Spotting Spot-Tails

Although inshore reds often are slot-size variety, sometimes bigger ones can be caught, as Chris Whitlock can attest.

Early April is still cool enough to find good numbers of schooling red drum at shallow inland waters.

Don’t think cool spring weather hurts the fishing barometer at South Carolina’s coastline.

Redfishing continues to product bumper catches throughout the year, including April, as long as anglers overcome a few variables.

Early-spring redfish hangouts are practically in the same backwaters they frequent during the summer months.

The redfish is the largemouth bass of the salt with its aggressive nature and willingness to feed during most periods of the year. Knowing where, why, and how is the mystery.

Nevertheless, Captain Fred Rourk of Sweet Tea Charters in Georgetown was born and bred in the S.C. backwaters and seems at times to have a location lock for every redfish swimming the waters of the Palmetto State.

He fishes several times per week throughout the year but relishes the cool weather redfishing.

“You get up close and personal with the fish this time of year, and it’s the only kind of sight fishing you can do inshore for most of the year,” Rourk said.

He works at Tailwalker Marine in Georgetown and sells boats during most of the week, then operates Sweet Tea Charters (800-768-2495 or e-mail chasing inshore species during a few afternoons and most weekends.

At Tailwalker Marine, he sells everything from 28-foot Contenders to 16-foot Hewes flats boats. However, Rourk lives out his true passion fishing aboard a Hewes flats boat specially designed to target the skinny waters from McClellanville to Winyah Bay.

Specifically, he chooses the Hewes 18-foot Bonefisher for its single-level deck and ability to float in 6 inches of water. The best redfishing this time of year generally occurs at low tide at the extreme backwaters and that demands a shallow-draft boat.

In fact, a few weeks ago when the water temperature was barely in the 50s, but the air temperatures were in the 60s, Rourk and Chris Whitlock of Pawley’s Island motored across Winyah Bay to the promised land behind Deboradieu Beach.

According to a fellow angler, Don Mussman of Georgetown, large schools of red fish were holding tight in a secluded location behind Winyah Bay, an area familiar to Rourk.

Mussman and Rourk pass location tips back and forth throughout the year. The unseasonably warm air temperatures warm the shallow mud flats a few degrees enticing the fish to bite well for the day.

Rourk motored past numerous oyster beds through a myriad of creeks and tidal flats in search of the destination for the day. Shortly the clatter from the 115 Yamaha ended and Rourk climbed aboard the push platform to begin his stealth approach.

Redfish were holding in super-shallow waters several hundred feet from the boat.

Rourk quietly pushed the Bonefisher into a creek barely wide enough for the boat to pass as the marsh grass brushed the sides of the boat. The water was barely deep enough to keep the boat afloat.

“I can see fish pushing just around the corner and are moving towards the creek intersection ahead,” Rourk said from the top of the push platform at the rear of the boat.

He edged the boat along the shallow, winding creek toward the unsuspecting fish without making the slightest ripple on the water. Rourk continued to whisper as numerous redfish cruised the mud flat just ahead.

“Get ready to cast,” he said.

Suddenly, the boat tipped back and forth and emitted a clunk from a disturbance under the boat.

“I could feel them against my feet,” Whitlock said. “I hope we didn’t spook them.

“We just about have them boxed in,” Rourk said. “Don’t worry about that fish; there are 50 more just in front of you.

“Cast just in front of the exposed oyster bar and work it slow; and I mean slow.”

Whitlock flipped the bail on his Penn GF spin series reel and gently cast a 4-inch Gulp swimming minnow towards the group of redfish holding in just 12 inches of water. He allows the bait to sit motionless for 5 to 10 seconds waiting for the water to rest from his cast.

Then he raised his 7-foot Gloomis rod to the 10 o’clock position, removing all of the slack, and felt for the familiar tension of a bite.

He slowly twitched the end of the rod to give the lure a little bit of action. The clear water revealed several fish just inches away from his Gulp lure, but no offered to take the Gulp lure.

A few twitches later and several revolutions on the reel, the bait was out of the strike zone and away from the fish.

“I had it all over him on a silver platter and he still didn’t bite,” Whitlock said. “Cool weather fishing is slow.

“Keep casting and you’ll find one that will eat,” Rourk said.

Hecast toward another cluster of fish at the opposite bank and restarted the process. As he began to follow the same procedure, he felt a familiar sensation of a fish sucking in the bait.

Whitlock snatched back on his rod, setting the hook and the fight was engaged as water exploded from bank to bank as the hooked fish flailed back and forth, spooking the entire school of fish in 8 to 12 inches of water.

Fish scattered from bank to bank like a covey of quail. The school broke up and retreated up each finger of the creek to safety.

But the fight, as ferocious as it can be, was short in the skinny water, with nowhere for the hooked fish to go but to the boat. Soon Rourk scooped the 28-inch redfish in a landing net and lifted it aboard to remove the hook. After we measured its length, Rourk quickly returned to red to the chilly water. After catching several fish from this isolated location, the shallow water forced us to return to the channel to find another location to fish.

After fishing several other creeks, we’d caught and released more than a dozen redfish from 24 to 35 inches in length. And this result was typical for the cool weather redfishing along the S.C. coast.

Generally, the redfish are hemmed up in shallow flats adjacent to deeper channels, mud flats, and shell humps. The dark-colored mud flats warm quickly from radiant heat and draw in the smaller baitfish.

According to Rourk, the redfish huddle at the shallow flats to feed at solar-exposed areas and escape their greatest predator, Atlantic bottle-nose dolphins.

Colder temperatures equate to less activity, but the unseasonably warm days boost spot-tail bass feeding behavior, providing anglers with bonus catches. When water temperatures are too cool, the fish are almost inactive and the sun-warmed areas actually might be cooler than adjacent deep pools.

April, however, is usually just about perfect, especially early in the month when the water temperature is in the high 50s to mid 60s.

Rourk targets the larger bays and marsh systems from Pawley’s Island to McClellanville, including Muddy Bay, North Inlet and the Cowpens area that’s accessible from Alligator Creek.

Captain J.R. Waits of Fish Call Charters in Charleston ( specializes in red fishing from Bulls Bay to Johns Island.

He fishes aboard an Actioncraft 17-foot flats boat, hunting down cool weather redfish by patrolling shallow flat areas that have exposed mud and oyster bars.

One of Waits’ favorite search areas is at the Intracoastal Waterway.

“The ICW at Charleston makes for great fishing when the water’s cool because you have two flats on either side and a ditch in the middle,” he said.

Not all flats are created equal. Some flats tend to hold fish year after year and others barely hold any fish. Several factors favor the presence of redfish, including current, proximity to deep water (previously mentioned) and lack of disturbances.

Anglers should look for areas with little or no currents. Slack current allows sun-heated water to retain its warmth, keeping conditions favorable for redfish. Since the water is shallow, repeated disturbances force the fish to seek out an alternative locale sometimes.

Anglers should search for shallow hangouts until finding an area that holds fish. Cool water temperatures during April equate to cleaner water and higher visibility for the angler to locate schools.

Searching for schools can be troublesome, but when scouting or a fishing trip unveils a school, there’ll be no doubt. Redfish make “smoke” trails — puffs of disturbed mud created by their wakes — in shallow water when anything disturbs them.

Rourk scouts for locations at low tide aboard his poling platform propelling himself by his Minn-kota copilot (trolling motor) or by poling. The rear poling platform is a must to effectively chase redfish Rourk and Waits agreed. The extra 4 feet advantage off the deck allows anglers to see fish in the marsh grass and mud bars in plenty of time to sling a lure to them before the boat gets so close it spooks the reds.

Rourk locates several schools during scouting trips and spends minimal time at each location during a fishing trip.

“You can’t make these fish bite,” he aid. “If they’re stubborn, leave that school and go to another. The fishing window is limited by the tide and other schools may feed when others don’t. Sometimes the fish will respond differently a few hours later.”

Even if anglers locate a school or schools of fish, sometimes the only reward is the achievement and thrill of seeing fish. Cooler water slows redfishes’ feeding behaviors.

Having an assortment of lures of different sizes and colors increases the chances of a hookup. If a fish acts adversely to a lure, try something else. Rourk generally starts with subsurface lures fished slowly and watches reds as they react to a specific-color lure.

“If the fish spook with a subsurface lure, I like to try a top water plug pulled slowly, such as a YoZuri R663BM Blue Mackerel or a Mirrolure Top Dog Jr.,” he said.

Sometimes when the fish don’t react to hard flashy lures and appear to be “sleeping” or motionless, Rourk dead sticks a Berkeley Gulp 4-inch swimming mullet or Norton Sand Eel in their path.

The motionless lures “fish” themselves because of their scent-packed bodies. Color choices depend upon water and cloud cover.

“For dark water, use a dark bait, and for clear water, use lighter-hued offerings,” Rourk said.

“The absolute best bet when it’s cold is cut mullet or blue crabs, but throwing a Berkeley Gulp, Exude, Yum, or any of the other new scented baits on jig heads or flutter hooks will also produce fish,” Waits said. Rourk and Waits stressed not casting directly into a school of fish. They advised casting 5 to 10 feet in front of a school. Landing too closely invariably spooks fish and drastically reduces the potential for hookups.

A three- or four-day period of warm sunshine accelerates feeding behavior of redfish. Rourk said he spends many hours watching the fish on a weekly basis and tries to predict their movements.

Locating pre-spring schools makes for a fantastic spring when the water temperatures begin to rise in the mid-50’s.

“It really pays off in spring as I know the area and patterns when the fish warm up and become more active,” Rourk said. “The rise in water temperature allows for quicker lure retrieval, a broader lure selection and increased hookups.”

The optimum temperature range for cool-weather red fishing is 54 to 60 degrees. Anything cooler makes for slow, slow fishing and anything warmer, breaks up large schools into smaller groups that’ll be scattered throughout the bay and harder to locate.

The redfish is one of the only coastal species that migrates to shallow water in large schools during cooler periods. The rest of the marine species world heads to deeper regions or just beyond the breakers of the ocean.

About Jeff Burleson 1312 Articles
Jeff Burleson is a native of Lumberton, N.C., who lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He graduated from N.C. State University with a degree in fisheries and wildlife sciences and is a certified biologist and professional forester for Southern Palmetto Environmental Consulting.

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