What is a sportsman to do?
How about dropping some bait to the bottom of the ocean, maybe wiggle it a little, and hold on as you try to wrestle a bottom-dwelling critter from his underwater lair?
A host of bottomfish like triggerfish, big blackfish and porgies await anglers who aren't bothered by cooler temperatures and are determined enough to wait for breaks in the weather so they can get back to fishing.
Capt. Mark Brown has been running bottom-fishing charters out of Charleston since 1987, and he has several hot winter spots marked on his GPS. His 45-foot custom-built sportfisher, Teaser 2, is outfitted with twin Lugger diesels, specialty engines from the west coast that are designed to run smoothly in cold weather.
So, where does he run? Productive spots in January are anywhere from 90 to 120 feet deep - a good 25-mile or 90-minute run from Charleston - and they vary from artificial reefs to, in Brown's words, "a pile of rocks."
And he should know. When he isn't chartering, he's been known to dive on some of the structure he fishes to check it out. A good fishing spot might not be any larger than 50-feet square, and as the sandy ocean floor washes against such structure, it sometimes covers it, sometimes exposes it.
That's just one of the variables that a wintertime bottom-fishing veteran has to deal with. Brown knows that clear, deep-blue water is to be desired, but, he said, "There are no fishing rules that can't be broken.
"I know that fish can turn on and turn off, but we can't say why they do it," he said. "For example, a new moon makes the tide run harder, but the fish tend to bite real well then. Reef fish don't move around much, but they do move to follow the bait, so I'll move the boat around to different spots trying to get on the fish."
Once Brown picks a spot and anchors up, he'll put rods down baited with squid and sardines, all the while, catching live cigar minnows on a No. 8 Sabiki rig in pearl white with Aurora Fish Skin. He also likes to catch pinfish and scup for live bait.
"A slight to moderate jigging action will be most productive - not a rapid vertical motion," said Brown, who believes that live bait is more productive for larger bottomfish.
Browns rigs consist of an 8-ounce weight and 6/0 stainless steel Eagle Claw hooks tied to 100-pound test fluorocarbon line that's spooled on a Penn 113H Senator of Penn Baja reels. The reels are paired with 6-foot Ugly Stik 1166 MH rods: a 30- to 50-pound class blank with a medium to light action tip and a stout backbone.
"We use the lightest weight you can get away with to hold the bottom," he said.
Most customers use hand-crank reels these days, Brown said, because they offer more flexibility than heavier electric reels. Also, today's conservation-minded anglers have lost much of the "gimme more" attitude that was associated with the electric reels.
"Manual rods are always going to give the customer better feel for what the fish is doing," he said.
Bottomfish respond to scent, sight and vibration, so putting a variety of baits on a single hook can be very productive.
The sheer number of snapper and grouper that are thrown back every day on these charters is hard to grasp. Some fisherman think there is a disconnect between what scientists and bureaucrats call "overfishing," and what is actually swimming around in the ocean.
Brown calls the phenomenon of so many fish being returned to the ocean, "flying snappers." But when a big fish does strike, Brown's first mate advises a fisherman to set the hook three or four times.
"When a bigger bottomfish takes the bait ... you are actually wrestling that fish out of the rocks," Brown said. "The first seconds can make a difference between you becoming rocked up, or the fish coming to the top, resisting like an old log."
A sense of accomplishment comes when an angler convinces a large bottomfish to budge from his safe area, and then come on up to the surface.
Schools of amberjacks usually hold in the same areas as snapper and grouper, so be aware that you may tie into one at some point. Other catches over live bottom areas include king mackerel, cobia, sharks and even wayward dolphin.
"People mainly come to fish with us for good times and to put some fish in the box, too," said Brown.
Patrick Iseman, a regular on the boat, said the action off Charleston is unbeatable.
"I have bottom-fished off the coast from North Carolina, Georgia and even Florida, and South Carolina's bottom-fishing is the best."
A popular artificial reef is theY-73 reef in 95 feet of water, 27 nautical miles from the Charleston jetties on a 145-degree bearing. The structure includes a 180-foot Army tanker, three 90-foot tugboats and 225 steel reef units.
Another is the Comanche Reef in 105 feet of water, 22½ nautical miles from the Charleston Harbor "C" buoy on a 90-degree bearing. The reef is a 165-foot steel-hulled ship.
Further S.C. artificial reef information is available at http://saltwaterfishing.sc.gov/offshorereefs.html.