As abundant as these areas are, some prime opportunities lie inland where the freshwaters mix with the tidal flow, creating transition zones.
As dry weather commonly invades the region, waters with a high dose of salinity intrude into the freshwater ecosystem, choking out tree species not tolerant of the high salinity. The downed timber creates fish hangouts - another opportunity for the center-console angler.
Many saltwater fish have adapted well to the transitional zone; the redfish feels right at home there. Redfish patrol the "bone yards" through the shallow grasses and murky waters searching for a quick and easy meal.
The murky water transforms the redfish to a deep bronze color that superbly camouflages them in their new environment. Fishing the brackish waters along the coast of South Carolina provides an excellent chance for a redfish-filled day, but it gives opportunity for a mixed bag, including largemouth bass, striped bass, flounder, and black drum. These other species hang out in the transitional zones as well.
As rivers dump into the sea, the saltwater influence begins to take effect many miles upstream. Salinity in the transitional zones is dynamic, rising and falling depending on rainfall and tides. These transitional zones are unique and nutrient-rich, producing a wide assortment of vegetation, structure, and forage.
It is not uncommon to have transitional zones where freshwater and saltwater fish species intermingle. Freshwater species are less tolerant of salinity than saltwater species are of fresh water. Saltwater species will travel upstream into brackish and even into full freshwater environments.
Not all marine fish move into the brackish waters by chance; some move in by choice. Some marine forage species, such as blue crab and shrimp, seek out fresher water to complete their life cycle. The "jimmy crab" - adult male blue crabs -move into fresher waters during the summer to breed and to take advantage of the rich forage. Shrimp will also move inland to feed. Bays and estuaries with a large freshwater influence usually yield a strong and low-count shrimp crop.
As forage species move into the freshwater, freshwater predators cash in. Striped bass are anadramous and are truly transitional fish, moving from the ocean upstream to the headwaters of rivers in the spring. After spawning, they move into transitional zones to forage and will generally stay in the vicinity for the rest of the year, depending on forage and water temperature. Other freshwater species have adapted to feed on small crabs, shrimp, and marine fishes.
The habitat in the transitional zone is diverse and usually heavy to woody structure and thick vegetation. During periods of low rainfall, salty water moves in, choking out the cypress and other freshwater tree species. The dead timber either completely or partially falls into the water, creating an ambush point for predators.
Redfish, trout, and flounder are the most prolific in the transitional zone, with redfish being the most-commonly caught. Juveniles (up to 31 inches in length) are right at home and are very successful ambushing bait in the dead timber and brush.
Redfish are much like their freshwater counterpart, the largemouth bass. They both prefer the same hideouts. The transitional zone is full of dead trees and very abundant structure sometimes referred to as a "bone yard." The avid bass angler is right at home in the bone yards, just as redfish are.
Capt. Fred Rourk of Sweet Tea Charters (800-768-2495) guides out of Tailwalker Marine in Georgetown. He understands fishing for reds in salty and brackish waters, and he spends all of his time - on charter or not - chasing the elusive redfish.
"Bass fishing techniques are ideal for catching reds," said Rourk, who believes a freshwater fisherman's tackle box, with the huge assortment of soft plastics, hard baits, and spinners, is ideal to outsmart the mighty redfish.
Since redfish are feeding on small fish, shrimp, and crabs, most bass lures tend to work well. However, many shrimp and crab imitation lures will closely mimic the real thing.
Redfish feed at different times and will exhibit varying degrees of feeding behavior. By nature, they are aggressive predators. They will wallop almost any showy bait pulled through their strike zone at the right time.
Feeding aggression is controlled by several factors, including: lunar period, barometric movement, and water temperature, which is the most predictable. Water temperatures from 60 to 80 degrees are optimal for redfish feeding, with 70 degrees being most favorable.
Redfish will prefer one particular habitat to another, and finding the right combination of water depth, current, tide sequence, proximity to deep water, and vegetation is key. Redfish will key in on different ambush points throughout the year as well based on water temperature and the presence of bait.
Finding the best places to catch redfish is mostly trial-and-error, but luckily, these areas are tidal. Brackish river reaches are always littered with abundant wooden cover including: trees, stumps, pilings, and others.
Tidal systems give you the opportunity to view lots of cover at low tide. Checking out the area during a full- or new-moon low tide will expose a majority of the structure. However, the downside to tidal systems is that redfish may use an area only for a short duration. Locating fishing spots for all aspects of the tide will improve your success throughout the entire day.
Location is always a key. In high currents, such as the Waccamaw River near Georgetown, baitfish will hold tight to structure. Most brackish-water fishing will be in areas with a strong current, and special techniques are applicable in these situations, but the best tactic is to find waters with less current.
Try to focus on structure out of the heavy flows or in eddy water. An eddy allows baitfish to swim freely and provides a refuge from the current. As the tide falls, eddies form on the lee sides of points or bends in the rivers. As the tide turns, the eddies will form on the opposite side. Reds will venture out of the heavy current just as the bait does.
Not all structure is created equal, either. Seek out submerged vertical structure for the best results. The structure that is only unveiled during extreme lunar tides adjacent to deeper waters almost always holds fish. It provides ambush points for a longer duration. In addition, a combination of structure including, saw grass, rocks, and timber together makes a good recipe for a prime redfish hot spot.
In lower-current situations, baitfish will swim more freely. Systems with less current are much like large, inland reservoirs. Fish also utilize the heavy structure, but finding submerged structure may be more difficult. Fishing the shorelines in search of submerged and visible structure is always a good fish-finding tool. Expect the fish to be more scattered in systems with less current.
Find concentrations of baitfish, and redfish and other predators will be nearby. Find places where the bait is pushed together - either by current or falling tides. Typically, redfish will be chasing bait into the shallows or up on a mud bar. Watch for the pushes along the shoreline. Redfish will travel into very shallow water at times, creating a wake. The successful angler has to be quite stealthy to sneak up on these shallow fish, but it can be extremely rewarding.
Redfish don't have great eyesight. The extent of their vision is only 12 to 6 inches, even in clear water, so they resort to their super-keen auxiliary senses to capture prey. Locating regions with clear water tends to make fishing more productive. Choose wiggly baits with embedded scent or flashy lures with rattles to attract redfish.
Redfish feed in a fashion very similar to largemouth bass; they will engulf many kinds of lures, including soft plastics, hard baits, and spinners. Redfish do not typically feed on top, but they will strike a lure just below the surface. Focus on using lures that mimic the size and shapes of the forage species.
Since some of the best spots are heavy with downed timber, baits fished along the bottom and through the wood are excellent choices. However, baits are easily snagged even when rigged weedless. Texas-rigged or Carolina rigged soft plastics are awesome baits for redfish and flounder. Choose baits with some built-in flotation and some dangling appendages. The added action will keep the redfish focused and will appear more realistic.
For an even more-realistic approach, lures that imitate shrimp and crabs work well fished along the bottom or suspended in the water column. They have the look, smell, and feel of the real thing.
The choice baits for brackish-water, heavy-cover reds are suspended lures such as spinnerbaits, small plugs and other soft swim baits. Spinner baits work well with grub bodies as trailers and with gold blades. The flash of the gold blades in the murky water will really entice a strike. Small crankbaits, such as Strike King's Series 1XS, fished ultra- slow just below the surface are a killer bait for redfish. The built-in rattles inside the lure's body attracts redfish from a distance, and the slow, side-to-side wobble is irresistible. They can be easily fished in shallow water just above heavy structure.
Color choices almost always make a difference, Roark said.
"As for redfish anywhere, match the baits to the water color. Root beer and "new penny" baits with gold spinner blades are usually the best for murky waters around Georgetown," he said.
Natural colors tend to be the best color choices. On the other hand, red shad, white, green pumpkin and electric chicken, are also good colors. A sequence of field trials with various color and lure configurations will eventually show a preference for one over the other.
Captain J.R. Waits of Fish Call Charters in Charleston (www.fishcall.com) chases redfish wherever they go, including beyond the fresh/salt dividing line. His color choices in saltwater and brackish waters mimic the overall hue of the water and the effects that the brackish water makes on the entire water column.
"I suggest using darker colors such as dark greens and blacks in brackish waters for the best success," he said.
The South Carolina coast is filled with very productive bone yards for excellent redfishing. Many rivers eventually dump into the ocean, forming expansive transitional zones and prime fishing.
The Georgetown area has five major rivers: the Pee Dee, Waccamaw, Santee, Sampit, and Black. Redfish heavily frequent the bone yards from the US 17 bridges another 4 to 8 miles upstream. Salinity determine how far the redfish will travel upriver to feed. Consequently, reds will move several miles further upstream during extended periods of drought. Reds will travel just as far upstream as the bait fish and shrimp will.