You've got to love November and December in the Lowcountry. Whitetail deer season is still in full swing, redfish and trout still crowd our inshore waters, shrimp-baiting season is wrapping up and waterfowlers are gearing up for a strong duck season. It just couldn't get any better, right? Well, it can. The next time you see a forecast for light winds this fall, consider putting off that deer or duck hunt. Put the boat in and take the short trip out to one of the many fantastic, nearshore artificial reefs dotting the South Carolina coast. Spend a few hours enjoying the non-stop action at these hot spots, and you might just find a new favorite fall pastime.
South Carolina anglers can visit a wide variety of artificial reefs off the South Carolina coast, most built during the past several decades by the state's Department of Natural Resources. These artificial structures can be found in waters ranging in depth from 20 feet to more than 110 feet. The shallower reefs , an easy destination for most center consoles , offer some of the best and most overlooked fishing during this time of year. Anglers who enjoy fast action with multiple species of gamefish simply can't ignore these shallow-water hot spots. These reefs also provide a fast and exciting opportunity to introduce young and novice anglers to our sport, as there is usually very little down-time while dropping down on these structures. Nearshore reefs begin to hold strong concentrations of many different species of fish in the cooler months. Many of these fish use the reefs as a staging area before they push further offshore. Species of fish available at reefs from 20 to 60 feet deep include sheepshead, black drum, weakfish, black seabass, redfish, ladyfish, spiny dogfish, and even flounder. A little further out at reefs in 80- to 90-foot depths, anglers can also run into gray triggerfish, vermilion snapper and grouper. Such target-rich environments mean a bonanza for captains willing to make the short run out. "I have caught as many as 12 different species of fish in a single reef trip with my clients," says Capt. Mike Waller of Saltfisher Charters. "The best part is that you can catch all of these fish while anchored up on the same piece of structure." While the variety of species can provide more than enough entertainment to accommodate almost any angler, the most sought-after catches during fall and winter months are sheepshead, black drum and weakfish. Most experienced saltwater anglers are already well tuned-in to the sheepshead fishery, and they know huge schools gather at artificial reefs in 40 to 65 feet of water during winter months. But many of these same anglers don't know that sheepshead will stage on reefs a little bit closer to shore before colder temperatures arrive and they move out a little deeper. The same often holds true for black drum. Reefs in water depths of 20 to 35 feet would be the best places to intercept these fish in late fall and early winter. Strong concentrations of weakfish, on the other hand, tend to be available at the reefs only a couple of times each year, typically during spring and fall. Capt. Waller says anglers can find quality-size fish as the waters cool in the fall. "On average, the sheepshead and black drum will range from 2 to 5 pounds, but it is still common for some 8- and 9-pounders to be caught. We also tend to see some of our best weakfish in late fall, usually averaging about 2 pounds (16-20 inches), but we have caught some pushing 4 pounds."
Gearing up for a fall reef trip does not need to require a lot of legwork or cash. A quality medium-action rod matched with a 2500 or 3000 size spinning reel should do the trick. I like a Shimano Stradic 2500 or Penn Battle 3000, both of which I pair with a 7-foot-6-inch, 15-pound rod. Capt. Waller and I agree that while it's not a "must," using a braided line provides several benefits when reef fishing.
"I always use braided line when reef fishing, and prefer 15-pound Diamond braid." Waller says. "Braided line has no stretch, and will increase sensitivity 10 times over when used with a quality graphite rod. "Another added advantage is that braided line has superior abrasion resistance compared to monofilament , a fantastic quality when fishing vertically over structure while trying to turn the head of an 8-pound sheepshead or drum!" When asked about his favorite bait for the sheepshead and black drum, Capt. Waller doesn't hesitate. "Live fiddler crabs are definitely the way to go," he says, "but small, live shrimp will also produce well." The common Carolina rig is a great choice when fishing fiddlers and shrimp over a reef. I use 18 to 24 inches of 30-pound fluorocarbon, tied onto a 2/0 Owner Mosquito Hook. A 3/4- to 1-ounce egg sinker above the leader should be more than enough weight to keep the baits near the bottom. Once you catch a few fish on a single leader, it's always a good idea to check it for nicks and abrasions before dropping back down again. When in doubt of the strength of your leader, always replace it. You don't want to lose a trophy fish simply because you didn't take the time to tie on a new leader. Sheepshead, especially, can be very tricky to hook. For this reason (and their jailhouse stripe color scheme) , these notorious bait-stealers and often referred to as the "convict fish." Sheepshead typically will just ease up to your fiddler and crush it in their mouth. More often than not, the crunched crab simply falls off the hook, and the fish eats lunch without you ever feeling the slightest bump on your end of the rod. Here's a good method to use when fishing vertically on the reefs for sheepshead: Once your rig has reached the bottom, lift the rod tip slowly a foot or two every 20 to 30 seconds. If you feel any resistance at all, set the hook. A sheepshead is probably already there and is ready to back away. If you miss one, don't worry. Patience and persistence will ultimately pay off. Like riding a bicycle, once you develop a touch for hooking sheepshead, you have developed a new skill that you will stay with you for life. When it comes to weakfish, Waller says he'll usually start out fishing live shrimp and mud minnows, but "once the fish turn on and start biting, I like to switch up to artificials." Weakfish are very opportunistic, which means a wide variety of artificial baits will work very effectively. Over the past couple of years, I have begun using some of ZMan's soft plastics for the weakfish, simply because you can catch a dozen fish on a single bait without it ever tearing up. This is due to the unbelievably strong Elaz-Tech material ZMan uses to make their soft baits. Sometimes, when I feel like upping the odds, I'll tie up a double-drop rig with two DOA shrimp. I'll often hook two weakfish at a time with this rig. The same double-rig technique can be used with other soft-plastic baits, though I prefer baits 2.5 to 5 inches in length. Waller also uses a wide variety of artificial baits when targeting weakfish, and says anglers can catch them on almost any soft plastic on the market. Waller did say that he uses Berkley Gulp! shrimp as often as any other baits, though.
Whichever brand you pick, rigging up these soft plastics for weakfish is very simple. I use a 20-pound fluorocarbon leader tied to a 1/2-ounce to å_-ounce jig head, with the soft plastic bait properly threaded on the hook. Even these relatively light weights will get to the structure, especially if you're using braided line, which has a thinner diameter and less drag in the water. This same braided line will also help you detect even the lightest of strikes, even when your bait is 35 feet down. When fishing these artificial baits over structure, a vertical presentation with a slight jigging action should have no problem provoking a weakfish to strike. "One of the biggest mistakes I see anglers make using artificials for weakfish is that they tend to cast far out instead of just dropping straight down," Waller says. "It's not that they won't catch fish doing this, they are just going to find themselves breaking off on the reef structure all the time." Doing so, of course, will keep you on a first-name basis at your local tackle shop, which is definitely not a bad thing!
Properly anchoring up at nearshore reefs is often the most challenging part of a trip, and getting positioned just right can make the difference between a five-fish day and a 50-fish day. Investing in a good reef anchor will certainly make this task much easier. Buying one of these grappling-style anchors will also save you money in the long run, since they are designed to bend out and dislodge from a reef. Your best bet is to position the boat so you can fish vertically, right on the edge of the structure. Fish like to feed along the down-current edge of structure, so if you can drop down there instead of directly on top of the reef, your catch numbers will increase dramatically. Remember that most nearshore reefs are made of multiple types and pieces of structure. Reef balls, tug boats, barges and bridge piling rubble are commonly used together at these reefs. "When I first start out, I like to target the higher-profile structures first," Waller says. "But if a particular reef has seen a lot of fishing pressure lately, you can often find some of the better fishing on small, secondary structures. "_ They usually require more effort to get anchored up on properly and have not been fished nearly as much."
It is always important to be well-versed on the rules and regulations for each species, especially if you have plans on keeping a few fish for dinner. Sheepshead do not have any current size limit, and the bag limit is 20 fish per person per day, which counts toward aggregate snapper-grouper species bag limits. The limit on black drum has changed in recent years, with a new slot limit of between 14 and 27 inches total length and bag limit of five fish per person per day. Weakfish limits have seen the biggest change recently. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission recently determined that weakfish stocks are depleted along the Atlantic Coast. As a result, they developed a management plan to reduce recreational and commercial harvest of weakfish by more than 50 percent along the Atlantic Coast. This summer, the bag limit for weakfish in state and federal waters became one fish per person per day, a reduction from the previous limit of 10 fish per person per day. Weakfish also carry a 12-inch size limit, though this has been in effect for some time. As responsible recreational anglers, we should always take only what we will use. This holds true out at the nearshore reefs, where skilled anglers can catch dozens of fish. So when you're out there, keep in mind that the more conservation-minded we become, the less likely it becomes for regulators to pass new restrictions. Help protect the resources that we all share and love, and help protect these fish for the many generations to come. Tight lines!
To reach Scott Hammond, visit Haddrell's Tackle and Supply in West Ashley. To book a trip with Captain Mike Waller and Saltfisher Charters, call 843-343-7538 or 843-224-8197.