For those fishermen who are tuned in to the cold-weather habits of redfish, it's also a great time to catch our No. 1 inshore game fish.
Spottail bass - a.k.a. redfish, red drum, puppy drum - are the premiere shallow-water gamefish in South Carolina's Lowcountry, and they act very differently depending on the season.
Survey anglers about the best time to catch them, and maybe 1 in 10 will say winter, but they would be right, especially when talking about spotting fish, then sight-catching to them.
December and January are prime spottail times. It is sometimes cold, sometimes windy, but a calm winter day is a great time to fool a boatload of fish.
The area encompassing St. Helena and Port Royal sounds covers thousands of acres of prime, shallow water, easily accessible from dozens of public landings.
This water is murky or cloudy for most of the year. Though it is actually very clean, it is so alive with life in the warm months that it takes on a stained tint. Also, our sand is mostly mud, "pluff mud," that doesn't reflect the sun well.
Finding fish requires recognizing their wakes as they move through shallow water, spotting an occasional flashing tail or the flash of a white belly when they feed - or endlessly blind casting in likely spots.
Actually seeing fish most of the year is difficult.
In the winter, the water becomes crystal clear. It is still rare to spot an entire fish more than a long cast away because of the dark bottom, but moving shapes are visible. Also, because spottails spend their time in large schools in cold weather, any commotion they make is more easily seen when they swirl on bait or move around.
Normally, our water nearly overflows with nutrients, from the tiniest larvae to full-sized baitfish, but in winter, most of the food leaves the shallows. Shrimp disappear, fiddler crabs burrow into the sand and mullet and most other baitfish become scarce. The flats become relatively barren, and redfish spend their days searching for meals while avoiding rampaging bottlenose dolphins that feed almost exclusively on them in the winter.
And perhaps understandably, since it's sometimes cold and gray, most fishermen also disappear in winter. But guides like Capt. Tuck Scott, who works out of Bay Street Outfitters in Beaufort, know spottails are still there and that winter conditions give anglers three distinct advantages.
Redfish are hungry, they are concentrated in large pods, and both guides and anglers can see them before they cast. This is as good as shallow-water, sight- fishing gets around here.
Scott generally fishes the waters of Port Royal Sound, including the Broad, Chechessee, Colleton and Beaufort Rivers, focusing on low- to mid-tide periods. Winter is not a high-tide, "tailing-fish-in-the-grass" fishery. Ideally he will work both sides of a mid-day low tide when the sun has had a chance to warm the flats and make the fish more active.
A stealthy approach is very important since fish will probably be gathered into one large school, unless it is a very large flat. As Scott pointed out, spottails may read a boat wake as a marauding dolphin rather that an approaching angler, but they will still become wary. While poling in slowly from the deeper water, initially you will be looking for what Scott calls "shaky water," subtle differences in the surface that give away the school's location. As you get closer, you will not normally see tails, but rather occasional flashing white bellies and moving shapes.
Once spotted, cast as soon as they are in range. If they have not spooked, cast to their perimeter and retrieve the fly or lure at a medium-slow speed, with the lure ideally moving across or away from the school's path.
If the fish see you and are slightly spooked, cast to the middle of the school and make the retrieve faster, hoping for an instinct strike. Not all the fish will see what is spooking them, and they often strike a lure thrown into their midst.
Cold-weather lures for Scott include traditional gold spoons - he prefers the additional action of the Red Ripper - and jig-and-plastic combinations. Scott uses a quarter-ounce jighead for less commotion, and he often opts for the Norton sand-eel grub in plum or tan with chartreuse. Fly selections lean toward the locally popular, fuzzy, Clouser-style fly called the Electric Chicken, in chartreuse and pink, the redfish toad and spoon flies. In muddy water, he often tries a brown Clouser.
Winter is the only time when live or fresh bait is not a last- ditch option for Scott's clients against very finicky fish, since there is so little natural bait available. He has actually seen spottails swim right past a bait, uninterested. One bait that often works is half of a fresh, legal-sized blue crab. He also tries the Berkley Gulp! series trailers when working jigs slowly, and he believes they increase strikes.
In the other major portion of the Beaufort-area shallows, the St Helena Sound (which includes the harbor, Morgan and Coosaw Rivers, Capt. Jack Brown of Predator Fishing is considered one of the premier red drum specialists. Perched atop the poling platform of his flats boat, often with his dog Maverick on the deck below, Brown guides fly and spin fishermen year-round to within casting range of spottail bass. Ranking a close second behind October and November, his favorite times to chase redfish are December and January. The fall months are a little more consistent because of the weather, but early winter always holds a few of those career days when dozens of fish are hooked and boated.
Somewhere during most Decembers, there is a cold snap of a few days' duration when the temperature drops near the freezing range. That soon passes, and it warms again, and Scott believes the cool-down initiates a feeding frenzy for the spottails, because they figure it is their last chance to fatten up before the cold water shuts down their food factory.
Hitting one of those days can be a bonanza.
Being on the water several days every week, local guides have a big advantage over most fishermen; they have already found where the fish are and know how to catch them.
But how do they find them in the first place? One of Brown's keys is that he believes about 75 percent of the good-looking water in estuaries doesn't consistently hold fish.
A good redfish spot will normally share all these characteristics:
* It will be a gradual sand flat with grass in the rear portions and oyster beds present. If it has a feeder creek, that's a bonus, but not an absolute requirement.
* It will hold at least some water at the lowest tides so spottails have a place to escape bottlenose dolphins, and most spots will also have some deeper water nearby. It is also Brown's opinion that these same areas hold spottails in the summer or winter. He said that fish spread out during high water most of the year to feed and then regroup on these low tide flats at low water and try to avoid the dolphins. The differences in winter are that redfish do not actively feed at high tide, and we can easily see the big schools in the clearer water.
Speaking of dolphins, everyone enjoys their antics. Most of the year, their actions are meaningless to the redfish angler. We know they are looking for food, and they will eat trout, mullet or most anything else. But in the winter, they target almost exclusively schooled redfish, and if you find them making a big commotion near a low tide flat, you've likely found a good redfish spot.
Unfortunately, if dolphins are working on them, they will be spooked. A good tactic is to move close to feeding dolphins on a flat, then wait for them to move away and for the redfish to settle down. When they do, we often have a chance at them.
Low-tide flats are where Brown and most good fishermen find redfish in the cool months. He prefers moderate tides rather than big ones, and mid-day lows are ideal since the water has had time to warm up. Brown will use a quarter- or 3/8-ounce jighead and a Bass Assassin trailer in the electric-chicken color, preferably the curlytail version to the paddle tail.
Brown's winter flies are generally darker versions of the Electric Chicken in purple or black, tied on slightly smaller, No. 2 hooks. He feels that redfish prefer not to feed on low-tide flats and will not chase bait, but they are opportunity feeders that will strike a lure or bait thrown close to them.
Brown also said that the only live-bait fish moving on the cold-water flats are blue and stone crabs and mud minnows. When spottails are very finicky, a Merkins crab fly, worked almost without movement, or real live bait can get some action. He will use mud minnows occasionally.
The fly or jig action recommended by Brown is two short and sharp hops or strips followed by a pause, then repeated. The objectives are to get the lure near the fish quickly and to keep it in the strike zone for as long as possible.
Fish sighted on a December flat will be frothing the water, grubbing the bottom, quietly cruising or just floating in place. The first two are easy to catch, the cruisers a bit tougher, and the floaters are very difficult.
The ones that froth the water are chasing bait. When you are in range, drop a cast into the commotion, move the lure and you'll hook up. When fish are occasionally seen grubbing in very shallow water, showing their tails, presumably they are after crabs. Crab flies would work, but almost anything thrown near them will elicit a strike. The important thing is getting a fly or jig into the action before they see you and leave.
Hit them on the nose, and then move the lure. The strike will probably be immediate, but if not, keep moving the fly or jig slowly. When a fish strikes, fly fishermen should make a hard strip-strike, while spin fishers need to set the hook hard.
Cruising fish are presumably looking for food and will strike the same presentations, but they need to be led a little bit.
On some cold days, schooling fish are sighted that are just floating in place and will not strike a moving fly or jig. These are the most frustrating conditions, but fortunately, they are found mostly in the late winter months. December and January fish are more cooperative.
Guides like Scott and Brown love to fish in the winter and just wish more anglers would join them. The payoff is big- time action. Remember, hit the fish on the nose, move the lure or fly, strip strike or set the hook hard and then hang on.
John Gribb of Beaufort is a licensed charter captain and former Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing and light-tackle guide. An author who has had numerous articles and books published, ne no longer guides professionally, This is his first article for South Carolina Sportsman.