It wasn't exactly a shot in the dark when Capt. J.R. Waits took his wife, Pilar, and their 13-year-old son Guerin in search of tarpon on June 23. The week before on his birthday, the veteran Charleston fishing guide had hooked a tarpon but jumped him off.
Guerin caught his first tarpon of the season (and fifth overall), an 80-pounder, on the family outing.
"We knew they were there. It's not the earliest I've caught them, but it is early. I usually tell my (tarpon clients) they will be here the first or second week in July. Some years it has been as late as August before I've caught one. But this year there seems to be plenty here already," said Waits, who operates Fish Call Charters (843-509-7337 or fishcall.com).
Waits has been targeting tarpon since the late 1990s. He said it's the fascination of such large fish and the difficulty of catching them that entices him. They aren't as abundant as Florida but there still is a solid fishery in South Carolina during the summer months along South Carolina's ocean inlets.
Waits said he has hooked tarpon as late as Oct. 21, and the first couple of weeks in October can be extremely good with tarpon migrating south through area waters. Weather conditions, including cold snaps or storms, also can move the fish from area waters.
"If I can land a dozen a year, I'm real happy. My best year ever was in the mid-20s and I probably hooked 40-something fish that year," he said.
Waits said a study of the tarpon's shape, with eyes on the top of their head and a large lower scoop-type jaw is a clue on the best way to fish for the elusive silver king.
"They are built to feed up. Typically, I like to fish freelined or floated baits. In deeper water, I will fish a bottom bait but you end up catching a lot of stingrays and sharks with that rod," he said.
Waits likes to use live bait. Menhaden top the list, followed by croakers, pinfish and mullet.
"Mullet are so fast, a lot of time they can outrun the tarpon, even if they are on a hook. If it becomes difficult, the tarpon becomes disinterested and swims away," he said. "But in September when we are having that mullet run, it's important to use mullet because that's what they are keyed in on."
Waits fished Penn Battalion Rods and Penn Clash reels spooled with 50-pound test Spiderwire. He uses the Precision Tackle Bluewater Thunder float with an 80-pound fluorocarbon leader between three and six feet long and 7/0 VMC Tournament Circle hooks.
"I like the smaller, light wire hook fished with a lighter drag. I've found that brings more fish to the boat than big hooks and heavy drags.
In scouting for tarpon, he looks for areas where two different color waters come together "like brown water up against green water with a good rip. If you find that and bait there, it's a high likelihood you'll find tarpon," he said.
"I scout a lot. I'll go to an area and go real slow. If I see them rolling, I'll get up current with the trolling motor and try to be quiet. I used to anchor but the last couple of years with these fancy Minn Kota trolling motors I've been doing a lot more drift fishing. You can hit the spot lock feature and the trolling motor will hold you there. I'll sit in that area for a good 30 minutes. If I stop seeing them roll, then I'll leave and find another spot."
If you're interested in catching a South Carolina tarpon, now is the time to go.