The sun was warm and hardly a breath of air stirred in the salt marsh. I could see why cold-blooded alligators liked to bask this time of year.
It was a typical March afternoon in the Lowcountry, the kind of day that causes anglers to drop spring clean-up chores to go fishing. But someone forgot to tell the fish to cooperate.
The water was so clear it seemed invisible. My partner and I could see schools of red drum on the flats but retrieves of curly-tailed grubs and just about everything else in the tackle box they ignored. With no baitfish in the creeks, we found it hard to believe the reds were snubbing their noses at our offerings.
When those first pleasant days of spring arrive and the call to hit the saltwater creeks is too strong to resist, the air temperature might feel like spring but the water temperature is still winter.
Water heats up slower than air but holds heat longer. As the calendar rolls from winter to spring, the water temperature will lag behind the air temperature. Conversely, when the humid days of summer give way to cooling breezes of fall, you might need a fleece when fishing, but the fish still will be swimming in relatively tepid water.
Early spring can be one of the toughest times to fish for red drum. The cold water makes fish lethargic, and the creeks have yet to swell with the arrival of baitfish. On top of that, red drum schools have been harassed all winter long by foraging dolphins, making the state's No. 1 saltwater game fish very spooky.
If those natural factors weren't enough, you have to add in the angler element. The warm air has fishermen excited to be back on the water.
Pumped full of adrenaline, our enthusiasm often leads to rapid retrieves, far too hasty presentations for red drum moving like the Little Engine that could.
There is a solution for early-spring red drum, and it involves well-presented hard baits.
"The amount action in March is going to depend on the water temperature," said Capt. Chad Ferris of Tall Tails Charters (843-209-5153, www.fishcharleston.com) at the Isle of Palms Marina near Wild Dunes. "No matter what type of winter we've been having you should be able to get the fish to hit."
Ferris described March as a month of transition. The water typically remains clear as anglers have witnessed all winter. March can be windy, which can cause some cloudiness.
With the exception of some hardy mullets, the creeks are rather devoid of any baitfishes. As the month progresses, slugs of bait will arrive with the appearance of some shrimp, more mullets and glass minnows, all of which will contribute to additional staining of the water.
Lastly, the month will start with red drum stacked together in large schools. By the time the last of the green beer is finished, the schools will begin to become smaller but more numerous.
To combat the changing scenarios, Ferris relies on a variety of hard baits for red drum.
"A lot of anglers have so much confidence in live bait that they are hesitant to experiment with artificials," Ferris said. "Instead of casting something fake, they purchase expensive live bait from the tackle shops this time of year when now is a great time for hard baits."
Ferris uses surface and sub-surface hard baits for red drum, each having their moment in the spotlight at certain tides and conditions.
"If you asked me which was the one time that I like to cast hard baits," Ferris said, "it would be high water falling.
"If you can find a school of red drum at a flat behind one of our barrier islands under that scenario, you could have four to five hours of fun fishing, provided you didn't spook the school."
In search of red drum schools, Ferris leaves Isle of Palms Marina and heads up the coast to the many large bays that litter the coast. Grays, Mark and Sewee bays and Hamlin and Copahee sounds are his usual haunts. Here he finds broad flats teaming with schools of red drum.
"During the falling high water, I normally start out with a topwater hard bait," Ferris said. "I have found topwater baits seem to work better when the bait is being flushed from the grass rather than when moving into it during a rising tide.
"Some of my favorite topwater hard baits are Top Dogs and Top Pups as well as Super Spook Jrs., Zara Spooks and Spit'n Images."
He isn't too concerned about color patterns.
"With topwater baits, I'm not as picky for red drum as I would be when fishing for spotted seatrout," Ferris said. "Spotted seatrout feed by sight, so color patterns are important. On the other hand, red drum feed mostly by feel, sound and smell. That said, I remain with colors that are fairly natural, and depending on my clients, easy to see.
"I'll have some red-and-white baits in the box in case the conditions demand that, but you'll see a lot of black and silvers, blues, speckled trout, redfish, shad and maybe something with a splash of chartreuse. You won't see too many real bright baits like if I was trout fishing."
Despite red drum using smell to locate prey, Ferris admitted he didn't put scents on his hard baits.
"The topwater hard baits work well when you can see the fish you want to catch," he said. "I'm on the move when trying to locate schools, normally poling with the wind.
"The fish can be real spooky and educated about fishermen, even to a trolling motor. The fish have been beat on by dolphins and people, and they can get real temperamental. If I can't see them, I hold off casting any hard baits. You plunk one of those down in the middle of a school that you didn't see, and you have scared that batch of fish.
"I try to find the fish and let the school move towards me."
If the water is still cold, Ferris coaches his clients to use a slow retrieve of lures. He said you have to read how the fish react to the bait during the season. If they start getting aggressive toward baits, then he said it's fine to work a topwater hard bait faster.
Once the tide bottoms out and begins to rise, Ferris switches to a sub-surface hard bait or one that floats as well as dives. Again, his colors remain towards the natural side and some popular baits include Yo-Zuri stick baits and a lipped bait such as a Swim'n Image.
"When the flats go dry," Ferris said, "I start working deeper dropoffs looking for red drum schools. This is particularly true during moon tides when the water has really been pulled out of the sounds and bays.
"The water in these dropoffs could be as much as 5- to 6-feet deep.
"If the water has remained clear, it's possible you might see the fish. But a lot of times you have to blind cast sub-surface hard baits to locate the fish."
Before abandoning the bays and sounds during low water, be certain there are no creeks that run up into a flat. If there is one, Ferris recommended working it with a sub-surface bait.
"The redfish schools don't move far," he said. "If there is a channel near a flat where you have located fish in the past, give it a try since the fish usually drop off into the nearest deep water."
During the low water, Ferris also seeks out red drum schools along the Intracoastal Waterway behind Capers and Dewees islands. He said it's not uncommon to find fish holding right where the water breaks from the shallows.
Ferris said red drum will attempt to get back into the skinniest water possible as fast as they can to avoid predation by dolphins. This can be water that is only a foot or two deep.
"As the water rises and the fish come from the deep dropoffs back into the shallow water, I cast a stick bait," Ferris said. "You need something that floats. Otherwise, you're liable to get snagged on an oyster or something else.
"When I need to cover more of the water column I'll use a hard bait that dives, but as soon as the retrieve pressure is let off it comes to the surface."
Ferris will work these types of baits all the way through the flooding tide, with the exception of switching back to a topwater hard bait as the tide nears flood.
Towards the end of the month, Ferris said he goes exploring if the water has begun to warm up.
"When the water temperature gets over 60 degrees the schools begin to break up some," Ferris said. "You also see a sprinkling of live bait start coming into the creeks about that time too.
"When I start seeing this pattern, I'll start looking for some fish back in the smaller creeks off the ICW. This can be real productive fishing.
"The schools are smaller, so there's less chance of spooking fish, and the metabolism of the fish has increased, so they bite better."
To fish hard baits, Ferris doesn't want his clients to have to move the rod much to impart action on the bait. He uses medium-heavy spinning rods from 6-1/2- to 7-feet long spooled with 8-pound-diameter braided line.
"I like the direct connection you get with braided line," Ferris said.
He avoids tying a hard bait directly to braided line because the first hook of the bait is prone to getting snagged on the line. Instead, he opts for 12 inches of monofilament or fluorocarbon line that he attaches to the braid with a double uni-knot. The short leader is attached to the bait with a loop to retain the bait's action.
Farther south down the coast, near Beaufort, Capt. Mike Upchurch of Osprey Charters (843-908-2325 or www.carolina-fishing-charter.com) sees a similar pattern, albeit a little earlier, as Ferris but has to use some different hard baits.
"Down here, the water is getting warm, and there are a lot marine critters, like rays and shrimp, beginning to show up on the flats in March," Upchurch said. "The weather can be squirrelly but usually the red drum feed pretty aggressively."
Like Ferris, Upchurch employs a braided main line with a monofilament leader for his hard baits and uses a slow presentation. However, he's found he needs to go subsurface and avoid topwater hard baits.
"I've heard a lot about people from Charleston northward as well as in the Gulf of Mexico using topwater baits for red drum," Upchurch said. "But the fish I'm on tend to be real freaky with topwater and stick baits. It seems to blow the schools right out of an area."
Upchurch uses baits that tend towards natural colors, as does Ferris.
"I've found in the clear water of early spring a bright bait with too much flash, especially if it's a sunny day, will run the fish off," Upchurch said. "Even though I'm running sub-surface baits I stick with darker colors."
Upchurch will use baits such as a black-and-silver broken-back Rebel, gold spoon or a spinnerbait.
"A good time to fish is three hours on either side of the low tide," Upchurch said. "That's the time that offers the best visibility for sight casting."
Upchurch said he prowls flats during low water looking for the schools of fish.
"A good flat to me has a nice bank against it that the water doesn't breach as it gets higher," he said. "This holds the fish in, and they won't spread out into the grass at high tide. It's like having a captive audience.
"If the bank is dead shell, you can fish it at high water because you'll still have excellent visibility since the water is over shell and not mud."
Upchurch mentioned anglers will find excellent flats to fish in the Chechessee, Colleton and Broad rivers. He cautioned that the flats closer to Port Royal Sound typically receive higher fishing pressure.
Anglers shouldn't overlook early-spring red drum fishing because the water is cold and the creeks are empty of bait. Give the water a chance to warm up, and in the interim, learn to work a hard bait.