Autumn Angling: Fall is a favorite time for Lowcountry inshore fishermen

Sandy Stuhr guided grandson Andrew McKellar to this trophy redfish at the Charleston Jetties.


Ask Lowcountry inshore anglers to pick their favorite time of the year, and there’s a good chance the majority of them will pick fall for a variety of reasons.

Students are back in school. Hunting season is at hand. College football is going full bore. Those factors alone mean the waterways will be less crowded on weekdays and weekends. And less congestion always makes for a more enjoyable experience.

But the biggest reason for favoring fall is that the fish are biting with more consistency. The dog days of summer have all but disappeared. The average daily temperature is dropping, which in turn signals a drop in water temperatures. The fish become more active. There’s still plenty of bait to be found in the creeks, rivers and harbors. And where there is bait, there will be fish. Redfish, trout and flounder, the three most-targeted species by Lowcountry fishermen.

We ask Lowcountry fishing experts about the best way to target these species.

Ambush the fish

Ralph Phillips is equally at home fishing any of the Charleston area’s three primary river systems — the Wando, Cooper and Ashley.

When he moved to the Lowcountry in the late 1960s, Phillips was a confirmed largemouth bass fisherman. He began spending time in the upper Cooper River and soon discovered that largemouth techniques would catch another kind of bass — spot-tail bass or channel bass, colloquial names for red drum. Redfish is a relatively recent moniker for South Carolina anglers, only becoming popular within the last 20 years.

“I was coming down the Cooper River, fishing the rice fields for largemouth and caught a flounder on a Texas-rigged worm. Then I caught a redfish. Then I caught a trout. I just about gave up on largemouth fishing,” Phillips said.

Phillips favors artificial bait, using plastic worms and crankbaits from his bass tackle box to catch all three species. Today, you’re most likely to find him fishing his own Trout Eye jig with Z-Man plastic baits for reds, trout and flounder. Early in the morning and late in the afternoon Phillips has been known to chunk a Spook Junior or some other type of chugger in hopes of enticing an explosive topwater bite.

Phillips is a firm believer in the benefits of a trolling motor and said he probably has “the least-used anchor in the Lowcountry.

“I’m old school. I grew up bass fishing with a foot-control, cable driven trolling motor and taught my feet to fish. I can fish with both hands. I very seldom anchor. I pull up to a spot, put the trolling motor down and give it 10 minutes. If the fish aren’t there, I move on,” Phillips said.

“The most important thing is to look at the size of the bait in the creek. If the bait is a 2-inch shrimp, I’m not going to be fishing a 6-inch grub. I try to match the lure as closely to the size of the bait as I can.

“Another thing I like to say is ‘light light’ and ‘dark dark.’ If it’s a bright, sunny day, I like light, sparkle baits. Blues and silvers are my favorite colors. They reflect the sunlight. On darker days I go to root beers, dark greens, darker blues, even blacks. And the more active the fish are the bigger bait you can get away with.”

Phillips said when he is scouting for “fishy” spots, he looks for ambush points, places where the predators such as reds, trout and flounder can lie in wait for bait.

“I like to find small tributaries. They normally have oysters on either side. If the water is coming out of that tributary, I want to fish the structure where it breaks the current. Fish will hold there. Any type of structure that slows the current where baitfish will be coming out, that gives the gamefish a place to wait and feed,” Phillips said.

“I also think it’s important to fish artificial baits in the same direction the tide is moving. Most of the time baitfish are coming with the flow. I go at dead low tide, as low a tide as I can find, and look around and see how far those points come out, where the trees lay down. When I go back and it’s covered, I know what’s there. I’ve been there and studied that bank.”

Sandy Stuhr, another veteran inshore angler, bemoans the development that has taken place along the Wando River where he has spent decades fishing. But at the same time the proliferation of docks also provides structure and breaks for the gamefish to lie in wait.

“It gives the fish someplace to sit, particularly the redfish,” Stuhr said.

Stuhr’s favorite artificial is a bucktail jig, something that can be difficult to find these days. But he’s not averse to fishing live bait under a stationary float, positioning the bait so it will hover just above the bottom. He also enjoys getting into the shallow flats and casting for tailing redfish or fishing the jetties.

Area’s biggest ambush point

The primary purpose of the Charleston Jetties had absolutely nothing to do with fishing. But since the rock groins that jut off Sullivan’s Island and Morris Island were built in the late 19th century, they have given fishermen a great place to ambush fish. Reds, trout, flounder, sheepshead and bluefish, not to mention sharks, rays and other species can be found at the jetties.

“You don’t know what you’re going to be catching out there,” said Stuhr, who said he likes to start out by prospecting with an artificial, which he finds more fun, but also likes to drift a bait beneath a fixed float along the rocks or fish cut bait on a fish-finder rig along the bottom.

At the jetties, you might be catching trout one minute and the next minute catch a 40-pound red, said O.C. Polk, a bait fisherman who uses casting rods and reels so he can quickly wear down and release the big reds he encounters in a healthy state.

Polk makes up his own rigs, using an orange egg-shaped foam slip float that makes it easy to change the depth you are fishing. He ties up his own “bobber stops,” a piece of line that cinches around the main line, and keeps the float at a fixed depth. A ¾-ounce egg sinker, swivel and 18- to 20-inch leader with a 1/0, 2/0 or 3/0 Eagle Claw No. 84 bronze hook complete his rigs.

“I like to fish the same type of ambush points Ralph talks about,” Polk said. “Any place where the tide is coming through the rocks. Any time there’s a big rock, the flow will move slowly along until it reaches that eddy point, and the fish will gang along that eddy, trout, bass, flounder, sheepshead. It doesn’t matter what tide. You just need to be able to stay around the rocks with your bait.”

Unlike Phillips, Polk said his anchors are well used and often bent.

“I tear up a lot of anchors. I buy the cheap ones. I don’t buy the Fortress or Danforths. There’s no guarantee you’re going to get it back when you fish the jetties. I only use one anchor, but I don’t stay in one place very long, especially when you’re float fishing,” Polk said.

“The livelier bait the better. I use menhaden, mullet or shrimp.”

Don’t forget the surf

Fall also is a great time for catching big reds in the surf.

There are numerous outstanding surf fishing spots in the Charleston area, many of them reachable only by boat, places like Bulls, Capers, Dewees and Morris islands. But there also are good surf fishing spots that require only the willingness to hike — the north end of Folly Beach looking out toward Morris Island or Frampton Inlet near Edisto Beach.

You don’t need a 10- or 12-foot surf rod, either; you can do pretty well with a 7- to 8-foot rod, casting chunks of mullet into nearby breakers, according to avid surf angler Rob Mallard.

Mallard prefers the shorter surf rods and uses what is commonly referred to as a fish-finder rig — a sliding pyramid sinker on the main line, a swivel and a three- to four-foot leader with a circle hook. He has reels spooled with both braid and monofilament line. Most surf fishermen carry along one or two sand spikes, usually a piece of PVC pipe cut off at an angle. By pushing it into the sand and rocking it back and forth, it will gain a purchase and hold the rod above the water. A bait bucket to hold live bait or a carpenter’s nail apron to hold cut bait and extra rigs and you’re set.

“You need to make sure you have plenty of line. I’ve been spooled plenty of times, and I’ve lost a rod and reel or two from the surf spike,” Mallard said. “I don’t fish but one or two rods, because if the fish are there that’s adequate.”

Learning to read the water is a science that spells the difference between success and failure in the surf. Just as Phillips suggested in the creeks, go to the beach at low tide and examine the terrain, then come back to the same area at high tide and see what is happening with the water. The gullies and ditches are where the breakers form, and that’s where the predatory fish are swimming.

Shrimp, mullet or menhaden or any other small fish you can turn into cut bait work well.

No matter where you go — in the creeks or rivers, in the harbor and out to the jetties — it’s sure to be an enjoyable outing, and following the tips from these experts will improve your chances of catching fish. TL