Cable bills, mortgage payments, car loans, insurance, day care, gas prices - heap all this onto the economic uncertainty we all share these days, and life's daily grind can flat-out wear you down.
Before you blow a gasket, do yourself a favor. Grab a rod and reel, throw a little tackle and bug spray in a bag and go sit by the water. Relax. Enjoy one of man's oldest and most therapeutic endeavors.
Catch a fish.
Like so many things in life, fishing can be as complicated as you want to make it. You can load it down with boats, trailers, repair bills, fuel bills, expensive tackle and all the rest. Before you know it, a relaxing pastime has become just another way to push your blood pressure through the roof.
But it doesn't have to be that way. With just a little know-how and patience, just about anyone can catch fish here in the Lowcountry : and have a great time trying. You don't need a fancy boat. You don't need a fat wallet. You just need to know what you're doing, and be ready to enjoy a relaxing trip to the water's edge.
First, think shallow thoughts
Before you hoof it to down to the water, consider one of angling's greatest ironies: People fishing from shore tend to cast their lines out as deep as they can, while anglers on boats go to great pains to cast right next to the bank.
Who's got it wrong?
Though not always the case, it's usually the folks on land who are missing the boat. With baits soaking out in a channel or well past the breakers, they'll wait and wait for bites that never come while some of the area's premier saltwater game fish patrol the shallows just a few yards away.
Throughout inland waterways, experienced boating anglers tend to cast close to shore for one reason: Structure. Just about all inshore game fish hunt for food around oyster beds, creek mouths, docks and, at high tide, the grassy edges of the marsh. Along the beaches, these predators hunt smaller fish and crustaceans being tumbled around in the surf zone. Their never-ending quest for food often brings surprisingly large fish into water just a few feet or even inches deep.
Big flounder, for instance, often position themselves just a foot or so off a creek bank with their mouths facing land. They hide there, often covered with mud and sand, to ambush mullet and mud minnows that flitter along the bank. As the tide moves up, the flounder do, too.
Red drum, also called spot-tail bass and redfish, likewise hunt the shallows chasing baitfish along the grass edges and fiddler crabs in flooded salt marshes. They get so shallow, in fact, that their backs and tails often break the surface. Many Lowcountry anglers even specialize in wading flooded marshes looking for these "tailing reds."
Along the beaches, fish-holding structure takes the form of rock groins, inlets, cuts in the beach and sloughs between sandbars. The breaking surf is a form of structure in and of itself. Anglers can find a variety of game fish in or directly behind this surf zone, from huge red drum, sharks and tarpon down to seatrout, whiting, flounder and pompano.
Easy places to start
The knowledgeable staffers at local tackle shops may be the best resources for shore-bound anglers. In addition to giving exact tackle and bait recommendations, these folks can also provide some of the best tips for successful shore fishing.
Take, for example, John Fuss of The Charleston Angler and John Cottingham of Haddrell's Point Tackle and Supply. Though both are accomplished boating anglers, they've also spent plenty of time casting from shore and love sharing their secrets to success with novice anglers. Fuss, an enthusiastic surf angler, can sometimes be spotted at the north end of Folly Beach. Cottingham, a naturalist who once worked as a beach guide for the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission, enjoys explaining the dynamics of the marine food chain to beginning anglers.
Fuss and Cottingham both recommend that novice anglers consider a trip to one of the area's many waterfront parks. Situated on saltwater creeks and rivers, many of these designated fishing areas include piers and floating docks that give anglers plenty of room to spread out and make it easy to land their catches.
Though there are many more public fishing areas, some of the popular spots include:
•Sunrise Park on James Island: This relatively new, small public park off Wampler Drive on James Island features a small beach area overlooking Charleston Harbor, and a pier and floating dock are planned.
•James Island County Park: This 643-acre park off Riverland Drive features a floating dock and raised, covered platform on a small saltwater creek. Admission to the park is $1.
• Remley's Point: Though fishing at crowded boat ramps can be difficult and, at times, ill-advised, this large ramp in Mount Pleasant includes a raised pier that keeps anglers out of the way of boaters using the ramp. The ramp is free and open to the public, but anglers should take care to not impede boaters.
• Pitt Street Bridge: The scenic Picket Bridge Recreation Area begins where Pitt Street ends in old Mount Pleasant. A narrow road allows vehicle access to a small parking area, and a popular fishing pier extends out over the marsh and creek. It's free and open to the public.
• Mount Pleasant Waterfront Park: Due to open July 4, this $14 million park includes a 1,250-foot-long pier built on the pilings of the old Silas Pearman Bridge. With a 8,100-square-foot covered pavilion at its end, the pier was primarily designed as a location for sightseeing and special events. But fishing will be allowed.
Cottingham recommends anglers take advantage of such established spots rather than wading or trying to reach the water through marsh grass. Careless anglers could easily cut their feet on oysters, or worse, get stuck up to their waist in pluff mud.
"There are plenty of places to go fish that don't require them to get muddy," Cottingham says, adding that fishing piers and floating docks "keep people from stomping all over what's really a fragile ecosystem."
Piers and docks also let anglers position themselves out past the bank so they can cast back toward the shallows without spooking fish - essentially the same technique used by boating anglers.
Cottingham says the best strategy might be to cast float rigs baited with shrimp or cut bait (mullet, squid or even pieces of blue crab) near the grass edges. Live shrimp and mud minnows work even better, but anglers must be able to keep them alive by constantly refreshing with water. When fishing from public fishing docks or piers, anglers could use some cord to tie off a bait bucket and leave it floating in the water.
No matter which bait is used, the idea is to use enough leader under the float to suspend the bait just off the bottom, so the rig doesn't get snagged on oysters or other structure. This technique does well with the three most popular inshore species: trout, flounder and redfish.
Bottom rigs, including multiple-hook dropper rigs and single-hook Carolina rigs, work well in deeper water or in shallow areas free of snags. In deeper areas, these bottom rigs will catch smaller fish such as croaker, whiting and spots along with the occasional bigger redfish, stingray or shark.
Dropper rigs can be made by hand or bought in tackle shops. A simple Carolina rig consists of a small egg sinker on the main line followed by a swivel, about 18 inches of leader (20- or 30-pound fluorocarbon is a standard choice) and a hook. Anglers who anticipate bigger catches or fishing in heavier current might opt for a fish-finder rig, which is basically a beefed-up version of the Carolina rig. A plastic weight slide with a clip goes on the main line from the reel, followed by a swivel, a leader and the hook. A pyramid sinker clipped to the slide will hold the rig on the bottom, but a fish can take the hook and pull away without feeling the weight.
Deciding which type of hook to use on either bottom or float rigs mostly depends on whether an angler plans to actively work the rig.
"Circle hooks work best when you're planning to leave the rod in a rod holder - it will hook the fish perfectly, and there's no need to set it," Cottingham says. "If you're holding it, you should consider using J-style hooks. But you have to set the hook yourself."
Hook choice also depends on what species of fish is targeted. J-style and kahle hooks are a good bet when fishing for trout or flounder, Cottingham says, while circle hooks do well with redfish and whiting.
For his part, Fuss believes successful shore-based fishing usually requires a combination of techniques. He'll usually set up some heavier spinning rod-and-reel combos with sturdy bottom rigs, which he casts out somewhat deeper. He'll put those rods in a holder, and keep an eye on them while using a smaller spinning combo to work either float rigs or Carolina rigs through the shallow areas.
This strategy, Fuss says, works especially well while surf fishing.
Head to the beach
Throughout the summer and fall, enormous red drum cruise the surf line along many of the Lowcountry's barrier islands. The fishing can be so good, in fact, that even experienced boating anglers will beach their vessels at the back side of such islands and haul their gear around to the front beach for a chance at these trophy-caliber fish.
But "bull" reds aren't the only impressive predators in the surf. Shore-based anglers at almost any Lowcountry beach can count on steady action from a variety of shark species, including Atlantic sharpnose and blacktips. A lucky few have even pulled massive, five-foot-long tarpon from the surf.
There's no doubt that for shore-based anglers looking for a trophy-fish experience, surf fishing is the best option. But there are plenty of smaller fish darting through the waves to keep anglers busy while they wait for the big boys to bite.
While surf fishing at the northern end of Folly over the years, Fuss has caught flounder, red and black drum, whiting, speckled sea-trout, pompano, Spanish mackerel, sheepshead, ladyfish and, of course, sharks.
"Pretty much every inshore species you can catch, I've caught there, except for tarpon and a jack (crevalle)," he says.
To take full advantage of the variety of opportunities in the surf, Fuss keeps his options open and hunts for both big and small fish.
"I don't really go big," he says. "I generally take just one big rod (an 8- to 9-footer), and I put bigger meat on it - a whole mullet or cut mullet, maybe a bluefish."
Fuss will put a big bait on a circle hook at the end of a fish-finder bottom rig made with heavier leader. He'll cast the rig out just beyond the breaking waves, reel up any slack and put the rod in a sand-spike rod holder (you can buy sand spikes at tackle shops or make low-cost versions out of PVC pipe).
After sending a big rig out for large red drum or sharks, Fuss will use a medium-action spinning setup to cast smaller baits on Carolina rigs into the surf zone.
He'll slowly work these baits back through the shallows, looking for strikes from trout, reds, flounder, bluefish or whatever else might be swimming through.
"Most of our fish are caught at the surf lines, where the waves start to break, or along the rocks," he says. "You don't try to cast as far out as you can get : unless you're looking for a shark."
For bait for the smaller rigs, Fuss might cast a net in the surf for mullet or other bait fish. But instead of hauling a heavy cast net all the way the beach, he says, anglers could simply opt to swing by a seafood store and get some fresh shrimp, the smallest size available.
When it comes to picking a specific spot along the beach to fish, both Fuss and Cottingham say surf anglers should learn to read the beach for breaks and cuts that drain into the ocean and attract bait fish. Studying the waves can also yield clues to where sandbars and sloughs might be holding fish.
Both also recommend fishing around rock groins put in place to control erosion. These structures often hold many species of fish, particularly during high tide when most of the rocks are under water.
Luckily, the Lowcountry coast is lined with such spots. Some of the more well-known surf-fishing destinations include:
• Folly Beach: With easy access and great fish-holding inlets, Folly Island offers shore anglers great options at either end - Folly Beach County Park on the south end, and the beach along the former Coast Guard station to the north.
"The northern end of Folly used to be extremely good until they renourished the beach," Fuss says. "But over the past few years, the sand has washed back out away from the rock groins, and I bet the fishing is going to be almost back to what is used to be."
• Sullivan's Island: The southern end of Sullivan's Island, near Fort Moultrie, juts out into Charleston Harbor near the western tip of the North Jetty. The beach along the south end has a few rock groins near the harbor. The beaches there are among the few spots known to have produced tarpon catches from the surf.
• Bull Island: An undeveloped barrier island about 20 miles north of Charleston, Bull Island lies within the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. The island is accessible only by boat, but adventuresome surf fishermen can hop on a ferry at Garris Landing.
"Bull Island has some of the best surf fishing around," Cottingham says. "It's a great opportunity for someone to do that wilderness-style fishing."
Reach Tideline Senior Editor Matt Winter at 843-834-3762 or email@example.com.