Veteran angler Robbie Cortis of Mount Pleasant fishes traditional hotspots such as points and deep holes and cover such as bridges, piers, wooden pilings and docks on higher tides.
Low tides create red-hot action in super-shallow water, and guides Clayton Crawford and Patrick Crawford of Allure Charters said that February fishing is some of the year's best in the backs of creeks, sounds and flats near Charleston, around grass beds and oyster shells.
Cortis, 37, said action really heats up in waters around Charleston in February, because fishing for big reds gets exciting and productive.
"This is a great time of the year to catch big redfish," Cortis said. "It's not unusual to catch fish in the 30-pound class. Of course, they have to be released because of the slot limit, but they are great fun to catch.
"The key to success is where and how you fish, and that's determined by the tide. The tide plays the crucial role in where the fish are found at any given time, and fishermen need to know the tides before planning their fishing trip."
Cortis said fishing the rising and high tides can be very productive and is often overlooked by anglers.
"Redfishing can be an all-day affair if you've got the equipment to be versatile to cope with the changing tides," he said. "On rising and high tides, I will fish specific targets, and I usually anchor and fish live bait when I can catch it. If it's not available, I will use frozen and thawed shrimp, finger mullet or chunks of menhaden.
"One of my favorite places to fish are deep holes in the (Intracoastal Waterway) or at points in creeks that go back into shallow flats. Knowledge of the profound influence of tides on the location of redfish is paramount to success. If it sounds simple, in one sense it is. But if you don't' follow this pattern, you can be surrounded by fish, but not have any in your box.
"I'll usually put big bait on and place some rods in rod hodlers, then actively cast with another rod working different areas around the boat," Cortis said. "If I catch fish, I stay. If I spend 30 minutes or so with no action, I'll move to another spot."
Harrison Whatley from Mount Pleasant is a frequent companion of Cortis, and despite only being 11, Whatley has a true passion for redfish and makes a great teammate.
"I trust Harrison to cast and help me search for redfish," Cortis said. "While we have lines out bottom-fishing, it's also imperative we work nearby pilings, docks and any other cover available. Despite being young in years, he's developed a keen savvy for finding redfish, and having a teammate helps me cover a lot more territory quickly."
Whatley said one thing he has learned is accurate casting is essential.
"Fishing objects such as wooden piers, docks and objects, I've learned it's important to cast the bait as close to the target as possible," he said. "I factor in the tide movement so my bait will be right next to or float right past the target; that's when a lot of the really big redfish will load on. One reason we catch a lot of redfish in cold weather around objects is that the forage that's available will orient to these type places, especially when the tide is higher. Redfish will often hold tight to the physical cover and you must present the bait right on target."
Cortis said that redfish tend to travel a lot, and the ideal setup will take advantage of their movements.
"A good example is a point right off the waterway that goes back into a creek or sound," Cortis said. "It's a natural travel path where redfish are migrating from the water dropping out of the grass or staging in preparation for the water rising to get back into the grass. Patience is a key, and I may wait for a while with no action, and then the action gets furious as a big school passes through. Usually, there will be some that will stay and linger around the available cover as well. That's where we often hook some huge redfish."
"My bottom-fishing rig is fairly simple, I use a ¾- to 1-ounce egg/slip sinker, depending on depth and current," he said. "I have an 18-inch leader and use a 4/0 to 6/0 circle hook. My favorite line is 20-pound braid, but I'll use 30- to 40-pound monofilament for my leaders because it is less visible to fish.
"I will typically fish some bait right on the bottom, but then I'll also use a float rig," Cortis said. "This keeps the bait just off the bottom and allows me to fish it along various types of cover as well as grasslines. I've found it best to give the redfish as many options as possible to bite. It keeps me busy, but being versatile in the presentations is a key to success."
The low-tide, shallow-water fishing can be just as productive in February and in some ways is even more exciting. The Crawford brothers fish all tides, but their favorite tactic is fishing shallow water in the backs of the creeks and sounds that fish often use. Patrick Crawford said the key is fishing the low tide, with the last of the dropping and beginning of the rising tide the prime times.
"It's so exciting to fish for redfish in super-shallow water at this time of the year," Patrick Crawford said. "While there are a variety of ways to catch reds during the cold months, including live bait, frozen bait, as well as artificial lures, I prefer to use artificial lures, and Gulp! is certainly one of my favorites. Specifically, I like the Gulp! ghost shrimp in chartreuse using a 3/0 swimbait hook. This soft-plastic lure is ideal for getting big reds to bite, but the key is getting the boat into position to be able to cast in front of the fish once you locate the school."
Clayton Crawford said there are certain areas they fish that seems to produce best at this time of the year.
"I like to get back into the creeks, sounds or bays in very shallow water," he said. "It really doesn't matter much for redfish whether the low tide is at dawn or if it's at noon. When the water is high, the fish relate to other areas. The best fishing occurs on last part of the dropping tide and the first couple of hours of the rising tide. At that time, you can find plenty of areas where the water is out of the grass, and the fish will be roaming the flats."
"As the tide is dropping, but not completely low, we'll often work shallow grasslines near areas where ditches empty into the sound," Patrick Crawford said. "The redfish use these ditches or small creeks as their primary migration route from the grass flats where many of them are found on high tides. When they flood out of the grass, they'll first move along the grasslines and sometimes simply casting the Gulp lures to the edge of the grass will produce lots of action. We'll also anchor near the mouth of one of the outlets as the water is dropping about mid-tide and use shrimp or whole finger mullet we've kept frozen. We'll hook up with some big reds like that."
Clayton Crawford said that when the water gets low, the real fun fishing turns on.
"We fish areas with plenty of oyster shells in the flats in the back of the creeks and sounds," he said. "These are naturally attractive areas for the redfish and hold forage for them. As the water drops, some of these shell beds will be exposed; others will be just under the water. I strongly recommend using polarized sunglasses; it helps tremendously spotting both these prime areas and the fish working toward or around those areas. This type of shallow-water fishing will make a redfish fanatic out of almost anyone. Right now is prime time to go; right through February and into March we'll be enjoying some of the best fishing of the entire year."
Many angler release most all the redfish they catch, but keeping redfish is allowed as long as they meet the limit requirements of the 15- to 23-inch slot length and a creel limit of three fish per day.
Patrick Crawford said that fish below and above the slot limit are frequently caught and released.
"Catching and releasing redfish during the cold months is usually not a problem in terms of their survival rate, especially when using artificial lures," he said.
HOW TO GET THERE - Charleston is easy to access, with I-26 and US 17 the most-prominent routes into the city. The Ashley, Cooper and Wando rivers, the ICW, Charleston Harbor and surrounding marsh areas north and south of the city are prime redfish spots. The Remley Point (Mount Pleasant) and Wapoo Cut (West Ashley) boat access areas are among the most-popular public ramps.
WHEN TO GO - Redfish action is great throughout the winter. February is a prime month, with fish caught at both high and low tides, using different techniques, as long as the water is moving.
TECHNIQUES - Fish artificial lures such as Gulp! ghost shrimp in chartreuse on jigheads, plus gold spoons. Live bait or even frozen (thawed) bait - shrimp, finger mullet and mud minnows - is also outstanding. The biggest problem with shrimp is that many other species will often bite the bait before a redfish can get to it.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES - Clayton Crawford/Patrick Crawford, Allure Charters, 843-277-4477. See also GUIDES & CHARTERS in Classifieds.
MAPS - Capt. Seagull's Nautical Charts, 888-473-4855, http://www.captainsegullcharts.com/; Sealake Fishing Guides, 1-800-411-0185, http://www.thegoodspots.com/. Maps may be very helpful when searching remote areas for out-of-the-way winter redfishing fishing opportunities.