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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

Clear-Water Trickery
Skippers like J.R. Waits alter the approach they use for redfish much of the year when winter waters grow clear and cool and fish get spooky. A few of his tricks:

• Make your leaders lighter and longer. He goes with six feet of 15-pound fluoro.

• Don't worry about soft baits that lack action; just put scented baits like Gulp! in front of the fish.

• Try to approach fish up-current, especially if using a trolling motor; current will carry sounds.

• Fish areas of dark-colored bottom on sunny days in the winter since they hold the warmth better than light areas.

• When the tricks work to produce results, Waits advises anglers to remember to make an extra effort to keep fish in the water, resuscitating as necessary; cold water leaves red drum less robust than under similar circumstances in the warm waters of summer.

Cold Fish
When water temps drop into the 50s, algae dies off and winter waters around Charleston clear rapidly. But what of red drum - at what temperatures do they die off?

Reds are indeed susceptible to frigid mid-Atlantic cold snaps that may drop shallow-water temps into the lower ranges at which the species can survive.

Aquaculture studies have shown that adult reds stop feeding when temperatures dive into the 40s - and die if the mercury falls as low as 34 to 37 degrees. However, Capt. J.R. Waits suggests reds are hardier than that, at least based on experiences he's had with his depth sounder showing water temps as cold as 37 degrees. Not only were reds not floating dead, he caught fish.

"Charleston Harbor temperatures were below 50 degrees for more than a week at one point. We lost a lot of speckled trout but not many redfish."

However, the actual temperature is only one variable; the rate of temperature drop is another. Reds can withstand relatively low temperatures following a gradual decline, but a rapid temperature drop can be lethal. Also, tolerances will vary both by size of fish and water salinity.

Generally, reds feed most actively in waters in the 60s and 70s. They certainly feed when the submarine thermometer - and therefore their body temp - registers in the 50s, but more sluggishly. Hence, guides like Waits advise anglers against much movement of any scented bait once it's near redfish.

Waits also looks for dark bottoms that gather heat. A flat with water in the 50s early in the day can warm into the 60s in the afternoon under a bright sun, warm enough to jump-start redfish into feeding actively for a time.