EDITOR'S NOTE: This month's "Captain's Choice" article comes courtesy of Capt. Tucker Blythe of Grey Ghost Charters, shown above with a spadefish caught off Charleston. For more about Grey Ghost Charters, visit charlestoncustomcharters.com or call 843-670-8629. Charter captains interested in sharing their own "Captain's Choice" can call 843-937-5568 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pulling up to a wreck or reef off Charleston is always an exciting moment, especially when you're fishing for spadefish in the summer. It's not uncommon to find a school of 500 or more silvery fish circling, feeding, flashing, and chasing each other around just below the surface.
Pound for pound, spadefish rank right up there with the best-fighting fish. They can bite aggressively and often make very strong runs when hooked, mostly down toward a wreck or reef where they can break you off.
Best of all, there are some really big spadefish off Charleston. The current state record for spadefish is 14 pounds, 2 ounces, caught by Stacey Nickleson in Beaufort in 2005. I have seen fish this size and possibly larger, and I don't think it will be long before this record is broken.
When and where
From late May throughout the summer, spawning spades school in huge numbers at reefs and wrecks in 35 to 55 feet of water off Charleston. When water temps reach the mid 70s nearshore, I begin my search.
Higher-profile structures seem to attract more spades. These taller wrecks and reefs provide lots of cover and a quick escape route from the surface, where barracuda hover.
I have found mid-day to be extremely productive time for catching spadefish, which is great because it offers an excellent alternative to inshore fishing when the heat slows things down.
Smaller groups on the edges of the main school are typically harder to feed. I think those fish are in full breeding mode and much more interested in each other than your baits.
When a hooked fish comes to the boat, it's commonly followed all the way to the surface by a pack of others. (You can even free net some when landing your fish.) This may be a pick-on-the-weak behavior, but it's probably related to breeding.
Jellies are key
Spadefish feed primarily on benthic invertebrates, including crustaceans, mollusks, annelids, sponges, plankton and jellyfish.
A typical spadefish trip begins with collecting bait that matches their natural diet. Most anglers use pieces of cannonball jellyfish when targeting spades, but I always like to have a variety of bait choices onboard in case we come across something unexpected at the reef. A bucket full of cannonball jellyfish plus some live menhaden and frozen shrimp usually fits the bill.
I look for cannonball jellyfish, or jellyballs, near inlets, outside surf lines and along tidelines. A long-handled net works best, given they will be down 5 feet or so at times. Collecting a 5-gallon-bucket full of jellyballs is a real confidence booster at the start of a trip.
If there aren't any jellyballs around, peeled frozen shrimp or even strips of clam or squid will work well for spades.
Tackle: Keep it simple
I use 8- to 15-pound-class Star rods, with spinning reels spooled with 20-pound Power Pro braid. I make rigs with 20- to 25-pound fluorocarbon leaders, with either Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp kahle hooks in size 2, or Owner mosquito hooks in size 1 and 1/0. Owner multi-light circle hooks in size 1 also work well. The Owners last a little longer but are a bit more expensive.
Deciding whether to add splitshot weights to the leader depends mostly on current - I go with the lightest amount of weight I can. When the barracudas have a spadefish school pinned down below the surface, splitshots are necessary to get your bait in the strike zone.
Anchor up and tease 'em
When anchoring for spades, you should first cruise around a likely structure and find the fish on the surface. Once you've spotted a school, position the boat upwind and upcurrent of fish, and see how your boat is moving. Once you've determined your drift, try to anchor so that the spades will wind up directly behind the boat.
Once the fish are behind the boat, free-line a bait in front of the school. Make sure that you pay out enough line so the bait floats naturally in the water. Once the piece of jellyball floats near the school, one of the hundreds will usually strike. Smaller fish often seem to be more aggressive feeders, and tend to get your bait first.
Strikes from spadefish can vary from an aggressive strike on the surface to a subtle nibble from down deep. In either situation, set the hook when you feel the weight of the fish.
If you are having trouble getting fish close enough to your boat, teasers are the perfect solution. Try threading three to five whole jellyballs on a fish stringer. Hang the jellyball teaser under a buoy or large float, and drift it back into the school. Once the spades get really hot on the jellies, slowly pull the teaser back to within casting range. This technique really brings them in. Spadefish have a mouth designed for tearing apart jellyballs like piranas, and the bits of food produced in a frenzy will attract even more fish to your boat.
Late in the season, after the spades have felt pressure from anglers and hungry cudas, they will dive more frequently to the safety of the reef. In this situation, getting your jellyball teaser down to them is essential. I like to use a kite rod with heavy braid. I'll tie the braid directly to the stringer of jellies and attach some lead to the bottom of the stringer (one or two pounds is usually enough).
Just drop that weighted teaser to the bottom, wait until you feel the fish start tearing apart the jellies, and slowly reel the line in until the fish are just within sight. Then just add a splitshot or two to your rig and drop your bait into the school.
Go with the flow
Drifting is very effective if the seas are too rough to anchor or the spadefish are broken up into different schools.
Just as with anchoring, I try to find the fish first then set up a drift past the edges of the school. A drift sock or 5-gallon bucket dragged behind the boat helps slow your roll and keeps the boat on a good track.
I try to cast ahead of the fish and wait for the strike, but sometimes they'll feed better after you pass them and your bait is behind the boat. The key in this situation is to pay out line so your bait is neutrally buoyant and drifting naturally, not being towed behind the boat. Keep just enough tension on the line so that you'll feel a bite.
Trolling motor makes it easy
In calm conditions, I prefer using a trolling motor to keep me within range of a spadefish school. You can constantly reposition the boat so you remain just on the edges of the fish.
Using a trolling motor also helps you to be more selective about to which fish you cast, as you often have a longer time to watch the school and pick out a larger fish. When you do hook up to a big one, you can use the motor to steer the boat away from potentially line-shredding structure.
Fishing from a kayak is one of my new favorite ways to target spades. It's extremely effective, and being in touch with the ocean on this level is an unforgettable experience. (I once had a giant loggerhead turtle surface within 20 feet of me.)
One reason kayak-fishing for spades works so well is that a kayak isn't pushed around as much by wind and current. A slower drift keeps you in the strike zone longer.
I recently took a trip a few miles out to give it a try. (We brought the kayak in the boat - a 9-mile paddle would not be fun or smart.) When we found the fish, we noticed they were staying down deep, no doubt due to the barracuda hovering above them.
I launched the kayak upwind of the school and began my approach. Armed with a spinning rod and some shrimp, I was ready to get towed around. As I moved into the school, barracudas, amberjack and even cobia swam over to investigate. Most of these reef fish are naturally attracted to floating objects, and the kayak was just that. No motor, brightly colored - the perfect attractor.
At one time I had two cobias, several cudas, and six to eight AJs within arms reach, just swimming under me - really cool to see.
The best part was that the spadefish reacted the same way. They swam up to check me out, and I dangled a shrimp right under the boat. It was awesome being drug around by one of these hard fighters while sitting in a kayak miles offshore.
Spadefish on the fly
Fly-fishing for spades is fairly challenging. They are more of a scent feeder and are very difficult to fool with a fly.
I have hooked them on patterns that resemble a small jellyfish - lots of bright crystal chenille, polar flash, and plastic wrap over the body. Sinking lines work best with this pattern, given that plastic wrap is buoyant.
If all else fails, any absorbent material marinaded in pureed jellyball juice and tied to a small hook will get the job done. This is cheating a little, in my opinion, but it flat-out works.
It's also a good idea to use teasers when targeting spades on the fly. Once you get them good and happy in a feeding frenzy, one might slip up and eat your offering.
I generally use a 8- to 10-weight fly rod, with at least 20 pound leader, when looking for spadefish.
A word on conservation
The schooling, spawning and feeding behavior of spadefish greatly increase the potential for relatively easy harvest. If everyone was out there keeping their limit of 20 fish per person per day, we'd demolish the schools pretty quickly.
Though actual population estimates and current levels of harvest are unknown for spadefish, I have talked to many fishermen who have been spadefishing all of their lives in the Charleston area, and they say they've noticed a decrease in the populations at certain reefs.
I think it's important that we all practice good conservation efforts to protect this excellent fishery.
And remember that even though spadefish are excellent table fare, they don't freeze as well as other species. So keep only what you can eat fresh and let the rest see another day.