Do we fish the low tide, shallow water around the oyster banks or the high tide, shallow water in the grass? Or maybe we fish both, since the redfish are in both places in April. Then again, maybe we'll pass on the spottails and target trout during mid-tide changes when they move from shallow to deep or visa versa.
That's the quandary at transition time. What the heck, on a nice spring day, we can do it all.
With winter over, warming water initiates changes along the South Carolina coast. The spottails (aka redfish, red drum, puppy drum) have spent their winter huddled in tight schools, drifting around the cold, clear, shallow, low-tide flats, avoiding the marauding dolphins and hoping for an occasional meal.
As the water warms, food becomes more plentiful and the fish become active, but the clarity diminishes and the spring winds often blow. There are challenges in April, but the best fishing opportunities are definitely with redfish and trout since flounder aren't around yet and cobia are still a few weeks away.
In summer and winter, inshore redfish spend most of their time in water less than two feet deep. The difference, as the water warms, is that spot-tails begin spreading out and feeding in the high-tide grass because bait has moved there. Larger inshore spot-tails feed year-round on mostly smaller fish in shallow-water settings, with occasional opportunity binges on crabs and shrimp when they are available.
As the water warms in later April and May, fishermen wading or poling skiffs begin targeting them when they show their tails while chasing fiddler crabs in the high-water grass.
The trout also come alive, preferring water a bit deeper, three to five feet, and often relating to grass edges and oyster rakes.
Light tackle pioneer
Dave Murray is regarded as the pioneer of sight fishing - both light tackle and fly rod - in the Beaufort/Hilton Head area. As a guide, he began chasing spot-tail bass nearly 20 years ago; today, he is a flycasting instructor, public speaker, TV personality and a regular iat fishing shows - a virtual almanac of information about the Lowcountry fishery.
March madness, the frame of mind induced by howling winds - and, for some people, college basketball fervor - has, in his words, calmed by April as we move into prime spring fishing. Fishing for spottails and trout gets better and continues to improve all the way through October. The water may be cloudy some days, but it is mostly wind-agitated silt rather than the plankton of summer. So, on calmer days, we can still see fish.
Murray recommends primarily working schooled redfish on shallow-water, low-tide flats where the fish reside year-round. In April, they begin moving about more readily in search of small shrimp and crabs that are re-emerging. It's still too early for tailing fish in the high water unless it gets real warm, but he does work up into the flooding grass edges and oyster bars.
On calm days, when visibility is excellent, Murray looks for the subtlest movements of the water's surface, described by many as "nervous water." Because fish are not yet super-aggressive, he looks for little pushes and what he calls a "golden wink." When spot-tails roll in shallow water, they flash a wink of white or golden color from their belly and lower side. This rolling action may be an attempt to relieve irritation of small, half-inch long scuds that often hitchhike on redfish or possibly it relates to feeding.
For what ever reason, flashing bellies are a sure sign of catchable fish.
On low-tide flats in April, Murray recommends mud minnows for bait fishermen, rigged with a light cork or lip-hooked to a 1/4- or 3/8-ounce gold spoon. For spin casting, he shies away from jigs because fish are still spooked by their splashing entry. Later, jigs and plastic trailers work well.
For the fly-rodder, which is Murray's specialty, he opts for castability and chooses a fairly small Lefty's Deceiver, tied on a No. 2 hook, over the more commonly used Clouser-style flies. His fly is tied about two inches long, in red and white, with a couple of strands of peacock hurl on top.
In half-tide conditions, when both trout and redfish are probable targets, Murray works shorelines with "focused blind casting."
"Drift or pole slowly along, casting at every pocket and indentation along the shore, spacing your next cast just a few feet from the previous cast," he said.
You are searching for schools of fish staging along the grass. Redfish will tend to be close to the grass in less than two feet of water, while the trout prefer depths of three feet or greater.
When you are targeting trout with a fly rod, an underutilized by productive approach that is great fun, Murray works edges and creek-mouth points with a No. 6-weight rod, focusing on water three to six feet deep. He loads the rod with a No. 7-weight, density-compensated, full-sinking line, preferring it over sinking, shooting-head lines because of cast-ability.
He reduces his leader length to about four feet, ending it with a 15-pound tippet. His fly choice is a Lefty's Deceiver tied on a 2/0 hook. The goal is having the sinking line drag the fly to the bottom where the trout will be holding.
A native-born South Carolinian who was raised in the Columbia area, Capt. Richard Sykes began his fishing career in freshwater, targeting largemouth bass. But while growing up, his family often visited their camp on St. Helena Island, giving him lots of exposure to saltwater. After a 30-year career in the commercial cleaning business, Sykes decided to return to the Lowcountry and fish for a living.
Like most Lowcountry guides, Sykes, Orvis-endorsed and associated with Bay Street Outfitters in Beaufort, is familiar with all the water in the area, but he spends much of his time in the St. Helena Sound areas of the Coosaw and Morgan Rivers.
Sykes focuses most of his efforts on spot-tails in low-tide spots during April, but, in later weeks, he begins working the rising tides with casts deep into the flooding grass with mud minnows on light corks or his special jerkbait rigs.
For live-bait fishing, which is more effective in the spring than in the winter, he uses a lighter cork-rig rather than a traditional popping cork to avoid spooking fish that are transitioning from passive to active feeding traits.
Later in the summer, the popping cork's noise will attract attention, but in the spring, it just scares the fish.
His most-effective approach for winter and early spring is not a bait rig, but a jerkbait or stickbait fished slowly. This presentation begins with a medium weight spincasting rod and light reel. The terminal end has an 18-inch leader of 20-pound test fluorocarbon or monofilament tied directly to 20-pound braided line with an Albright Knot.
Before tying the lines together, he adds a 1/16-ounce bullet weight above the knot to add casting distance. To the leader, he attaches a bare hook, similar to the kind used by bass fishermen to Texas-rig plastic worms. He threads on a Gulp, Exude or Bass Assassin soft-plastic jerkbait. His favorite colors are shades of root beer and gold. The bait can be Texas-rigged, with the hook point buried, for maximum weedlessness - or with the hook point exposed. Work the lure very slowly through the grass.
Sykes maintains that braided line is necessary for this type of fishing since spot-tails often grab the bait and charge to the side, dragging the line through standing grass and sometimes even over oyster mounds. Too often, his solid hookups with plain monofilament resulted in break-offs in the grass. Braid solves the problem, and it also allows longer casts by anglers who are not as proficient. Braid has no stretch, so hooksets do not need to be as dramatic as with mono. But they still need to be firm, especially if you are going with the weedless, Texas-rig approach.
Gold spoons are also effective for redfish in almost any conditions. He opts for a ½-ounce Johnson spoon, casting it into grass or shallows and working it back slowly.
For trout, Sykes drops down to 15-pound braid on a lighter rod or 8-pound monofilament on a very light rod for casting and retrieving. He calls this approach "plugging," even though it typically involves leadhead jigs with plastic trailers.
For his cast-and-retrieve clients, Sykes often tips 1/8-ounce jigheads with a Gulp! or other scented trailers. These offerings tempt both trout and bass, with the difference being the depth of water targeted and speed of the retrieve. Sight-casting the shallows for visible spottails, Sykes tries to lead the fish slightly. If the fish spook, an immediate cast into their midst will most often produce a hookup.
One thing he emphasizes for success in cast-and-retrieve fishing is keeping the slack out when blind-casting or working to visible fish. Lures that hit the water and fall on a slack line often either fall to the bottom and foul with moss, hang up in shells or, if struck by an aggressive fish, are often rejected before the angler feels the strike.
At the end of a cast, feather the line and engage the bail so you are in constant touch with the lure as it lands; you will catch more fish.
Along flooding grass edges where trout hang out and reds may be holding, he uses a slower retrieve that bounces the bait off the bottom. He wants his anglers to feel the bottom structure without getting hung up too often. It requires an educated touch but is very effective.
For fly rodders, he picks No. 8-weight outfits for spottails and throws the locally favorite Electric Chicken flies popularized by Capt. Jack Brown and Bay Street Outfitters, made with a chenille front part and rabbit fur tail. Sykes prefers root beer with a chartreuse tail or an all-chartreuse fly.