Capt. John Ward can tell when the giants come cruising at the Charleston Jetties.
You can often find Ward anchored along the south jetty, teaching his clients how to work lures and Carolina rigs along the rocks for smaller redfish, big trout, black drum and sharks. But the Affinity Charters owner always keeps a sharp eye on the big rods off the back of the boat. Those lines are meant for bruisers, the big beasties that prowl through the rips and upwellings.
Sometimes a rod just doubles over, the reel screaming as a 40-plus-inch “breeder red” peels out line.
Other times, Ward catches more subtle clues that something big is about to happen. He might spot the tip of one of his spinning rods bouncing frantically. A bite? Nope. The big live mullet he's got swimming around behind the boat just caught sight of something big.
“I'm going to move a lot faster if I've got a mack truck coming at me,” Ward says. “Same thing. When they've got something a thousand times their size coming at them, that bait gets nervous. You'll see it.”
That's often how a day-maker catch begins: a frantic twitch in the rod. Seconds later, the water explodes as a 100-plus-pound tarpon tail-walks behind the boat.
When fishing for jetties giants, just about anything is possible.
Beginning on the beach at Morris Island to the south and Sullivan's Island to the north, Charleston's two jetties jut out to sea for about 3 miles. The massive structures were built in the late 19th century to protect the port city's shipping channel.
The jetties' 6 miles of rock form one of the state's most impressive and oldest artificial reef systems, a popular angling destination that features not only structure, but also dramatic depth changes and dynamic currents. The jetties and shipping channel concentrate enormous schools of glass and cigar minnows. The tides rolling in and out of Charleston Harbor also funnel vast numbers of menhaden and shrimp into the jaws of a smorgasbord of sportfish: redfish, black drum, sheepshead, speckled seatrout, flounder, ladyfish, bluefish, Spanish mackerel, cobia and, of course, plenty of sharks and rays.
This wealth of opportunity is one reason the jetties are such a popular destination. For charter captains such as Ward and hordes of center-console boaters, the jetties also represent the best chance to go toe-to-toe with truly big fish. Just offshore of the jetties, anglers can live-bait for king mackerel, cast for cobia under channel marker buoys and do battle with 50-plus-pound amberjacks. Massive redfish cruise closer to the rocks from May through October, along with spinner and blacktip sharks up to 6 feet long or longer. Enormous tarpon — perhaps the area's most revered and certainly largest inshore trophy fish — also hunt along the jetties during summer and early fall.
“Usually what I'm targeting is redfish,” Ward says. “The sharks are just a bonus. But a tarpon — that makes my day. Usually the guide gets more excited about a tarpon than the customers do. They've got this big silver trash can jumping around back there, and half the time they don't know what they've got.
“… Usually most of the tarpon we get here are trophy tarpon. We don't get a lot of the smaller tarpon that you get in Florida. A small tarpon here might be 50 or 60 pounds, a big one might be 160. When we get them they're usually quality fish.”
During a recent seminar at The Charleston Angler, Ward shared some pro tips for locals hoping to hit the jetties this summer.
Ward dished on his top spots (graphic at right), and laid out general strategies for fishing along the rocks.
In general, Ward prefers to fish the south jetty, particularly on the inside around the bend, where currents have scooped out holes near the rocks. He'll fish the north jetty in the spring, when he's found a good early redfish bite.
During slack tides (high or low), Ward might hit deeper spots such as Dynamite Hole or The Grillage. With less current, he can keep his rigs on the bottom in 50 or 60 feet of water without resorting to 6- to 8-ounce lead sinkers.
Fishing the jetties isn't complicated, but success requires attention to detail.
“You're playing a numbers game. The more baits you've got out there, the better success you'll have,” Ward says.
“Most of these fish are coming up and down the rocks.... Just because you see someone catching fish over there, it usually doesn't help to get up and move.”
Ward typically anchors within casting distance of the rocks, making sure to keep far enough away that wakes from big container ships won't present a danger.
Ward targets deeper holes along the jetties, anchoring up-current and casting big Carolina rigs back into those pockets. These simple go-to rigs consist of a 3- or 4-ounce egg sinker on the mainline, followed by a heavy-duty swivel, about 30 inches of 100-pound-test monofilament leader, then a circle hook. If he's expecting to loose a lot of tackle to sharks, he'll use less expensive circle hooks, like a No. 7 Eagle Claw Lazer. When targeting tarpon, he'll upgrade to a 7- to 10-ought Owner, Daiichi or Gamakatsu circle hook.
Wards often uses crimps to secure the swivel and hook to such heavy leader material.
When fishing these beefier rigs, Ward uses medium-action boat rods, “something with some backbone to stop some of these bigger fish, but with a little more flexible tip, so if you're fishing live menhaden or bluefish or something like that, it's not going to kill your bait.” Shakespeare's Ugly Stiks are a good option, he says.
Large, 6000- to 8000-series spinning reels such as Shimano's Baitrunner work well, he says, especially when spooled with mono backing and 50-pound braided mainline.
Though more expensive, braid is super-sensitive, lasts a long time and can take a beating around the rocks.
“It's so abrasion-resistant,” Ward says. “We've had a tarpon jump over the rocks, hit the rocks, and it still kept on. With monofilament, it would have been like a warm knife touching butter. It's amazing what you can do” with braid.
Ward typically staggers three or four of these heavier set-ups off the stern and leaves those rods in rod holders. This is a critical detail, as many anglers can't resist the urge to set the hook when a fish strikes. Circle hooks are designed to slide into the corner of a fish's mouth as it swims away.
“The rod holder will always out-fish you, if you're fishing with a circle hook,” he says.
While “soaking baits,” Ward likes to keep clients busy with lighter casting set-ups. He may use scaled-down Carolina rigs, or he may show anglers how to work lures along the rocks or over the breakwater if he's at the tips of the jetties. Ward recommends MirrOLure's Floating Twitchbait, Rapala's X-Rap, Bomber's Saltwater BadonkADonk or a Rat-L-Trap (one of Ward's clients hooked and landed a big tarpon at the jetties using this last lure).
Ward also likes working popping corks with DOA shrimp just off the rocks, or bouncing soft-plastic grubs along the bottom.
“When the water's murky, try to use a flashier color,” he says. “When the water's clear, I like to use more of a natural color, more translucent with glitter.”
As one can imagine, a full tackle box is necessary when fishing around such structure.
“Make sure you've got plenty of stuff,” Ward says. “You're going to go through some leader and hooks and weights. If you're not getting hung up every now and then, you're not fishing close enough to the rocks.”
With so many types of fish swimming around the rocks, targeting one species over another — and hooking bigger fish — can be challenging.
“Seems like the days I've got guys who want to catch giant redfish, we can't get away from the sharks,” Ward says. “When we're trying to catch sharks, we're catching breeder reds.”
Savvy charter captains have a few tricks to targeting one species over another, and most of them boil down to bait.
Menhaden are an all-purpose bait for redfish, sharks and tarpon, and Ward will fish them live, dead or cut. (Ward recommends bringing along a pair of scissors to snip off the menhaden's head and tail.)
Anglers should be able to catch plenty of menhaden by casting net around the front beach of Morris Island. Big schools of pogies also have been holding around the entrance to Shem Creek this summer.
If Ward's trying to focus on giant redfish and stay away from most sharks, he'll stop using menhaden and turn to blue crabs.
Ward keeps live, legal-size blue crabs on ice until he's ready to fish — cold crabs are slower to pinch. When it comes time to bait up, Ward pulls the carapace off a crab, then breaks it in half. The best way to hook each half is from top to bottom at the backfin joint, making sure the circle hook barb is though the bottom shell.
Cracked crabs are irresistible to big redfish, while sharpnose and lemon sharks will leave them alone. Bonnethead sharks love blue crabs, however, as do black drum. “There are some giant black drum at the jetties,” Ward says. “They are almost strictly crustacean feeders. It's rare that you'll catch them on anything but a crab or a shrimp.”
Anglers should check their baits often when using cracked crabs: the jetties are loaded with pinfish that will pick them clean.
When it comes to picking baits for tarpon, menhaden, cut mullet and blue crab will all draw strikes. Tarpon are opportunists, and also eat whiting, croaker and even ladyfish. To really zero in on tarpon, Ward fishes big live baits, like mullet or fresh-caught whiting and croaker, at the surface behind the boat. He may let them swim freely or under a big clacker-style float like the Cajun Thunder.
Ward loves to target tarpon, and though he'll often fish for them at Stono, Capers and Dewees inlets, he's landed many of his silver kings at spots at or near the jetties, including Dynamite Hole, The Grillage and the rocks off Morris Island.
Though tarpon can be caught earlier, the peak Lowcountry season runs from mid-July well into October, Ward said.
Dead low tide is a good time to fish deeper spots such as Dynamite Hole. Ward thinks that once the current shuts down, tarpon often go on the move, actively hunting for food settling in deeper holes.
Aside from fishing big live baits, a few other adjustments come in handy when tangling with tarpon.
When fishing bottom rigs, Ward makes sure that any weights attached to the line or leader won't give a tarpon leverage it can use to throw a hook when it jumps. He recommends using a break-away setup, either by rubber-banding an egg sinker to the line or using a three-way-swivel and short length of 4-pound mono to tie on a pyramid weight.
These set-ups virtually ensure that anglers will lose a weight every time a fish hits, but that's a price most trophy tarpons anglers seem willing to pay.
Aside from upgrading to sharper, heavier circle hooks, many tarpon anglers use longer and lighter leaders. About 6 feet of 60- to 80-pound-test fluorocarbon leader is best, Ward says, for abrasion resistance and diminished visibility.
“Tarpon have huge eyes,” he points out, and rely more on sight than scent when hunting. “And they're nocturnal fish, so you will have better luck at night. … I've had my best success with tarpon — in Florida and here — fishing the evening.
“You have to weed through the sharks, and you'll catch some giant redfish. The only downside is that tarpon jump around and that's half the excitement for me. So you don't see it at night, but you'll hear it.”
One last piece of tarpon advice from Ward: When a tarpon hits, “keep that rod in the rod holder for a little longer. Don't be as quick to jump on it. Let them set the hook themselves. As they're running and jumping, they'll do a lot of the work for you.”