That makes for short runs for trophy black sea bass and white grunts - or slightly longer runs for vermilion snapper, triggerfish, red snapper and grouper.
Fishing for black sea bass is as good as it gets during the cooler months, is somewhat of a well-kept secret along the coast, and limits are liberal: 15 fish per day and a 12-inch size minimum. The bigger fish make their way inshore to spawn and become easy targets for winter anglers. They have tender white flaky flesh perfect for the grill, oven, or batter fried.
"Four- to 5-pound black sea bass are common during the winter on the inshore artificial reefs, shipwrecks, and live bottom areas," said Capt. Matt Eisenberger of Fishaholic Charters in Murrells Inlet, who fishes the inshore and offshore hot spots from Murrells Inlet to Georgetown, targeting bottomfish - especially trophy black sea bass - on light tackle.
Fish will hold nearshore on structure and livebottom areas until water temperatures further plummet. While most species prefer water temperatures to be at least 60 degrees, black sea bass and white grunts can stand slightly cooler temperatures.
Eisenberger (843-267-4976) begins his day 15 to 20 miles out in 50 to 60 feet of water on popular spots such as the "Inshore Hole" and the "2CR Ledge." If the fish do not cooperate, he will move another 10 miles out and fish in 80 to 90 feet of water around prime spots such as the "Richmond," the "Greenville," the "Vermillion" and the "Parking Lot."
"Key to bottom fishing is you have to keep moving around until you find them. At that point you capitalize and catch them good," says Capt. Glenn Wilson of Defiant Sportfishing Charters out of Georgetown - another bottom-fishing veteran.
"It pays to have a fish plan before you ever leave the dock. I always have a plan that includes a combination of structure, ledges, and relief at various locations and depths," he said. "My fish plan will always be in the shape of a square to effectively and economically utilize fuel and resources to catch the most fish. My existence as a fisherman depends on being productive and efficient."
Wilson includes many of the same spots as Eisenberger - the "Greenville," the "Hector," and the "Vermillion" - he also fishes areas identified on his Maps Unique chart that are along the way to and from these usual spots. He pays close attention to the water temperatures, looking for eddies of warm water, because bottomfish and pelagic fish will congregate in pockets of warm water with baitfish stacked at all levels. He also keeps a log of all of his trips and will routinely refer to the productive places when the same conditions are met.
Part of the fun of winter bottomfishing is that the fish will eat almost anything. The colder water temperatures will have driven off most of the baitfish that occur locally. Bottomfish are opportunistic feeders, preferring crabs, shrimp, worms, fish, squid, and clams. There's no need to catch bait at the crack of dawn, because most any kind of frozen bait will look like prime rib to a black sea bass and other famished bottom dwellers. But even with food scarce, they still prefer certain foods over others.
"Frozen finger mullet are the key to big black sea bass during the winter," Eisenberger said. "They will draw strikes from the biggest black sea bass you have ever seen."
Eisenberger and most other captains will catch a freezer full of finger mullet during the summer and fall, when they are plentiful, in preparation for winter charters. Cigar minnows and squid always produce favorable results when the finger mullet supply is diminished. Wilson prefers cigar minnows and pieces of fresh cut bait, but he will use squid as a back up.
Believe it or not, artificial lures are not out of the question. Shimano's Butterfly Jig system can be a real winner, more effective than cigar minnows or other fresh bait on certain days. Both Wilson and Eisenberger are well-stocked with Butterfly Jigs, and Eisenberger has had good success catching black sea bass with white and chartreuse bucktails tipped with pieces of squid or cut fish.
Drift over structure and livebottom areas with baits on the bottom and keep an eye on your depthfinder. Mark areas where fish bite, and drift over them again or anchor up and spend more time on them.