Red snapper, black sea bass and grouper hang around, along with barracuda, king mackerel, Spanish mackerel - and don't forget cobia. After starting to retreat from inshore waters, they make pit stops at many nearshore reefs and wrecks, including the Betsy Ross, before continuing their migration.
Originally consisting of the 430-foot liberty ship of the same name - the largest single piece of artificial-reef structure off the South Carolina coast - the reef has been expanded by the additions of subway cars, another 175-foot ship and numerous sections of the old Paris Island bridge.
But more than just mammoth size contributes to the reef's fish-holding power; the location of the structure (32 03.43N/080 25.0W, 8.4 miles from Port Royal sea buoy "P" on a 105-degree course) is a key. Positioned on a ledge known as the "Tybee Trough," the depth varies from 45 to 90 feet, combining both a natural fish draw and an artificial one.
You can do anything from anchoring and bottom-fishing with heavy lead weights to trolling with downriggers and/or outriggers. But according to Capt. Tom Thomas of Top Gun Charters in Beaufort, you need not get fancy to catch multiple species at the Betsy Ross. You need only three basic rigs: a heavy conventional gear with 6- to 8-ounce sinkers, spinning gear rigged with jigs tipped with artificials or live bait and conventional gear rigged to float baits.
"I prefer to fish on the bottom with 80-pound braid, a 6-ounce barrel weight, 5-foot leader of 80-pound fluorocarbon and a 6/0 to 8/0 circle hook," said Thomas. "When fishing on the bottom, I use a Shimano 30A conventional reel and heavy boat rod because you never know when something big is going to hit, and you need to be able to power it off the bottom before it breaks you off in whatever structure it is holding to".
Circle hooks allow you to keep rods in rod holders, where they will self-set. The heavy lead is necessary because of the strong currents; it takes some lead to fish vertically around structure.
Heavy bottom rigs also can be deadly when used in combinations with your sonar when either anchored or slow trolling at two mph or less. Watching the sonar, waiting for a fish to be marked, the man at the controls yells out the fish's depth, and the man on the rods drops or raises the baits accordingly in an effort to offer an easy meal to whatever is passing under. This can be a day-saver when the fishing is slow. The only change in the rig is when kin mackerel are around; you should switch to a wire leader and J-hook.
Whenever cobia are present, Thomas will rig a couple of floating lines in combination with a chum slick. The gear of choice is again a heavy combo.
"You need heavy gear when anchored to be able to get a big cobia under control and to the boat quickly," he said. "If you go too light, you will either have to drop anchor or risk losing the fish."
For floating, instead of a 6-ounce barrel weight, Thomas uses a Cajun Thunder cork, letting the bait hang in a chum slick being created by tethering a bag of chum to the back of the boat.
The bait of choice? Live greenies - thread herring - whenever possible. They are an abundant food source during the warm months, and according to Thomas, they are "more hearty, livelier, and last longer" than other live bait available, important when trying to entice big fish.
Thomas's first mate and son, Taylor Thomas, prefers to sight-cast to cruising fish using spinning gear - a Shakespeare Big Water Ugly Stik and Penn 550 reel loaded with 65-pound braid - and a 2-ounce bucktail jig tipped tipped with a Gulp! Alive eel.
"The longer profile of the (eel) gives the jig a lot of action, and I think that excites fish, causing them to strike even when they may not be in feeding mode," he said, explaining why he prefers artificials even when live bait is available. But, "there are times when fish will only eat live bait, and you may need to slow down and tip your jig with a live greenie.
"When out here you never know when something big is going to pop up," said Taylor Thomas, who keeps an eye out for fish cruising near the surface and keeps rods ready and close at hand when anchored or slow-trolling.
Tom Thomas pays special attention to the buoy markers that mark the structure.
"One of the better bets when sight fishing a wreck is the buoy markers," he said. "Big fish - cobia, bluefish and cudas - will often be found hanging around the buoys, and even if you don't immediately see fish, cast anyway, and let it sink before retrieving to see if something comes up after it; just be careful not to cast upcurrent and get caught in the buoy line."