Fish in Spades

One of the constant menaces to spadefish anglers may be barracudas that hang out at reefs that hold bottomfish.

Two upper coast anglers know where they can get a good reef fish bite this time of year. And spadefish are as much fun to eat as they are to catch.

Mark Dickson fishes most days — it’s his business, guiding fishermen for some of the Grand Strand’s more popular fishing targets: puppy drum, speckled trout, flounder, Spanish and king mackerel.

But if there’s a fish that a lot of his clients overlook, a fish that can provide some tremendous action, entertainment and good eating, it’s the lowly spadefish, a reef and wreck species that moves in during May and stays through much of the fall.

Think king mackerel, only shorter and broader — and with the same drag-ripping ability to make for a great fight.

Dickson, who runs his Shallow Minded Charters out of Little River, loves to carry fishing parties out to the artificial reefs and inshore wrecks where spadefish are numerous during the warmer months. He knows most fishermen have no idea how exciting it can be to be on the other end of a medium-action spinning rod from an 8- or 10-pound spadefish.

About the size of a good dinner plate — and almost shaped the same way — the spadefish (Ephippidae faber) is a first-class fighter that will move into the waters off South Carolina this month, first to offshore wrecks and reefs about 25 miles from Little River Inlet, but quickly onto structure much, much closer to the home base of most fishermen with seaworthy boats.

“It all has to do with water temperature,” said Dickson (843-280-7099). “I believe they’re a subtropical fish, and I think their preferred water temperature is in the low to mid-70s.

“The first places we see them out of Little River are the BP-25 and Bill Perry reefs, then they show up around the Little River Offshore reef, then the General Sherman (reef) and the Jim Caudle (Little River Inshore) reef.

“They’ll stay here all summer, but late May and all of June is prime time for them.”

And what’s even more peculiar for a fish that’s often overlooked is how easy they can be to catch, agreed Dickson and Chris Carbone, the president of the Seacoast Anglers Association.

“A spadefish can be an easy fish to catch, and most people don’t even target them,” said Carbone. “It’s just not that hard.”

The most difficult thing may be to locate huge schools of spadefish as they make their way into inshore waters from offshore. Dickson said it’s strictly a matter of finding water temperatures in the low 70s — Carbone said they show up at about 68 degrees — and finding wrecks or reefs in that temperature band.

“They’ll show up as soon as the (surface) water temperature reaches 68 degrees; they’re just there all of the sudden,” Carbone said. “I don’t know where they come from, but they’ll stay all summer.

“But when the water temperature drops below 68 degrees in the fall, they’re gone as quick as that.”

After finding fish, catching them is almost too easy.

Dickson and Carbone try to limit the spadefish they harvest; Dickson figures two or three per person is a gracious plenty, and Carbone has a personal minimum size he uses to decide whether or not to keep a fish: 15 inches.

South Carolina has in place a 20-fish daily creel limit for a group of reef and wreck fish including spadefish, sheepshead and a variety of snapper and grouper species. There is no minimum size limit.

Spadefish will stay at the Gen. Sherman, the Little River Offshore and Jim Caudle reefs all summer.

“The Little River Offshore is a good place; it’s nearshore and accessible to smaller boats,” Dickson said. “The Sherman is one of the most popular places, but it’s also a popular dive spot, and when the divers are in the water, blowing bubbles, that can shut down the spadefish bite.

“We’ve done a lot of work at the Caudle reef. We’ve put some armored personnel carriers, reef balls and a barge on it over the past couple of years. It’s really spread out; it probably covers a half of a square mile. It seems to me the spadefish really move around on it. They’ll be on a different piece of the structure every day; you have to find them.”

The Little River Offshore, which is slightly less than 10 miles from the Little River Inlet sea buoy, is Carbone’s favorite spot of the three. The Sherman, about 5 miles west-northwest of the Little River Offshore, is Dickson’s.

“You can mark ’em on your color scope on the Sherman,” he said. “They’ll be right on the structure. The (wreck’s) boiler comes up to about 12 feet below the surface, and they’ll be right on it. You can see ’em on a good color scope, and a lot of times, you can see them up closer to the (surface), sunning themselves.”

Getting spadefish to bite is not usually a problem, but there’s a definite way to tempt the striped reef fish, which average about 5 pounds. Spadefish up to 10 pounds are not uncommon; the state-record spadefish weighed 14 pounds, 1.8 ounces and was caught in July 2005 off Beaufort.

“What we do is use jelly balls,” Dickson said. “We take a landing net, and as we go through the inlet, we’re looking around for jelly balls (floating on or just below the surface). Elevation is the key; the higher up you can get in your boat, the easier they are to see.”

With a net, Dickson tries to scoop up a dozen jelly balls, which are usually about the size of a softball. If they’re hard to find, he simply runs to the nearest shrimp boat; shrimpers are only too happy to get rid of them while they’re culling through their by-catch.

“I’ll go with a half-dozen if they’re hard to find,” he said. “Ten or 12 is a gracious plenty.”

This is where it gets interesting. Dickson takes a wire coat hanger, unwraps the wire around the throat of the hanger, and threads three or four jelly balls onto the wire, sliding them down to where they are stopped by the hanger’s “hook.”

He next twists a loop into the end of the hanger, then attaches it to a snap swivel — the swivel being tied to a boat road that sits in a rod-holder on his boat’s gunwale. Before he ties on the snap swivel, he slides a 4-ounce egg sinker on the line that runs back to his reel. He disengages the reel, allowing the jelly balls to drop straight down at the reef or wreck he’s fishing.

“I’ll drop it down to where it’s just about out of sight and just wait and watch the rod tip,” Dickson said. “While that’s going on, I’ll be chopping the other jelly balls into little chunks about the size of the tip of your little finger. I like them to be just a little nugget, not a strip, because a spadefish’s mouth is so small that he’ll always grab the wrong end of the strip — the end without the hook in it.”

The bouncing rod tip indicates that spadefish have found the jelly balls well below the surface and are attacking them, biting off chunks of flesh and banging them around. When that happens, Dickson slowly reels his “teaser” a few feet closer to the surface. When the spadefish follow, he reels it in a little more. When he’s got it within 5 or 6 feet of the surface, he’s ready for business.

He ties a No. 4 Eagle Claw style 42 hook with a double uni-knot to an 18- to 24-inch leader of 20-pound test flourocarbon. That’s tied to the 12-pound Sufix on his 2500 Stradic spinning reel matched with a 7-foot, medium-action Star spinning rod. With a tiny piece of jelly ball on the hook, it’s can be difficult to cast, but that’s not a real problem since the fishing is going to be mostly vertical next to the boat and the teaser.

“I want the bait to sink naturally. If you take a handful of little pieces of jelly ball and throw them out, you watch them sink down, that’s how I want the bait to sink,” Dickson said. “Usually, you get most of your bites within 5 or 6 feet of the surface. If it gets much deeper than that, you can’t see the bait or feel it going down.”

The bite is just the beginning of the fun. Carbone said that hooking up to a 6- of 7-pound spadefish is “like hooking up to a freight train.

“It’s not that complicated. I know a lot of guys who try it, but they don’t get the part of it where you hang the teaser down there. If there are any spadefish on the structure, they’ll get it quick. And they’ll follow it up if you reel (the jelly balls) in real slowly. You can see ’em 5 of 6 feet below the surface.

“You fish straight down, and their first run is straight down, like a freight train. I don’t know how a fish that size fights that hard.”

Find yourself hooked up to a big spadefish with tackle that’s too light, and you may be looking at a broken rod. Carbone advises against buying cheap hooks; he said a big spadefish will straighten out a low-quality hook, so he uses only good-quality hooks. Medium-action tackle is also necessary to stop that first blistering run, to keep the spadefish from cutting you off on the reef or wreck you’re fishing.

“I’ve caught ’em on a fly rod with the same basic rig,” Dickson said. “It’s pretty neat, especially if you have people who haven’t fought a lot of fish on a fly rod. It’s a hoot, no matter what you catch ’em on. And the thing about it is, if there are a lot of boats around, you can have somebody pull up 30 or 40 feet away from you, and it won’t be a problem, because the majority of your fight is going to be straight up and down.”

Dickson said schools often will number in the hundreds of spadefish that will maul his jelly-ball teaser. But he’s careful — and Carbone echoes his decision — to limit the number of fish he puts in the cooler.

“There will be hundreds of them down there, but I’m not gonna try and catch ’em all,” Dickson said. “If you want to catch a few for supper, that’s fine. A lot of people I carry, catching two or three each is plenty, because even though they’re good to eat, they’re a pain to clean; they’ve got real thick skin and a big rib cage.”

Carbone said he keeps only the biggest of the spadefish he catches, rarely taking home a fish less than 15 inches long.

“The big ones taste better, anyway,” he said. “You get a good, thick filet. They are a load of fun, plus, they’re great eating. They’re probably one of the best-eating fish there is. The meat is out of this world.

“But you can overfish them if you’re not careful. You can wipe out a population pretty quick if you keep too many — if that area is getting a lot of pressure. What’s on a reef or wreck is what’s there; there aren’t any more when they’re gone.”

Dickson said he’s experimented and caught spadefish using pieces of squid or pieces of fresh shrimp, but nothing beats a jelly ball.

“Sometimes they’ll eat shrimp, but it works a lot better if you peel it and just use small pieces,” he said. “If you keep the shell on it, it seems like they try to suck the meat out of the shell.

“The other thing that’s good about it is the places you’re fishing hold a lot of other kinds of fish.

“I always have rods rigged for other species, like a big bucktail and 6-inch curlytail for cobia, a tube for barracuda, and later in the summer, when you get cigar minnows and greenies around the reefs, you can put out light lines for Spanish and kings.”

About Dan Kibler 887 Articles
Dan Kibler is the former managing editor of Carolina Sportsman Magazine. If every fish were a redfish and every big-game animal a wild turkey, he wouldn’t ever complain. His writing and photography skills have earned him numerous awards throughout his career.

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