In a city so steeped in history that you can visit 18th century rice plantations, take carriage rides down cobblestone streets, wonder at a live oak tree that’s more than 1500 years old and tour the site where the Civil War began, perhaps nothing is as historical in Charleston as just going fishing.
Photograph by Ben Sumrell
Fishing is true historical participation. When you fish in Charleston, you are attempting to do what people have done here forever – snag out of the watery depths the elusive fish.
After all, what brings people here, and has brought people here for centuries, is what brings the fish here, too. Water. Lots of it.
Charleston is surrounded by rivers, inlets, bays, estuaries, the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean. Two miles of estuarine marshes and the Intracoastal Waterway divide Isle of Palms from the mainland. North from there, lies the 65,000-acre Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge, which includes the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier islands on the East Coast and 50 miles of protected beaches and inlets.
All of these waters are nursery grounds for a number of desirable saltwater fish species. Inshore, in the inlets and creeks, you may catch the sporty and sleek redfish; the slender and gorgeous speckled sea trout; or the powerful and delicious sheepshead. Near shore and offshore, in the Atlantic, anglers commonly catch species renowned for their succulence and sportiness – grouper, snapper, cobia and mackerel – in the spring and summer.
Perhaps the first place to begin for any do-it-yourselfer without a boat is to fish from the shore. The beaches of Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island are both open year-round to fishing, and you may also fish from designated docks at the Isle of Palms Marina or from the shore at Breach Inlet.
Typically, when fishing from the shore, you’ll want to use a longer rod (more than 8 feet, at least) with medium to heavy action. A bottom-fishing rig, available at any tackle shop, can be baited or double-baited with cut bait, such as mullet, squid or shrimp.
Many anglers like to wade into the surf in order to cast out as far out as possible; good spots are often marked by the presence of seagulls. Then, with line spooling, they walk back to the beach, flip the bail, set the rod in the sand-spike and do what all fishermen must do – wait.
The best thing about surf fishing might be that you never know what you’re going to catch. Big redfish (bull reds), large flounder, sharks, mackerel, black drum – all of these species swim through the waters just off the beaches and shorelines.
When surf fishing, it’s important to be mindful of swimmers and other families that are not fishing, as lines can get tangled and no one wants cut bait to attract a nearby shark – a good reason why fishing in the early morning or at night is best.
Whether chartering a captain, renting a boat from a marina or taking your own boat out in the water, inshore fishing (in the creeks and inlets between an island and the mainland) is another beginner- and family-friendly way to wet a line.
Inshore waters are typically calm and rarely pose the problem of seasickness. And fishing close to the grass near healthy oyster beds on the edge of the Intracoastal Waterway can be a productive place.
If you go out on your own, however, it’s important to pay attention to tide charts and maps, as low tides can leave boats stranded in shallow back creeks.
Redfish are the most sought after catch for inshore fishing around the Charleston area. But flounder, speckled sea trout and sheepshead are also common targets. Excellent fishing can be found year-round, although the warmer months (March-November) are generally best.
A good rig for this type of fishing is a 7-foot, medium-light, fast action rod, with a 3000 or 4000 size spinning reel; 20-pound test braided line; a 30-40-pound test leader of around 6-inches long; on a 1/0 or 2/0 circle hook, with a half-ounce or 1-ounce sinker. Some local captains and fishermen are successful using artificial lures, but cut bait (shrimp and mullet) or mud minnows are the most popular.
This type of fishing does require more accuracy, but it really pays to hook up. Redfish are legendary for their fighting spirit, requiring anglers to work smartly in order to get them in the boat.
There is world class fly-fishing and sight-fishing in Charleston and the surrounding islands, especially for redfish. The summer season here, in particular, presents fly anglers with some truly unique fishing opportunities. The full and new moons bring drastically higher tides, and these high tides allow hungry redfish to swim farther into the marshes in search of blue crabs, fiddler crabs, shrimp and smaller fish.
Many fly anglers target redfish in these flooded spartina marshes because the fish are easier to spot, often sticking their tails out of the water while rooting around for food. Crab pattern flies are popular, but presentation is of utmost importance, as you need to cast delicately in front of a redfish so as not to spook it.
Because fishing is subject to so many variables – tides, wind, weather, season, time of day, other boats on the water – the best way to wade into the world of Charleston fishing is to hire a charter fishing guide.
These experienced and knowledgeable captains provide the boat, the tackle, the license and, most importantly, the knowledge.
Most captains offer four-, six- and eight-hour inshore, near shore and offshore trips. It’s recommended that beginners not try near shore or offshore fishing without a charter captain or an experienced guide.
Since numerous reefs and wrecks lie just off shore in the Charleston area, near shore fishing, considered by most to be within three miles of the shore, offers exciting possibilities. The same fish you catch inshore, you can catch near shore – only bigger.
This type of fishing is recommended for those who want to bring home their catch. While most captains prefer to practice catch-and-release, many will let customers keep a dinner’s worth (rather than a freezer’s worth) of fish. Additionally, near the reefs in 40 or 50 feet of water, the “bycatch” (a term for the catch you are not targeting) can often be fat, flat and delectable flounder.
HEAD BOAT TRIPS
A more budget-friendly way to try out Charleston fishing is to take a trip on a head boat, which charges per person.
Barrier Island Eco Tours offers the only head boat experience in Charleston. You can pay individually to go out for 3.5 hours on their bay boat, which accommodates up to six passengers, or take a 2.5-hour trip on their larger skiff with up to eight other people.
Both trips target whatever’s biting, and all the captains are knowledgeable about the area’s ecosystem, local wildlife and history.
Whether you choose a short inshore trip with your children to start a family tradition or a longer trip out in the Atlantic, any kind of Charleston fishing trip will be time well, and happily, spent.
Captain Ben Floyd grew up in McClellanville, South Carolina, graduated from Lander College and worked as a counselor in a therapeutic wilderness program before becoming a charter captain in 2002. He has been the owner/operator of Charleston Fish Finder, which runs out of the Isle of Palms Marina, for 14 years.
Hastings Hensel lives in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina and teaches in the English Department at Coastal Carolina University. He is the author of the poetry collection Winter Inlet, winner of the 2014-2015 Unicorn Press First Book Prize.
Charter Fishing Trip
by Hastings Hensel
HASTINGS WITH HIS 24-POUND REDFISH
We motor out from the Isle of Palms Marina, passing bright white catamarans and sport fishing yachts, and head toward Charleston Harbor. In the rod-holders, the Penn Ugly Stick rods skewer a cloudless blue sky.
On the trip with me is photographer, Ben Sumrell. And at the helm is Captain Fritz Von Kolnitz of Adventure Outdoors, now in his 17th year of running a charter fishing boat. Our aim, as it is most days with Captain Fritz, is to catch what is formally known as a red drum, but what most people call a “redfish,” just a “red,” or, if we’re lucky, a “bull red” – the meaty kind that extends well over the 23-inch limit. It’s not the kind of fish to take home with you, but definitely the kind that makes the best photographs.
We might also hook a shark. Over the course of the summer, Captain Fritz says he will catch up to ten different species of shark. Or maybe a black drum. Possibly a flounder.
Whichever the case, Captain Fritz is confident. Earlier that morning on another charter, his clients, a mother and daughter from Canada, had caught two bull reds exactly where we are bound – the rock jetties lining the harbor. The conditions seem perfect – an outgoing tide and little to no wind. And there’s also the fact that Captain Fritz knows these waters intimately.
“I grew up on Shem Creek,” he explains. “I’ve been running a boat since I was 7 years old. The creek was my babysitter.”
We anchor down, and Captain Fritz sets to work. He attaches the sinkers, checks the drag, then dips down with a net into the live well and comes up with a dozen large menhaden – a bait fish he’d caught that morning in his cast net. On two rods he attaches live bait, and for the other two rods he cuts off the bait’s head and makes a slit behind its dorsal fin, chumming the water with blood. Then he casts the rods near the jetty rocks, and we sit back and wait, and wait some more, for that twitch of the rod tip that means a fish is taking the bait.
“This is when kids sometimes say to me, ‘When are we going to do some fishing?’ You’ve got to keep kids interested, or else they’ll start looking for a Wi-Fi signal pretty quick.”
That’s why Captain Fritz keeps smaller rods on his boat, and he baits those with shrimp for children to catch sea bass and croaker. Usually this time of year, they’ll catch something. We, however, are catching nothing. So he moves to another spot. Then another.
Finally, there’s a twitch. He checks, cries, “Fish on!” and hands me the rod. I start pumping away, a lengthy and difficult fight that I think, for a moment, might beat the boat record – a 54-inch, 50-pound bull red that Captain Fritz says “took the whole family to get in the boat.”
AUTHOR, HASTINGS HENSEL, REELING IN A STING RAY
But what appears is not a redfish. It is a gigantic sting ray, as heavy and stubborn as a doormat. Whereas some people might be excited to catch such a creature, Captain Fritz is disappointed. So he decides to try one more place.
Around 4 p.m. we anchor under the Arthur Ravenel Bridge, with cars passing over us and container ships coming into port nearby. But today doesn’t seem to be our day.
We start to reel in and head home. Then, as if on cue, Captain Fritz yells, “Fish on!” and hands me the rod again. This time, there won’t be any disappointment. What comes up out of the depths, into the boat and into my hands is a beautiful redfish, a bull red, all of 40 inches and 24 pounds.
I grip the slippery fish and smile for the camera, before Captain Fritz punctures two small holes in its swim bladder to relieve pressure and lets the fish go – perhaps for the next angler on another beautiful Charleston day.