise the shallow flats in marshes near Charleston.
Speckled trout aren't quite as easy - and they tend to be more affected by extremely cold temperatures - but they're just as predictable. Anglers fish areas where the water drops off rapidly in depth and around current breaks or junctions.
"We've had the best year on specks we've had - maybe ever, but definitely since the '99-'00 freeze put a hurting on the population," said Waits (843-509-7337). "As long as the water temperature stays in the 55- to 56-degree range, the bite will be pretty good; it will last all winter."
Redfish will continue to bite when the temperature drops to the point that speckled trout become sluggish. They'll cruise shallow marsh flats, especially around oyster rocks, in large schools that will often appear to be dark clouds sliding just under the surface.
"Redfish can be schooled up by the hundreds at that time of year," said Condon (843-224-HOOK). "You catch 'em on jigs, jerkbaits - everybody has their favorite. They don't go up in the (marsh) grass on the high tide because there's nothing in there to eat. Usually, they're in a foot or two of water around oyster rocks. When the water's up, they'll be on top of them, and when it's down, they'll be out in front of them."
The Charleston area has extensive marshes to the north and south, from Kiawah Island to Folly Beach, around Charleston Harbor near the mouth of the Wando, Cooper or Ashley rivers, and north behind Isle of Palms to Cape Romaine and even to the Bulls Bay area.
Any or all of the marshes will hold reds during the winter, native fish that range anywhere from 4 to 12 pounds. Specks will hang closer to creek channels, the mouth of marsh creeks or the mouth of the rivers in the harbor. It's just a matter of learning where to find them.
"I look for specks along drop-offs near the mouth of creeks," Waits said, "places where you've got current coming into a (deeper) channel. The best spots will be 3- to 8-feet deep. The Charleston Harbor has been good. The places where the rivers run into the harbor, that's some of the best fishing there is."
Condon looks for current breaks or places where two ditches or channels intersect.
"You try to find current coming off the edge of the marsh grass, over oyster rocks," he said. "I look at high tide when you see the rip going over the top of the oysters. Any kind of your better grubs, live shrimp or mud minnows will work. Every once in a while, you'll catch them mixed in with reds - and then it'll usually be a big one."
Waits said he caught lots and lots of specks during the fall of 2006, with most of the fish weighing at least 2 pounds - but very few over 3 pounds. His favorite lures are soft-plastics fished on 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jigheads, but he will occasionally use mud minnows or a DOA Shrimp under a popping cork.
"Typically, the colder the water gets, with trout and reds, the less movement you need from soft plastics," Waits said. "I like to fish a shad-tail, but a curlytail will probably work just as well."
Because trout are often lethargic during the winter months, Waits said anglers must fish very, very slowly.
"The way I do it is, I'll cast and let the lure drop to the bottom, then I'll lift my rod tip to where you can feel the tail fluttering," Waits said. "When you get the rod tip to about 11 o'clock, you drop it real quick so the bait drops - while you're reeling in. You basically lift it and drop it about 3 feet, and they almost always hit the bait right before it drops back to the bottom or right after you re-lift it."
Daily limits of 10 fish (13-inch minimum size) aren't the norm during the winter, in part because specks become lethargic when the water temperature drops into the low 50s, and when it gets into the mid-40s - especially after a sudden cold front - they often experience a die-off if they can't get out of the shallows into the more moderate, deeper (and warmer) waters of a large bay or harbor.
"When you get into the low 50s, you'll only catch three or four a day," Waits said.
Fishing for redfish is totally different. Instead of seeking out deeper water, reds spend the winter on the flats, pushing along in extremely shallow water, looking for whatever food they can root up off the bottom.
Also, almost all of the fishing is sight-casting to drum that can be picked out by the wakes they push along, the puffs of mud that rise to the surface where they're feeding - or the huge, darkened areas of water that indicate a school of several dozen fish.
"You try to pick 'em out at a distance, see where they're going, and you go there first and let them come to you," Condon said. "That's what you do if you want to catch a lot of fish. You can catch 'em on jigs, jerkbaits - everybody has their favorite. Mine is a 4-inch Gulp! Shrimp on a flutter hook; you fish it weedless, with the weight on the shaft of the hook.
"A school will look like a big black shadow in the water. You try to pick out a school and get to the intercept point and let them come to you.
"You catch one, and they'll turn around, and you intercept them again, and you keep doing that. You dog 'em all day long - on a good day.
"They're all over the lowcountry - anywhere that has lots of oyster rocks. They can be in Charleston Harbor or behind Folly Beach. Bulls Bay is one of my favorite spots; the fish are unspooked up there, and there are so many oyster rocks. If I were going, I'd drive around at low tide and just try to find oyster rocks."
Condon fishes relatively light tackle during the winter: a 6 1/2- to 7-foot medium-light All-Star spinning rod, a Pfleuger reel spooled with 15-pound braided line. He also uses a 2-foot leader of 17- to 20-pound flourocarbon.
Intercepting schools of drum is also a perfect situation for saltwater fly fishermen.
Condon likes to fish a 7-, 8- or 9-weight rod - the windier the day, the heavier the rod - with a No. 2 or 4 Clouser fly in muted colors such as olives, browns, blacks and blues.
"Fishing is great in the winter; the drum don't fight as hard, but they are easier to see," he said. "A warm winter day is as close to perfect fishing as you can have."
Actually, there would be one more factor that would make that warm winter day perfect - a mid-morning low tide, Waits said.
"February is a real good month to look for fish," he said. "You wait for the sun to come up. If you can fish a day when the low tide is around 11 o'clock in the morning, the sun will beat down on that black mud that's exposed at low tide, and when the water comes up, the temperature will warm up quickly.
"You'll find reds pulling in on it, and typically, they'll be in about a foot of water or less, and they'll be real aggressive.
"You can catch 'em on just about all of your artificials if you fish them real slow. Scented artificials will work, and you don't even have to move them at all.
"Our fish are some of the smartest around; they learned about Gulp! pretty quickly. They don't eat it now like they did three or four years ago."
Like Condon, Waits likes to find fish and set up an intercept course, getting ahead of them. He likes to make a long cast to a spot well before a school of redfish ever gets there, letting his bait sit on the bottom almost motionless. If it's a scented bait like Gulp! or Yum, they don't need to be moved at all.
"If you see a school, you move and get ahead of it, then pitch your bait into the school's path and let it sit," Waits said. "If you start moving it, they'll turn away. If you can't get 'em to eat artificials, you can go to cut mullet or crab, and you just sit it dead still on the bottom. Maybe 10 fish will swim over it, but I will eat it.
"For a fly-fisherman, I recommend my clients cast well in front so the fly is already on the bottom, and leave it dead still until right before they get there, then I tell 'em 'strip, strip, strip' so it just jumps up off the bottom. That's when the fish's intuition takes over because it looks like something trying to get away."
Most of the time, Waits will have his fly-fishermen use a No. 4 Clouser in a natural green, brown or orange. Occasionally, there'll be days when fish will want something more flashy."
One of Waits' favorite spots is the Isle of Palms area, where he is based at Isle of Palms Marina.
"On the flats there the water comes straight in from the ocean, and you've got the current in the waterway going perpendicular to that natural flow," he said. "You get on a big flat, and as the water drops off real sharp into a ditch, you look for places where the current is deflected. There are a lot of eddies on the ends of those ditches. If you're fly-fishing, you fish a crab pattern, something like a Merken, which will sink real slow."
If he can't find reds at the flats, Waits has another tactic that can be successful.
"You'll find them sometimes schooled on deep edges, ledges that drop off from 2 to 6 or 7 feet of water," he said. "You find a lot of those edges in the rivers, and in natural creeks with pretty steep banks - places where you may only be two or three feet off the bank but you're in 6 feet of water."
That's a situation where a DOA shrimp or mud minnow fished underneath a popping cork can be productive, even if the fish are a little smaller.
"The reds you catch sight-casting will usually be 6- to 12-pound fish," he said. "The ones in the creek on the popping cork and mud minnows will usually be 2- to 6-feet deep."
Waits fishes for reds and specks with a 7-foot, medium-light All-Star spinning reel and a Pfleuger reel spooled with 15-pound "Ugly" braid. He uses a long (6 to 8 feet) leader of 12-pound flourocarbon when he's fishing for specks, and 15- to 17-pound leader when he's fishing for reds.