Ditto his buddy, Josh Utley.
Despite having the Beaufort, Chechesee, Colleton, May and Coosaw rivers at their doorstep, the two inshore guides rarely leave their home waters of the Broad River, especially when it comes to targeting redfish in the fall.
"We never have to go out of the Broad," said Rourk, who operates Tailwind Charters (843-263-3863). "We've got everything in the river, and it's so big, there's plenty of water to split up."
From the river's mouth at Port Royal Sound all the way up to brackish water close to the I-95 bridge - a good 15 miles - the Broad is a fisherman's delight, and not just during the May-June cobia run. At various times, it's full of tarpon, sharks, flounder, speckled trout, bluefish, ladyfish and especially redfish.
"Especially" refers to the three months beginning around Labor Day.
"This is the best time of year to catch 'em, in my opinion," said Utsey, who runs Lowcountry Guide Service (843-812-4919). "You've got lots of bait, lots of big shrimp, the water is starting to clear up, and we get another age-class of fish in the river that seems to replenish them after they've gotten beaten down during the summer."
Lots of bait, lots of fish. That's a fairly good equation for fishermen, and Rourk and Utsey feel like they understand the formula behind it. The result is the only really important thing, however, and that can be a great day on the water at almost any time.
"September is typically still summer for us, so it's still pretty hot," Rourk said. "Sometime toward the end of September, it will get a little cooler, but Halloween is when we usually get our first real good cool snap. Normally, the water will get to where it's coffee-colored by the end of the summer, but it will start clearing up when we get those high tides we have in the fall.
"In June, we get these little brown shrimp that are perfect bait-sized, then we get little white shrimp, about an inch-and-a-half. Progressively, they get bigger and bigger, until they're bait-sized by August. From then on until it really gets cold, that's when the bite is excellent. It's a great time to fish shrimp. You figure the fish are getting geared up for the time when there aren't any more shrimp. When that happens, there will be perfect-sized finger mullet.
"I like to fish shrimp from Labor Day on until toward the end of October when the only thing you can find is finger mullet."
Like Rourk, Utsey is also a shrimp-lover. Also like Rourk, he will fish topwater baits or soft-plastic artificials when the timing is right. But it's so so right for fishing with live shrimp. Juvenile redfish are starting to move out of nursery creeks into the river proper, and they're hungry, growing more than an inch per month for the better part of a year.
"You'll see pods of new fish show up in September, October and November. You'll see a lot of 10-, 11- and 12-inch fish moving out on the flats, where they'll stay until they mature and move offshore," Utsey said. "So by the end of the fall, you're looking at pods of fish from 16 to 17 inches long. And by September, the shrimp will be a perfect size for bait, five to six inches long."
Despite their agreement on how wonderful the fall redfish action is, Rourk and Utsey are a study in contrasts as far as their approach to catching reds. Both agree that a key is learning where pods of fish will move and when they'll show up in certain areas. They agree that redfish in the late summer and fall can be "patterned."
But Rourk likes to move a lot, finding pods of reds and keeping up with them as long as he can. Utsey likes to set up in areas that he knows reds will frequent and wait for them to show up.
"The more I fish, the more I feel like I know they'll do the same things, day after day," Rourk said. "They'll be on the same (oyster) shell bank on a particular stage of the tide - as long as nothing harasses them.
"I'd like to think I can follow a group of fish. If they're pushing down a bank and you catch one or two out of a group, they'll move to the next point and the next point, and I can follow them. At some point in time, they'll move out on the deep side and go back to where they started.
"And the size of the group depends on the size of the fish. If you find a group of 18- to 20-inch fish, there may be 50 in that group. The bigger the fish the smaller the group. What happens when you get on those bigger fish, the 30- to 36-inch fish, maybe there will be just a pair or three of them together."
When he finds a group of fish - normally by detecting shadows on the bottom in the shallows, a reddish or brown tint to the water, seeing the wakes that reds make when pushing along a shallow marsh edge or seeing baitfish fleeing - he'll set up to intercept them, usually by poling his 18-foot Maverick flats boat along silently until he's in position to cast.
"I'll blind cast to places where I have found fish if I can't see 'em, and I like to move around. I'll work a spot 50 to 60 feet long for 20 minutes, but if I don't get a bite, I'll move," Rourk said. "When I find 'em, I like to cast above them, open the (spinning reel) bail and let the bait drift down to where they are. Redfish are not that spooky, especially if the water is chocolate-colored at the end of the summer. If you get on a group of 20 fish, you can catch 10 of them before they'll spook."
Rourk fishes live shrimp (or later in the fall, finger mullet and mud minnows) on an 18-inch leader under a popping cork. He'll use the popular Cajun Thunder model, but also an old fashioned Styrofoam popping cork - he feels like he can adjust the depth more easily. He'll use a No. 1 Kahle-style hook tied to 30-pound fluorocarbon leader that he joins to 10-pound Power Pro braid running line with a surgeon's knot. His spinning outfit is a medium-light, 7-foot GLoomis rod and a Penn Slammer 260 reel. When fishing artificials, he uses the same outfit, normally with a 1/8th-, 3/16th- or ¼-ounce leadhead jig.
"Artificials will work fine. If I'm throwing one, I'm probably throwing a Norton Sand Eel; the redfish and trout love it. Everybody knows about electric chicken (color), and they make it in sort of a chartreuse/green/pink. I'll throw it on light line, because the farther you can throw it, the better, and you can throw it 40 yards with the outfit I use."
Utsey also fishes live shrimp under a popping cork most of the time - he loves to hook up a finger mullet or mud minnow, especially when he thinks there's a chance of a flounder being in the area - but instead of running from spot to spot trying to keep up with a school of reds, he'll set up shop in an area that fish have been using and wait them out.
"These fish have gotten pounded during the summer, so when I find fish, it seems to work better for me to set up in an area than to try and chase them around," Utsey said. "These fish, you bump them a time or two, and you might as well go somewhere else. Sometimes, a little patience pays off. I like to set up and let them do their thing, let them graze around until they find your baits."
Utsey will "chum" by cutting up chunks of menhaden and pitching them out of his boat, hoping the scent will attract or interest nearby redfish. He fishes a popping-cork rig the same way Rourk does, with an 18- to 24-inch monofilament leader, a light-action, 7-foot Pfleuger or All-Star spinning rod and a Pfleuger President or Infusion reel spooled with 20-pound Ugly braid and a No. 1/0 circle hook.
The key to both guides' success is knowing where redfish are likely to be at a certain level of tide. Rourk said he finds fishing the most difficult on a low tide early in the afternoon, in part because the wind will often kick up in the afternoon, making it more difficult to see reds working the shallows. But knowing the tide and fish habits are No. 1. Utsey has his best success at the middle of the tide cycle, either rising or falling.
"Your typical game plan is to fish shell rakes and creek mouths," Utsey said. "It takes a little while to figure out where they'll be, but you can pattern them. I think they're easiest to catch on mid-tide, because they're out of the grass, but they're still on the flat. They'll set up on a shell rake and sit and catch shrimp that are being sucked out of the creeks by the current when the tide is falling.
"These fish will feed in the same spots, day after day - maybe in a half-mile area. There's a definite pattern. At certain stages of the tide, you'll catch 'em in certain areas. But those areas change as the seasons change, and I think what screws a lot of people up is that they catch fish two or three times at the same place during the summer, then they come back in the fall and they're not there. I don't know what it is, but something happens between the winter and spring, the spring and summer, the summer and fall and fall and winter to move the fish around.
"In the fall, they'll stay in a lot of the same places all the way until Thanksgiving. The later it gets, the better the flats and creeks closer to the ocean get, because the water stays warmer there."
Late in the summer, Rourk likes to fish closer to a high tide, because he can consistently find fish moving along the edges of the marsh grass, which is partially submerged. That narrows down the spots he has to check when he's in an area, because otherwise, fish can be anywhere from the edge of the grass to the shallow oyster bars to the flats themselves.
Utsey said fishermen who hit the river from late September through October have a shot at some bigger, bull redfish, anywhere from the mouth of the river up to the Rt. 170 bridge, which has a convenient public boat landing.
"I'll fish half of a menhaden on a 20-pound class rod with braid, a 60-pound leader and a 7/0 circle hook, and I'll fish it on the bottom on a Carolina rig," he said. "If you get on 'em, you can sit and pound 'em, especially the last hour on either side of the tide change. Every now and then, you'll get 'em at mid-tide. The harder the current is pulling, the more concentrated they get. When the current slows down, they spread out a little bit."