The Lowcountry had already seen snow one afternoon, so a little ice the week after Christmas 2010 wasn't a total surprise.
The plan was to sample a few of the vintage winter redfish in Broad Creek and around Hilton Head. The outing had nothing to do with wine, although a bottle left outside would have been thoroughly chilled. The temperature was lower than expected, but that didn't cool off the anglers' enthusiasm; they knew the reds would be hungry and feed sometime during them morning. When they did, they would be there.
Approaching their first spot, a shallow point and rip-rapped wall, Ranney gave instructions to his crew.
"Let's go ahead and bait up with some of the stinky stuff," he said, referring to several packs of Gulp! baits. "Y'all put on shrimp, and I'll try a paddletail. This water is down in the 40s, and they'll be cold and moving slowly. I would suggest retrieving your bait very slowly, maybe even pausing a few seconds occasionally and just letting it sit.
"If you can get one's attention, he might hit it moving slow, but (he) might also strike quickly once it stops for a few seconds, Ranney said. "If he is watching it and the scent reaches him and then it stops, he'll probably swim over and pick it up. The bites will be really light, so pay attention."
About 30 minutes later, when the conversation had turned to how the cold snap had turned off the robust bite of just a few days earlier, Ranney felt a light tick on his line. Popping his rod up, he set the hook on what he thought was a trout. The fish didn't put up much of a fight and allowed itself to be reeled right to the boat. Even more surprising, it turned out to be a small redfish.
Leaning over the side releasing the little red, Ranney spotted a wisp of fog on the water at the far back of the cove. Standing back up, he announced there was about five minutes left to get a bite started at this spot or they would be moving. After a dozen or so non-productive casts, Ranney moved to check out what was causing the wisps of steam.
Later, he admitting thinking a lagoon at the back of the creek was feeding warmer water back into the creek, causing the fog.Sure enough, there was a water-control gate in the back of the creek and a small area of cleaner water indicated it was feeding into the cove. He positioned the boat just off the structure and instructed everyone to cast right up to it in the cleaner water. On the first cast, there was a hookup. The fish were cold, moving slowly and not fighting hard, but they were feeding in the water that was a degree or two warmer than surrounding areas.
One large shadow kept moving through the small pocket of clean, warmer water. It never got high enough in the water for a positive identification, but it was much too large to be a mullet. After a while, Ranney hooked something he couldn't immediately turn. This fish swam out of the pocket of clean water for about 30 yards or so, but never acted like it realized it was hooked. Ranney turned it and brought it back towards the boat, but it swam under the boat and kept on going out the other side. Once again, he turned it, and this time as it passed everyone saw it was a big redfish, roughly 36 inches long. After a couple of more passes, the fish swam back to the warm water, went deep and tangled the line on some of the structure around the water control gate. Ranney handled it like a pro, backing off on the drag hoping not to fray the line before the fish decided to come out again. However, the fish must have gotten tired of this game and had other thoughts. It finally made a quick surge and popped Ranney's line.
This fish created some excitement. and the fishing quickly became more serious. The anglers caught a few more smaller to maybe over-slot reds, but nothing like the big boy that cruised the bank with Ranney that morning. Once the tide had risen for an hour or so and the warm water wasn't leaking through the gate any longer, the bite stopped.
On the way back to the marina, Ranney said, "I've lived here for quite a while and usually catch fish pretty well all winter. owever, I've never seen it get as cold as it has since Thanksgiving. We usually have a few cold days here and there, and I've even seen snow before, but this is the coldest water I can remember. We were lucky to have the extra low tide and see the fog where that water was a little warmer.
"I'm ready to go get a hot lunch and warm up a bit," Ranney said. "The low tide will be about an hour later tomorrow morning and should get as low as it did today. I think I'd like to try that spot again with some fresh line on my reel and see if Mister Red decides to eat again. Would any of you be interested in going then?"
HOW TO GET THERE - Hilton Head Island, an island community across the Port Royal Sound from Beaufort, is the farthest south point in South Carolina. It is best known for its plantations and golf courses but is home to some excellent fishing. US 278 is the only road that connects Hilton Head to the mainland, and it can be accessed from I-95 or US 17. Three public boat ramps serve the island, two on Broad Creek and the third at the US 278 bridge across from the entrance to the Pinckney Wildlife Refuge. The tide swing at Hilton Head can approach eight feet, so there is current around all the ramps.
WHEN TO GO - Fishing for reds in Broad Creek and the marshes and creeks around Hilton Head Island is usually good year-round. Spring and fall may be more comfortable seasons, but the fish tend to gather in schools during the winter and feed actively unless the weather is extremely cold, which is rare.
ACCOMMODATIONS - Hilton Head Visitors Center, 800-523-3373 or www.hiltonheadisland.org.
TACKLE/TECHNIQUES - Red drum are easily handled on medium to medium-heavy spinning tackle. They make a few medium runs and struggle all the way to the boat. Most fishermen prefer the feel of one of the smaller-diameter superbraid lines, which are more abrasion-resistant and better withstand occasionally being dragged across sand bars and oyster rocks and through marsh grass. Reds will hit live and natural baits, plus artificials. During the winter, with live baits largely absent, a mixture of regular and scented soft plastics is the normal offering for reds. Rig them on eighth- and quarter-ounce jigheads so they won't sink too quickly to catch a fish's attention. The scented baits seem to have a little advantage when the water is coldest as they can be stopped and they still are producing a scent that attracts fish.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO - Capt. Steve Ranney, Gullah Gal Charters, 843-384-9875; Hilton Head Boating Center, 877-223-4887 or www.hiltonheadboatingcenter.com; Outside Hilton Head, 800-686-6996 or www.outsidehiltonhead.com; Southern Drawl Outfitters, Bluffton, 853-705-6010; see also GUIDES & CHARTERS in Classifieds.