Most years, hordes of anglers pound their favorite trout drops for schooled-up speckled trout, but after the past two terribly cold winters decimated their population, fewer people will be targeting trout.
Spot-tail bass, aka redfish, on the other hand, are plentiful because the slot size-limit regulations are working so well. Redfish may not be the only inshore game in town, but they are very active and eating up a storm as the water cools. As the natural bait migrates from the inshore shallows or transitions into hibernation mode, there is far less competition to angler offerings. Throwing almost anything in front of a spot-tail this time of year will elicit a strike.
The bulk of the action will not be in the high-water grass, though a few fish will still be taken until the water seriously cools. Most focus on low tide, sand and mud flats and chasing schools of spot-tails from a boat. Sight-fishing is prime but the bait fishing fraternity also cleans up at this time of year.
Capt. Owen Plair, who guides out of Beaufort's Bay Street Outfitters, approaches November redfish differently, depending on what the tide is doing. At mid-tide to high tide, either coming in or going out, Plair uses live shrimp and live mud minnows under a Cajun Thunder popping cork. This setup includes a 16- to 24-inch leader of 20-pound test monofilament with a small split shot in the middle to hold the bait down and a 2/0 hook. He uses this approach as long as the fish are active, which continues until the water temperature gets too cold for shrimp and minnows to hang around.
Around low tide, when he fishes with anglers using spinning tackle, he changes up.
"I move to light-tackle gear and all artificial baits for sight casting," he said, giving a nod to the scented Gulp! shrimp and jerkshad in 3- to 4-inch sizes and root beer and chartreuse colors, Redfish Magic spinnerbaits and any kind of gold spoon.
Guides like Plair are on the water so often they know where the redfish are because they are home bodies, rarely wandering more than a few hundred yards on any given day. What he looks for when fishing with bait is a place where natural bait can hide. His first priority is either a live or dead oyster shell bank that normally shelters small minnows and shrimp. His next priorities are small feeder creeks followed, by high grass banks during flooding tides.
Aside from location, Plair is looking for surface activity, including jumping shrimp or minnows and diving gulls. While shrimp are still in the shallows, the sight of diving and feeding gulls is almost certainly a sign that pieces of shrimp bodies are rising above a redfish rampage.
But fly-casting is Plair's real fall favorite for targeting redfish. With the high-tide wading action ending, he spends the rest of the winter poling his clients for low tide sight casting with 7- to 9-weight rods, rigged with a 9-foot, 16- to 20-pound test leader. His fly selection depends on what the fish are interested in that day, so he is always ready to switch until he finds which one they are eating. Normally, the best November flies are the Crafty Shrimp, the Bay Street Bunny, the Dupree' Spoon Fly or any kind of Deceiver or Clouser pattern. He feels colors are not very important because of the clear water. If you can get the right fly in front of them, they will usually nail it.
For both the sight-fishing and fly-fishing fraternity, Plair focuses on the shallow, low-tide, mud flats so prevalent in the Lowcountry. Not all shallow mud flats hold redfish, but the productive ones generally share a few common characteristics. They will be gradual in their drop-off, often with grass in the rear portions and oyster beds present. Many have a feeder creek and they will hold at least some water at the lowest drain tides.
"You want to approach slow and quiet," Plair said. "No music, no hatch slamming."
While poling in slowly from the deeper water, scan the whole flat for subtle differences in the surface that give away the school's location. Any actively feeding school will rustle the water slightly, while spooked schools will be very obvious. As you approach closer, you will see occasional flashing white bellies and moving shapes.
By necessity, Capt. Dan Utley of Fishing Coach Charters, will be fishing a little deeper. He fishes from a 22-foot bay boat, and if you see a guide perched on top of the T-top of such a boat, it's a good bet that it's the "Coach" - who was head football coach at Hilton Head H.S. for 20 years before retiring seven years ago to guide in the waters feeding Port Royal Sound.
Utley usually launches at Charles Haigh Landing at the foot of the SC 278 bridge to Hilton Head, giving him easy access to the numerous flats and feeder creeks of Skull and Mackay creeks and out into the Chechessee and Broad Rivers. In November, he favors fishing the large schools on the falling portions of the tide around oyster beds and points as the fish are coming out of the grass. The advantage of his bigger boat is that it can handle up to four anglers, but its size precludes fishing the very shallow flats, so he concentrates on areas with a couple feet of water.
"There is no need for bait in November," said Utley, who goes to soft-plastic Gulp! baits fished on a quarter-ounce jighead or below a rattling cork. He likes his fishermen to cast to the grassline or shell bank and let the lure settle for a minute or so, then recast. This way, he covers plenty of water, and he feels his fishermen have a better chance for a hookup than fishermen who are constantly casting and retrieving.
Utley will go to a saltwater spinnerbait when fish are in the grass, and he'll go with a gold spoon for moving water around oyster beds or points. In most cases, he ties his lures and jigs directly to his favorite braided line without a leader and believes there is no difference in performance.
When prowling the flats this time of year it is not unusual for guides like Plair and Utley to put their anglers on schools of 50 to 200 spottails in a foot or so of water. There are not many more exciting sights found in Lowcountry fishing than seeing a hundred big bass froth the water.
And the kicker is, they are hungry and they will eat.
Strip strike or circle hooks
With South Carolina's 15- to 23-inch slot limit requiring that most big spot-tail bass to be released alive, it is important not to accidentally kill oversize fish by gut-hooking them. Bait fishermen should use circle hooks, and fly or jig fishermen should strike fast and hard at the first hint of a strike. The technique for each style fishing is different.
When using bait threaded onto a circle hook, setting the hook on a redfish is very different motion than when using a standard J-hook. You simply lift the rod smoothly until the line comes tight, and then fight the fish to the boat. With that smooth hookset, the circle hook allows the bait, which the bass has already swallowed, to slide back out of its throat. The hook design then makes it turn, and it invariable punctures the corner of the fish's mouth and holds solidly. J-hooks with bait quite often hook a fish in the throat, causing damage or death to a fish that rules require releasing.
Jig fishermen, especially those using fish-attracting baits like Gulp!, should always strike hard and fast to avoid hooking bass deep in the throat area.
Fly fishermen only occasionally gut-hook spot-tails, but they should use the strip-strike to keep it to an absolute minimum and improve their landing percentages. With redfish, always retrieve your fly with the rod pointed right down the line toward the fly. When a fish hits the fly, make long strips until the fish is firmly hooked before lifting the rod. Properly done, the strip-strike will drive the hook firmly into the fish's mouth.
Thousands of acres of prime, shallow water in St. Helena and Port Royal Sounds are easily accessible from dozens of free public landings. Most shallow-water anglers are familiar with the Top Spot waterproof map N233, available from most local fishing tackle dealers. It lists dozens of flats, plus most of the public landings.
In the Port Royal Sound area, many people put in at the excellent landing where SC 170 crosses the Chechessee River or the refurbished landing at the north end of the Broad River Bridge. Many Hilton Head anglers use the Charles Haigh Landing at the Hilton Head Island Bridge. From these landings, anglers can work the Chechessee and the Broad rivers, plus Skull and Mackay creeks. Some popular November redfish flats are Pete's Point and the Gilbert flat in the Chechessee, and the Mackay Creek and Pinckney Island flats, all of which are shown on the Top Spot map.
In the Broad and Beaufort rivers, many good spots feature a big point or and sand bar jutting toward the ocean. Halfway down Daws Island, near the "Cobia hole" is a long and very shallow flat that holds several schools of redfish at low tide. Above the SC 170 bridge across the Broad River, around Hazards Creek, is a point extending from Hogs Neck; the whole edge is a shallow, low-tide flat with creek cuts, holes and sand bars close to deeper water.
On the Beaufort River side of the Paris Island Split is a major point facing the ocean that has multiple options, one of the better being below the micro tower, near the mouth of the small creek.
In St. Helena Sound, there are plenty of landings and good fall redfish spots as well. One good landing is down Sam's Point Rd. on Lady's Island where it crosses Lucy Creek. Sam's Point Landing provides easy access to the Coosaw River and many good November spots including the Broomfield Creek flats and the Parrot River flats.
Fads drive consumers to overuse resources, whether you're talking about Game Boys, I-pods or redfish. In New Orleans years ago, famous chef Paul Prudhomme created a worldwide culinary fad with his presentation of "blackened redfish." In his recipe, Chef Prudhomme seared filets of redfish that were dusted in herbs and drenched in butter, then fried at extraordinarily high heat in a cast-iron skillet. This feeding frenzy caused serious overfishing of the spot-tail population throughout its range.
As all fads end, this one too has passed, perhaps because of people's concern about eating butterfat, but the dish is no less delicious than when it originated. You just need to cook it outside unless you have a commercial exhaust fan in your house. From experience, the cooking smoke will fill your house.
The recipe (several variations are available on-line), combines salt, red, black and white pepper with thyme, basil, oregano and paprika into a dusting mixture. Spot-tail filets are drenched in melted butter and mopped through the herb mixture. Then, and here is the key, the filets are carefully dropped into an almost white hot, cast-iron skillet. When they hit the skillet smoke billows forth and even flare-ups happen, so be careful. You then dribble another teaspoon of butter onto the top of each filet and cook or blacken them for a minute or so. Then, carefully flip them over, pour another teaspoon of butter onto each filet and cook them for another minute or so.
It's messy and uses lots of butter, but it's oh, so
delicious. You've got to try it at least occasionally.
WHEN TO GO - The most-consistent action
is on falling water and around low tide. Late October through Thanksgiving usually provides the best fishing of the year.
HOW TO GET THERE - The Beaufort/Hilton Head area is accessed from Charleston and
points north via US 17. From other parts of South Carolina, take I-95 south toward Savannah and exit US 21 to Beaufort and SC 170 and SC 278 to Hilton Head. The Chechessee River Landing at the foot of the SC 170 Bridge is most popular for the May River. The Sands Landing at the tip of Port Royal is great for the Paris Island spots, and Beaufort anglers have easy access to the Sam's Point landing on Lady's Island, down Sam's Point Rd. Trenchards is often accessed from Station Creek Landing on St. Helena Island. Many other free public landing options are available.
TACKLE/TECHNIQUES - Many anglers prefer fishing live bait under a popping cork, but fish are so aggressive in November that artificials will work just as well. Soft-plastics fished on jigheads or under corks, spinnerbaits and spoons are also productive. Fly fishermen, as well, can get plenty of action with a number of locally-endorsed flies. Most fishermen target the low end of the tide cycle and look for oyster beds and natural
current breaks such as points.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO - Capt. Owen Plair,
843-812-3656; Capt. Dan Utley, 843-368-2126; Capt. Richard Sykes, 843-838-2245; Capt. Tuck Scott, 843-271-5406; Capt. Jack Brown,
843-838-9369, Capt. Danny Rourk, 843-263-3863; Bay Street Outfitters, Beaufort, 843-524-5250;
Port Royal Boat and Dock Supply, Port Royal, 843-986-0552; Southern Drawl Outfitters, Bluffton, 843-705-6010. Also, see GUIDES & CHARTERS in classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS - Beaufort Area
Chamber of Commerce, 843-986-5400.
MAPS - Capt. Segull's Nautical Charts,
888-473-4855, www.captainsegullcharts.com ;
Top Spot waterproof map number N233, showing details on many of the local shallow water spots, is available from local tackle shops.