Read on to learn his now-expert tips for catching the elusive swimmers
About two decades ago, after having survived too many long, cold winters in the Northeast and Colorado, I made the decision to renounce winters entirely and move to the South, arriving on the sunny Charleston coast in spring 2001. As a diehard fly-fisherman, I didn’t make the decision lightly. Leaving the trout-filled rivers behind meant giving up my status as a guide and, unbeknownst to me, getting knocked back to a rank amateur.
I had studied up on the Lowcountry’s storied redfish in books and magazines, but finding them myself in the vast marshes here—let alone catching one on a fly—proved far more difficult than my honed trout-stream skills could handle. I was told that when you see a redfish tail for the first time, it is unmistakable. Unfortunately, my first sighting was elusive, and I spent many days casting at diamondback terrapins and swirling mullets in the hot summer sun. Though I loved Charleston, I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever bend a fly rod again.
Continuing my quest, I headed to a fishy looking flat on one of the first cool evenings in October and began to wade out into the flooded spartina. A few steps from the road, the grass became a little taller and the bottom a little softer, but frustrated and uninformed, I pushed on. Two more steps and I was introduced to the “pluff-mud plunge.”
At first, I sank to my knees in the thick ooze, which put the water at my waist. Then I slogged a few more steps, ending up waist-deep in mud, with water up to my armpits and the tide still rising. It’s moments like these that make you contemplate the decisions you’ve made in your life, but I didn’t have time to dwell. After a bit of wiggling, I managed to get one knee out, then the other, and was able to army crawl several feet until the grass became shorter and the bottom solid.
Mud-covered, soaked, and nearly defeated, I slowly moved on, one careful step at a time, searching for tails and a chance to cash in the dues I had just paid. There were fiddler crabs scurrying around my feet and mullet jumping all around. Surely, this feels right, I thought. Then, there it was—first just a little wake pushing across the surface, next a subtle dimple in the reflected sky, and finally into the air the copper tail rose and briefly waved, showing a glimpse of its telltale spot before plunging into the water.
I somehow remained focused and tossed my fly into the air. With two quick false casts, I laid it down a few feet to the left of the dissipating ripple where the tail had just submerged. I stripped the fly twice, moving it only a few inches each time, then paused, and as I began a third, the water exploded, and the line tightened. A few glorious minutes later, I landed the redfish and was able to admire the spotted tail closely for a few moments before releasing him back into the marsh. Relishing my first redfish and no longer skunked, I didn’t even care that I would have to traverse the treacherous pluff mud to get home.
These days, I fish year-round, but of all the seasons, fall is by far my favorite time to cast for redfish in the Lowcountry. The oppressive heat and humidity gradually subside, and the water slowly clears. The high tides of summer are still in full swing, and the cocktail-size shrimp have made the redfish gluttonous. Here, I share some useful tips from lessons learned over the years.
Cast Your Line
We are blessed with an abundance of water—six feet of life-giving saline pumping in and out of our estuarine world—and redfish thrive here. Adults up to 50 or 60 pounds can be found offshore, in deep harbor channels or off the beaches, but these are of little use to fly-fishermen. We want the “skinny-water” redfish, ones in their formative years that belly crawl across the pluff mud in a few inches of water or tail on flooded grass flats. They top out at around 30 inches and 12 to 15 pounds, but the sight of a dozen or so pushing down the edge of a mud flat with their backs and tails exposed, sending shrimp flying into the beaks of squawking gulls, will make even the most experienced anglers a little weak in the knees.
Look for tailing tides—high tides around the full and new moons, typically in the early morning and late evening—which rise over the magic six-foot mark. Flooding the hard-bottomed flats where fiddler crabs seldom see finned predators, these tides allow redfish to push through the golden grass. When they are rooting around the bottom sucking crabs from their burrows, their spotted tails rise out of the water, giving away their location. “Tailing” fish are often distracted while they are feeding and can be quietly approached by foot or flats skiff. A fish in a headstand has a face full of mud and a meal on the brain, so fishermen should use this opportunity to get a cast in close, twitching the fly slightly to create movement without pulling it from the fish’s limited field of vision.
Early morning low tides will find redfish ganging up on shrimp with gulls and wading birds, collaborating to block an aerial escape. At sunrise, look for gulls hovering over nervous water in shallow bays and approach stealthily. As these schools are usually on the move pushing shrimp up or down a bank, it’s best to position yourself so they will come to you and then get your fly out in front of them. When the fish sees it, you want to read their reaction, stripping the fly to match their speed. Redfish are used to their prey swimming away from them, so make sure your fly is doing the same—a fly that swims towards a redfish’s face will usually make the whole school explode in a boiling mass of copper scales and mud before they head for the horizon.
Tips On the Fly
Low Tides: Explore mud flats behind barrier islands or on the edges of waterways. Look for action on the surface or in the air. Follow small feeder creeks; redfish will often be as shallow as possible. Early mornings with light winds are usually best.
High Tides: Go out on tides that rise over six feet and flood hard-bottomed grass flats. Walk-to flats are highly guarded secrets but can be found with a little research on Google Earth. If on foot, stay on the short grass to avoid the pluff-mud plunge.
Gear: Seven- to nine-weight fly rods matched with mid-to-large arbor reels and weight-forward floating lines can handle any inshore redfish. Use nine-foot leaders tapered to a 15- to 20-pound fluorocarbon ending with your favorite fly.
Flies: Presentation is often more important than the fly itself. Pick those made with materials that have a lot of movement in the water, such as toad patterns, EP-style flies, and Clousers. In the grass, weedless flies are a must.
Boats: Any boat can get you near redfish, but flats boats that can be poled silently in six inches of water or less give anglers a decisive advantage. Kayaks and canoes are great for stealthily approaching fish but can be a challenge to cast from, and the lack of height makes spotting fish more difficult.
Etiquette: Fly-fishing is often referred to as the “quiet sport,” and anglers are expected to conduct themselves with a certain degree of decorum. There’s plenty of water around Charleston, and no one should ever feel crowded on the flats. Unless a flat is huge (think square miles), then you should find another if someone beat you there. If a flat is large enough to handle more than one boat, be sure to come in behind the other vessel. In general, if you can see the color of the other angler’s hat, you’re too close.
For more Lowcountry fly-fishing info, including regulations, licenses, guides, visit charlestonmag.com.