Redfish are known by many different names, including reds, red drum, spotted bass and spot tails. For dedicated fly anglers, they are affectionately known as "the poor man's bonefish," and for good reason: You often sight-cast to them while they tail on the flats; they take the fly willingly; and they can rip off hundreds of yards of line when hooked and fight like a bulldog.
It's no wonder they are so beloved by anglers with the long rod.
"Spot tails, as we refer to them here in South Carolina, are king when it comes to popularity among South Carolina recreational anglers," said Scott Whitaker, Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association of South Carolina.
Sight fishing with a fly rod and reel is one of the most- exciting brands of fishing anywhere. Just like bonefishing the flats, it's primarily a visual experience. The fish are most vulnerable when they are tailing, with their heads down hunting for food and their tails thrust upward, easily betraying their location to a fisherman.
"Sight casting to tailing redfish is one of those rare situations where fly casting is actually more productive than spin casting," said Tuck Scott, a guide with Bay Street Outfitters in Beaufort. "Fly fishing in this situation offers a quieter delivery, as well as the ability to pick up the fly quickly after a missed cast or if the fish turns off in another direction."
"Depending on the fly used, an angler who is proficient with a fly rod should be able to keep the fly in the strike zone longer, get multiple shots at feeding fish, and increase the odds of a hook-up," he said. "These are big advantages a fly angler has over spin fishermen when reds are tailing.
"Most of all, fly fishing for these reds is the ultimate test of skill, all while your heartbeat is racing and adrenalin is racing through the body. So when there is success, it's extremely satisfying."
In other words, success is achieved through grace under pressure.
Many hardcore fishermen consider fall to be their favorite season on the shallow flats. The cooler water and lack of baitfish energizes reds' metabolism and kicks their feeding habits into overdrive.
"The fall season is the best time to fly-cast to redfish. Period," said Scott. "There are two things that happen in the fall that make fishing for reds better than many other seasons.
"The first is that when the water starts to cool off, the fish become much more active. Redfish are much more lethargic through the warm summer months. Secondly, as the water cools further toward the end of fall, a lot of bait is lost as it moves off the flats and out into deeper water. With less baitfish now available, the reds become much more aggressive and opportunistic."
Fall is also the best season to sight-fish to tailing reds. With baitfish abandoning the flats for deeper water, the reds soon turn their attention other food sources.
"September and October are prime tailing months," said Scott. "This is when the fish become extremely active back in the grass feeding on fiddler crabs and other food.
"One of the keys to success is simply knowing the seasons and how they affect the fish's behavior," Scott said. "Each creates different opportunities by altering what food is available to them. Knowing what food sources they are targeting is extremely important"
Fly fishing for reds requires accurate casts that place the fly in front of the tailing fish. The ability to throw a fly line 80 feet means nothing if the cast is not accurate.
When embarking on your first fly-fishing trip for reds, preparation should include plenty of casting practice before hitting the water. Most guides agree that poor casting is the biggest obstacle to success for beginners.
"It's important not to be too focused on distance during casting practice," Scott said. "Although distance is still an important part of the equation, the focus should be on accuracy - first and foremost. This is especially important for tailing fish."
If fish are tailing, but not moving, it is possible to get quite close. In weedy areas, it's not unusual to get as close as 15 feet.
"You shouldn't only rely on your sense of sight when you're searching for fish, but also your sense of hearing too," Scott said.
Tailing redfish make a distinctive splashing sound as their tails break the water's surface.
"You can obviously hear in many more directions at one time than you can see," he said.
Any approach to tailing fish should be as silent as possible. Redfish are extremely wary and can detect pressure waves created by a boat or a fisherman's feet shuffling across a slick-water flat. If spooked, redfish will simply stop feeding and move away. If a school of reds has been disturbed, and the water is smooth with no wind, casts of 70 feet or more may be required.
When a school of redfish is encountered, it should first be determined if the fish are moving, tailing, or doing both simultaneously. If they are tailing, they are feeding. If they are moving toward you as they feed, let them continue until they are within casting range. If they are tailing away, move to a point where you can intercept their movements and allow them to come to you.
Unless a guide tells you otherwise, you should never cast until you actually see the fish. The only one thing that frustrates a guide more than a client not being able to spot a sighted fish, is having the angler say he doesn't see it and casting anyway.
The fly should land quietly, just ahead of the feeding fish or slightly to their right or left. It's preferred that the splash of the fly landing get their attention without spooking any of the fish.
"It's important to lay out a nice, accurate cast and work the fly like a fiddler crab or small shrimp," Scott said. "You want to give it just enough action to make the fly look alive."
Let the fly sink to the fish's eye level before stripping or imparting any action to the fly. Since tailing reds are looking downward, anglers who begin strip-retrieving too soon after the fly hits the water never give feeding fish a chance to see it.
"For tailing fish, I prefer to use one of three flies: a Dupree spoon fly, a black or brown bunny fly or a redfish toad," Scott said. "Both the bunny and toad allow you to leave the fly in the strike zone for a long time because of the pulsating plumage."
If fish are tailing in weeds or grass, a weedless fly is essential. Constant hang-ups and grass strands riding the hook can make fly fishing an exercise in extreme frustration with an exposed-hook fly. This is where the Dupree spoon excels.
The Dupree spoon consists of flashy Mylar, covered and sealed with clear epoxy on a long-shank 2/0 Mustad hook. Colored hackle is then added along with a wire weed guard. Standard colors include gold, silver, copper, burnt orange, silver prismatic, pink-and-black and black prismatic. The color gold is a guide's favorite.
The spoon fly is very similar to the classic Johnson Silver Minnow spoon, venerated by spin fishermen for decades. Both are weedless and possess the same unique wobbling action that drives most predatory fish crazy. Like the Johnson Silver Minnow, the spoon fly can be retrieved through reeds and grass, over rocks and oysters beds, yet rarely gets hung up on these obstructions.
"When the fish leave the grass flats, I will go with the spoon fly, the toad, and some brown or chartreuse Clouser minnows," Scott said. "You will see many more fish in large schools when the fish are out of the grass. If you find reds working bait out in the open, it will allow you to get pretty close to the fish and offer a fly that's easier for them to catch up with than what they are chasing."
An 8-weight fly rod is the best compromise for tailing fish on the flats and reds out in open water. It can easily turn over and cast a weighted Clouser or spoon fly, but it won't tire you out after casting all day the way a heavier rod will.
The waters surrounding Beaufort and the north side of Hilton Head Island are some of the best redfish habitat along the eastern coast of the United States. The Broad River, which pours into Port Royal Sound, has hundreds of small estuaries and adjacent flats that attract reds year-round. It's quickly becoming a favorite destination for redfish afficionados.
"Due to the expansive amount of inshore water and predominately high number of undeveloped islands in and around the Beaufort and Hilton Head area, there is a healthy, year-round, redfish fishery here," Scott said.
"Redfish need a certain type of habitat, including both a mud flat and grass flat so that they have skinny water at all tides," explained Scott. "So much of the habitat found in and around Beaufort fits these criteria, making it perfect for fishing reds at almost any time of day and any time of year."
"The Beaufort area ... is not only crucial to the red drum, but the scenery is some of the best in the entire range of the species," said CCA's Whitaker. "The very unique habitat that it encompasses is ideal for the red drum. Between a combination of deep water access to the ocean, small barrier and marsh islands, and large shallow water flats, you could not design a better nursery for the growing of this spectacular fish."
The ideal habitat found in this area, coupled with recently-enacted regulations, bode well for the future of this fantastic fishery.
"South Carolina's red drum stock is doing pretty well at this time," Whitaker said. "The regulation changes that the Coastal Conservation Association fought to have put in place in 2001 are a big reason for that, and we anticipate that the new comprehensive finfish plan that the Coastal Conservation Association and the South Carolina Division of Natural Resources worked together to have adopted this past June by the South Carolina General Assembly will continue that trend."
The finfish plan adopted this year addresses the adverse environmental effects that coastal development has placed on marine finfish resources. It expands the creel limit to 3 fish per day while establishing a slot limit of 15 inches minimum and 23 inches maximum. Catch and release, however, is strongly encouraged.