Capt. Scott Davis, a guide and owner of Lowcountry Fly Shop in Mount Pleasant said, "Winter is a wonderful time to be on the water for several reasons. First and foremost, the water is the clearest it will be all year, making sight-fishing easy. Secondly, there is a lot less boat and jet-ski traffic in the colder months."
Water clarity is key when talking about winter fishing. Unlike other seasons, especially summer, winter redfish are spotted fairly easily in shallow water. Combine shallow, clear water with low winds and finding them becomes almost too easy.
"With the combination of low water and light winds it can be remarkably easy to see schools of reds slowly cruising the flats," he said. "Just look for the tell-tell "V" wake that gives away their location."
Capt. Tyler Gault of Beaufort puts emphasis on the low-wind factor. "You can't plan a cold-water fishing trip too far in advance; you need to be able to go when the wind and tide are right," he said. "If wind isn't blowing and the tide is getting low, you want to be on the water."
During the winter, reds join large schools for protection. In the winter, redfish become a big part of a bottlenose dolphin's diet because other inshore species have moved out, and they are relentlessly pursued by Flipper. Big schools find safety on shallow mud flats and will stay on them as long as possible.
"The perfect scenario for winter reds is a morning low tide that bottoms a few hours after the sun comes up with low winds," he said. "The mud on the flats is dark, absorbing heat from the sun and warming the water, which also draws in reds. The ideal time is two hours before dead-low and about the same after it."
Often, acrobatic shows of dolphin wreaking havoc on redfish that venture too deep are seen along the edges of many flats; to say that redfish are skittish in January is an understatement. Gault starts his search for winter reds with a trolling motor, but he switches to silently poling once he finds them.
"You just can't risk spooking these fish," he said. "Once a school is spooked, it can take more than a few minutes to get them calmed down enough where they will eat, and spook them bad enough, and they may not settle down the entire tide."
Because of the clear water and general spookiness of the fish, many of the rigs used during the warmer months, like popping corks and heavy bottom rigs, will often not work. Using lighter, fluorocarbon leaders and softer presentations, the most successful winter anglers know that these fish have to be approached stealthily. On spinning tackle, Gault likes to use floating lures like a shallow-running crankbait or natural bait on a light Carolina rig.
"Winter reds are so easily spooked it requires a very sow presentation," he said. "I like to cast ahead of the school of fish and let them come to it or if the tide is moving enough I cast up-current and let the bait drift down to them."
Davis like to pursue shallow eds with flies.
"I like to throw flies with no weight or lightweight bead chain eyes, because the fish can become spooky in the clear water, and a heavy fly can sometimes be enough to spook the entire school," he said. "Light flies sink slowly enough that you can throw them out early and wait for the school to approach; this allows complete stealth since the fish never see or hear the fly being presented."
Concerning fly patterns, Davis prefers flies in black or purple that do not necessarily "match the hatch", like toad flies.
"In clear water, you would think that ultra-realistic flies in drab colors would get the nod, but it is the odd looking flies, the misfits, that get eaten with the most regularity."
When thinking of January, terrific fishing is often not on many anglers' minds, but a trip in the cold can forever change the way they think of winter days on saltwater. One look at a few hundred reds schooled up in skinny water and heading toward the boat will cure even the nastiest case of cabin fever.