I got the call at about 10 p.m. on a cold winter night. I realize that a low in the mid-30s during January isn’t considered cold by many fly-fishermen, but in Charleston, South Carolina, anything below 50 degrees will keep the waters pleasantly devoid of angling pressure. My fishing partner, Capt. Jeremy Mehlhaff, was on the line, and he’d had an open day with an early-morning low tide, sunny skies and light winds. We met at the launch a few hours after he phoned and quickly splashed the boat into the predawn fog and headed away from the city lights and many steeples that define the Holy City’s skyline. Our mission was to explore some areas off the beaten path and find some new schools of winter redfish to harass with 8-weights and a box full of fur and feathers.
After a few harrowing minutes of running through the waning darkness and a pea-soup fog, we decided we should pole a bank and wait for a little more visibility before continuing on with any speed. There was now enough light to see disturbances on the glassy surface within a cast in any direction, and we were in just a few inches of water, so any decent-size redfish would likely give away its position. It was only a minute or two before we saw the first wake subtly pushing across the flat, and Mehlhaff wasted no time getting the little black Toad a few feet in front of the fish. For a few tense seconds, the wake disappeared and we wondered if the fish was wise to our presence, but finally there was an eruption of water and mud as the fish flared its gills to suck in the fly. A few minutes later, it was boat-side for a quick photo shoot in the morning haze before being released back into the chilly water.
The sun soon burned away the fog, and we removed layers as the temperature climbed into the 50s. As we continued to explore, we found a variety of schools in the crystal-clear water. There were a few groups of 20 to 30 that were extremely spooky and blew up at the tiniest hint that they were not alone. We encountered a massive school of 200 fish practically being chased out of the water by a pod of vicious dolphins. We managed to pick off a fish or two in these less than optimal conditions before moving on again. Our last stop of the day, which we had scoped out a few weeks earlier on Google Earth, was the most rewarding. Several hundred redfish from 6 to 10 pounds were moving up and down a grass edge in a foot or two of clear water, flashing as they fed on glass minnows. After admiring the view for a few short moments, we took turns feeding them feathers for an hour or so until they decided we had outstayed our welcome.
Charleston and the surrounding Low Country support a vivacious year-round redfish population, offering visiting fly-fishermen and local feather chuckers alike a shot at epic sight-fishing on any given day. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely days when they make you work for an eat. Some days they are just as tough to feed as downtown Islamorada, Florida, bonefish. On the other hand, there are days when they will smash even the most poorly presented flies. Most days lie somewhere in the middle, with a few fish blowing up at the subtle flash of a line in the air and a few rewarding your efforts by charging the fly and inhaling it back to their crushers.
South Carolina’s favorite game fish are blessed with a labyrinth of waterways surrounding Charleston to call home. The waters are varied, and redfish can be found in a multitude of different habitats and situations. The breeders live in deep harbor channels, in the big water off the beaches and farther offshore, and they are generally targeted with bait and heavy spinning gear. A few persistent fly-fishermen venture offshore in the spring and fall and search for the occasional school that turns the surface into a frothing copper frenzy where any large fly will not go unnoticed for long. However, most redfish are targeted in their formative years, before they head offshore to create the next generation. They grow quickly and remain in the shallows for about two years, and at about age 3, they move to deeper waters. Every now and then, a bruiser can be found in the shallows, hanging with its younger brethren or snacking on treats from its youth, but in general, the skinny-water targets top out at 12 to 15 pounds.
While the water around Charleston can be very clear, most of the time it is not. In order for sight-fishing to work in dingy water, the fish must be shallow, and Charleston redfish are normally happy to oblige. On lower tidal stages, redfish can be found in water barely (or not even) covering their backs year-round on mud flats in large bays and oyster-filled basins, or on flats that line the edges of rivers and the Intracoastal Waterway. They can also be found in surprisingly tiny feeder creeks that fan out into the marsh in every direction from the larger bodies of water. Often they will remain in these creeks until almost every drop of water exits on the falling tide, belly-crawling across the barely covered pluff mud. When the tide returns, they hold at its edge, following the advancing water back toward and eventually into the Spartina grass.
You certainly have the opportunity to find redfish on any day of the year in skinny water, but the fish behave in ways that are much more conducive to fly-fishing, and just plain fun to watch, at certain tides and times during the seasons.