WINTER COLUMN: Hunting big reds in open water

  • Posted: Sunday, December 9, 2012 12:02 a.m.
Capt. Tucker Blythe caught this big redfish a few miles off Stono Inlet in late November.

Imagine you’re running your boat across a calm ocean just a few miles offshore of Charleston. Up ahead, gannets are diving and bottlenose dolphin are working a ball of bait at the surface. As you throttle down to check out the action, you spot flashes of orange in the water.

Your heart skips a beat as you realize that dozens of 20- to 30-pound red drum are mixed in with the dolphin. These trophy-caliber fish are rocketing up through the cool, clear water to slam hapless bait fish cut from the panicked school.

Now imagine hanging with this school of giant reds, catching one after another with spinning gear and fly rods.

Sounds too good to be true, but it happens — perhaps not that often — but it does happen.

Charter captains in North Carolina and Florida have figured out how to consistently catch big red drum in nearshore waters, and some Charleston anglers believe we can establish the same wintertime fishery here. They just need to pattern those fish.

Although it’s well-known that adult red drum move offshore in the cooler months, biologists aren’t quite sure where they go, specifically and for how long, off Charleston.

It’s not unusual for anglers to run into these giants while dropping squid for black seabass at nearshore artificial reefs. But a growing number of captains have begun actively hunting down these schools of big reds, mostly by following flocks of diving seabirds.

Just a few weeks ago, a small contingent of local anglers zeroed in on a big school about 5 miles off Stono Inlet. Capt. Tucker Blythe, a Charleston-based captain who’s trying to pattern this emerging wintertime fishery, was among them.

“It was pretty wild,” he said. “You’d see a little bait swimming around and then all of a sudden a 40-pound red would come in and inhale that thing.”

Blythe and his crew caught about 10 20- to 30-pound reds using heavy spinning gear. Switching to fly rods, they landed a few more.

“You could have caught as many as you wanted on spinning gear,” he said. “You could have caught 40 to 50. The school just hung out for a while.”

Blythe hasn’t found the offshore reds since that late-November bite, but he believes the action might pick up again when colder weather moves back in.

The recent warm spell might have prompted the drum to move further offshore or possibly even back in along the beaches, he said.

“I’m still trying to figure it out. I think it has a lot more factors than I’m thinking.”

Anyone hoping to cash in on the redfish bonanza should head out into nearshore waters on a good, calm day and investigate any bird action. Don’t worry if dolphins are feeding — though dolphins eat smaller redfish in the Lowcountry’s rivers and creeks, big drum offshore are not on their menu.

In fact, these giant spot-tails seem to shadow dolphin pods, Blythe said.

“Maybe the dolphins keep them safe from all the great whites,” Blythe added with a laugh.

Blythe rigs his spinning outfits with big, white Hogy lures, fitted at the nose with weighted hooks. These large, soft-plastic lures were developed for the striped bass fishery in the Northeast, but have proved highly effective in the Lowcountry’s nearshore waters. These eel-like lures will draw strikes not only from red drum, but also amberjack, cobia and many snapper-grouper species.

Teach a kid to fish

State Department of Natural Resources officials are on the hunt for experienced anglers willing to volunteer for a new family fishing instruction program.

The agency’s Family Fishing Clinics are designed to introduce the basics of fishing to the young and old. Participants will learn how to tie fishing knots, rig rods, cast lures and fight fish.

Volunteers must be willing to attend a volunteer training session and undergo a SLED background and driving record check.

Once trained, the certified DNR fishing instructors will be expected to host at least two clinics a year for a minimum of 15 participants and no more than 25 participants, then turn in required reporting documents.

If you are interested in becoming a Certified DNR Fishing Instructor, please contact Lorianne Riggin at 803-737-8483 or RigginL@dnr.sc.gov. DNR will hold a Certified Fishing Instructor Training session Jan. 21 in West Columbia.

Find out more about DNR’s Aquatic Education program at dnr.sc.gov/aquaticed.

Game-cam photos

We’d like to see some of your best and most interesting game-cam pics from this year. Huge bucks? Odd shots? Rare animals? If you’ve got any images you’d like to share, please email them to mwinter@postandcourier.com.

The images must be from your own camera, and from this year. Please include your name, contact information and the county where the photograph was taken.

We’ll pick the best and run them in an upcoming outdoors column, and share more submission online at postandcourier.com.

Reach Matt Winter, Tideline magazine editor, at 843-937-5568 or matt@tidelinemagazine.com

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