WINTER COLUMN: Test your sheepshead skills at Mount Pleasant pier
Years ago, before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks led to amped-up security around bridges and other public infrastructure, you often could spot clusters of boats tied up to the columns of the old Cooper River bridges.
These boats carried die-hard sheepshead anglers, the ones who knew the secret to catching these notoriously hard-to-hook (yet very tasty) fish.
Savvy anglers used to pull plenty of tournament-winning fish off these enormous pilings, which were covered in thick coatings of the barnacles, oysters and crustaceans sheepshead love to crunch.
These days, the old bridges are gone, and the support structures of the Ravenel Bridge are decidedly off-limits to fishermen. But there's a place just over the harbor in Mount Pleasant where folks can relive those sheepshead glory days. And you don't even need a boat to do it.
The 1,250-foot long Mount Pleasant Pier, part of the town's Memorial Waterfront Park, stretches into Charleston Harbor under the shadow of the new bridge. The pier's foundation was created from pared-down pilings from the old Grace Memorial Bridge.
These pilings, still covered in decades worth of marine growth, are the reason the pier has developed such a reputation as a hot sheepshead spot.
Very few other spots in or around Charleston, if any, offer shore-bound anglers the chance to catch sheeps topping 10 pounds.
The fishing's been so good at the pier since it opened in 2009 that some of the folks who work there were glad to see new limits enacted last year.
Some pier anglers with a knack for hooking the toothy fish could catch (and keep) upward of 20 fish per day when the bite was hot. Now, thanks to the new law, anglers can keep only 10 fish per day, and the minimum size limit is 14 inches.
Winter is a great time to give it a try, especially since the pier is in the midst of its Winter Sheepshead Challenge. This fun little contest features a tackle shop gift card as a prize and runs through end of February.
Local angler Jackson Perry (above) is leading with an 11-pound, 7-ounce sheepshead caught Dec. 7.
There's no entry fee other than the regular daily fishing pass. Charleston County residents pay $5, non-residents pay $8. It's $3 for kids 12 and under and seniors 60 and up.
The pier is open all week, and shop's open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Anglers with a pass can fish until the pier closes at 11 p.m., but all sheepshead must be weighed by pier staff to be entered into the challenge.
Most sheepshead anglers use simply rigs consisting of an egg weight on the mainline above a short leader ending in a small J- or circle-style hook. Fiddler crabs are the bait of choice.
Jr. Duck Stamp winner
I had the pleasure and privilege last week of helping to judge this year's S.C. Junior Duck Stamp Contest. Looking over hundreds of entrees submitted by students from around the state, I was amazed at the level of talent these young artists exhibited.
The art competition is a partnership between the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state Department of Natural Resources and S.C. Ducks Unlimited (which sponsored the contest).
Emily Knudson, 14, of Mount Pleasant took top honors with a superb mixed media portrait of a redhead duck.
Hanna Massar, also 14 years old and of Mount Pleasant, took 1st Runner Up with an incredible close-up of a common merganser.
Both artists attend Thomas Cario Middle School and receive instruction from art teacher Stefani Timmerman.
2nd Runner Up: Elizabeth Chandler, 15, of Sumter.
3rd Runner Up: Ashley Bazzle, 17, of Summerville and Cane Bay High School.
4th Runner Up: Erin Signori, 13, of Mount Pleasant and — again — Thomas Cario Middle School.
My fellow judges were College of Charleston professor and Ducks Unlimited East Cooper Chairman Mark Hartley , local artist Christina Hewson, and DNR's Dean Harrigal and Don Winslow.
The tops entrees will be displayed at the Charleston County Public library on Calhoun Street during this year's SEWE, Feb. 15-17.
Reach Matt Winter at 843-937-5568 or firstname.lastname@example.org.