The old English term “hobnob” refers to groups of friends gathered to enjoy each other’s company and imbibe heavily while proposing toasts to one another. Paul Sasser, Steve Thomas, Tim Hanson, and I recently spent a day together at Hobcaw Barony. Instead of raising our glasses, we lifted our fly rods towards the cloud filled skies as we pursued our favourite pastime- sightcasting redfish in superskinny water with flies. The occasion that day was an invitation extended by Tim Hanson, a professor of journalism at Francis Marion College,to participate in a photo shoot and interview session which was to be the basis of an upcoming article about the art and pleasure of fly fishing in saltwater here in the magnificent South Carolina Lowcountry.
We met early Sunday morning in the parking lot at the Hobcaw visitor’s center in order to take advantage of the photographic possibilities of the impending spectacular sunrise on the marshes to east. Heavy clouds ahead of a fast approaching cold front prevented capturing the full beauty of the sun as it was resurrected from the depths of the Atlantic, but winds were light and temperatures comfortable. We drove to our first spot and piled out of Steve’s pickup, then began the ritual of assembling our rods and donning our wading boots. We next added various sprays over all exposed skin to guard against insects and ultraviolet rays, which can result in burns even under cloudy skies. As we continued our pre-game preparations, Tim readied his camera equipment. I watched with a combination of fascination and fear- fascination because of my own interest in photography, and fear as I contemplated Tim slogging around in the water and plough mud while carrying thousands of dollars worth of high end cameras and lenses. One false step and all that wonderful equipment would be reduced to scrap metal.
Once ready, we made our way, single file, down to the water through a wooded area. I reminded Paul and Steve to let me go first, as the rattlesnakes always strike the second person. One by one we marched through the woods and onto the salt marsh. Tim was loaded down like a pack mule with cameras and assorted paraphanalia. On the other hand, the rest of us were forced to navigate the tree branches and bushes without hanging up the slender tips of our rods and breaking them off, resulting in a ruined fishing day. The entourage broke onto the marsh and Steve pointed ahead to an opening. “This is a small creek that I have never fished”, he remarked. “I don’t think anyone has ever tried it”, he added. As we walked, a bald eagle swung by, surveying its realm. It reminded us of the other exotic birds we had seen that morning, including a painted bunting and several massive wood storks. After a few steps, we saw the creek. It was small, maybe 40 feet wide. The advancing tide visibly crept along the mud bottom of the then dry creek bed. The rising tide brought not only muddy saltwater from Winyah Bay, but along with it, our quest- redfish.
We divided ourselves across the creek opening at roughly even intervals- Paul took the right flank, while Steve positioned himself mid- stream. Tim and I covered the left side, peering into the silt laden water, searching for the invading force of redfish that was following the encroaching tide on a seek and destroy mission. The redfish accompany the tide up onto the flats in order to access areas previously exposed by the receding tide, where millions of fiddler crabs cover the surface. These crustaceans are like redfish crack and form a substantial part of the fish’s diet. The larger fish also feast on the blue crabs that inhabit this area. Large crushers in the throats of redfish make quick work of those tasty shellfish.
Redfish go by many names. Among these are channel bass, puppy drum, red drum, spottail, so named for the obvious false eye located near the tail, and the ubiquitous term redfish. The term drum is derived from the drumming sound these fish are famous for. They somehow use their air bladders to create the characteristic drumming sound. Only the male fish are capable of this feat and they are thought to primarily use it to attract females. This behaviour reminds me of apes beating their chests- as some fishermen do after an especially large specimen is landed. Whatever your favoured moniker, these fish are without doubt, the object of desire of most saltwater fly fishermen in South Carolina. They are plentiful, are comfortable in very shallow water, and take flies with reckless abandon. Throwing a gold spoon fly in front of one is like rolling a wine bottle into a jail cell, as I have heard it said.
As I scanned the water for signs of fish such as tails pointed upwards as the fish roots the bottom for crabs, copper colored flashes, backs out of the water, or wakes, I noted a darkish fish back jutting from the water. It lay a mere 15 feet or so away and directly in front of me. With a cursory glance, I dismissed this fish as a mullet. Now mullet are well known for not taking flies, jigs, or anything else, as they are algae eaters. I decided, however, that this would be a good opportunity for Tim to snap a few photos of the casting action. I explained to him what a proper cast should like, and did my best to produce a textbook loop for the lens. The fish was a secondary thought. I laid out a fairly decent cast and Tim’s Nikon made that curious little sound that apparently only cameras make as the line carried the fly fishward. I had used too much force and the fly splashed down 3 or 4 feet beyond the fish. Startled, it blew up in a loud splash, but ran only a very short distance before settling back down. It then turned towards Steve, once again pushing with the tide towards all those fiddlers.
Steve’s experienced eyes located the fish quickly and, crafty fisherman that he is, identified it immediately as a nice redfish. In an instant, his rod arced skyward and the line unfurled smoothly in the direction of the fish. His fly, an original design featuring a rattle and the gold color reds crave, fell a perfect 10 inches from the fish’s head. The red saw it, turned, swam urgently to the fly and its cavernous mouth engulfed the fly. Steve expertly set the hook, and he was on!!!
The fish fought hard. Redfish are designed for low end torque, not so much for speed. I liken it to the difference between a locomotive and a Ferrari. The locomotive is made for pulling massive loads whereas the Ferrari is built for speed alone. So, a redfish does its work in low gear, unlike, say, the bonefish, which is a speedster. Both fish are fun to catch, but each is unique in its fighting style. Steve’s redfish dogged down and slowly pulled against the reel’s drag. Steve expertly applied just the right amount of pressure to prevent snapping the tippet section of the leader or fraying of the mono against the many oyster shells strewn across the creek bed.
Ultimately, Steve’s superior fishing fighting ability won the day and he was rewarded by the sight of a fabulous redfish measuring some 35 inches. We estimated the weight to be between 10 and 11 pounds. The color was a bright new penny copper and the fish sported a spot on its tail that maybe an inch across. Steve was like the proverbial kid at Christmas. This was the largest of the hundred plus redfish he has caught and he was excited about the catch. Paul, who had been standing on the far side of the creek, joined me in congratulating Steve on this fine redfish. We all moved toward Steve to assist in the landing process. As I took my first step in Steve’s direction, my leg met plough mud softened by the oncoming tide. I sank over my knee. My worn out old knee, scheduled for replacement early next year after having served past its useful lifetime, steadfastly refused to come unstuck. Tim came to the rescue, only to find himself similarly entrapped in the mire. With maximal effort, I was finally able to extricate myself. As I reached for Tim, he recoiled in horror. “Don’t touch me!”, he exclaimed, fearful of dropping his photo gear into the black hole of mud beneath us. After some work, we were both free and on solid ground. Tim was firing the Nikon relentlessly as Steve struggled to gain control of the mighty fish. Once satisfactory images had been obtained, Steve slowly released the biggest red of his career into the creek to once more resume its search for sustenance.
I wonder if the massive grin that was plastered across Steve’s face has left yet. Considering his excitement and obvious pleasure at landing such a fish, I doubt it. And to be honest, who could blame him?