Pier fishing is a great way to take advantage of the bounty of species that can be found right off the beach. The physical structure of the pier attracts the fish, and the pressure is on the anglers to meet the challenge of catching some.
The Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission stretched 1,045 feet of boardwalk into the Atlantic Ocean in 1996, then added artificial reef balls alongside the Folly Beach Pier to help attract fish. The pier stands 23 feet above the water and has a 7,500-square foot, diamond-shaped deck at the end that provides extra room for fisherman, with the "tip" of the diamond reserved for fishermen targeting king mackerel.
Kerry Hanson, who has managed the pier for 11 years, said the fishing experience starts at the "Gangplank" tackle shop at the foot of the pier, where the daily fishing pass ($5 for Charleston County residents, $8 for non-residents, $100 for an annual pass) is sold. The Gangplank rents rods and reels and sells tackle and bait.
Daniel Culpepper of Folly Beach has been fishing on the pier for 12 years. Some of the first friends he made soaking bait are still friends.
"I moved to Charleston one year after they built the pier and still have some of the friendships that I struck up while learning to fish off the pier," he said. "Everyone was so friendly and sharing, and it's been like that ever since.
"The thing that is so wonderful about fishing on the pier is the people that you meet. Pier fishing is very family-oriented, and if the kids get bored, you can simply take them down to the beach to go swimming. Besides, the Folly Beach facility is the prettiest pier I have ever seen."
While you can catch a fish in as little as one foot of water, the ultimate challenge has to be catching a king mackerel from the end of the pier. Culpepper had a banner year on the Folly Beach pier in 2009, catching kings that weighed 19, 25, 25, and 27 pounds, plus one smoker that weighed 36 pounds, three ounces. But fishing for kings can be feast or famine from year to year, with 2009 yielding 66 kings after fishermen caught only four in 2008. May 3 is the earliest a king has ever been caught at the Folly Beach pier.
Culpepper owns a 17-foot boat, but he still prefers the pier.
"My friend Sonny sold his boat this year because he wanted to focus on fishing more from the pier," said Culpepper, who believes that fishing from a pier is a great way for fishermen who don't have access to a boat to get in some saltwater fishing time.
The water temperature in June is perfect for the presence of fish, but two factors will determine the fishing conditions each day, according to Culpepper.
"Wind direction and water clarity are the big things to watch for," he said. "A south wind is good, and a south wind that is switching over to an easterly wind is good because is helps to keep the water clean. Before I go to work each day, I go by the pier and read the water to see how fishable it might be later that day."
Two sets of "regulars" fish the pier, those in the surf zone and those targeting kings at the end of the pier. Culpepper was a die-hard surf-zone fisherman for years before switching gears and joining the king mackerel crowd.
"People think that if you fish in two feet of water that you won't catch fish, but the fish are coming to the surf zone to eat sea worms and small crabs," he said. "In fact, the best-eating fish caught from a pier generally come from the surf zone. My wife likes to eat pompano for dinner, so you bet I fished for them a good bit."
Redfish and black drum like the rough water of the surf zone, and trout can be found just outside the breakers. Culpepper likes spinning tackle for surf-zone fishing, but cautions fishermen to set the drag on their reels loose so a fish doesn't pull the rod over the railing. Cownose rays migrate past the pier in June, and they have been known to snatch a rod or two every year.
You don't have to have rod holders while pier fishing, but you do want to remember to stick the rod butt under the bench seat, said Culpepper, who prefers Shimano Baitrunner 4500 reels on 7-foot, fast-action Daiwa for excellent casting distance.
Culpepper brings his own custom-made PVC rod holders that clamp onto the side of the pier, which gives the added advantage of using the entire bend of the rod against any fish strike. He is stocked up on pier-fishing gear more than most, and when he is not fishing on Folly Pier, he and his wife are likely on vacation in Carolina Beach, N.C., fishing on a another pier.
Hanson said the water temperature in June will reach the mid-70s to high 70s, and plenty of bait will be available. The water temperature gets much warmer later in July and into August. A sure sign that the summer pier season is approaching is the appearance of Spanish mackerel, usually in late May or early June.
"When you find glass minnows, southern hake and large schools of menhaden near the pier, then you will find the Spanish," Hanson said. "Our pier record was caught by Brian Batson on June 10, 2009. It weighed seven pounds, 11 ounces."
Hanson reports catches monthly to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, and Folly SCDNR and the Folly Beach Pier is a certified weigh station for the Charleston County Trident fishing tournament. An up-to-date fishing report is available to anglers who call 843-588-FISH.
Hanson looks for bluefish, redfish, black drum, whiting and pompano in early June. He said the fishing has really improved since sand from the latest Folly Beach renourishment project three years ago has become more settled.
The pier holds monthly fishing tournaments beginning in May, and 1-day tournaments on June 19 and July 31, leading up to the granddaddy of them all, the Big Kahuna Tournament, on Aug. 4. In 2009, 232 fishermen competed for $8,000 worth in fishing gear and tackle in the Big Kahuna.
Marine patrol officers have been known to take a stroll down the pier to check coolers from time to time.
"The people that come here understand that they can have both time in the outdoors and quality saltwater fishing while visiting the pier," Culpepper said, "The regular pier anglers have strong feelings about not keeping any undersized fish, and we help visitors to net their fish, bring it up to the pier and measure it so that the fish can be released in good shape."