My initial reaction as the bow of the boat touched the spartina grass of the small island was “ I’m going to need some bigger shoes- like snow shoes maybe.” The salty water appeared to be about a foot deep but the incoming water would soon be knee deep. I double checked my waterproof radio to be certain I had set it to the same channel as my friend as I slipped over the side and grabbed my backpack and fly rod. “Good luck!” my friend said as he slipped the engine into reverse. “I’ll be back on the other side of the tide.” With that, he sped away to his secret spot, leaving me to my own devices.
I was leery of the muddy bottom’s ability to support my not inconsiderable weight, tentatively placing one foot ahead of the other. After some steps had been taken and my confidence buoyed, I began to scan the water’s surface for signs of redfish, the target for today. My polarized sunglasses proved a valuable asset as I searched for those gorgeous blue tinged tails fluttering in the midday sun. Sometimes less obvious clues to the presence of redfish are an angler’s sole means of detection. Fins barely jutting from the surface, wakes, or even the shaking of the grass can all give away the fish’s location. But nothing beats the sight of that magnificent tail sticking up like a billboard along a highway, to get a fisherman’s heart pounding.
Soon, I thought I saw one at a distance. I made my way as quickly and stealthily as I could manage to casting range. There it was, a nice redfish, busily rooting the bottom in pursuit of fiddler crabs. Focused on its task, it made no note of my presence, fortunately for me. The rod silently swayed in the warm air and dispatched fly line. Leader, and fly towards the happy redfish. The fly landed ten inches from its nose and suddenly, the redfish was happy no more. It bolted with the gold colored fly in its mouth. After a couple of satisfying runs, I held it in my hand. After its wonderful redness had been recorded for my collection, it was released, free once more to stuff itself on the abundance of food found on the flats.
We are blessed indeed to have shallow water flats in coastal South Carolina which are havens for redfish. Equally fortunately, these game fish take flies readily ( well usually anyway). They are available to the fly fisherman both summer and winter. In the warm months and fall, they are best fished on the high waters of the larger tides. The exact height required will vary by the specific fishing location. Some flats can be fished a tides of five and a half feet or even less, while others need over six feet of water. This knowledge is gained through trial and error, or a very good fishing buddy who is willing to share his knowledge. I generally prefer to arrive on the flat about two hours prior to the predicted high tide, though timing can be affected by wind and other weather conditions. Wading can be quite effective when the water is too shallow for the boat, though in certain spots the angler risks bogging nearly to his waist in the soft plough mud. I have learned to stay well clear of the greener grass, which often indicates a small creek where the bottom is treacherous. Slow careful foot placement also advised. Quality wading shoes are an absolute MUST to protect the wader’s feet from oyster shells and to prevent loss of other types of shoe wear caused by the suction effect of the plough mud. Tennis shoes are a NO-NO.
The author with a typical redfish caught on local flats
Most redfish on our flats are in the two to five pound range, though we do occasionally catch a ten pound specimen. The largest I have personally encountered was estimated by my friend at eighteen pounds! I prefer an eight or even a nine weight rod if the wind picks up. But some anglers who appreciate a more sporting approach, may use a six or even five weight stick. Floating lines and leaders of twelve pounds work well. I like fluorocarbon, though mono works also. Experienced redfish fly rodders all seem to have a personal preference for flies. Standard patterns like Clouser minnows or spoon flies are staples. Personally, I am partial to gold colors.
Winter redfishing is a whole different ballgame. As there are no fiddler crabs to be found on the high water flats, the redfish are not there either. We like to fish for them at low tide along oyster rakes and in back creeks in the colder months. Although wading is not recommended, the angler with a shallow draft boat has the advantage of clear water ( the algae has been killed off by the lower temperatures) and the height advantage of being in the boat allows a larger sight range. Often in the winter, reds aggregate into large schools, as many as a hundred at times. Seeing them coming across the flat at a distance is quite a sight, much like bonefishing the clear waters of the Bahamas.
I have heard redfish called “The Poor Man’s Bonefish.” I suppose this is true in the sense that travel to some exotic location is not necessary. But I can promise that your angling life can be greatly enriched by spending some time in your wading shoes on South Carolina’s incredible flats casting to feeding redfish.