While on a recent fishing trip with his faithful companion and “fishing dog,” Alice, Don Millus of Conway was growing frustrated by the lack of action. Turning to Alice, he blurted out the age-old philosophical question: “Where are all the fish?” Without hesitation, Millus said Alice — a miniature black Labrador retriever — peered over the bow of the boat into the water, then back at her owner.
“I believe she was saying, ‘Where do you think they are, stupid?’” Millus said.
Insightful canines notwithstanding, it’s a valid question, and one for which there are no sure-fire answers.
But with decades of coastal fishing experience at their disposal, Millus and a handful of other venerable and veteran saltwater anglers can at least provide some suggestions for the masses.
Here then is a species-by-species glimpse into what, where and how South Carolina’s most popular saltwater fishes may be found in 2006.
With the Gulf Stream — that productive offshore “river” that attracts a wide variety of pelagic species — typically located between 50 and 75 miles from the coast, an extended trip is required for fishermen hoping to capitalize on the wide range of fish the area offers.
But that has served as little deterrent for a growing number of anglers intent on a memorable match-up with a big marlin, and recent results indicate that the excursions can be well worth the effort.
Several large marlin were caught off the South Carolina coast during 2005, including a state-record fish that weighed 881 pounds, 12 ounces, shattering the previous best by more than 130 pounds. It was caught June 3, two weeks after Linda Foster of Greenville caught a 563-pound, 5-ounce blue marlin that broke the record for a lady angler in South Carolina waters.
Those catches back up the regular contention that marlin fishing peaks in the months of May, June and July.
“Last year was an excellent year, with many big fish showing up — more than we normally see even over a 2-year period,“ said Don Hammond, a veteran fisheries biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
Marlin represent the top of the food chain in the Stream, and they satisfy their appetites by feeding primarily on small dolphin and tuna along with flying fish, sardines and other various baitfish. The most popular marlin bait is ballyhoo — a small needlelike fish — combined with an artificial lure rigged on the leader in front of the ballyhoo.
“Lures of various colors will work, although blue-and-white stands out as being the most effective for catching billfish,” Hammond said.
Ballyhoo, meanwhile, are fairly universal.
“That one bait can catch anything from a peanut dolphin to a 70-pound wahoo to a 350-pound blue marlin,” Hammond said. “It has uniform appeal.”
Sailfish also are suckers for a trolled ballyhoo, although small- to medium-sized baits work best.
Again, a small artificial lure or colored skirt in combination with the ballyhoo will be effective.
Sailfish traditionally hit their peak of abundance during the summer months, with July and August being prime time. The Gulf Stream is their primary hangout, but plenty of smaller sailfish have been caught closer to shore, according to Hammond.
“Sailfish will come right inshore under ideal conditions, which include high-salinity water,” Hammond said.
During late summer, anglers can expect to find sailfish most abundant around weed lines, current rips and natural reefs, typically in 120 to 300 feet of water, but sailfish can provide an occasional surprise. Last October, Hammond received a report of a charter boat catching 13 sailfish in one day.
“That’s unheard of — that’s Palm Beach (Fla.) fishing,” Hammond said. “But don’t ask me why. Some years we’ll have greater movement of sailfish in the fall, but it’s just a random toss of the dice.
“That boat happened to be out there in the right place at just the right time.”
Good fishing for these gamefish can begin fairly early in the year, with some of the best action beginning to heat up around the third or fourth week of April.
“The ocean’s still kind of rough, the weather is mediocre, and you’ll typically be fishing in 2- to 4-foot seas, but the fishing can
be hot,” Hammond said. “And you can forget about the rough conditions in a hurry if you’re catching fish.” And bigger ones at that, particularly when it comes to dolphin.
“Starting in early spring, the larger dolphin are moving through, so most fish will be running 10 to 15 pounds in size, with 20- to 50-pounders common,” Hammond said. “Those sizes will hold into June, when we typically start seeing more large schools of smaller fish.”
These “peanut dolphin” will range from 3 to 6 pounds, but the trade-off is that they may occur by the hundreds.
As summer progresses, the average size of wahoo also decreases, with the 35- to 50-pound fish that were being caught in April and May giving way to 20-pound wahoo by July and August.
Yellowfin tuna, like dolphin and wahoo, also are most abundant in water 160- to 600-feet deep and are an exception to the diminishing-size trend. Yellowfins tend to increase in size as the year goes by, often averaging 45 pounds or so by late summer.
Yellowfins are a spring and fall fishery, with good catches possible in March and April. They typically disappear during the warmest months, then begin showing up again in September and October.
Again, ballyhoo is a preferred bait, along with mullet, and rigged with a smaller artificial lure. Anglers may also want to troll at least one large artificial lure along the surface to attract larger representatives of each species.
Although king mackerel can be caught off the coast year-round, the most productive time actually occurs during fall, beginning in October and continuing into December.
“This is when they tend to school up and move in close,” Hammond said. “It’s not uncommon to find large concentrations of kings in 60 to 90 feet of water during this time. They tend to be nice fish, too — all in the 12- to 20-pound range.”
Hammond recommended ballyhoo and any type of large diving plug. Spoons also can be productive, as well as live baits such as menhaden or mullet.
There also is an extremely popular and productive “spring run” of kings that transpires early in the year, annually attracting anglers to Grand Strand piers in hopes of hooking a big fish, which Hammond said is a distinct possibility.
Later, June and July can prove to be good fishing months for kings, when the fish may be encountered from just outside the surf zone on out to 300 feet. The hot spots are artificial and natural reefs.
Kings can be finicky during the summer, and their bite seems to come and go on a weekly basis. Hammond suggests trolling baits on the surface in the mornings, then going to live-bait rigs equipped with 6- to 10-inch mullet or menhaden during the heat of the day.
And Millus offers this tip: frozen lizardfish.
“I have found that frozen lizardfish are something that kings can’t resist,” Millus said. “So if you catch some lizardfish in the creek, save them for bait.”
Hammond categorizes Spanish mackerel as “a bit more of a summertime fish.
“They usually begin showing up around the first of May, then usually leave our waters by the end of October,” he said. “The peak period occurs in June.”
That’s when Spanish mackerel congregate in nearshore waters, often invading bays and sounds.
“They’ll move in and can be found schooling in the Broad River and even around Charleston Harbor,” Hammond said. “These fish that move inshore are usually larger, and nice 2- to 3-pound Spanish mackerel are common.”
Small spoons are ideal, as are small bucktails.
Anglers may troll or cast, with casting particularly productive when they are fortunate enough to find a surface-schooling frenzy. And in these instances, sometimes an angler can hook into more than he bargained for.
“You’ll find jack crevalle mixed in with Spanish quite regularly,” Hammond said. “When something snatches your line, and doesn’t turn like a Spanish, you’re suddenly in for a 30-minute battle. Jack crevalle are like Spanish on steroids, with an attitude.”
In the words of Millus, there’s “nothing better than two or three flounder ready to be stuffed and baked.”
Few anglers would argue that contention, but there are plenty of inshore fishing attractions besides the flounder, including spottail bass, or red drum, seatrout, sheepshead, bluefish, ladyfish and crevalle jacks.
“You can start looking for trout and flounder starting as early as February if the water warms up, but March is more likely,” Millus said. “I use mud minnows for bait.”
Millus also begins scouting for spottails soon after, making sure he has plenty of plastic grubs on hand.
“Check the creeks and around the jetties,” Millus said. “The water warms up more quickly up in the creeks, so when you’re looking for a good spot, your best bet is there early in the season.”
Not that there’s really a season for spottails, which have pretty much become a year-round fishery.
“I believe they have an even greater feeding range than flounder,” Millus said. “They might feed when the water temperature is in the high 40s and they’ll feed when it’s 80.”
Anglers may catch spottails weighing 20 to 30 pounds during late summer, particularly when fishing near jetties and at the mouths of bays and sounds. Live baits work best, although cut bait fished along the bottom can be effective.
Millus said he’ll occasionally catch his first flounder of the season with a MirrOlure, and he has several other personal favorites he packs for any season.
“MirrOlures will catch everything in the creek, but I also have good luck with grubs and Reel shrimp,” Millus said. “I use a 3/8-ounce head and like chartreuse or green with speckles — that sort of imitates the color of a mud minnow.
“I just reel it in real slow with an occasional jigging motion. Every once in a while I’m rewarded with something pulling back.”
Millus said April and May are the prime months for flounder, and he has caught some nice sea trout while fishing from piers at night during the summer months.
Fall and winter fishing continues to be productive, particularly for spottails, seatrout and sheepshead.
Jetties, bridge pilings, rocks and piers are prime locations for catching sheepshead. Popular baits include fiddler crabs and live shrimp.
Capt. Richard Stuhr, who has been guiding for inshore fish along the state’s southern coast since 1991, said October kicks off a prime period for working the tidal areas of the Ashley, Cooper and Wando Rivers near Charleston.
“The end of October through about mid-February can provide some excellent fishing, particularly if you want to fish artificial lures,” Stuhr said.
May through September, spottails move “up in the grass,” where they often are found “tailing,” or feeding with their tails often protruding above the water’s surface for fiddler crabs in the high-tide flats.
Anglers can wade these areas, or pole a boat if the water level is sufficient, and the reward often can be spottails in the 4- to 6-pound range. Shrimp is an effective live bait, but these fish also will strike gold spoons, jigs, poppers on a flyrod and even topwater plugs.
“It can be pretty exciting action,” Stuhr said. “When they’re up in the grass, they’re usually a little more aggressive — they’re on the hunt.”
Trout can be caught during the summer early in the morning and late in the afternoon. They begin schooling in October and move out of the estuaries until spring. April typically brings the trout back into the rivers and creeks, with big spawners the main attraction during the summer months.
Stuhr suggested looking for trout “in places close to deep water, where there’s good-moving water or a rip around a point.” Try casting jigs, deep-running plugs and even topwater lures, or try floating a live shrimp or finger mullet.
Most of the trout range from 12 to 14 inches in length, but the bigger spawners may be three pounds or more.
Other than a decline in the number of vermillion snapper that has biologists at least mildly concerned, most bottom-dwelling fishes should be bigger and better than ever in 2006.
“We’re seeing good numbers of grouper and red snapper, so things should be good,” Hammond said.
March and April represent the prime bottom-fishing months, with artificial reefs and inshore wrecks providing the attractions for the fish and the fishermen.
“You have to have structure to catch these fish — they’re very structure-oriented,” Hammond said. “You need live-bottom areas, rock ledges. From 60 to 180 feet is a good depth most of the time.”
As the summer wears on and the water warms up, schools tend to break down into smaller units and the fishing may slow down a bit. Fishing also slows down during midday, which explains why many avid bottom fishermen prefer to turn their outings into overnight trips to capitalize on evening and morning feeding periods.
The most popular bait “by far,” Hammond says, is squid, with Spanish sardines and cigar minnows ranking second and third, respectively, in popularity. Cigar minnows are particularly effective for larger snapper and grouper, with some of the grouper regularly ranging from 30 to 40 pounds.
“That’s a lot of good eating in one fish,” Hammond said.
Other bottom catches include black sea bass and gray triggerfish, both of which are delicious table fare. Sea bass, which typically average 1 to 2 pounds, are aggressive feeders that are susceptible to cut squid. They are most abundant at live bottom areas in 50 to 70 feet of water.
Porgies, snapper and triggerfish may be found as shallow as 50 feet, but you’re most likely to find more fish in 90 to 180 feet of water or more.
Like most all bottom fish, they stray little from the protection offered by the reefs and wrecks, so it’s imperative that anglers anchor in close proximity and keep baits on or just off the bottom as close to the structure as possible.
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