"Offshore fishing this time of year is always fun," said Capt. Ross Holmquist of Beaufort. "Anglers pick the days with the best weather and make the long run offshore in search of blackfin tuna and wahoo."
Calling the run a "long" one is an understatement. From his slip at Port Royal Marina, it's around 80 miles to Holmquist's preferred fishing grounds, a place called the "Triple Ledge." Other popular spots are the Edisto Banks, the Sow Pen and the South Ledge, all near the Gulf Stream.
The trip out requires a departure in the pre-dawn hours; Capt. Tom Thomas of Top Gun Charters in Port Royal is a big advocate of leaving the marina several hours before daylight.
"You have to be putting lines out at first light," he said.
What makes areas like the Triple Ledge appealing to anglers lies hundreds of feet below the surface in the form of humps that offer structure in a relatively barren sea floor and are a natural draw for pelagic species like wahoo and tuna. It is these humps that Holmquist targets.
"I like to troll and work the humps between the Triple Ledge and South Ledge," he said.
A variety of lures and baits are used offshore. Tuna are caught on ceder plugs, Tuna Tangos, Sea Witches, and ballyhoo, either rigged behind a trolling feature or trolled "naked." Wahoo eat whatever they want, and the same baits used for tuna will work on them, as well as Z-Man trolling lures and Yo-Zuri baits. Using a wire leader whenever possible is important; it will prevent losing expensive rigs to razor-mouthed wahoos.
Which lure will produce the most strikes varies from day to day. Holmquist puts out several different rigs when getting started.
"It's good to run your baits at different depths using different colors until you find the best combination of depth, color, and action," he said.
Offshore tackle for tuna and wahoo is no different from the tackle used for the most-popular bluewater species off the Pamletto State coastline, the dolphin. Trolling reels from 30- to 50-wide matched with trolling rods will get the job done on almost anything encountered, except for the occasional monster bluefin tuna, a relatively rare catch in this part of the Atlantic ocean.
Thomas once hooked up with what he suspected was a giant bluefin. He didn't win the battle.
"He was too big for a 3/0 reel rigged with 150-pound braid; the hook pulled loose after a 1-hour fight," he said. "I may buy a 10/0 International just for the giant tuna."
Holmquist puts out a spread of six trolling rods matched with 2-speed Shimano TLD 30 reels spooled with 30-pound Momoi Diamond line.
"Sometimes with really big fish, it would be nice to have bigger reels for sure, but they get the job done just fine," he said.
Fishing 60 or more miles off the coast is not an option for everyone, but other opportunities are available closer to home. In March, wrecks and reefs a few miles offshore, like the Hilton Head Tire Reef, the Gordon, and the Fish America Reef teem with sheepshead. On a calm day, these fish are easily accessible to boats as small as 17-foot center consoles, which makes them a much better target for anglers who do not have access to offshore boats.
Capt. Steve Roll of Seas So Shallow guide service in Ladys Island regularly takes his 22-foot bay boat out to nearshore hot spots.
"I like to head out to the Fish America Reef or General Gordon wreck, both of which are only a few miles out, and target depths of 15 to 25 feet."
Once on location, Roll uses a reef anchor to stay on top of structure, or he will anchor to the side of the structure and let the current drift him back over it.
"You never want to put your good anchor into the middle of a wreck or reef because there is a good chance you won't get it back," he said.
Another benefit of fishing nearshore is that the same equipment used for catching redfish inshore is used when sheepshead are targeted. Roll uses 7-foot, medium-action rods and reels spooled with 20-pound braid. Holmquist uses similar rigs.
"Any rod and reel combo used for redfish you can take sheepshead fishing," Holmquist said.
Roll fishes a Carolina rig weighted with a 1-ounce egg sinker, 12 to 18 inches of 25-pound fluorocarbon leader, and a No. 2 light circle hook. The key to using circle hooks successfully is to never use a traditional hard hookset; put tension on the line when a bite is detected and let the fish set the hook.
Often, traditional hooks will pull out untouched from a sheepshead's blunt-toothed mouth, but with a steady pull, circle hooks tend to roll into the corner of the fish's mouth, resulting in a perfect hookset.
A variety of baits are used on sheepshead. Clams, oysters and other muscles work, but by far the most-popular bait to use are fiddler crabs. On sunny and warm days, catching fiddler crabs from one of the firmer marsh flats is easy enough with a little effort and quick reflexes, but they are also available for purchase at many local bait shops.
"Keep in mind to carry plenty of bait, because black sea bass are everywhere nearshore, and they can cause you to go through a lot of bait," Holmquist said.
Besides sheepshead and black sea bass, big bull redfish will also chow down on just about anything that will fit in their mouths. Occasionally, a big redfish will add some real excitement to a nearshore fishing trip.
"You really can't target reds, and it is best to keep your focus on sheepshead, but it does happen, so just be prepared when something on the end of the line pulls back really hard and heads out at 100 miles per hour," Roll said.
HOW TO GET THERE/WHEN TO GO - Beaufort, Port Royal and Hilton Head Island offer a number of marinas from which offshore charter trips originate, primary among them Port Royal Landing Marina in Port Royal, Harbor Town Yacht Club on Hilton Head Island and the North End Charter Fleet Dock on Skull Creek on Hilton Head. For fishermen with towable-sized boats heading to closer-in wrecks and reefs, the area has a number of public landings, the most convenient of which is Station Creek Landing near Lands End. The blackfin tuna bite is good all winter, but March is perhaps the best month because of a better chance for pleasant weather and big numbers of fish still possible. Wahoo are a year-round species, with the biggest fish caught in winter and spring. March is the best month for sheepshead on nearshore structure. Popular offshore spots include the Triple Ledge (31 16 856N/79 53 648W), the Edisto Banks (32 03 475N/79 24 442W), the Sow Pen (31 41 339N/79 35 760W) and the South Ledge (31 06 823N/79 55 312W). The Fish America Reef (32 08 449N/80 41 439W), the Hilton Head Tire Reef (31 59 948N/80 35 928W) and the General Gordon Reef (32 10 092N/80 33 253W) are good nearshore spots.
TACKLE/TECHNIQUES - Troll for wahoo and tuna using 30- to 50-wide 2-speed reels spooled with 30-pound mono or up to 150-pound braid on heavy trolling rods. Ballyhoo are the prime trolling baits, but cedar plugs or other trolling baits are produtive. Medium-action spinning tackle and 20- to 30-pound braided line is the ticket for sheepshead, with clams, oysters and fiddler crabs fished on Carolina Rigs and light No. 2 circle hooks the best baits.
FISHING INFO/CHARTERS - Capt. Ross Holmquist, 843-812-2016; Capt. Steve Roll, Seas So Shallow Guide Service, 843-252-3882; Capt. Tom Thomas, Top Gun Charters, 843-812-2934, http://www.topguncharterfishing.com/; Beaufort Boat and Dock Supply, Port Royal, 843-986-0552; Port Royal Landing Marina, Port Royal, 843-525-6664. See also GUIDES & CHARTERS in classifieds.