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October 26, 2001

Charleston Rocks Around the Clock

Seriously addicted fishermen who want to experience as much top-to-bottom, rod-bending excitement as possible in a single outing should put an overnight charter off Charleston at the top of their priority list.

Mixing business and pleasure offers many perks, but the disadvantages frequently test a man's dedication to professional responsibilities. During a visit to Charleston, South Carolina, last August, I waged an internal tug-of-war between duty and distraction. We were enjoying a prolonged, hot bite, and the variety of fish coming over the rail of Teaser2 made for plenty of fun and photo ops; on the other hand, I could no longer put off the arduous task of interviewing Capt. Mark Brown.

The problem had nothing to do with Brown's personality - the affable, savvy skipper gladly shares his knowledge with others. In fact, his ability to put anglers on fish was the very source of my dilemma. On most fishing trips, occasional and inevitable lulls in action provide perfect opportunities to collect information by conversing with charter captains. Not this time: We'd been fishing for hours with no downward trend in excitement levels, so it took every bit of courage and willpower I could summon to place the rod in a holder, grab my microcassette recorder, climb up to the flybridge and talk to my host.

Our dialogue lasted about 45 minutes but suffered numerous interruptions as Brown tended to responsibilities of his own: calling out instructions to anglers, scrambling down to help gaff several fish, cutting back chafed leaders and retying hooks.

Plenty o' Pogies
Though this trip began like so many others, it didn't take long for me to see why Shakespeare Fishing Tackle's Mark Davis had been so insistent on making it happen. Along with Davis and myself, our group included Shakespeare rod engineer Jim Franklin, Sport Fishing's Dan Lindley and Scott Salyers, and my wife, Ligia.

After we left the dock at Shem Creek (just outside Charleston) around dinnertime, catching bait became the first order of business. Brown stationed himself on the bow with a cast net while the mate took the helm and maneuvered Teaser2 toward nervous water near Patriot's Point. With the bridge over Charleston Harbor and the WWII aircraft carrier Yorktown in the background, Brown tossed his net. Twenty minutes later, the boat's oversized livewell held hundreds of menhaden - enough ammunition to keep us gunning all night. Another basketful of these pogies stashed in the cooler would serve as cut bait and chum.
Brown delivered a brief lecture on American history as we passed Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Once beyond the jetties, the skipper set a course to take us 35 miles offshore, southeast of Charleston. "That area has a rocky bottom with a well-defined ledge in about 100 feet of water," Brown said.

Built to Brown's specifications by Custom Dive Boats in DeLeon Springs, Florida, the all-fiberglass, 45-foot Teaser2 relies on a pair of 460-hp Lugger diesels to generate 22 knots of cruising speed. Extra bulkheads and safety equipment assure that the vessel exceeds Coast Guard certification requirements, allowing Brown to carry up to 20 passengers. The boat's unique, utilitarian layout exactly serves Brown's needs as a charter captain. "I designed the boat to work well for more than one type of activity," he says. Though fishing charters represent his mainstay, Brown also offers harbor cruises and dive trips - thus the certification for the rather large number of passengers.

The spacious, open cockpit is equally suited to accommodate floating cocktail parties or a sizable team of avid fishermen. A waist-high rail offers safety as well as a convenient rod rest. Benches toward the front of the cockpit face the rail, yet don't extend so far back as to get in the way of anglers dropping lines off the transom. A huge, coffin-style fish box occupies center stage, providing a convenient station for cutting chum and baiting hooks, while the large, circular livewell sits in a corner.

"We've got room for 15 anglers, but it gets pretty tight with that many," says Brown. "Up to 10 or 12 anglers can bottom-fish comfortably when they spread out along the rail. And she's not just a bottom-fishing boat. I installed Rybovich outriggers so we can also troll for pelagics."

Hot Nights
Upon anchoring at nightfall over one of many sweet spots in Brown's little black book, the mate became a blur as he worked the cockpit and made sure each angler dangled a fresh bait in the strike zone. Brown used the flybridge as a work station so hooks, leader material and sinkers remained accessible yet out of harm's way. When the action got hot and heavy, Brown stayed in the "upstairs office," re-rigging rods and handing them down to anglers as needed.

We quickly discovered that the ledge off Charleston hosts more than one way to put a lovely bend in an Ugly Stik. Salyers offered no arguments when the mate suggested he send a squirming menhaden, tethered to 50-pound-mono lifeline, on an exploratory dive. That pogy's assignment was reclassified as a suicide mission when a 16-pound gag grouper gulped the bait.

My wife preferred tussling with smaller game. Bumping bottom with squid and cigar minnows produced consistent bites from tasty "beeliners" (vermilion snapper). Then Davis locked horns with a stubborn brute that turned out to be a 20-pound scamp grouper. All the while, Atlantic sharpnosed sharks and white grunts greedily filled in gaps between bites from more desirable game fish.
Suddenly the dragging whine of a large spinning reel turned my head. What the...? Brown had free-lined a stinger-rigged menhaden on wire leader, loosened the drag and placed the rod in a holder along the rail. A hefty king mackerel - the first of several that night - made a few strong, streaking runs before Franklin coaxed it to the boat.

Strange as it may seem, all this excitement was stirred up by bait that Brown considers second-rate. "Menhaden usually hang in the harbor from April through October. They run so thick that a few tosses of the net catch all you need for a day," he says. "The trick is to find fish quickly so you can use the baits while still fresh. Menhaden produce bites, but they're not hardy. They don't last as long as pinfish in the livewell."

According to Brown, pinfish make better baits, but they're not always available. At times he finds them stacked up in certain places offshore and fills the livewell in short order by dropping multiple-hook rigs and catching four or five pinfish at a time. "I like pinfish best because they're hardy, fast baits," he says. "They hit the bottom and start motoring around - grouper and snapper jump on them."
The fish that bit our menhaden had no qualms about scarfing down "second-best" baits. By the time I forced myself to stop fishing and get that interview with Brown, our six-angler team had tallied five gags and two scamp groupers ranging from 16 to 20 pounds, three kingfish over 20 pounds, several red snapper topping 10 pounds and enough beeliners to provide a delicious dinner for everyone.

All these fish didn't come from a single hot spot. Whenever action began to slow, Brown simply pulled anchor and relocated at another point along the ledge. Consistent catches of grouper and snapper occur because the ocean floor in this area attracts and holds bottom fish. Brown enjoys diving, so he's taken up-close looks at the territory under his hull. "The bottom off Charleston is very different from that off northeast Florida, where I grew up. Here the limestone has lots of crevices, ledges, sea fans and sponges," he says. "Off Florida, you find light-colored bottom holding oculina coral and brain coral. The bottom's darker here, covered with grassy, kelpy-looking growth. I've noticed that fish take on the color of these surroundings. The gags we catch look yellowish."

Determining exactly where to drop a line on any given day requires judging conditions and making educated guesses based on years of experience (Brown's been living in Charleston since 1987 and fishing for nearly four decades) as well as networking with other skippers. "Current is an important factor in deciding where to fish," Brown says. "I stay in touch with the head-boat captains, and we let each other know what the current's doing."

Catch My Drift
By 2 a.m., action slowed enough for our group to take a long nap without fretting over missed opportunities. We figured it was better to sleep a few hours than stay awake all night catching ever-hungry grunts and sharks.

The diesels rumbled reveille at daybreak, calling groggy anglers to battle stations as the mate set out a spread of ballyhoo for a leisurely morning troll. An hour or so of dragging baits produced a couple barracuda and peanut dolphin, so Brown gave us a choice: Keep trolling in hopes of finding larger dolphin and perhaps billfish, or see what we could scare up with live bait along the ledge. Since trolling action seemed slow - especially compared to the nonstop, drop-and-pop bite of the night before - we elected to bottom-fish.

Rather than anchor up, Brown let the boat drift over likely spots, trailing baits at various depths. Instead of using downriggers to hold baits at mid-depths on light line, Brown attaches a sash weight and release clip to the teaser line running from the bridge through the outrigger. Several amberjack and kingfish showed how effectively the trick works by grabbing the baits, popping the clips and providing great sport prior to release.

With six anglers holding baits at different levels in the water column, we enjoyed great fishing for hours, often scoring multiple hookups as kings hit near the surface, AJs wolfed midrange baits, and red snapper or black seabass gobbled offerings scraping bottom. Amberjack also slammed metal jigs and bucktails, and a 15-pound African pompano dropped in to liven up the party.

The steady output of struggling-fish vibrations eventually called in a 7-foot lemon shark that lazily circled the boat. Acting quickly, Brown rigged a 50-pound trolling outfit with heavy wire leader, large hook and half a frozen bonito for bait. Davis lobbed the smelly snack over the rail, and the shark's nose led it right into our trap. Five minutes into the fight with the surprisingly lethargic shark, the hook pulled. Davis rebaited with the rest of the bonito and promptly hooked the lemon again. As it neared the transom, we noticed the shark wore a collar: A packing strap circled its gills and was beginning to cut into the shark's neck. The mate slipped a gaff hook under the strap and held the shark while Salyers cut the strap away. Gaining a second wind, the shark bolted and fought for another 10 minutes before we could release it.

Charleston's Cornucopia
The versatility of Teaser2, combined with Brown's knowledge and experience, allows anglers to cash in on Charleston's varied offshore fishery by mixing bottom fishing and trolling - especially on an overnight trip, when there's time to explore all possibilities. The variety of species appearing on the hit list reflects seasonal availability.

"Fishing changes with the seasons since we have good runs of certain species at different times of year," says Brown. "King mackerel fishing remains consistent year-round, but it seems the big kings fall inshore when schools of menhaden get thick in the summer. Then it's red hot. On a half-day trip last August, we caught eight kings over 20 pounds, along with plenty of jack crevalle and blacktip sharks. All those fish were within sight of the jetty rocks just outside the harbor."

In August and September, sailfish often turn up 30 to 45 miles offshore in depths of 100 to 180 feet. "We get consistent action on large dolphin, brutes of 50 or 60 pounds. Last year we caught three that topped 70 pounds. The only drawback is distance, since the bigger ones usually stay about 60 miles offshore," says Brown.
"This area offers great nighttime tuna chunking about 50 miles out," Brown adds. "The season peaks when yellowfin migrate through in April, May and June.

Chunking's a lot of fun because it brings tuna right up to the transom. You just fire a bait in the water and you're hooked up. We usually chunk all night, then troll for yellowfin and dolphin the next day. As summer progresses, tuna and dolphin move closer to shore. The large schools have left, but we catch scattered fish in shallower water."

While the availability of pelagics varies with the seasons, bottom fishing offers consistent, year-round alternatives. Grouper and red snapper take baits winter and summer; black seabass really turn on in the winter. "Seabass migrate inshore during winter. I'm sure of that because we don't find as many while fishing reefs in summer. In winter we make consistent catches of fat 2- to 3-pounders. They're fun to catch and make great eating too," says Brown.

If you're bent on hooking a scamp grouper, Charleston delivers better-than-average odds: Brown sees more scamps here than any other place he's fished. "On some days, the headboats bring back 100 scamps averaging 6 to 8 pounds, along with occasional 15- to 20-pounders," he says. Brown also cites hogfish, African pompano and yellowtail snapper as frequent catches for bottom-bumping anglers.

 While a half- or one-day trip on Teaser2 provides an excellent way to sample the tremendous variety of game fish off South Carolina's coast, it just may not suffice for can't-get-enough, hard-core anglers. Seriously addicted fishermen who want to experience as much top-to-bottom, rod-bending excitement as possible in a single outing should put an overnight charter off Charleston at the top of their priority list.