Tagging Up with Big Reds

Recreational fishermen can help the S.C. Department of Natural Resources by learning how to tag big redfish at a Marine Fish Tagging workshop. Tagging provides essential data for marine biologists who are studying the movement and habits of redfish.

Charleston Harbor jetties are hot spots for summer battles with giant red drum.

By the end of the Civil War, the entrance to Charleston Harbor was a mess. Numerous shipwrecks, including vessels sunk during the war, made navigation difficult — at best. In addition, strong ebb currents flowing across the harbor entrance shifted sandbars, requiring deep-hulled vessels to wait until high tide for safe passage.

In 1869, Col. Quincy Gillmore, the first district engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was assigned responsibility for cleaning up the harbor and stabilizing ship traffic. Gillmore’s solution was to construct a pair of rock jetties at the mouth of the harbor’s entrance. The structures would harness the funneling currents, helping scour the channel and keeping it clear of shifting sands. Construction began in 1882 and was completed in 1895.

In addition to its commercial and economic value, Col. Gillmore’s vision created one of the most unique fishing structures on the East Coast. These prominent structures provide a solid surface in a desert of sand, in essence, a magnet for all kinds of inshore species.


Capt Rick Hiott of Reel Fish Head Charters speaks of the “magnetism” of the area.

While the jetties are hardly secret fishing spots, there is something to be said for knowing and understanding how fish — particularly bull reds — relate to this structure.

“Those big rocks provide a perfect current break and hunting ground for adult redfish,” said Hiott, a Charleston native. When water temperatures climb above the 70-degree mark, reds 40 inches or better move into the jetty’s rocks.

“Even with the considerable fishing pressure in the area, there are still some big fish in here” said Hiott.

To better understand how fish relate to the area around the jetties, imagine a row of river rocks laid in a stream. As the tide rises, water from outside the jetties rushes over the rocks, creating eddies and current breaks. Tidal currents in Charleston Harbor do not go directly in and out, but rather sweep up and down the coastline. The result is that the jetties have a calm side and a current side.

Currents play a major role in where redfish feed. One of Hiott’s favorite setups is to anchor the bow of his 21-foot Sea Pro bay boat on the upcurrent side of the tide and cast into the edges of washes, bends and other holes in the rocks.

“As the tide moves in, water will begin spilling over the jetty in different areas,” Hiott said. “The moving water dislodges baitfish and crabs, and the redfish will lay downcurrent, waiting for the food to come to them.”

In order to hold his offering in place, Hiott uses an egg sinker between five and eight ounces on a Carolina Rig, depending on the strength of the tide. His preferred baits are menhaden— live or cut —which move into the Charleston harbor in May and stay all summer. Hiott uses only fresh bait, which he nets before each trip, because it is necessary when using cut bait in order to get scent into the area he’s fishing.

Hiott deploys as many as four rods out of the stern of his boat. Invariably, the rising current will move all of the baits directly behind the boat, so Hiott’s spread includes one bait close to the boat on either side and one farther away.

Fishing in and around this type of structure requires stout equipment, both to withstand the tides and handle hard charging redfish that reach upwards to 50 pounds.

“My minimum test line starts at 30 pounds” said Hiott, who uses Pflueger Contender baitcasting reels and Ugly Stik Custom rods in medium-heavy action. Fishing for giant reds is all catch-and-release, as the state’s slot limit is a minimum of 15 inches and a maximum of 24 inches. Larger tackle is needed to insure the fish is boated while still in good enough condition to be released, a task made more difficult by summertime water temperatures.

The Tagging Program

Survival of adult redfish is integral to the survival of the fishery. Reacting to a tremendous rise over the past several years in the popularity of all things redfishing, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources is undertaking a tagging study though the SC Marine Gamefish Tagging Program.

According to Robert Wiggers, project leader for the tagging program, “The state is able to tag and study a larger number of marine gamefish, particularly redfish, through this cooperative program involving both state employees and volunteer recreational anglers.”

In 2005, the tagging program’s format was changed to allow recreational anglers to attend a training workshop, become certified taggers and obtain obtain tags from the SCDNR. Maintaining a group of trained volunteers helps produce a more useful tag and recapture database.

Information obtained by recovering of tagged fish allows Driggers and other biologists to determine movement and migratory patterns. The data shows how different stocks of redfish interact.

“Our redfish don’t seem to move much North or South,” said Driggers, who has discovered that adult reds migrate offshore during the winter and back inshore during the summer to spawn. “Most of our tagged redfish have been shown to stay within a 9-square mile area.”

Working Together

Having anchored on the inside of a large bend in the south jetty, Hiott and I had staggered our lines around a 30-foot-wide wash coming through the rocks. We didn’t have to wait long when the bait in the center, a chunk of menhaden on a 7/0 circle hook, drew a strike. There’s no timidness when a 40-inch redfish decides to eat. The rod bent over double as I scrambled to keep the fish from getting into the rocks. After a bit of muscle and play, the fish was up off the bottom and coming to the boat.

Hiott was quick with a set of grips and soon had the fish laying in the bottom of the boat. He pulled a tape from the tip of the lower jaw to the tail and recorded the length — just a hair over 40 inches — in his tagging log. He popped a half- dollar-sized scale off the fish’s back to the left of the dorsal fin and inserted a 5-inch, yellow plastic tag in the opening. The big female was then released back into the water.

Biologists report that South Carolina’s red drum fishery is in good shape. More data is needed, especially on the bigger fish, as average recapture and reporting rates are fairly low, ranging from between one and two percent of all fish tagged.

If you happen to catch a tagged redfish, be sure to record the date, location and size of the fish and report the recapture promptly. Recapture information can be either called in or mailed to the attention of the S.C. Game Fish Tagging Program. Contact information can be found in the Destination Information.

About Phillip Gentry 817 Articles
Phillip Gentry of Waterloo, S.C., is an avid outdoorsman and said if it swims, flies, hops or crawls, he's usually not too far behind.

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