The first sign the fun is about to begin is when the fish show up around Pawley’s Island.
That’s when Steve Hedrick starts to lick his chops, because he knows just around the corner, around the time he starts thinking about Memorial Day weekend, the waters around Georgetown and Winyah Bay where he operates his Reel EZ Guide Service will start to fill with flounders.
Flounders on the (oyster) rocks, in the creeks, underneath docks and piers and in the channels.
Flounders, flounders, flounders.
“The bay is full of flounder; the bite will last all summer,” said Hedrick. “We don’t see our flounder start to leave until around Thanksgiving. They usually start to show up here a little bit before Memorial Day. We hear about ’em showing up at Pawley’s Island a little bit before that.”
Hedrick and Rod Thomas of Capt. Ponytail’s Guide Service spend a good bit of their summers chasing flounder in the marshes and tributary creeks that feed Winyah Bay and neighboring North Inlet, plus the North Santee and South Santee rivers.
The fishing can be rewarding for anglers who pay attention to some of the basics that Hedrick and Thomas almost take for granted — fish moving water and look for spots where the current will create ambush spots for lazy flatfish that won’t move far for a meal.
There are literally thousands of such spots in the waters that Hedrick and Thomas fish. It’s a matter, first, of recognizing them, learning when to fish them, and putting your bait in the place where a flounder is looking for a meal to be washed past its flat, tooth-studded jaws.
“Most of the flounder I catch when I find a creek that drains a big, grassy flat in the marsh,” said Thomas, a veteran cameraman and producer who has worked for dozens of outdoor TV programs and who guides out of Georgetown from Memorial Day through Labor Day. “The flounder will line up at the mouth of the creeks, especially on a tide change, and you bring the past them. You catch a lot of them, and puppy drum, on those kinds of places.”
Hedrick keys at the same creek months, but he also knows flounders will gang up at any kind of structure in the water that serves as a current break and an ambush spot — like a pier, a dock, or even a spoil island created by dredges working the channel through the bay.
“I fish Winyah Bay — the lighthouse pier, the (oyster) shell bars, the old spoil islands — the South Santee River and Beeches Creek in the North Santee River,” said Hedrick (843-344-3474 or 843-546-4629). “I’ll fish around docks or anything that is a current break where baitfish can hide, and when the water starts moving and you see baitfish coming out of the creeks, you want to be there.”
Thomas loves to fish the bay, but some of his favorite flounder haunts line John’s Creek, a winding marsh creek that joins Winyah Bay with North Inlet. Countless ditches and smaller creeks drain out of the marsh and into John’s Creek on its path of several miles.
There’s a reason fishing the mouth of creeks or ditches is a popular pattern. When the tide turns and starts to ebb, shrimp, crabs and baitfish of all sorts are pulled by the current out of the marsh grass and back toward the main channels.
Gamefishes such as flounders and, to a lesser extent, puppy drums and speckled trout, are attracted to those places. Puppy drums and specks can at least chase baits in open water, but flounders need ambush spots where they can set up and have their meals delivered to them, with the tide serving as a watery form of room service.
“A creek only has to be 2- or 3-feet wide, and the baitfish will run up in the creeks as the water rises, but when the tide switches and starts falling, the flounder will move out of the deep water, turn around and watch those areas,” Hedrick said. “Flounder aren’t gonna go up in the creeks and hunt for bait; they’re not shaped to do it, and they have to expend too much energy for too little food.”
Thomas (336-240-5649) said he is often extremely surprised at how little water a flounder needs for a feeding station, and exactly how small a marsh ditch can be and still attract attention from a hungry flatfish.
“It’s amazing how small they can be,” he said. “You don’t have to have a ditch 20-feet wide. In fact I think creeks that big tend to get fished out. But on a full-moon low tide, I’ve been blown away at how shallow they’ll be. They’ll sit outside just a little ‘dent’ in the marsh — a place not even big enough to call a ditch.”
Techniques and tactics are fairly simple. You figure out how to best put a live bait or lure in front of a flounder’s nose and keep it there long enough to get him interested.
“I’ll fish two ways, depending on whether or not my fishermen can handle a rod and reel,” Hedrick said. “I love to fish (soft-plastic) grubs around those creek mouths in June when I get fishermen who are pretty good.
“I probably catch more flounder on grubs than I do on bait — it’s all in the presentation. You make a cast, let the grub sink real easy, just drag it along the bottom, and what happens is, flounder get all torn up about it. When they hit a grub, they don’t crew on it — they bite good and hard.”
Hedrick uses a 7-foot medium-action spinning outfit spooled with 10- to 17-pound monofilament — the latter a concession to the oyster rocks that cover the edge of the marshes in Winyah Bay. He ties on a quarter-ounce leadhead jig and threads on a 3-inch curlytail Haw River grub. His favorite colors are Christmas tree (red/green with a chartreuse tail), red with a chartreuse tail, gray glitter with a chartreuse tail and gray glitter.
Hedrick makes a cast to the mouth of a creek, lets the bait fall to the bottom and lets it sit there for a few seconds. He touches the reel handle only to take up the slack created when he lifts the rod tip and crawls the bit across the bottom 8 to 10 inches at a time, letting the bait settle back down each time.
“The tails on those grubs can pick up the slightest movement of water, and they’ll ripple back and forth,” he said. “How that looks like a minnow to a flounder, I’ll never know, but I don’t care.
“It’s like the flounder that get into the crab traps. They sit out there and look into the cage and see those minnows in there around the crab bait, and they can’t stand it. They fold themselves up and slide through the opening.”
Hedrick and Thomas agreed a creek mouth or ditch that’s no more than 4 or 5 feet wide is big enough to attract and handful of flounder.
“They’ll gang up pretty good, and you may have a 5-pounder right there with three fish that are only hand-sized,” he said. “One neat thing is, sometimes flounder will follow a grub all the way back to the boat. You can see ’em, especially if you’re fishing on a bright, hot, sunny day. They’ll follow it back and stay under the boat; I think the shade has something to do with it.
“One time, I was fishing with this other guy, and we had some fish follow a grub back to the boat. So we each dropped a grub down next to the boat and walked around the boat, and we caught three more doing that. So anytime I’m fishing a grub, I fish it all the way back to the boat, and before I bring it all the way in, I jig it up and down a few times.”
Thomas mainly fishes for flounders by using live baits, either mud minnows, finger mullets or menhadens that are barely 2 to 3 inches long. He fishes them on a Carolina rig, with a 1-ounce egg sinker threaded onto the line that runs to his rod, a barrel swivel, and an 18- to 24-inch leader, then a Kahle-style live bait hook.
“I fish that 1-ounce weight because I want it to bump the bottom and find ’em,” Thomas said. “I cast it to the dead middle of the creek and let it work itself wherever it’s going.
“On an incoming tide, I’ll throw into the mouth of a creek and let it bump on in. On an outgoing tide, I like to get on the corner. I’ll set my boat just about in the grass and pitch it in there, then let it wash out in an arc. The main thing is, you don’t want the bait sitting still. You want it bouncing along.”
Hedrick likes to fish small finger mullets, which typically show up about the same time as the flounders.
“They’ll eat a mud minnow, but they’ll eat a finger mullet faster, and you can also fish a little half-dollar or silver-dollar sized (menhaden), a little bitty bait,” he said.
In place of an egg sinker and Carolina rig, Hedrick fishes with a 1 1/2-ounce “Chrome Dome,” a flounder-rigged sinker attached to the running line at a swivel with an attachment that keeps the leader and bait off the bottom.
“I’ll fish a finger mullet two different ways — with just the hook and minnow, but if I’m fishing around oyster beds, I’ll take a pinch-on fly-rod strike indicator and put it halfway between the weight and the minnow,” he said. “That will float the bait up over the oysters.”
An age-old question that has befuddled fishermen who offer live baits to flounders is, “How long to you wait to set the hook after you feel the bite?”
Flounders are notorious for grabbing a bait and holding onto it for a while before actually starting to swallow it. Most veteran flounder fishermen believe a flounder grabs a bait, then slides it across his teeth to scale it before turning the bait around and sending it down its gullet.
How long it takes is a variable that may have to do with the size of the flounder, the size of the bait, or both — or neither.
“I’ll give him some time to swallow it, because if you’re fishing, especially with a mullet minnow, a flounder will scale it before he inverts it and swallows it down,” Hedrick said. “I usually give him a minimum of 30 seconds, and a minute isn’t too long.”
The wait is another big reason Hedrick likes to fish artificials — the bite is quicker and harder, and the hookset is instantaneous.
Thomas said there’s no set-in-stone rule for him. He’s heard of fishermen who would smoke a cigarette after the original “tap” before setting the hook, and others that would count to 60.
“There are so many people who say, ‘you’ve gotta do this’ or ‘you’ve gotta do that,’ ” Thomas said. “You’ve really got to try to ‘be’ the bait.
“I’ve had ’em hit baits hard enough to where I thought it was a redfish, and I knotted ’em right away. I just think you learn by feel.
“If I feel that little machine-gun ‘tap-tap-tap-tap’ — I wait on him. When I feel a definite weight on the tip of the rod, then I bang ’em. I’m not one of those who believes that if you don’t wait 40 seconds, you won’t hook ’em. Heck, I caught three or four one day on a Redfish Magic, a spinnerbait that was running only 3 or 4 inches below the surface.”
Aside from creeks, Hedrick likes to fish docks and piers, especially the Lighthouse Pier that sticks into Winyah Bay from North Island near the Georgetown Light. He’ll also fish deeper holes and channels during a high or rising tide, because he believes flounders back off into deeper water to feed on whatever might be using the channel as a travel route. He fishes the same rigs, basically nearly vertical, close to the boat.
Thomas also likes to fish the rock jetties that line the mouth of Winyah Bay. He said flounders will get up against the huge rocks that make up the jetties, and lots of local fishermen put a serious hurting on them by dabbl ing or jigging live minnows on extremely long rods.
“There are a lot of guys who will work the edges of the jetties with long rods, sort of just dangling the bait in there,” he said. “They’ll get their boats close to the rocks and just hang the bait down on the rod, just dropping it in there — almost like they’re crappie fishing.”