Bundle Up and Lighten Up
We bundled up against the damp gray chill as Waits cranked the throttle. He'd already told us we wouldn't have to run far; the Isle of Palms Marina sits very near the prime fishing grounds, making a run of more than 10 or 15 minutes rare. And he'd advised us that, lacking a few frosty nights before our trip, we'd have to work for our fish.
Time of day matters less than tide, says Waits, who likes to focus on the ebb tide and first part of the flood. Low tide exposes dark mud bottoms to the warming sun, when it's out.
The wind and overcast limited us to lots of blind casting until Waits could locate reds. While blind casting can produce action, the less active reds don't produce wakes as much as in warmer weather, so he really hopes to spot concentrated schools.
"In warmer months, fish are not in schools and are scattered; plus, the water is murky," Waits says, "so most of the time you're casting to pushing fish or mud boils versus watching them eat your lure and peel off with it."
Waits lightens up all around for this cold-weather fishery, preferring 8- to 10-pound braid (he uses Fireline) or mono tied with a Bimini double line directly to 15-pound fluorocarbon using a Bristol (aka Yucatan) knot. "That's pretty much my winter rig," Waits says, "but if it gets muddy, I'll rig the same thing under a popping cork such as a Cajun Thunder or Paradise Extreme popper. The popping noise really helps reds locate Gulp!s in muddy or deep water."
Also, long rods and light lines facilitate distance when casting, and that can be a good thing. Winter reds can be spookier than Casper. Plus, growing interest in this fishery has meant more boats casting to redfish schools in recent years.
But, Waits says, even more than anglers, bottlenose dolphins make the reds skittish. The warm-blooded mammals "are just as fast in winter as they are in summer, but the [cold-blooded] redfish are much slower, making for easy meals."
Although the scent of Gulp! makes those soft baits particularly effective in chilly water, that's no reason to leave topwater plugs or fly tackle at home. "On calm, clear days, topwater plugs such as Zara Spooks can be deadly," Waits acknowledges. "But your cast has to land far from the school; then you must work it slowly in front of the fish." Other good bets: Johnson weedless spoons in gold or black - especially when tipped with a Gulp! tail.
Fly-rodders may enjoy lots of shots per day with water clear and fish in large schools. Keep in mind that winter fish "are more in survival mode than feeding mode, so you may show your fly to many fish before one decides to eat." Waits has had his best success on lightweight Clouser minnows in earthy colors.
Even when winter waters clear, creating optimal fishing conditions, skies must clear as well. The combination of wind and leaden skies producing a dull surface glare gave Waits fits trying to spot anything from the poling platform.
But lo and behold, around midmorning, the veil lifted. Not for long, but for maybe a glorious hour that day, the heavens turned partly blue, and we got some sun.
That proved enough for Waits to start seeing our quarry.
"There!" he said.
Dark shapes became discernible off the starboard bow. We managed to get three Gulp! baits near the reds without spooking them, and keeping Waits' admonitions in mind, we generally resisted the urge to start working the baits, which Waits had rigged on Gamakatsu weighted Superline EWG hooks. Once we'd reeled them into "the zone," we barely moved them.
And just as the guide had said, the reds found them with little trouble. Before you could say Bob's your uncle, we had a triple going.
We landed two of three and, after a quick photo session, hurried to re-rig, hungry for more of that action. We did get a bit more, but after the skies closed again and the wind picked up, the best we could really expect was pick-'n'-scratch fishing the rest of the day.
But we'd gotten a good taste of how much fun Charleston's winter-redfish sight-casting action can be.