Gary Early Jr. owns Patriot Sport Charters. Based out of Charleston, the yacht broker can catch a ride to the Gulf Stream anytime he wishes aboard his 55-foot Paul Mann boat, Patriot. But on days he must attend to business by remaining within cell phone range or when he merely wants to stick near home and relax, he spends the day fishing for sheepshead.
"We call sheepshead the 'convict' fish," Early said. "It's supposed to be for the way the stripes on the fish look like one of the old prisoners' uniforms. But I think it's because they're so fun and easy to catch. Before you know it, you're guilty of becoming addicted to catching them. They've convicted you and your sentence is to give them a shot any time you get the chance."
Early was fishing for sheepsheads during a winding-down day after catching yellowfin tunas and wahoos aboard Patriot the previous day.
He recently sold a skiff to his friend, Ivan Schronce, who owns Wetworks Inc. Landcaping and Irrigation at Johns Island. The duo launched Schronce's boat at the SCDNR's Shem Creek Access area at Mount Pleasant (the sign said Cedar Point Access Area; go figure).
Apparently the launching area goes by both names, but anglers like Early and Schronce refer to it as Shem Creek as does the DNR's website.
Parking was at a premium since it was a weekend and a red drum tournament was underway. But Early's office was nearby, so they had an alternate parking spot away from the 30 dedicated spaces at Shem Creek.
"You'll get a parking ticket if you park in a no-parking zone," Schronce said. "The police are pretty strict about sticking to the designated parking spots, so you have to get to the ramp early to get a space on weekends."
Soon the boat was underway, heading out the mouth of Shem Creek, around the point and northward toward Charleston through Charleston Harbor, then onward toward the confluence of the Wando and Cooper rivers upstream of the U.S. 17 Bridge.
The pair stopped at several marinas, working the pilings concrete pilings of the marina piers with their sheepshead rigs. They used spinning rods spooled with braided lines to drop fiddler crabs on light wire hooks alongside the pilings.
"Oh, missed him." Schronce said.
Although he snapped the rod up at the slightest sensation of a fish's lips kissing a fiddler crab, all he brought up was the pieces of the crab the sharp teeth of a sheepshead didn't snip off, which was half the crab's legs attached to one side of the carapace.
"A sheepshead's bite is so fast and so subtle most fishermen miss setting the hook," he said. "From the looks of the bite, he took out of the fiddler crab, he was a fairly small sheepshead anyway."
He reached into a plastic container to lift another fiddler crab. The crabs could be heard scurrying all over one another, their legs scratching the sides of the container. He cradled, rather than pinched or grabbed the crab because a fiddler can draw blood with a nasty nip of its pincers if it feels threatened.
Some fishermen even place their fiddler crabs on ice to calm them down while fishing. Another important thing is to use a container with a tight-fitting lid. Tipping over a container with several hundred fiddler crabs can lead to lost fishing time as the anglers attempt to round up the fast-traveling bait throughout a boat's cockpit.
"We have some 'China-back' fiddlers," Early said. "They have markings like Chinese symbols or writing on their backs; that's why we call them that. Everyone around here thinks the China-backs make the best sheepshead baits. We buy them at the bait shops, but you can also catch them in the marshes and along the edges of the tidal creeks at low tide.
"You can catch them with a cast net, crab net or by hand. I stalk them from the marsh grass side as they congregate along the creek banks and use a small cast net to catch them. If you try to approach them from the creek side, they run into the marsh where using a cast net is an exercise in futility."
Early also said once he had a supply of bait, it was easy to keep them alive for subsequent trips rather than having to buy or capture more fiddlers. Sheepsheads eat crustaceans, including shrimp and crabs, as well as oysters, mussels and barnacles. But the small fiddler crabs, or one-armed-bandits as they're also called, are the easiest to come by when a fisherman is trying to find enough sheepshead bait for a day's fishing. Fiddler crabs can be bought or caught by the quart.
"If you don't want to catch or buy new baits each time you go out, all you have to do is put them in a garage or other cool place out of the sun," he said. "Wet some newspaper and put it in a plastic pail, covering the fiddler crabs. They eat each other to stay alive and will last a long time."
The marina pilings were unproductive, so the pair fired up the motor and headed for the Yorktown (aircraft carrier) memorial and tourist site. They were going to fish at the hull of the Yorktown, but the security personnel asked them to leave, an unpleasant result of security issues having an influence on the fishing community since the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.
"There are lots of other places to fish," Early said. "All of the bridge pilings have lots sheepshead.
"A good way to fish the bridge pilings is to scrape the barnacles and shells off the pilings at low tide with a gaff or a metal rod, then fish next to the scraped places on the rising tide. Sheepshead are attracted to the exposed shellfish. It's readymade chum."
Schronce idled the motor next to some metal fouls jutting above the water. He said he thought the metal pilings sticking up were the remains of an old bulkhead, pier or vessel hull.
"You have to be careful and know the water," he said. "At low tide, you might not even see the metal sticking up and could damage your hull or motor."
The pair used the same rigs they used for fishing at pilings. Except this time, the rigs were cast near the structure, settling the bait to the bottom, rather than dangling it alongside the structure. Hang-ups were common whenever a fish didn't get stuck with the hook.
The rig for fishing the piers and the submerged structure was a 2/0 red Kahle hook tied to an 18- to 36-inch length of 20-pound mono leader. A couple of inches up the leader above the hook they pinched two No. 00 split shot sinkers on the leader. A double uniknot or a swivel was used to tie the leader to the 20-pound test braided line coming off the reel spool.
"The braided line helps you feel the strike, set the hook and get your hook back if you get it hung up," Early said. "You can straighten a light hook with the line, but it can still cut off on the structure. I think the red hooks really make a difference. You seem to catch more fish with them."
There was lots of casting, hanging up, baiting and re-baiting. In between all that humdrum activity, there also was lots of excitement as sheepsheads were hooked and brought aboard. The larger fish were put in the boat with a landing net while the smaller fish were simply swung over the gunwales.
"The trick is to let the bait sit," Early said. "When you're casting to structure, you have to let it sit on the bottom. The tide direction and stage can be important. They seem to bite better on a falling tide, but they can also bite on a rising tide. Slack-tide periods are not as good.
"You want to cast to the side of the structure downstream so the tide won't sweep your hook against the structure. When you're fishing vertically against a piling, you fish straight down, and you don't let the bait fall all the way to the bottom where it'll hang up."
Some sheepsheads Early and Schronce catch in the Charleston area weigh more than 8 pounds. These are the monsters Schronce calls "bream on steroids." He said big sheepsheads are tough customers.
"You set the hook and get them moving away from the structure in the same motion," he said. "What you do in that first instant means success or failure. If you let him get his head turned toward the structure, he's going to cut you off. You play them with the drag locked down tight to pull them out of the junk. Then you can back the drag off once they're away from the structure."
Schronce continued to change locations throughout the day. Whenever he came close to a series of pilings or submerged structure, he cut off the outboard motor and let down the bow-mounted electric trolling motor. He said the U.S. 17 Bridge was an excellent place to catch sheepshead. But scouting the pilings for fish was a good idea before settling in place to catch a few sheepshead.
"You can actually see the fish if you wear polarized glasses," he said. "They're easier to spot when they're in the shade of the pilings or beneath a bridge or dock.
"Once you see the fish, you can tie up to the pilings or anchor close by and start fishing. You can also make casts to places that should hold fish, even if you can't see them.
"If you start catching them while you're using the trolling motor, you can tie up or anchor at the same spot. Anchoring can be time-consuming and there are places where you can even lose an anchor on the structure, so anything you can do to find the fish before you secure the boat will make your fishing more productive."
The pair also like to fish for sheepsheads offshore. But the best times to fish offshore are later in the summer and early fall.
"I like to fish offshore at Buoy R-8," Schronce said. "There's a sunken 100-foot vessel 90 degrees, 12 miles off the tip of the Charleston Jetty. They're stacked up out there on the artificial reef. We anchor right over the structure by finding it with a depth-finder and using a marker to show the location.
"You use a heavier weight than just a couple of split shot. An egg sinker works well by adding it above the split shot.
"You need to stop the bait right before it reaches the bottom because if it hits the structure, it scares the larger fish away. If you hit the structure, count the reel handle turns bringing it back up so you can drop the bait down without hitting the structure again."