One of the first things experienced saltwater anglers make note of in the springtime is the flicks on the water's surface as menhaden make their way back up the coast. And if menhaden are here, that certainly means large predators such as bull redfish are not far behind.
"They're just following the food. The big reds winter off the wrecks out to 75 feet (heading offshore when the water temperature drops too low for their comfort). When the bait shows up, they follow the bait," explained Capt. Chuck Griffin of Charleston Sport Fishing (fishingcharleston.com), noting that the bait migration has been going on since early April. He said the menhaden currently are small "but they're feeding on them."
Asked what he considers a "bull red," Griffin said anything over 15 pounds. Redfish, also known as red drum, run the size gamut from keeper reds (15 to 23 inches, no more than two per angler per day or six per boat) all the way up to the 75-pound state record caught in 1965 out of Murrells Inlet, a mark which cannot be broken because of the size limits in place.
"I used to say anything over 20 pounds was a bull red, but it seems like they're a little smaller now. I think it's a big redfish, anything over 35 inches long," Griffin said.
Griffin, who has been charter fishing for 35 years, said in the past he would see several fish over 50 pounds, but 30 pounds is now a big mark. He said most of the fish the Charleston fishing captains are catching range from 12 to 18 pounds.
As the water temperature continues to rise the big reds also will be running the beaches, but for now the best opportunity to catch a big redfish is spending time along the rocks that form the Charleston Jetties.
"I look for places where water is washing over the rocks. It knocks the bait off and I think the redfish are attracted to that. I look for what you might call spillways," Griffin said.
"I generally find the fish where the current isn't running so hard that it's hard to fish. You want moving water, but you don't want it screaming."
Griffin said he tries to anchor on the up-current side of the spillways.
"The thing about the tide is that it's different in different places. The places I prefer to fish seem to be better on an outgoing tide because it seems there's more real estate. But you want the bait coming across the rocks, and you want to be up-current," he said.
Not surprisingly, Griffin's bait of choice is fresh menhaden. But he said cut menhaden seems to work better than live menhaden with the redfish attracted to the oily scent.
He prefers heavy tackle in order to get the fish to the boat quickly for a healthy release.
"I use spinning tackle because I can cast further but conventional tackle also works," he said. "I don't use super light tackle because I don't want to wear the fish out. These big fish will fight until they almost die, so I prefer heavier gear, 6,000 to 10,000 size spinning reels. That also helps with the sharks you're going to catch. You can get them in quicker and get more fishing time," Griffin said.
He uses mainly fish-finder rigs, He starts off with a 20-foot length of 60-pound mono tied to the braid on his spinning reel, slips on a plastic fish-finder rig and attaches a barrel swivel. From the end of the swivel, he will attach a 6- to 8-inch leader and a 6/0 circle hook. He said fish tend to swallow the longer leaders. His preferred weight is a 3-ounce bank, or flat sinker. The triangle, or pyramid, sinker tends to get caught in the rocks.
Griffin said he uses the plastic fish finder rig because they can break away. He said some people use 3-way swivels and tie their weight to one of the swivels with lighter line to create a breakaway rig.
As Griffin noted, bull reds will fight almost to the death so it's imperative to take care of the fish before releasing it.
"Get that picture fast and handle the fish as little as possible. The faster you get it back in the water, the better off the fish will be," he said. "If people get a big fish and need to hold them, try to support the body really well. Hanging them upright can damage their internal organs," Griffin said.
"I use a Boga Grip and let the water go through their mouths for a long time. If you grab the tail when you're doing that, when they're still tired they won't fight you but when they start to fight they're generally ready to go.
"I don't like to fish deeper water, like at the Grillage (an area in Charleston Harbor near Sullivan's Island). I don't like to fish past 30 feet of water in that area. The fish can't get back down because their air bladders expand too much. And I don't like poking a hole in their air bladder because you're introducing bacteria to the fish."
America's Boating Club
America's Boating Club Charleston will hold boating safety classes May 14, June 4 and June 18 at 1376 Orange Grove Road, Charleston. Classes begin at 9 a.m. and end around 4 p.m. Successful participants earn the S.C. Department of Natural Resources Boater Education Card. The cost is $25 for adults and youth 12-18 are free. Call 843-312-2876 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.