The Myrtle Beach area may be known more for sunshine and sand, but for visiting fishermen, it's a truly fascinating destination. Little River winds along the North Carolina-South Carolina border, at the northern end of the "Grand Strand," eventually pouring into the Atlantic Ocean at Little River Inlet.
The huge expanse of marsh, a couple of miles inshore from the inlet, sits on a muddy bottom, topped off with tall, grassy vegetation. It is interlaced with numerous winding creeks, canals and ditches. It is a habitat loaded with baitfish and predators such as redfish, speckled trout, and flounder: a watery, sportfishing world brimming with life - even in the winter.
Kelly, who operates Capt. Smiley's Fishing Charters, pointed to a sharp creek bend in the distance and said, "That's where we'll be fishing.
"Wherever these creeks take a bend, the water current often scoops out a hole out of the muddy bottom," said Kelly (843-361-7445). "These holes can form hot spots for the following reasons:
• "During the winter, the muddy bottom becomes a heat-retaining medium, which appeals to both hunters like redfish and the hunted, such as shrimp, mud minnows, and finger mullet.
• "As the tide falls and the marshy shorelines grow exposed, baitfish such as mud minnows congregate towards the center of the canals because there is nowhere else to go. Predators fall under the same tidal influence. This is particularly so in the case of redfish - which we locally call spot-tails. (They) prefer these wintertime holes because the bottom provides subsurface warmth and a safe haven from the cold air above, while radiating heat from bottom below. As the baitfish ease into the (bends), they find a world of ambush instead of sanctuary."
And even in the winter, that's a great equation for fishing success.
In position near the first deep hole, Kelly used a Power Pole to keep his boat still. Depending on tides, he'll use either his 21-foot center console or a 17-foot flats boat to navigate the ditches, creeks and canals, which can contain only a few inches of water on some tide cycles.
On an extremely low tide, the deep holes in the creek bends look almost like ebb-tide pools - which makes them even more attractive to redfish.
Kelly had three light spinning outfits rigged with 4-pound test mono, leaders of 20-pound fluorocarbon, and quarter-ounce jigheads tipped with Gulp! shrimp in the popular "molting shrimp" color.
He directed the three fishermen in his boat to cast into the holes and slowly work the lures across the bottom. It wasn't long before hookups came two and three at a time with reds and an occasional flounder - leaving Kelly grateful that he was fishing on a warm front that had stretched over several days.
He said that warm weather is a key to wintertime flats fishing on the Grand Strand. After a cold front passes through the area, he waits a couple of days for the warming trend to begin and sets his trips up for afternoon, when the waters are the warmest. He particularly targets certain expansive, shallow mud flats where he finds schools of redfish tailing and pushing water as they warm themselves in the sun. That's when he uses his flats boat, and he poles to get his boat into casting position.
With the tide at its lowest ebb, Kelly left the shallow water and ran about a mile to the mouth of a canal out of which the marsh water was ebbing. Large boils in the open water around the mouth of the canal were occasionally visible.
"There's our fish," said Kelly, who gave two of his fishermen the same rigs they'd used back in the shallow creeks, then gave a third a Cajun Thunder float-and-rattle rig with a 20-inch leader, quarter-ounce jighead and live shrimp suspended under it.
Kelly's instructions were, "Cast the rig right into the canal mouth, and when the rig settles, start to chug the float every few seconds."
After one or two chugs, the float was jerked under the surface, and a few minutes later, a hard-pulling redfish came aboard, a fish that weighed close to five pounds. The action was non-stop until the tidal ebb ended.
Finding good spots in the Little River area is a matter of studying maps and charts. Kelly advises fishermen to get a quality chart and "Start with the shallowest creeks and flats you can find. Fish these areas on the falling tide around mid-day, when the sun penetrates the shallow water and the redfish arrive for a sunbath and food tumbling out of the marsh. These are the creeks that fish best in the winter."
Capt. Jonathan Stevens, who operates Reel Broke Charters out of Captain Dick's Marina in Murrell's Inlet - on the extreme southern end of the Grand Strand - likes the same kind of situations that Kelly does.
Stevens (843-254-1248) does most of his damage in a 16-foot aluminum johnboat, which lets him go a lot of places.
Because Murrell's Inlet is not connected to the Intracoastal Waterway, there are far fewer freshwater tributaries than in the Little River area. That, plus the cold, winter temperatures, tends to send Stevens to live bait whenever he suspects redfish won't hit artificials.
"My favorite live baits in the canals are finger mullet rigged Carolina-style on a jighead, to a live shrimp fished under a float," he said. "If I'm working a redfish school adjacent to or on a flat, I eliminate any weight by fishing the live bait tied straight to a plain hook. In the shallows, I cast the bait well ahead of the redfish to avoid spooking them.
Years of fishing the area have proven to Stevens that spot-tails have a historic preference for certain shallow flats and canals during the colder months. Not surprisingly, he likes to fish them in the afternoon, when the water has had a chance to warm up a few degrees.
"Wintertime redfishing near Murrels Inlet is all about location, location. location," said Stevens, who fishes from a johnboat because it's the only way he can get to some of the shallower spots that redfish love.