The combination of cooling water and abundant forage forms a perfect concoction for anglers looking to hook into a bruiser redfish cruising the estuaries.
Creek mouths, rock jetties, inshore reefs and remote creek channels produce plenty of action, but none compare to the "tailing flats" during the new- and full-moon tides.
Most fishermen target tailing reds during the summer, but redfish continue to patrol those same flats deep into autumn, as long as favorable conditions exist.
In little more than a foot of water, redfish will slip through the flooded grass hunting for fiddler and blue crabs buried or scuttling about.
The salt marsh, covered with cord grass, black rush and spike grass offers protection to crusty crabs and an unlimited supply of food. They scurry along the grass flats ingesting algae, fungi or other decaying particles packed into the pluff mud and sandy bottom. If they area lucky, they get to feast on a small fish left behind from other predators.
But twice a month, flood tides send waters into the marshes, allowing redfish to slip up on the submerged flats. Crabs frantically seek refuge, burying in the sand and mud, and they're loved by redfish and fishermen alike.
It's sight fishing at its best, with several senses in use. Perched high on the poling platform of a skiff or flats boat, fishermen can scan the shimmering waters for disturbances or protruding tail fins wagging in the distance. Often, splashes alert angler to their presence. Stealth is key. Flood tides evoke major feeding sessions for redfish, especially when water temperatures typically cool during the fall months.
Flood tides occur throughout the year but typically are more intense before and after the summer equinox. It's no secret that gravity causes tides. While the moon's gravitational attraction makes up the majority of the earth's tidal forces, the sun exerts a less powerful but relevant pull on seawater. As the earth, moon and sun align twice a month on the full and new moons, the effects of the moon and sun work hand-in-hand, bringing about higher highs and lower lows.
Generally, these tides occur shortly after the new and full moons and may last from a few days to as long as a week. These higher highs are famed as "tailing" tides for fishermen targeting redfish.
Based out of the heart of Bulls Bay in McClellanville, Capt. Robert McCarley of Reel Tight Fishing Charters spends nearly 200 days a year chasing reds through the marshes and estuaries from Charleston to Debordieu. While tailing tides are brief, McCarley rarely misses an opportunity to push his Hewes flats boat across the skinny water, perched on his poling platform searching for tails-a-waggin'.
McCarley pays close attention to the wind around probable flood tides.
"The prevailing winds affect the outcome of the tide, and especially the predicted flood-tide events," he said. "East winds strengthen and west winds weaken the flood rate across tailing flats."
The combination of wind and predicted tide level controls the flats McCarley targets for tailing reds.
"Ideally, tailing flats should have limited water, between four and 24 inches," he said, explaining that redfish search the submerged tidal flats for crabs and shrimp. Ideal water conditions are critical for capitalizing on these tidal events.
"The nose of the fish will be down in the mud, rooting for crabs, making the tail stick above the surface," said McCarley (843-458-4157). "If there's too much water, then the tail won't be able to break the surface to alert anglers."
Flood tides often drown every piece of real estate across vast Bulls Bay, making the entire area look the same. Every flooded flat is not created equal, and some flats offer better conditions than others. Flood tides are brief, and search time can easily be narrowed to a few choice areas. Scouting the area and knowing where schools of redfish are living are keys.
McCarley chooses flats adjacent to areas around creeks that are already holding redfish at low tide and flats all across the bay.
"Flats near productive low-tide locales are ideal," he said. "Flats should also have an access point for the fish to enter the flat from the creek. Often these access points are small creeks, ditches, or shallow swales."
Redfish stage in the upper reaches of creeks, anticipating the flooding of the high ground. They go crazy as soon as the water rises just enough for them to charge on to these flats - and it happens quickly.
"Redfish will slip onto the flats and will keep on pushing across the flat until they reach the upper limits, (then) will quickly go out of sight," said McCarley, who emphasized that fishermen must be prepared to capitalize on tailing fish as soon as they are spotted.
Capt. Chad Ferris of Tall Tail Charters also prefers tidal flats adjacent to deeper water and areas known to hold large schools of redfish at low tide.
"Redfish are opportunistic and lazy. They will not move too far unless disturbed by predators or receding water," he said.
Characteristics of grass flats play an important role in connecting with redfish on patrol. If the grass is too thick and high, it makes it tough to see the fish and to approach them without being noticed. Luckily, reds make plenty of noise feeding, alerting anglers of their location.
Ferris chooses flats with a certain preferred species of grass.
"Great tailing flats are submerged and are vegetated with the short grass or juncas-type grass," said Ferris (843-209-5153), who prefers shorter grass because it's easier to manuver in and increases a fisherman's chances of making the one perfect cast he needs. High grass is a problem as far as poling skiffs across the shallow flats without spooking fish.
Often, the shorter grasses grow in areas with a firm bottom. McCarley sometimes notices a small cedar tree oasis or island in the middle of a grass flat indicative of a preferred bottom.
"The bottom around cedar islands will be harder, and the grass will be sparser, often pointing out good places to look for tailing fish," he said.
Although a stealthy approach is always preferred, McCarley doesn't get too worried when he gets within the comfort zone of a fish.
"Even within 20 feet, redfish are busy gorging themselves on dinner in the mud," McCarley said. "Anglers often can slip in close without being noticed and can get multiple shots at the same tailing fish."
Since redfish police the flats for crabs, mullet, and shrimp, bait choice is simple: live crabs, shrimp, and mullet are deadly. Lure choice also takes little effort. Redfish key on scented lures with dangling appendages - lures that resembles what they're eating.
McCarley prefers the Berkeley Gulp! Alive series, with the Craw, Crazy Legs, and Ghost Shrimp patterns his choices for tailing redfish.
"The powerful scent emission and the action of the Craw and Ghost Shrimp versions are deadly," he said. "The dangling appendages of these baits resembles both shrimp and fiddlers."
McCarley rigs the lures weedless, with just enough lead to make accurate casts. He prefers flutter-style hooks with the weight on the shank, such as Mustad's Ultra Point Power Lock Plus Hook. These hooks allow the baits to fall naturally and prevent snags when working through the grass.
Colors often play a pivotal role in lure choice. Flood tides bring transparent waters across the flats. McCarley prefers natural, new penny, molting crab, and white.
While lure choice and color is important, lure placement is among the most critical component. Baits can land in front of the fish and work. Lures need to make a gentle landing, not to disturb the fish, and must be presented within the path of the swimming fish.
"Just put the bait a couple of feet forward of their expected path and give the bait a little twitch - and then get ready," McCarley said. "A lot of action is not needed on the flats, especially for crab and shrimp imitations packed with scent. Action should be ... just enough to provide a life-like appearance."
In many cases, he said, the fish will pick up "dead-sticked" - lures with little to no motion created by the angler, especially with the scented versions.
In some years, an early cold snap that lasts more than a few days will send crabs deep into the soil and shrimp offshore, hence shutting off the tailing sessions. But a combination of warm weather and favorable tides often extend to Thanksgiving, creating ideal conditions for fishermen to slip up on skinny-water flats crawling with spot-tails nose-diving for crunchy, crabby morsels of joy.