Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Carolina Low Country Redfish Schooling take the Fly

My family flew to Charleston, South Carolina; my son and I fly fished flats redfish behind Isle of Palms just north and east of the city with Jeremy Mehlhaff of Charleston Shallows. We fished for six and a half hours without a single cloud overhead. A front came through overnight, promising a very tough day. Arrival day had been partly sunny, 80 degrees, and then temperatures never rose beyond the mid-60s. Days like our first when temperatures spike with plenty of sun are the classic chilly season days when reds usually feed, and quite a number may be caught and released.

Wind wasn't too bad on this outing we planned well in advance but brisk enough to hamper my son's casting especially. You need to be able to double haul--not difficult to learn--and cast accurately about 50 feet with nine weight, weight forward line. Polarized sunglasses (amber), may help sight redfish long before they're in range. Sometimes you see nervous water first--not even wakes but subtle riffling--and then the fish come into view. You always want to cast ahead so you can make the fly seem to want to escape.

We began downwind not far from Isle of Palms Marina, water browned by wave action, casting very difficult, and we soon roared away, traveling for miles and to the west to get out of wind. I got a very bad impression from that stained water. I was afraid we'd get skunked. As Jeremy expected, we found clarity. I'll never forget the first red I sighted, a small one perhaps four pounds, and though my cast was awkward, this fish was too close to the boat and surely spooked anyway, though it didn't tear off but quickly passed us before I could throw a second cast. Jeremy sighted fish I couldn't see. I had to wait before I could cast as anticipation flourished with life. We found what we came here for. A friend of mine once went on a guided outing to fly fish redfish in Louisiana, I believe it was, and both he and his father got skunked. That was my secret little dread.

"9 o'clock! Get it out there." I double hauled as I false cast three times, three big reds approaching in front of many behind them. "Drop it." My 50 foot cast perfect, the Seducer fell behind the line of approach. "Strip, strip..." One of the three, a big one of at least 10 pounds, magnificent fish, caught sight of the "escaping" fly, lurching into direct view. The fish, which looked about three feet long and at least 15 pounds to me, darted without hesitation and in the next instant was hooked. Amazed with myself, this was the largest fish I've had on a fly rod. It fought for a full five minutes before the hook pulled. The experience was enough. 

Never drop the fly directly into the path of an oncoming fish unless it comes straight on, in which case you want to strip the fly away from the fish as if food is escaping, usually pulling the fly at an angle. And you want to strip the fly into the fish's view but avoid a cast that results in stripping directly towards the fish. When the fish strikes just keep stripping and the hook will set. Don't use the rod to set the hook. If you're strip-setting for the first time, you may find the habit of setting the hook with the rod irresistible, as I did, but if you just strip into the fish instead, you might boat the first red you have on. Keep the rod tip pointed low towards the water surface for a direct pull.

Sorry about the dearth of fish photos in this blog post--we caught some up to six pounds--but I have to save photos for use elsewhere. We had a great day. From mid-October the reds begin schooling. We sighted a school of close to a hundred fish, which may have offered us more productive fishing had these fish not spooked. That would have been asking too much, given our skills. Through the winter, there's lots of huge schools in these bays hanging out near sod banks, but not scouting right up against them as individual fish or small pods do during summer. If the fish are settled a few feet deep, fly fishing is useless. Through the winter months plenty or most will be in about a foot of water and vulnerable to people who can fly cast. We saw a lot of bottlenose dolphins and that's one of the reasons reds stay shallow--to avoid getting eaten. Reds feed especially on shrimp, plenty available to them. We noticed a lot of finger mullet they eat too.

If you see large, silvery fish, often schooling, you may be sighting adult mullet, not redfish. Mullet of three or four pounds are frequent. Reds are darker in coloration and thick bodied, although not always shading in the classic deep reddish tone, as the photos I've provided for this story show redfish in peachy and silvery colors. Jeremy says they're happiest when shading deep red.

Reds are spooky and that's part of what it's all about. Even the grind of the push pole against oyster shells can send them scurrying. So can the slap of chop against a skiff's bow. And when it's calm, a bad cast slapping the surface can send wakes in every direction.

Oyster bar (no drinks available)