His flats boat quietly eased onto the last sandbar separating a larger pool and a smaller pool that was holding the feeding reds and placed the anxious fishermen within casting range. The redfish were close enough for the fishermen to catch occasional glimpses of their backs as they grubbed crabs and shrimp from the muddy bottom.
Rourk pushed with Hewes Redfisher sideways to the bank of a small tidal creek near North Inlet and eased a Cajun-style anchor over the side to hold it in place. Stowing the push pole silently, Rourk (843-241-4767) pointed to a riffle where the water washed across an oyster rock and instructed one of the anxious fishermen to cast to the deep edge of the riffle.
The cast wasn't perfect, but it was close enough. Almost immediately, a fish swung away from the oyster rock, its wake detailing its travels, and stopped where the lure had entered the water. The fisherman tensed as the line tightened, then twitched. A nano-second later, he reared back on the rod to drive the hook home.
The calm surface of the water in the shallow, protected pool exploded as a healthy redfish felt the sting of the hook. The red bolted for the deeper water in the middle of the pool and busted through the edge of the school in its haste. Suddenly, there were over-slot redfish rushing everywhere in the small creek. Best of all, one was causing a small spinning reel to sing a happy song as a light rod bent deeply.
"That's the way to do it!" Rourk cheered. "When these fish are feeding this hard, it's sometimes better not to land a cast right in front of them. Now, just take your time and work it in, and we'll let these others settle back down"
Even in the cool, late-winter water, it took a few minutes for the struggling fish to tire, its copper back breaking the surface as it was led toward Rourk's landing net. As he hoisted it across the shallow gunwale, a broad smile was stole across his face.
"This is what we came here for," Rourk said, smiling broadly and holding up the redfish, which was well above the 23-inch ceiling of the slot limit. "And it looks like they think the food here is worth putting up with a little disturbance. That's good. We should be able to catch a few without bothering them enough to make them leave.
"These fish are in this section of the bay all year," Rourk said, gesturing to the reds, which were already beginning to get back into formation. "Sometime in the late fall, once the water begins to cool, they gather in these schools and scour the marsh and creeks for food. They'll eat minnows, shrimp, crabs or whatever they can get. Once one of them finds some food, they gather and root up the bottom in that area.
"Look, a couple of them have already returned and are feeding again," Rourk said. "We can catch some more. This time, we'll go for a double."
Sure enough, in a few minutes, the school had gathered again, and the reds were muddying the water as they roto-rootered the bottom in search of their lunch. Rourk had hatched a plan to catch a double and directed his fishermen to cast to opposite sides of the feeding spot-tails.
The baits landed almost simultaneously, and the strikes were mere seconds apart. The first strike was instantaneous as the Gulp! jerkbait sank but never settled to the bottom of the shallow pool. The other fishermen subtly twitched his bait, which resulted in it being grabbed also. The school of reds scattered again as the two hooked fish raced to the end of the pool.
"Just stay tight with them and keep your rod tips up to avoid snagging any oysters, and you should be fine," Rourk said. "Don't let them get you crossed up either. These guys came into this small pond as the tide fell, and they won't leave it until the tide is rising again. They'll tire out in a few minutes, and then we'll lead them in one at a time."
Sure enough, the fleeing fish didn't leave the little section of the creek, and after a little while, a pair of over-slot redfish were netted, photographed and released. Catching their breath, Rourk's fishermen watched the school reassemble a few yards away.
The air temperature may have been struggling to rise into the 50s, but a little bit of summer hovered around Rourk's boat. Jackets were removed as the fish continued to strike with abandon and warm the fishermen to the core.
The action continued until the tide had risen a foot or two. Then, the redfish moved to the next pool, which was a little larger and a little deeper - so they could move slowly without creating a wake and being seen.
But Rourk was ready, changing tactics and instructing the fishermen to fan-cast to the far edge of the pool and slowly twitch their baits back across it. For another hour, more than half of the casts resulted in a redfish trying to abscond with the baits. Rourk's combination of 1/16th- and 1/8th-ounce weights on heavy-duty worm hooks loaded with 5-inch Gulp Saltwater jerk baits proved to be almost irresistible. Several were torn off the hooks, and several were lost to cutoffs from oyster rocks, but most were inhaled by hungry redfish.
Finally the tide rose, and the fish began sneaking out of the pool, spreading across the marsh. As the bite slowed, Rourk and his fishermen realized they were tired and began straightening up the boat for the ride back to Georgetown.
The worst part of fishing Winyah Bay or around North Inlet is the long ride from and to Georgetown. Even though Rourk and crew had started later in the morning to take advantage of the tide, the ride that morning had been long and cold. That afternoon, the ride back seemed shorter and warmer. Apparently there is a temperature difference between anticipating a good fishing trip and relaxing in the satisfaction and exhaustion of just having participated in one.