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WINTER COLUMN: Good times at the reefs

Capt. John Irwin (left) of Fly Right Charters has been enjoying great fishing at some nearshore reefs recently. One trip last week stood out. “It was one fire, just a wicked day.” Irwin said. Irwin and friends Craig Henke, Tommy Copeland and Jason Stemple used spin- and fly-fishing gear to catch cobia, spadefish, Spanish mackerel and amberjack. The fish were still biting when they had to go home. “We left probably 20 cobia swimming through a school of spadefish,” Irwin said.

Want to see and catch more fish — and more types of fish — than you ever have before in one spot?

Savvy captains (and scuba divers) know the secret: Fish of all shapes and sizes start packing the Lowcountry’s nearshore reefs in May.

Anchor up at one of these reefs this time of year and look down through the warm but still relatively clear water. Often, the sun-streaked blue depths will be filled with fish.

Huge schools of spadefish circle above the sunken ships and other materials that make up these artificial reefs. Rising to warm themselves in the sunlit shallows, the spades will sometimes starting “finning” the surface by the hundreds.

Cobia, some topping 60 pounds, mix in with the spadefish. These curious, brown and white bruisers often swim right up to a boat, giving anglers pulse-racing opportunities to sight-cast for trophy-caliber fish.

On the outside edges of the fray, schools of silvery Spanish mackerel might be busting cigar minnows at the surface. Many of these small Spanish fall prey to the season’s first big king mackerel.

A little deeper, below the surface action, gear-busting amberjack swim in tight formations. Though often derided by anglers as trash fish, these tough-fighting and aggressive predators are beloved by saltwater fly fishermen who yearn to test their skills (and fishing rod strength). Anglers often coax AJs up to the boat and start impressive feeding frenzies by tossing out live menhaden.

Below it all, hordes of black sea bass (the season restarts June 1), snappers and grunts swarm the reef structure. If the reefs are in 80 feet or more of water, you can count on vermilion snapper, triggerfish and grouper to join the party.

Sound too good to be true? See for yourself. Pick a calm day and head out to the Charleston 60, Y73, Comanche, Georgetown Nearshore Reef or Kiawah Reef (to name only a few). Make sure to bring a reef anchor and plenty of bait and tackle. You’ll need it all.

Reach Matt Winter, manager of niche content and design and editor of Tideline magazine, at 843-937-5568 or

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