Winter is productive for several reasons. The water begins to clear, so you can see the schools of redfish cruising in the shallows, and the shrimp and baitfish begin disappearing, so the reds get desperate to fatten up before the cold water throws their metabolism into neutral.
You can catch a load of redfish and trout in December when you find them.
Guides love this time of year because fishing is easy. Most focus on spot-tails (redfish) because that's what their clients want, but schools of trout cornered against a shell bank or grass patch can also produce a memorable day, with dozens often landed.
For redfish, guides begin seeing larger schools cruising around low-tide flats as the water cools and the fish consolidate. Redfish rarely move into high-water grass from now through the rest of the winter. Guides can spot fish year-round, but in the winter, anglers can also easily spot them. The fish will tend to move less, giving fishermen more time to make a cast that's often shorter than required in the summer.
Guides rarely spot whole fish in the water more than a short cast away because of our dark bottom, but they do see moving shapes and any commotion more easily as winter approaches. Assuming the wind is down and the water calm, the larger schools are more obvious when they swirl on bait or push through the water, moving from place to place.
Capt. Richard Sykes, one of the regular guides working out of Bay Street Outfitters in Beaufort, loves December fishing.
"I've seen huge numbers of smaller fish this fall, so it must have been a very good breeding year," he said. "The flats are really full of redfish of all sizes."
Last year's cold winter certainly affected the trout population, but it must not have had any effect on the redfish babies.
Shallow-water guides like Sykes know that the cold and wind can keep fishermen away, but the fish are still there, and they are more predictable than in the summer. After all, windy conditions in the other seasons also ruin the sight fishing. Pick a calm day and dress a little warmer, and you will have a good chance for hookups.
Sykes focuses in the winter on low- to mid-tide periods. Fish generally do not work up into the high-tide grass once the shrimp and bait fish leave the area. Ideally, he will work both sides of a mid-day low tide when the sun has had a chance to warm the flats and make the fish more active.
While poling in slowly from deeper water, initially you will be looking for disturbances at the surface that give away the school's location. As you get closer, you will see occasional flashing white bellies and moving shapes. Make a cast as soon as the fish are in range. If they aren't spooked, make a cast to their perimeter and retrieve at a medium-slow speed with the lure ideally moving across or away from the school's path.
If the fish see you and are slightly spooked, cast into the middle of them and make a fast retrieve, hoping for an instinct strike. Not all the fish in the school will have seen what spooked the others, and they often strike a lure cast into their midst.
Sykes guides experienced casters as well as novices. With those who are reasonably proficient, he rigs a medium-weight spinning rod with 15-pound braided line, a light, fine line with which quarter-ounce jigs can be cast long distances. Sykes favors the electric chicken color for plastic trailers or his current favorite, the Gulp! 4-inch mullet in chartreuse. The 4-inch bait has a curlytail that works well most of the time, and Sykes goes to a 3-inch minnow version when the water gets very cold and the fish spook very easily.
In the coldest times, his fly-fishing clients have a big advantage since their offerings land without any commotion to spook fish. In winter, good fly casters will typically out-catch fishermen using spinning or baitcasting tackle by a good margin.
Sykes always gives his clients a lesson that improves hook-ups significantly, while reducing hang-ups and snags on grass and shells. The technique has clients engaging the bail of their spinning reel just as their jig hits the water, then immediately raising their rod tip high overhead to start the retrieve. This keeps the jig from landing on a slack line and falling to the bottom, where it may hang up. It also allows the angler to feel any immediate strikes.
Early in December, while some bait remains in the shallows, Sykes' bait fishermen still use traditional floats with mud minnows in a couple of feet of water, and the traditional gold spoons still work, either tipped with a mud minnow or fished bare. But winter is the only time when live or fresh bait is not the best option for redfish, since there is so little natural bait in the water.
December transitions from actively feeding fish taking their last opportunity to fatten up into relatively dormant schools drifting around the flats. If you see schools that froth the water, they are chasing bait. When in range, just drop a cast into the commotion, move the lure, and you'll hook up. If you occasionally fish grubbing in very shallow water, showing their tails, presumably after crabs. Cast just in front of them and they will eat. The objective with sight-casting, especially in winter, is first to get the lure near the fish quickly and second, to keep it in the strike zone for as long as possible. Immediate instinct strikes are common.
Normally, redfish are the primary food source for bottlenose dolphins in the winter, so if you find dolphins making a big commotion near a low-tide flat, you've likely found a good redfish spot. Unfortunately, when the dolphins work on them, the redfish get pretty spooked, but they will settle down after the dolphin move away. Push into the area, and the dolphins will probably move. A little while later, you should be able to catch some redfish.
Capt. Doug Gertis, one of the most-knowledgeable outdoorsmen in the Lowcountry, said many fishermen who store their tackle at Thanksgiving are missing out no some excellent fishing, especially for speckled trout.
"I don't know why people quit fishing for trout after November," he said. "The water gets cooler, but it's not cold yet, and the trout are still actively feeding."
As the water cools, the schools "tighten up" - that's how Gertis' father described it years ago. He doesn't know why the schools get bigger or consolidate, but they definitely do, and when you find one trout, there will be many more in that same area.
Many anglers keep slinging shrimp or mud minnows around points, but as the water cools, Gertis suggests switching to artificials and slowing down the presentations. The fish are still active, but not moving as quickly as in warmer water.
Gertis likes the standard Gulp! shrimp and other plastic imitations, but he suggests that fishermen mix it up a bit in December. Try throwing one of the MirrOlure stickbaits like the 52M series in white or yellow with a red head, or the unusual dark-purple version called the "purple demon" - he says it's particularly effective during the winter.
"Many people don't know that trout are cannibalistic and will eat their young, so the TT spotted trout version MirrOLure also works well," he said.
These and other stickbaits or twitch baits work well because they are retrieved slowly and allow trout time to reach them and react, sometime resulting in voracious strikes. Trout will often gather in large schools around grassy areas or near oyster banks in the cooler water and retreat to deeper holes when the water gets truly cold.
When targeting trout with bait or jigs, a good suggestion is to go light with the rod but don't be afraid to use a large hook. For bait fishermen and with soft-plastic stickbaits, Gertis swears by Kahle hooks, using the 3/0 size for bait presentations and often a 4/0 weedless version for a truly weedless presentation of live minnow or plastic baits into grassy locations.
Trout have hinged jaws and huge mouths, so they can eat very large baits. The Kahle modified-circle design and slight offset is extremely effective hooking fish while rarely gut-hooking them. Trout have teeth, so a fluorocarbon leader in the 20-pound range is appropriate.