Late in a Lowcountry day, with the roiling of the surf being carried on the sea breeze, I was wading a saltmarsh flat north of Charleston at high tide, searching for tailing redfish.
The evening sun was cutting a path between distant thunderheads, and it was highlighting my target.
At about my 2 o'clock position and 15 yards ahead, a redfish tail broke the water's surface and was backlit by the soft light. It waggled back and forth nonchalantly, almost dreamlike, contrasting sharply with the deep emerald green of the marsh.
The tail disappeared below the surface, only to reappear again 6 inches to the right. It remained visible and worked in the same direction like a puppet exiting stage right.
You freeze at a moment like this. The piece of Spartina grass poking you in the calf and the piece of shell in your left shoe are ignored. It is time to strategize and implement the plan. Some anglers instinctively crouch lower, as if to hide behind an imaginary bush.
Judging by the lack of grass stems sticking above the water, the flat ahead and beyond the fish didn't look too thick. With a flick of my wrist, I sent a gold spoon sailing past the fish and into his projected path.
I could feel the weedless spoon knocking off the grass. When I thought the red should be zeroing in on my lure, its tail dropped below the surface. The fish must have given a great push with its tail, because at about the time the sensation in my line changed, a small boil of water rose from the area the redfish had been.
A bigger commotion, however, took place at the spot where the red grabbed my spoon. With a splash and giant swirl, a wake shot away at a 45-degree angle, my line trailing like a contrail.
I was no longer soaking in my surroundings. Full attention was being given to the freight train on the end of my line.
When a redfish is slicing across a flooded flat, your mind helplessly prays that your line won't get cut on the grass or become entangled at the base of some stems, which often gives the fish a chance to pull free.
Despite preparation and correct equipment, you still need a hip pocket full of luck.
Fortunately, I had some.
After a quick fight to avoid exhausting the fish beyond recovery in the warm water, he was off again to hunt fiddlers on the flat. I took a breath, readjusted my hat, felt my line for nicks and got that piece of shell out of my shoe before looking for another tailing fish.
Capt. Newman Weaver of Kingfisher Guide Service (843-545-7639 or www.gtownkingfisher.com) in Georgetown also pursues tailing redfish, with his playground being the flats in the North Inlet area.
"Finding a good flat is key to having success with tailing redfish," Weaver said. "Just spending a lot of time on the water really helps, but if you're someone that can't do that, there are a few factors to keep in mind.
"The best times are high tides around the new and full moons. A 6.0 tide or above is a good tailing tide at North Inlet. It is possible that 5.8 tide will be a good tide if there is an onshore wind. When tides get up around 6.3 and 6.4 feet, that's a lot of water on the flats, and the fish will be spread out and possibly harder to see tailing."
Weaver prefers flats with some current moving across them that are fed by more than one creek. He finds good flats throughout the North Inlet area but mentioned Bass Hole Bay and Sea Breeze Bay as good starting points for beginners.
"A flat that doesn't have any current gets stagnant," he said. "It's hot this time of year, and if the water just lays there, it gets really hot. A flat fed by moving water is typically cooler, and the fish respond to that fact, especially if the feeder creek is fairly deep.
"If there's no bait up on the flat that I'm wading or poling across, I'm out of there. You should see mullet working on the flat or shrimp skipping across the surface."
Capt. John Irwin of Fly Right Charters in Charleston (843-860-4231) finds a similar situation on the flats he fishes outside of the "Holy City."
"There's going to be some good tailing tides from August 4th to the 12th," Irwin said. "As long as we are predicted to get higher than average tides, there are usually some flats that will have tailing fish. If the tide chart has tides 5.7 or 5.8 and above, then I'm thinking about hitting the flats."
Both Weaver and Irwin said there will be one or two areas where redfish will access a flat. Often, the fish swim to the head of the ditch and move up on the flat from there.
"The fish normally follow a creek until it peters out at the flat," Weaver said, "but I have seen them bust right through the thicker Spartina grass."
Irwin cautioned that anglers shouldn't enter a feeder creek too soon by boat.
"You may have to wait a little bit on the tide," he said. "If you start pushing up a creek too soon, you may scare the fish right out of the creek before they've had a chance to get on the flat. It won't be hard to figure out why you didn't see anything.
"I like to pull off in the thicker grass and just be quiet. A lot of times you'll see the fish swim right past you as they're headed to the flat."
Both Weaver and Irwin are fly fishermen, but they also use conventional tackle at times.
"The fish aren't picky," Weaver said. "If something looks lively, they'll eat it.
"I don't like a fly that is weighted too heavy, such as a Clouser. Otherwise, it sinks too fast, and the fish ends up swimming right over it. Whatever fly you use needs to be weedless."
Some fly patterns that Weaver recommends are Copperheads and Merkins, the latter being a crab fly. He suggests that anglers could use a Wooly Bugger pattern since it has some buoyancy.
"You want a fly pattern that looks alive with minimal movement," Weaver said. "I stick with copper and bright orange colors and use hook sizes between a No. 2 and 4, going with the smaller No. 4 during calm conditions when the fish can be spookier."
"I'll be honest; I use a root beer Copperhead about 95 percent of the time," Irwin said. "It imitates so many different things. It's a hard fly to beat out on the flats.
"If I have a real good caster on board, we might try a crab pattern. You need to put a crab fly right on a dinner plate in front of the fish since it doesn't move real well through the grass.
"I've also had real good success with popping bugs," Irwin said. "Two good kinds are a Hells Bay Hopper and jointed flies made by Capt. Enrico Puglisi (www.epflies.com). The topwater bugs are nice because they come over the grass, and who doesn't like to see a fish blow up on something on top."
During really big tides when there's so much water on the flats that it is hard to see tailing fish, Weaver blind casts a surface riding fly. One pattern he uses is a Dahlberg diver, which has a deer hair head and imitates a mullet.
Both captains whip their flies on 7- to 9-weight, 9-foot fly rods with weight-forward line. They recommend using 12- to 20-pound fluorocarbon leaders about 9 feet long.
Irwin said that a 9-foot leader can be tough to cast for a beginner. If so, he said just cut it down some.
Weaver chooses the 9-weight rod during the summer because you can land the redfish quicker. He'll set the drag tight, keep the rod tip high and try to get the fish in as quickly as possible, which aids the fish's recovery in the hot water. Also, he said you don't want to spend 30 minutes reviving a fish when there is a narrow fishing window on the flats.
If anyone has spent any amount of time in the marsh near the ocean, you know that the wind can blow, especially in the afternoon when the sea breeze is active. These conditions can make using a bug pole tough. If that's the case - or you prefer to use conventional tackle - there are options.
"A Berkley Gulp bait on a flutter hook is deadly on the flats," Weaver said. "I like to use a 5-inch Jerk Shrimp in Copper Penny on a 1/8-ounce flutter hook.
"The hook size will range from No. 3/0 to 5/0. I prefer the larger hook because the gap size produces better hookups for me.
"The little bit of weight gives the rig some control for casting, but it is not so much weight that it sinks too fast."
Weaver suggested casting past the fish and reeling to within a couple feet of its position. From there, he said the redfish will "bird dog" to the bait.
Irwin also fishes Berkley Gulps on the flats but opts for a 4-inch Shrimp in New Penny on a No. 3/0 weedless Gamakatsu offset worm hook. He said you could let the fish home in on the bait or fish it slow across the bottom.
"A chunk of blue crab is also a good bait on the flats," Irwin said. "You can fish a quarter piece of crab on a small Carolina rig. You don't want too much terminal tackle splashing in the water or you could scare the fish."
A good rod choice to fish conventional tackle is a 7-foot medium-action spinning rod. Spool the reel with 20-pound test braided line that matches about an 8-pound test line in diameter. Finish the setup with a 2-to 3-foot long leader of 20-pound test fluorocarbon.
Fishing for tailing redfish is a great way to beat the summer heat and get in some fishing at the same time. You can get in the water to wade and the action is confined to only a couple of hours, which keeps peace back home or at the office.