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December 29, 2009

Cold-Water Charleston Redfish

When winter weather turns waters transparent, it's sight-casting time for South Carolina reds

The late-January morning didn't exactly offer the conditions that Capt. J.R. Waits had hoped for. It was pretty cool, but was it cold enough?

With a mental crossing of fingers, I pulled into the Isle of Palms Marina, just north of Charleston. Waits' years of local experience combined with the right conditions could mean finding ourselves in the middle of hundreds of reds milling about in shallow, clear water.

Of course, most folks who fish the marshy maze making up Charleston's backcountry do so during warmer months. True, for comfort and convenience, shirt-sleeve weather trumps bundling up in layers against the chill of winter.

But there's one critical difference that for some savvy anglers more than compensates: water clarity.

Ice-Cold Clarity
"In the winter, water temps here drop into the 50s," says Waits. "That causes all the algae in the water to die, which in turn clears our waters right up. We also get much less rain in the winter, and that means the water becomes more blue [and not so green]."

And that, says Waits, translates into near-crystal clarity - so, after several cold nights, you can see the bottom easily in six to eight feet of water. In summer, you're lucky to make out bottom in 12 inches of water.

While redfishing qualifies as exciting any time, any way, the opportunity to watch individual fish pick up a bait offers a particularly exhilarating way to fish, says Waits, and one not usually possible in warmer weather.

The colder the water, the bigger the schools that reds generally form. "I've seen schools of well over 1,000 redfish in a foot of water here - after we had to break ice off the boat before leaving the dock!" says Waits.

That's not to say a sunny, warming afternoon may not be a good thing since warming waters can turn on an aggressive redfish bite.

More often, Charleston's winter weather is on the mild side, though, when schools are a bit less pectoral-to-pectoral.

Let It Fall
The three of us joining Waits had high hopes. Mike Rice (senior product manager with Penn Reels) had driven down from Columbia, South Carolina, that morning to join Sport Fishing's managing editor Stephanie Pancratz and me. As we stowed gear aboard Waits' 17-foot Action Craft Fish Call, its 620-pound Kevlar/carbon hull powered by a Yamaha 90, Waits busied himself sorting through multiple green-lidded buckets of Gulp! baits, rigging Crazy Legs Jerk Shads and Grubs.

I noticed that, by and large, Waits seemed to stock predominantly natural colors. "Our fish tend to prefer earthy colors, so greens, browns, golds and the like work best. If a wind muddies the water, I may go to brighter colors like chartreuse or pink."

In fact, Waits says, it isn't the color of a worm as much as that familiar Gulp! fragrance that really accounts for the baits' success with these winter reds.

As a testament to just how effectively that scent works, as well as how leery the reds can be when the water clears like gin, Waits told us, while we motored out a no-wake zone: "The best presentation will be to cast your bait well up in front of a school, crank it a few times, then let it fall to bottom - dead still." The redfish will usually come right over and suck it up.

"If you keep twitching or moving it after it hits bottom, the reds often spook."