On the freshwater side, almost anything that swims is in or near shallow water, ready to bite, and the woods are alive with the sounds of turkeys in love. Spring break is also a great time to hit S.C.'s inshore saltwater because baitfish are starting to move into the creeks and the state's abundant supply of flounders are there to party.
State flatfish are often caught with two vastly different approaches, so how you target Mr. Doormat has a lot to do with where you fish for him.
The Grand Strand area is known for its beaches, but the bottom topography of Strand waters is no different from places covered by beach towels and sun screen-slathered humans.
The area from Winyah Bay to Little River near the N.C.-S.C. line is characterized by lots of flat, sandy bottoms, isolated shell banks and sand bars. Further south, the Lowcountry from Georgetown to the Savannah River, including Charleston harbor, is known for a myriad of bottom structures and grass-lined backwater creeks.
At first glance, it'd seem fishing for a creature that doesn't show up on a depth-finder would be a difficult task. However, two noted Palmetto State anglers, one specializing in fishing the Grand Strand, and the other fishing the Charleston area, take it all in stride.
A Structured Affair
For a large number of anglers who fish the inshore waters of the Lowcountry, catching a flounder is often a welcome, though incidental, occurrence. One reason is the ever-growing popularity of redfishing.
Flounders are often caught by anglers casting artificial baits for tailing reds rather than bottom-hugging flounders. The second reason is flounders relate to structure somewhat differently in the Lowcountry than in the upper coastal areas of the state.
According to Hanahan resident Rick Donovan, there are plenty of flounder to be caught by anglers who understand how to target them.
Donovan takes a largemouth bass angler's approach to flounder fishing.
In his cherished 1978 15-foot Boston Whaler he's owned since it was brand new, he employs a standard Carolina worm rig to target flounder. His bait of choice is a 3- to 4-inch finger mullet, but during early Spring when mullets can be hard to find, he relies on mud minnows.
Donovan calls his tactic "casting and dragging."
Standing in the bow of his Whaler, Donovan uses his trolling motor to ease along while targeting specific structure and will make every attempt to put the bait right on top of chosen targets.
With an accurate cast, he lets the bait sit for several seconds before commencing with the "dragging" portion of his retrieve.
"Often that flounder will be right on top of the structure and when the bait lands right on top of him, it takes the fish a couple of seconds to get oriented," said the tournament-flatfishing champion. "About half the time, the bite will be a bump; the other half, the line will get heavy, like dragging a shoe."
Donovan allows a fish a full 10 seconds to get the bait in its jaws before he "comes tight" with his line.
"Over the years I've lost a lot of bites by setting the hook too hard, now I reel in tight and apply pressure and my hooksets have gone way up," he said.
Donovan's Carolina rig consists of a 1/4 - 3/8-ounce worm weight ahead of a barrel swivel and bead. Using 10-pound-test main line, he doubles the strength to 20-pound-test for his 12- to 14-inch leader. The business end is a 2/0 to 3/0 Aberdeen crappie hook.
Donovan said his choice of a light wire hook is to save time.
Oddly enough, his biggest time wasters are redfish.
"When I'm fishing a tournament, I don't have 10 to 15 minutes to fight a 20-pound redfish to the boat before releasing it," he said. "With a light wire hook, I apply direct pressure on the initial run and the hook usually straightens out and I can bend it back and keep on flounder fishing."
As for structure, Donovan's hands-down favorites are rock piles. He claims flounders will lay right in the rocks, especially during low water. Other favorite low-water structures are pilings, whether bridge pilings or boat docks.
"So long as there's deep water in the 8- to 10-foot range nearby, pilings hold a lot of flounder," he said.
High water calls for fishing sharp drops near grass beds in creeks. Pockets in the grass are a bonus.
"I throw right into the grass and let the bait settle," he said.
If he's guessed right, it's not long before he's "dragging that shoe."
"Most anglers outrun flounders," said third-generation flounder fisherman Wallace Lee, who guides out of Murrell's Inlet and docks his guide boat behind the popular Divine Fish House Restaurant.
Like a lot of Grand Strand-area flounder fishermen, Lee trolls the waters of Murrells Inlet. However, rather than single or double rods, he uses four rods for searching out flounders at the flats.
There are similarities between Rick Donovan's and Wallace Lee's tactics: both drag bottom for flounders, but the Murrell's Inlet guide prefers a specialized three-way rig for his trolling setup.
"My father, Wallace Lee Sr., developed this rig, and I'm adding to his success," Lee said.
At the heart of his three-way rig is a three-way swivel. Lee ties his main line, 12-pound-test mono, to the top eye of the swivel. A short 8- to 10-inch leader is attached to one of the lower eyes with a bank sinker attached to it. The remaining swivel eye holds an 18- to 20-inch leader of 20-pound fluorocarbon. A No. 4 wide-bend hook terminates the rig.
Lee's guide boat is a comfortable 22-foot Crest pontoon, complete with bimini top for hot summer days.
Rather than going with the tide as is most often associated with flounder trolling, Lee uses his 70-hp four-stroke outboard to troll into the tide, a tactic that allows him to present his baits at a snail's pace.
Lee's boat is set up with rod-holders at each corner. To keep lines from tangling behind the boat, the front rods are weighted with 1 1/2- to 2-ounce sinkers with just enough line out to maintain contact with the bottom. The back lines, which Lee calls flat lines, are rigged with 1-ounce weights and are cast back behind the boat, again keeping contact with the bottom.
Lee claims he doesn't look for a particular tide when trolling but said he favors areas near sand bars during a rising tide and the mouths of creeks during a falling tide.
Being a third-generation flounderman at Murrells Inlet, Lee has knowledge of trolling runs that produced for his grandfather, his father, and still produce for him. Murrells Inlet is prime habitat for bottom hugging flounder with a mix of mud and sand bottom at isolated shell banks.
Lee said he believes a location that's attractive to one flounder will hold several more flatties, so he sometimes spends up to four hours fishing one 150-yard stretch of bottom.
"Patience and confidence in the area are keys," he said. "When the water temperatures get right, starting around mid-March, you present that bait to them right and they'll eat it."
Another secret to Lee's success is big baits. He likes a larger mud minnow than most anglers, but when the menhaden start moving inshore sometime in June, he switches to pogies.
"My experience is a 3- to 4-inch menhaden is hard for a flounder to resist," said Lee. who uses a special bait tank to hold often-delicate menhaden that will expire unless they have a constant flow of fresh water.
As for recognizing a flounder's bite, Lee said the tell-tale slight bend in a rod distinguishes a fish bite from a collision with bottom debris.
When that bend occurs, Lee flips open the bail of his spinning reel and allows the bait to free line behind his boat for 20 or 30 seconds - giving a flounder ample time to grab the bait and orient it so the small hook is in its mouth - before he flips the bail closed and sets the hook.
April is a busy month for sure.
This spring break, the place to be is at the S.C. coast. Whether you choose casting or trolling, Palmetto State flounder are down there waiting to be caught.
Just don't expect to see them on a depth-finder.