If I blocked out all of the surrounding sights and sounds and focused exclusively on the fish, the redfish looked like huge Koi in a small pond. With a well-placed fly, it could be analogous to catching fish in a barrel.
But fly fishing has a host of factors that need to come together to produce a tight line.
You have to get the boat in position without spooking the fish and hope you don't dink the gunwale with something that will send a shockwave of alarm through the water. Once you're in position, it seems like you're always casting a fly rod into a headwind, and the fish are always just out of reach.
If it sounds like too much to struggle with during a fishing trip, then you have obviously never landed a redfish or spotted seatrout on a fly rod. Once it all does come together, it makes you feel like a kid again - like you just learned to ride a bicycle or caught a touchdown pass in a Pop Warner football game.
I was about to become a kid again.
Two false casts completed, I sent a crab fly against a fresh Lowcountry breeze. The line rolled out nicely, hitting the water lighter than a feather, and the fly touched the water a few feet in front of the fish with the grace of an Olympic high diver.
The crab fly slowly fluttered down, and a puff of sediment kicked up as it touched the bottom. Think of an elegant Apollo lunar module landing.
I complimented myself inside and tensed up as the fish moved closer to the fly. Watching your intended quarry close up is exhilarating. One twitch of the fly line should put enough realism in the fly for a score.
The second puff of sediment caught the eye of a 27-inch redfish in the bunch. He raced towards the fly and seemed to inhale it at the same time. I reacted, and before long, I had the fish to the side of the boat, cradled and released.
It was a classic episode of a fall day of fishing Lowcountry saltmarshes that I could repeat over and over with ease.
Getting Geared Up
The idea of saltwater fly fishing should not be viewed as a complicated affair. Really, the only difference from conventional tackle is there are a few more knots in the line. Everything else is just like fishing with artificial baits on a spinning rod.
"Starting out with a 9-foot, 8-weight rod-and-reel combination is a really good starter setup," said Capt. John Irwin of Fly Right Charters (www.flyrightcharters.com or 843-860-4231).
"You can move up or down on either side of an 8-weight rod if you like," Irwin said. "A 7- or 9-weight rod has its place in the marsh. Sometimes, we might be using a lighter fly and need a little more delicate presentation. This is where a 7-weight rod would fit the bill. Heavier flies or windy conditions might beg for something larger, such as a 9-weight rod.
"Picking the right fly rod is sort of like selecting a perfect caliber for deer hunting. There are lots of choices, and they all work. For inshore saltwater fly fishing, however, it is hard to beat an 8-weight rod.
Irwin begins spooling his reels with 20-pound backing. He said some anglers opt for 30-pound because of oyster shells, but he doesn't find that it is necessary.
"What is more important in determining backing is being certain you are loading the correct amount on the reel," Irwin said. "Loading a reel in the 7- to 9-weight range with about 175 yards of backing is sufficient. It mostly depends on the reel's arbor size. The mistake you don't want to make is only loading 175 yards of backing on a reel designed to take 300 yards."
How you attach your fly line to the backing can make difference when it comes to switching lines for different conditions, such as going to an intermediate line if the spotted seatrout begin biting at a spot.
"You can attach the fly line to the backing with a nail knot," Irwin said. "It's a good knot for attaching two lines of different diameters, which is the case between the fly line and backing. But if the conditions change, it's hard to put on a new fly line efficiently.
"You can have several different spools loaded with different-sized lines, but that gets really expensive really fast. It is easier to just quickly change out the line from the backing on the existing spool.
"To do that, I normally whip a loop in all of my fly lines that I carry on board. With a bimini twist in the backing, it very easy to quickly change out the fly line."
Selecting the correct fly line depends on whether you want to target redfish or spotted seatrout.
"Most of the fishing for redfish will be sight casting to fish that are high in the water column," Irwin said. "These will be in water only as deep as the fish itself to water less than a few feet deep.
"Spotted seatrout, on the other hand, tend to be down in the water column. It's rare that you catch them as shallow as reds. They seem to show up at depths where you begin to lose some redfish action."
Given the fish's tendencies, Irwin suggested anglers select a weight-forward floating line for redfish. He prefers an intermediate line when fishing specifically for spotted seatrout. Even though trout are usually deeper, Irwin doesn't feel it's necessary to go with a sinking line, because it will get down too quickly and lie on oyster shells and other abrasive structure. Between 80 to 110 feet of line is sufficient whether fishing for reds or trout.
"I like using Scientific Angler's saltwater line," Irwin said. "You have to be careful during the cooler months, because some lines can get fairly stiff in the colder water."
After the fly line, Irwin attaches a 10-inch piece of butt section material of 40-pound line with a nail knot. A 9-foot piece of 16-pound monofilament serves as a leader and is attached to the butt-section material with a loop-to-loop connection such as perfection loops.
"Depending on the ability of the angler, I may cut back the leader 18 inches or so," Irwin said, "and add a tippet of 16-pound test fluorocarbon line that is 18 to 24 inches long.
"I may even fish the entire leader and tippet section as short as 7½ feet if an angler is having problems or the fish are really close to us. It makes for a more delicate presentation if someone doesn't have the finesse to place a longer tail section."
Irwin said you can use the same combination of lines if you are targeting spotted seatrout. He mentioned scaling down to a 10-pound tippet last year, and it seemed to him that he caught more big fish. As he said, "Those big fish can be crafty."
In addition to carrying extra leaders and tippets, Irwin suggested some other pieces of equipment that a fly angler may want to consider.
"A good pair of nippers is essential," he said. "You'll be doing a lot of tying and nipping tag ends of lines. I don't like fingernail clippers because the saltwater isn't too kind to them.
"I highly recommend a good knot book. If you lose part of the equation on the water, you need to be able to put it back again. Lefty Kreh's knot book is a good one.
"Anyone interested in fly fishing shouldn't be afraid to come into a fly shop," said Irwin, who spends his off-the-water time doing seminars and tying flies at the two Charleston Angler stores. "Everyone should be there to help you succeed on the water."
Probing the harbor's upper reaches
"Fishing the upper end of the Charleston system is not really much different than fishing closer to the harbor," said Capt. Richard Stuhr (www.captstuhr.com or 843-881-3179) in Charleston. A native Charlestonian, Stuhr makes his home not far from the upper Wando River.
"For spotted seatrout, I like to work the shoreline during the high end of the tide. If the wind isn't blowing too hard, a 7-weight rod with an intermediate line works very well. You don't want something that sinks too fast, just something that gets down below the surface since trout tend to be deeper than redfish."
In addition to working the banks, Stuhr also anchors on known trout spots such as oyster-shell points. He'll cast a quarter of the way upstream and utilize a dead drift for the fly across the point. The intermediate line, he said, puts the fly in the right spot.
"A lot of my clients are fly fishermen," Stuhr said, "so they don't mind blind casting the edges for trout. In November, the trout are usually still there, even though it has gotten colder."
For trout, Stuhr prefers Clouser minnows in chartreuse, white and copper colors. He also has had some flies tied in electric chicken, which he says have been effective.
Stuhr said once the tide falls, he may find some trout holding in deeper holes on creek bends, but mainly he goes after redfish.
"Unless you are after tailing fish, redfish seem to bite better on the fly once the water is out of the grass," Stuhr said. "I do a lot of sight fishing by poling the boat at that point."
Stuhr sticks with copper, gold, orange and maroon colors for redfish. Gold rattle flies are among his favorites. He also uses black flies in clear-water situations, a trend that has migrated out of Florida, he said. He speculated that the effectiveness may be tied to the contrast of the fly in clear water.
"It doesn't matter whether you are talking about trout or redfish," Stuhr said, "November can be a really great month for fishing. Anglers should find a good bite along the whole Wando River and the middle stretches of the Cooper River as well."
Fly fishing may seem at first to be onerous but the action expected during the fall makes the fishing easy.