Lowcountry Fishing and Hunting Guide

By Matt Winter
Published in My Charleston: The Post and Courier’s Guide to Life in the Lowcountry

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Photograph by Matt Winter

You can’t go anywhere around Charleston without running into, over, around or sometimes even through water.

As the locals are fond of saying, Charleston marks the spot where the Ashley and Cooper rivers join to form the Atlantic Ocean.

Saltwater and pluff mud are in our blood. Charleston’s a port town, a beach town, a river town, a seafood town. And it is, without a doubt, a fishing town.

Look around on any weekend and you’ll see boat ramps packed to the gills with trucks and boat trailers. Pass over any of our many bridges and you’ll see a line of center consoles zipping up and down the rivers and creeks.

If you live here or are just visiting — don’t miss out. Get out there and catch ’em up. Here are some tips to help (with a few hunting tips thrown in at the end for you hardcore outdoorsmen and -women).

 Redfish

Redfish, also known as spot-tail bass and red drum, form the backbone of the local inshore fishery. Catches range from tiny “puppy drum” in saltwater creeks to 40-plus-inch “breeder reds” at the Charleston Jetties and nearshore reefs.

Redfish will hit a variety of baits, including shrimp, menhaden, mullet and quartered blue crabs. Spoons, soft-plastic grubs, top-water plugs and a number of fly patterns also work well.

In the winter, anglers pole their boats into the flats to sight-cast to redfish congregating in the shallows for warmth and protection from hungry dolphins.

In the spring and summer, reds are plentiful throughout coastal estuaries. Look for spot-tails around docks, creek mouths and in flooded marsh grass during extreme high tides. In the fall, fishing gets even better as reds fatten up on migrating shrimp. As temperatures cool, many anglers hit the beach for hot surf-fishing action.

Concentrate your efforts in the shallows and right along the marsh grass during higher tides. Redfish often follow the rising tide and hunt in waters so shallow that their tails and backs break the surface.

Speckled seatrout

Fishing for speckled seatrout can be a ton of fun. These feisty, beautiful fish strike hard, fight well and produce light-tasting, flaky white fillets.

Trout seem to prefer relatively clean and fast-moving water and often gather at ambush points along a riverbank.

Many trout anglers fish live mud minnows, finger mullet or shrimp under a float. Others prefer artificial lures. Top-water plugs can draw explosive trout strikes at dawn and dusk, but the standard trout lure of choice continues to be a quarter-ounce jig head rigged with a soft-plastic grub. This time-honored combination is deadly. When the bite is hot in the fall, a couple of experienced anglers can catch dozens of trout in short order.

Flounder

Who doesn’t love flounder? These fascinating flatfish make for superb table fare and can be caught inshore from spring through fall. Bigger flounder move out to nearshore wrecks and reefs in the wintertime.

Many anglers use a simple Carolina rig consisting of a light egg sinker on the mainline followed by a swivel, about 18 inches of 20-pound leader and a hook. Mud minnows are the bait of choice for flatfish, though finger mullet and shrimp work just fine. Slowly work these rigs along riverbanks and around dock pilings, oyster beds and creek mouths.

When a flounder strikes, you’ll often feel a thump on the line, then nothing. Give the fish a few seconds to reposition the bait in its mouth, then set the hook.

Sheepshead

Locals take no small amount of pride in their sheepshead fishing skills, and for good reason. These beautiful, structure-oriented fish are notoriously tough to hook. Built to chomp barnacles off pilings and rocks, sheepshead sport a mouthful of funky teeth.

The sheepshead fishery heats up through the fall and winter, with anglers concentrating their efforts at dock pilings, rock jetties and nearshore reefs.

Most anglers use fiddler crabs for bait, though shrimp and clam meat work well. A typical sheepshead rig consists of a few splitshot weights, about 18 inches of leader and a small, sturdy hook.

Cobia

Cobia move into Lowcountry waters in late spring, with prime time arriving in May and June. Though occasionally caught inshore, most cobia are landed at nearshore reefs and near the shipping channel buoys.

Many of the cobia found off our coast are big fish, some topping out at more than 60 pounds. These brown-and-white brutes are curious, often approaching an anchored boat.

A popular and productive cobia fishery has developed south of Charleston in sounds and inlets near Beaufort, where the fish are thought to arrive en masse to spawn.

Many cobia catches are incidental, but if you’re targeting these bad boys, bring along plenty of tackle and bait. Sometimes, they’ll only hit pink bucktail lures. Other times, they’ll only want live fish, or live crabs, or cut bait. You just never know.

King mackerel

Like souped-up, super-sized versions of Spanish mackerel, kings rank as one of the most sought-after targets of small-boat anglers.

A basic live-baiting king trip starts inshore, with anglers cast-netting for menhaden. With a live well filled with bait, anglers head to the shipping channel or to any one of the many well-known trolling grounds in 40 to 80 feet of water.

Using wire rigs with multiple treble hooks, a crew will deploy up to a half-dozen lines at staggered distances behind their boat. “Bump-trolling,” continually edging the boat in and out of gear, keeps the lines from getting tangled.

Big, lively baits are key to catching trophy king mackerel. To avoid pulling the small treble hooks on a nice mackerel, anglers set drags light and drive the boat toward a hooked fish. Once boatside, keeper kings are gaffed.

Amberjack

Big and plentiful but derided by some anglers as trash fish, amberjack present one of the Lowcountry’s most underrated fishing opportunities.

Spared the fishing pressure applied to other species, AJs seem to be doing quite well at most nearshore reefs and wrecks. Fish heavier than 20 pounds are common, with some trophy specimens reaching 100 pounds or more.

AJs will hit just about anything, from trolled ballyhoo to heavy knife jigs, cut bait and big flies.

Sharks

The waters around Charleston are filled with myriad shark species, from 500-plus-pound great hammerheads offshore (above) to 10-foot-long tigers at the reefs and fat blacktips at the inlets. Inshore, anglers can always count on a few Atlantic sharpnose and those neat-looking bonnethead sharks.

Shark fishing is fun and easy. Rig up just about any live or cut bait on a stout Carolina rig, then cast it along a bank, into the surf or down in a deep hole. Sooner or later, some kind of shark or ray will pick it up.

Big bonnetheads are plentiful around Charleston. The cool thing about fishing for bonnetheads is that you can target them by using quartered blue crabs for bait. Other sharks usually will ignore the crab, but bonnetheads (along with big redfish) love it.

 Snapper-grouper

Recent changes to federal fishing rules have turned bottom-fishing on its head. New limits and closed seasons have touched a number of species, including gag grouper, red snapper and black sea bass.

Anglers can participate in the fishery, but they should use circle hooks and visit safmc.net for the latest changes.

In general, anglers can find black sea bass from live-bottom areas in 60 feet of water out to the artificial reefs in about 90 feet. Vermilion snapper and gray triggerfish also school around underwater structures in the 80- to 120-foot depth. Small, sturdy hooks are key to catching triggerfish. A trigger school often shows up on a depth-finder screen as a chevron-shaped collection of blue fish marks.

Gag and scamp grouper can be found in about 60 feet of water, though the fishing is better from 90 feet out to about 240 feet. Despite the popular belief that grouper are mostly found around wrecks, many seasoned bottom-fishermen look for these tasty fish in live-bottom areas with relatively low-profile pieces of bottom structure.

Frozen squid remains the go-to bait for bottom fishing, though cigar minnows and a variety of live baits can improve success when targeting specific species.

Dolphin

Dolphin are to Charleston’s offshore fishery what redfish are to its inshore fishery. Pound for pound, no other fish means as much to the offshore fleet.

Every year, unbelievable numbers of these fast-growing, neon-colored fish migrate north off our coast. For the past few years, the dolphin fishing’s been hottest from late April through May, with bigger fish (30 to 50 pounds) typically moving through first. But dolphin are common well into summer and fall, and even have been known to show up just 12 miles or so from shore during the hottest months.

It’s tough to pick the dolphin’s greatest attribute. Its willingness to hit just about any lure or bait? Its acrobatics when hooked? Its abundance and great taste?

All of the above.

Look for temperature breaks, current upwellings or rips, weed lines and anything floating. Some boats spend hours catching dolphin around a single piece of floating debris.

Wahoo

They don’t jump when hooked, and you’ll probably never seen them actually hit a lure. What wahoo will do, however, is put a serious hurting on whatever poor fish happens to get in front of its crazy jaws. And if they’re on the end of your line? Get ready for an impressive display of speed.

Shaped like a torpedo and adorned with blue tiger stripes, wahoo tend to hang out along the ledge, where the water depth drops relatively quickly from about 140 feet deep to more than 200.

Wahoo can be caught virtually year-round off Charleston, including during colder months. Fish in the 30- to 50-pound range are common, and some 80-plus pounders are caught most years.

Most are caught by anglers trolling offshore lures rigged with ballyhoo. Though wahoo are often incidental (and very welcome) catches, offshore crews targeting these toothy fish incorporate wire into their rigs to avoid cutoffs.

Try dark colors for wahoo. They seem to like black and red trolling lures, especially.

Tuna

Let’s get this out of the way: If you’re looking for yellowfin tuna, Charleston’s not your best bet. The yellowfin bite has dropped off to practically nil in recent years, with some folks blaming international overfishing, others a change in yellowfin migration.

Whatever the case, thank goodness for blackfin (above). These smaller tuna still grow to about 30 pounds or so off our coast, and in recent years some offshore crews have figured out how to fill their fish boxes with these sleek, hard-fighting fish.

The blackfin bite seems to be hottest in spring, though they can be caught throughout the year. Some anglers troll ballyhoo with light leaders to compensate for the tuna’s great eyesight. Others drift-fish on the ledge using deep-dropping “knife” or “flutter” jigs. Still others cast top-water plugs to schooled up blackfin.

Blackfin love to hang around structure, so stick to the ledge. Some say the blackfin bite turns on once offshore water temperatures reach 69 degrees.

Charleston also sports a healthy bonita population, though anglers generally consider them undesirable. Giant bluefin are rare, but wintertime catches do happen.

Billfish

They say horse racing is the sport of kings, but billfishing can’t be far behind. Most billfish trips take place about 50 miles or more off Charleston at such popular spots as the Georgetown Hole, Edisto Banks and the 226 Hole.

Boats can and have achieved a “super-slam” out of Charleston, catching blue marlin, white marlin, swordfish and sailfish all in one trip.

The marlin bite gets going in late spring and runs strong through June and July. The sailfish bite stays hot throughout the summer; in recent years offshore anglers have reported a fall bonanza of sails.

Trolling for blues and whites usually involves a mix of bigger trolling lures and standard lure-ballyhoo rigs. Sails prefer smaller lures or “naked” ballyhoo. Crews fish for swords mostly at night, dropping big rigged squid and other baits down into deep water.

Though anglers generally keep legal swordfish, most other billfish are released (except a few blue marlin during big-money tournaments).

Most crews serious about billfish run a number of teasers, including dredges that trail a collection of teaser baits and mimic a school of small fish.

 Deer hunting

A large whitetail population, liberal bag limits and a season running Aug. 15 through Jan. 1 make South Carolina a deer hunter’s dreamland.

Hunters can dog-drive or still hunt deer, and in coastal areas, baiting is legal on private lands.

Public hunting opportunities abound, including in the Francis Marion National Forest north of Charleston and other wildlife management areas to the south.

Hunters can take deer with a rifle, shotgun or bow, and since its season starts so early, South Carolina is one of the few states where hunters can take a buck in velvet.

When the season starts in mid-August, bucks usually are still in their bachelor groups. They soon break up and start establishing individual domains. This pre-rut in early September is a great time to take a trophy buck. As the weather cools and days shorten in mid-October, the rut begins and hunting gets better and better.

Pro tip: Prepare yourself for some serious bug action. The locals joke about mosquitoes being our state bird, but it’s not far from the truth. An added bonus: chiggers and ticks are voracious in late summer. Do yourself a favor and stock up on bug spray, Bug Tamer gear and a ThermaCELL.

Duck hunting

Though bigger ducks and geese sometimes make an appearance, most duck hunting around the Lowcountry revolves around resident and migrating wood ducks, ringnecks, and blue- and green-winged teal.

Look for woodies in flooded timber, teal in coastal impoundments.

Pro tip: Wood ducks are incredibly beautiful and relatively plentiful. Hunters all over the world would jump at the chance to bag one of these beauties. With a little research and a small investment in licenses and stamps, even a novice hunter should be able to find success in the swamps of the Francis Marion Forest.

Wild turkeys

Once a rare sight in South Carolina, wild turkeys have rebounded throughout the state. With huge tracts of protected lands, the Lowcountry has long provided a refuge for these magnificent birds.

Every spring, the open piney woods and hardwood bottoms crackle with sound of early-morning gobbling. Turkey hunters take to the woods in droves, driven to test their calling skills and to match wits with crafty old toms.

Turkey hunting is limited to a spring season, and hunters may only take gobblers or jakes (young males).

Pro tip: You might not think it, but turkeys sure do love water. They often roost over swamps and cypress ponds, and don’t mind sloshing through wet hardwood bottoms all day. A great pair of water-proof boots may be the most underrated turkey-hunting tool.

More hunting

Deer, ducks and turkeys not enough for you? You can also go after bobwhite quail, marsh hens, dove, wild pigs, coyotes and even alligators.

For more information and regulations for all types of hunting and fishing, visit scdnr.gov.

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