Starting around May, when you begin to see shrimpers trawling offshore, and continuing through summer and into October or November, Low Country redfish will push into the Spartina grass with the rising tide. High tides here typically range from 4½ to seven feet, and every few weeks when the spring tides arrive, highs over six feet flood hard-bottom grass flats, which hold huge populations of one of redfish’s favorite foods — fiddler crabs. Redfish push onto these flats and spread out to hunt, and local anglers follow. Redfish can be seen exposing their tails and backs at various times, but the summer is when the true tailing action occurs. Between the exposed tips of bright green grass, copper tails subtly slice the surface or clumsily wave in the air, splashing as the fish struggle to pin a crab to the bottom or suck one out of its burrow.
Because their minds are occupied, tailing fish often can be approached pretty easily and fooled into eating a well-placed fly. But they also can be very spooky when the water is clear and the wind is light. You can lead cruising fish by several feet to avoid spooking them, but active tailers can pose a problem in this department. When they are in full headstand mode, they are distracted, making noise and kicking up mud. They are looking for food that is close by, which means you should place the fly close to the fish.
Most flats likely to have tailing fish are accessible only by boat. Once there, you can wade if you like, although I prefer the stealth and elevated platform of a well-poled skiff. Walk-to flats do exist, but are closely guarded secrets that are seldom betrayed, even with Charleston’s famed Southern hospitality. A few hours of scouting on Google Earth or Bing Maps, followed by some trial and error (and muddy shoes), can sometimes lead you to a gold mine. While flats with short grass are generally wadable, venturing too close to tall grass will likely cause frustration since the bottom in these areas is generally very soft mud.
Fall Is for Shrimpers
During the summer, prey for the redfish is abundant: crabs, mullet, menhaden, mud minnows and shrimp. Early in the summer, shrimp are tiny and may make a good meal for rat reds, but the big boys seek larger prey. By the end of the summer, the larger shrimp become a large portion of the redfish’s diet. During low tides, shrimp congregate into the shallowest parts of mud flats in an attempt to avoid the schools of growing redfish. As the reds push down these shorelines, shrimp can be seen frantically jumping out of the water in front of the fish’s wake. But it’s not that easy being a shrimp. Taking to the sky alerts other mortal enemies, and soon gulls and egrets arrive. The sight of a dozen waking and tailing redfish pushing down a bank, with shrimp skittering in every direction and into the beaks of hovering gulls, is enough to get your blood pumping, but let’s not forget why we are here. These fish are gluttonous and fattening up on shrimp for the winter and will likely gobble up a shrimp imitation if you can get it out in front of them. The best shrimping activity occurs from August through November, with prime time at sunrise when the low tide is an hour or so after dawn. You can luck up on this kind of activity anywhere, but it seems to occur more regularly in shallow oyster-filled basins and bays. Scanning the horizon for concentrations of active gulls is a good practice this time of year, but you can’t run and gun in the shallow bays; you need to be patient and approach stealthily.
As the temperatures continue to fall, the shrimp, mullet and menhaden push out of the estuaries, moving away from the bustle of the peninsula and past the harbor’s historic forts. The water begins to clear, and redfish gather into ever-growing schools. All spring and summer, dolphins have fed on the same migrating prey, and this exodus becomes an increasing problem for redfish as the season wears on. Pods of dolphins begin regularly corralling huge schools of reds into the shallows and occasionally pick off one or two. This is highly entertaining and can make schools easier to find in the winter, but reds are seldom happy when they are being targeted as prey.
With low tides and light winds, even unmolested winter schools can be spotted from a distance. Look for either large blocks of the telltale copper color or large areas of unexplained nervous water. While the fish are easier to find on a low tide, they usually will be happier and a bit easier to feed with a little water over their backs. Their metabolism slows down in the winter and they feed much less, so if you can find days or locations with warmer water temperatures, you will find more willing fish. A lot of wary eyes in clear water can mean challenging fishing, though. When the fish get spooky, lengthen and lighten your leader. At times, I’ve used leaders up to 12 feet that taper down to 10- to 12-pound fluorocarbon.