Ladyfish, aka poor man’s tarpon, are one of the most fun species to catch on light tackle or fly in the Charleston area. These feisty predators arrive sometime in the spring and can be found until the waters cool in the late fall. These fish are long and slender with silvery scales. When hooked, they make hard, fast runs and leap into the air multiple times. Many anglers simply ignore them or pass right by a feeding school because they are not suitable to eat. If you are just looking to bend a rod and get into fast action, then the ladyfish shouldn’t be ignored.
Ladyfish can be found in a wide variety of different habitats. Along the beach fronts, deeper flats around the harbor, up the rivers, even in saltwater impoundments. They are voracious predators that will attack artificial lures, live bait and flies. Their primary forage would be small bony fishes including finger mullet and juvenile menhaden. Live shrimp is another favorite of the ladyfish. Artificial lures that work the best are topwater poppers and walk-the-dog style plugs like the Top Dog. MirrOlures that suspend work extremely well. Plastic shrimp lures fished under popping corks will also catch plenty. Jigs tipped with live shrimp, mud minnows or finger mullet is one more deadly technique. Make sure that you use 25-pound fluorocarbon for leader material. They have sharp mouths that can cut 20-pound-test line fairly easy. Fly fishing for ladyfish is a thrill using a 7-weight or 8-weight fly rod. My most productive fly is the red and white wiggle minnow. Shiny minnow imitations like the mushmouth also work great. They are not too picky once you locate an active school.
What I look for when hunting for schools of ladyfish is bird activity. Gulls and terns that are dipping and hovering near the surface of the water are a dead giveaway. They will also become very vocal as to call in their buddies for the feast. The ladyfish will drive the schools of baitfish or shrimp to the surface, giving the birds an easy meal. Once you get near this activity, turn your motor off and ease in with a trolling motor casting your lure of choice. My favorite is a white with red head popper. Ladyfish will take advantage of changes in bottom contours and current breaks for prime ambush spots. An area where there is a channel about 10 feet deep that pops up to a consistent four feet is a prime example of ladyfish heaven. The change in depth will create a slight upwelling that disorients baitfish, making them easier targets. Current breaks caused by grass points are another great place to search. Higher tides are usually best in this situation. Popping corks with live shrimp floated down the current seam is deadly. You will also catch trout and redfish in these areas. The beachfront ladyfish are my favorite to target. They can be found in huge schools at times when they will hit just about anything. These fish can be rather large as well, weighing up to four pounds. Bird activity or surface busts give them away along the beaches. Pick the calm days and run along the beach until you find activity. An added bonus out there is that you may run across tarpon, jack crevalle, sharks or bull reds.
Whether ladyfish interests you or not, they are a formidable inshore target that can be great fun on light tackle and fly. Perfect for young kids or seasoned veterans looking for some drag singing and fish flying. Ladyfish are a great species that we have here to enjoy in the Lowcountry. Get out there and have fun with the poor man’s tarpon.
Capt. Tucker Blythe is the owner of Grey Ghost Charters out of Charleston.