The rod bowed sharply in the rod holder and the reel's drag began scream. My wife Allison grabbed the 20-pound class boat rod and braced herself for the powerful run as the redfish muscled toward the rocks just 30 feet astern.
After an intense few minutes of pumping and winding, Allison led the fish boatside, where I latched onto its lower jaw with a Boga Grip and lifted it aboard. After a quick measurement and photograph, she eased the red drum back into the water for a clean release. At 29 inches and nearly 10 pounds, this was Allison's largest red drum to date. Mission accomplished.
Only we weren't done yet. Over the next hour, Allison caught her "biggest redfish ever" five more times, finishing off the day with a beautiful 42 inch fish that she battled for nearly 15 minutes. As quickly as we could lob our live menhaden baits toward the edge of the jetties, we found ourselves tight to big bull redfish. In the midst of constant double-headers, we lost count of the number of fish we caught and released that afternoon. The wide open redfish blitz that mid-September afternoon was interrupted only by a five pound flounder that accompanied us home for dinner that evening.
Two weeks later found us back at the same spot on the south jetty at daybreak, this time armed with light spinning tackle and a livewell full of frisky live shrimp. Floating shrimp along the rocks under popping corks, we bagged a mixed catch of sheepshead, redfish, pompano, and seatrout. And amazingly, despite the light winds and mild temperatures, there were no other boats in sight to enjoy the non-stop action that the Charleston jetties offer in the fall.
Though not built for that purpose, Charleston Harbor's jetties form perhaps the most fantastic artificial reef in South Carolina waters. Beginning on the beach at Morris Island to the south and Sullivan's Island to the north, the twin jetties run seaward for 3 miles, forming the main approach to Charleston Harbor.
Constructed in the late 19th century to help stabilize Charleston's shipping channel, the jetties offer anglers about 6 miles of submerged and exposed stone: prime habitat for a variety of gamefish.
While the jetties are one of the Lowcountry's more popular year-round fishing spots, they are sometimes overlooked in September. But early fall may be the best time for fishing the rocks, in terms of both variety and quality of fish that can be caught.
Every September, big schools of trophy-class redfish congregate near the rocks in what may be a pre-spawning ritual. Spotted seatrout work the current rips and edges, picking off shrimp and baitfish that become disoriented by the swift harbor currents. Flounder and sheepshead also stage at the rocks as they transition between their summer estuarine habitats and winter grounds on the nearshore reefs. Spanish mackerel, ladyfish, bluefish and pompano also visit the jetties before making their annual trek southward.
The rocks also draw a colorful cast of larger predators in September, including acrobatic blacktip and spinner sharks, 150-pound-class tarpon and blazing fast king mackerel.
All these species gather at the jetties to take advantage of the massive amount of bait thatpile s up along the rocks this time of year.
Along with untold numbers of spawning shrimp pulled seaward by the tides, the jetties also temporarily trap huge pods of menhaden and mullet that are migrating south along the East Coast.
No one spends more time at the jetties than Capt. Chuck Griffin. Virtually every day in the summer and early fall, the Charleston native and full-time fishing guide sets up shop somewhere along the jetties in search of giant redfish, sharks and tarpon.
Griffin believes that adult red drum begin to breed toward the end of August. As the fish aggregate to spawn, "they start getting stupid and start getting really hungry," he says.
Hordes of ravenous, aggressive redfish make for intense fishing action in September, just as Allison and I experienced.
With so much area to choose from, figuring out where, exactly, to fish is one of the most challenging aspects of this fishery. Griffin prefers to focus his effort on several very specific areas along the rocks, depending on the tide.
On the incoming tide, Griffin keys in on Dynamite Hole, a narrow channel cut through the south jetty where it disappears underwater on its way to Morris Island.
"I like to anchor on the outside of the rocks on an incoming tide," Griffin says. "There's a sandbar just outside the rocks creating a natural channel : The redfish funnel between the rocks and the sandbar, and you can catch them anywhere from the rocks all the way to the sandbar."
This area, Griffin says, is also an excellent spot to find tarpon and sharks on an incoming tide.
Once the tide starts flowing out, Griffin typically stations his boat on the inside of the south jetty, near the shipping channel. He usually anchors "about one-quarter to half a mile up the rocks from Dynamite Hole, where the bend (in the jetty) is."
Griffin uses his depth-finder to pick out spots along underwater troughs near the rocks, and focuses his efforts on such ledges in 15 to 20 feet of water.
"Anywhere that the water comes over the rocks at higher tides is a good place to fish," Griffin says. "The waves knock bait loose from the rocks, and you can often see redfish feeding in these areas."
Although Griffin prefers fishing the south jetty over the north, the submerged section of the north jetty is another great spot to set up shop for both redfish and the most prized catch of jetty fishermen, the tarpon. On an outgoing tide, water filters over the submerged rocks, creating a rip that disorients baitfish. Large sharks, tarpon and redfish stack up in the trough just outside the rocks looking for an easy meal.
Twenty-pound-class spinning or conventional tackle is standard for this style of fishing. Griffin prefers 7-foot rods with large eyes for easy casting and plenty of backbone for turning bull redfish. Reels must be capable of holding at least 300 to 400 yards of line to withstand the powerful runs of large tarpon and sharks.
Griffin uses a fishfinder rig that allows a fish to pick up his bait without feeling the resistance of the heavy lead weights required for fishing the swift currents at the jetties. He begins his rig by tying about 20 feet of 60-pound-test leader to his mainline using a uni-to-uni knot. Next, he slides on a black plastic Sea Striker sinker slide, to which he attaches a 3- to 6-ounce bank sinker. Griffin ties in a large barrel swivel to keep the weight from sliding down to his hook before adding another four feet of 60- to 100-pound-test leader.
On the business end, he prefers a size 6/0 Eagle Claw Circle Sea Hook with a slight offset. This type of hook catches most redfish and sharks right in the corner of the jaw. When targeting tarpon, Griffin opts for a larger, non-offset circle hook that can span a big tarpon's wide, bony jaw.
Griffin considers bait to be the most important part of his jetties fishing strategy. Menhaden, he says, are key. To find them, Griffin scouts the Intracoastal Waterway, Charleston Harbor and the beach off Morris Island for schools of menhaden and uses a large cast net to load up before each trip. Griffin fishes both live and cut menhaden at the jetties, but said he catches a lot more on cut menhaden than live.
For tarpon fishing, he prefers using live whiting, croaker and spots, or what he calls a "double dead": two whole dead menhaden on a single hook.
For those who prefer fishing light tackle for smaller fare, the jetties offer plenty of opportunities. In fact, virtually every popular inshore gamefish caught in South Carolina waters can be taken at the jetties in September.
Anyone familiar with the Charleston inshore fishing tournament scene probably recognizes Zed White. White, the owner of a local diving company, is one of Charleston's more accomplished inshore anglers. He has amassed an impressive collection of tournament trophies in recent years, and armed with light tackle and live bait, has plucked more than a few impressive flounder and seatrout from the jetties in the fall.
While many anglers in search of giant redfish and tarpon prefer swift currents and sharp ledges, White targets flounder and seatrout in places with less tidal flow.
"I like fishing the outside of the south jetty," he says, "because there isn't a big current like there is on the inside of the jetties."
Specifically, White likes fishing near a pair of large rocks about 100 yards seaward from Dynamite Hole.
"Those two rocks look like big sea lions sunning themselves, and I like fishing on either side of those two rocks," he says.
White also concentrates on Dynamite Hole itself, particularly on the outgoing tide.
As water flushes out of the harbor through Dynamite Hole, the water swirls around and creates a large eddy that pushes up against the rocks.
"There is a big square rock at the end near Dynamite Hole, and I've caught more big flounder there than any other spot," he says.
Huge schools of seatrout also stack up along the eddy in the late summer and early fall. On calmer days, the offshore ends of the north and south jetties can be particularly productive as well. The best action takes place when high tides bring clear ocean water in over the edge of the rocks.
When targeting trout and flounder at the jetties, most anglers use a standard "Carolina rig," which consists of a egg sinker sliding on the mainline ahead of a length of heavier leader material.
White typically uses 30-pound-test leader and a size 1/0, red Owner hook with a cutting point. He keeps his leaders short, about 10 to 12 inches, so that flounder have no problem seeing and running down his live baits. White's favorite bait is a finger mullet, though he also uses live mud minnows and shrimp. One often-overlooked technique for fishing the jetties is floating a live bait along and among the rocks. In areas where water washes over the rocks, redfish and sheepshead cruise between the rocks searching out crustaceans knocked free from the rocks by the wave action.
A live shrimp rigged under a popping cork is often deadly.
Other anglers incorporate some unorthodox and innovative techniques for fishing the rocks. For instance, Capt. Johnny Spitzmiller of Ambush Charters prefers to use his electric trolling motor to work the edges of rocks. Slowly motoring into the current along the calm side of the rocks, Spitzmiller drops live shrimp and fiddler crabs vertically in gaps between the rocks to entice outsized sheepshead and redfish. Though his rigging is simple - a short leader, a lead split shot, and a small sharp hook fished on medium spinning tackle - his approach yields some very impressive results.
But the rocks, themselves, aren't the only places to find fish. Smart anglers keep an eye to the open water when fishing the jetties in the early fall. Hordes of hungry bluefish, Spanish mackerel and ladyfish patrol the fringes of the jetties ecosystem, terrorizing schools of bait. As these gamefish push their prey to the surface, terns and gulls attack from above, creating a frenzied scene. To find these bait balls, follow the birds. Tossing a small silver spoon or white bucktail jig into the fray is all you'll need to do to get in on some fantastic light-tackle action.
On one unforgettable late September evening, we found flat calm seas and massive schools of bait on the outside of the north jetty near Sullivan's Island. Bluefish and Spanish mackerel were busting bait on the surface as far as the eye could see. For two hours, we caught fish on virtually every cast, all without another boat in sight.
Play it safe
With all of the fishing opportunities at the rocks, one can easily forget that the jetties form the entrance to one of the busiest commercial harbors along the East Coast.
Fishermen must keep an eye toward the channel and steer clear of any passing ships. Large wakes from container ships, pilot boats, barges and yachts can easily dislodge a small anchor, so anyone fishing inside the rocks must be alert to avoid being swept into the rocks.
Anglers must also pay close attention to wind, choppy seas and swift currents, particularly around the higher tides during a full moon. A stiff breeze blowing against a strong tide can make anchoring tricky and even dangerous. Spots like Dynamite Hole - where currents, rocks and sandbars all come into play - can be particularly hazardous at times.
A cautious approach is best: Don't risk being pushed into the rocks or swamped by a large wave. Just wait for a calmer day.
Safety considerations aside, fishing the jetties in the fall can be both fast-paced and relaxing at the same time. Football season, deer season and shrimping season have helped thin the crowds on the water, and less competition and more fish equal almost certain success.
A FEW SPOTS TO FISH
With about 6 miles of visible and submersed rock structure to choose from, picking a specific spot to fish at the jetties can be tough. Here are a few spots to try.
DYNAMITE HOLE: This deep hole at the west end of the south jetty is probably the most well-known fishing spot in Charleston. Dynamite Hole produces massive redfish, sharks aplenty and more than a few tarpon.
THE BEND: This relatively shallow and often sheltered area is known for producing large trout, flounder and sheepshead. Schools of Spanish mackerel and bluefish often add to the excitement.
THE DITCH: Moving water has carved out troughs on either side of the submerged portion of the north jetty. Bluefish, ladyfish, Spanish mackerel, redfish, tarpon and sharks all feast on bait washed over the rocks.
THE TIPS: Look for redfish and sheepshead near the rocks, and Spanish mackerel in the open water. Slow-trolling live menhaden across the shipping channel here can draw strikes from trophy king mackerel.
THE SOUTH JETTY: Though both of Charleston's jetties hold plenty of fish, the jetty on the south side of the shipping channel seems to attract more anglers. For a map of both jetties and some specific fishing spots.
REDS AT THE ROCKS: Big spot-tail bass are common all along both jetties.
KNOW THE RISKS, PLAY IT SAFE: Charleston's jetties can be a tricky place to fish. Always remember that the shipping channel they protect is a superhighway for enormous container ships (top). These vessels throw huge wakes that can wreak havoc on boats anchored or under way. One way to avoid such wakes, not to mention wind-blown chop, is to fish on the lee side of the rocks
Daniel Nussbaum, general manager of The Charleston Angler's Mount Pleasant location, has been fishing the jetties for about 20 years. To contact Daniel or check for fishing seminars, visit www.thecharlestonangler.com.