Surf’s Up

Beach-bound fishermen can enjoy plenty of autumn action along South Carolina coastline.

Jeff Dennis

October 23, 2007 at 3:24 pm  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

Surf’s Up
Surf fishing can be one of the more leisurely techniques to target South Carolina’s inshore fish species.

Fishing from the shore is a great option for visitors or residents without access to a boat. A popular sentiment goes, if you’re lucky enough to be at the beach, then you’re lucky enough.

Springtime usually kicks off the surf-fishing season, as the warm weather beckons anglers to the beach, but productive surf fishing extends all the way through November’s cooler days, with October being a peak time for catching large redfish.

Other species likely to be caught in the surf include: pompano, black drum, whiting (sea mullet), spot, flounder and sharks.

Avram Kronsberg grew up fishing on Sullivan’s Island, one of the prime-for-surf-fishing barrier islands along the coast, and he became hooked on the sport at age eight. Now older, wiser and readily available for surf-fishing information at Haddrell’s Point Tackle Shop, Kronsberg said, “Spot-tailed bass cruise the beach six to seven months out of the year.”

In late November, when the water cools, fish 30 inches long or better move towards the ocean, into roughly 30 feet of water. From December through February, they may move out into as deep as 60 feet.

The best way to decide where to fish is to scout a likely area of beach at low tide. Look for topography such as a gulley, sandbar or jetty, because the surrounding water currents often hold baitfish. Keep a mental image of these areas so you can fish them on any tide, knowing that your baits are in a productive location.

Kronsberg said it is important to pick out likely spots when targeting redfish, because casting out onto a flat, sandy bottom isn’t likely to produce any action.

Fresh mullet steaks are the best bet for enticing bull reds or puppy drum to strike, but frozen finger mullet are also an option. If bait-stealers like bluefish and pinfish are driving you mad, try fishing with a quarter of a blue crab for bait — redfish simply love crab, and other fish are less likely to bother it.

Of course, multiple shrimp on a hook is always a solid back-up bait, and sometimes, throwing a cast-net in the surf can produce mud minnows.

Kronsberg told a great story about a trip to Cape Island with six friends who spaced their lines down the beach. When one angler got a bite, everyone noticed which rod was the next to have a hook-up. The anglers would then jockey for position to get in front of one another to cast in the direction that the school of fish was moving.

Fishing with friends can add a competitive edge to the day, but since you are on the beach anyway, it’s all just much ado about nothing.

Folly Beach has always had some great, surf-fishing but recently the action there has been quiet, with the exception of the presence of pompano. Kronsberg said, “The beach has recently been renourished, and all the new sand has covered up the older natural formations.”

In fact, sometimes the grain of the sand being brought in is not fine enough to support all creatures. Sand that has rolled around in the surf for years has been pulverized into small granules that allow mole crabs (also called sand fleas), a local favorite for sheepshead and pompano, to burrow. If there are fewer tiny shellfish and other creatures in the surf-zone, then there will be fewer fish attracted to it.

Some likely locations to fish in the Charleston area include either end of Folly Beach, and Breach Inlet between Sullivan’s Island and the Isle of Palms.

Capt. Reed Simmons of Mount Pleasant said, “I like to put in at the Isle of Palms and run to the front of Bulls Island, or sometimes I even make the 15-mile run to Cape Island.”

Simmons surveys the ever-shifting sandbars associated with these barrier islands and picks one that looks like a likely fishing spot. After anchoring up and getting out on the bar, he walks to spot he wants to try.

Surf fishing requires some very specialized equipment, often an entirely different tackle box. You still use bait on a hook in search of a strike, but your rod, reel, tackle, and implements are all different.

The most essential tool is the sand spike, which is a rod holder to get your fishing outfit upright and ready for a bite. Many fishermen use stainless-steel spikes, but much more common are the PVC surf spikes with an angled cut on the bottom.

A surf rod can be 6 or 7 feet long — if that’s all you have, but more common are longer rods, even 10- to 12-footers. These long rods are usually 2-piece construction; the added length allows for longer casts and allows your fishing line to stay above the breaking waves next to the beach.

If you start from the road, getting your rods, cooler, and tackle box from your vehicle to the surf’s edge requires an extra pair of hands, making two trips, or obtaining a wheeled surf cart.

Fishing carts are the rage these days, popular with pier fisherman as well as surf fishermen. A cart can be custom made to fit your specific desires, or a more generic model can be purchased at a local tackle shop.

Typically, the cart has several rod holders, at least two fat tires made for rolling through sand, and it can hold a large cooler packed with bait, drinks, and tackle. These carts take the work out of moving between your car and the surf, or moving up and down the beach to try different spots.

Other implements that should be packed are a good multi-purpose tool along with a serrated blade for cutting bait, a knife blade for rigging tackle and pliers for removing hooks.

Kronsberg recommends a 10- to 12-foot rod, “because you can cast it a lot farther than an 8- or 9-foot rod.” He likes to use 20-pound test monofilament line and attaches a 60-pound test leader using a 130-pound swivel. His terminal tackle includes a Sputnik weight and a 5/0 Daiichi circle hook.

The “Sputnik” weight is named for the satellites that the Soviet Union used to send into orbit. The sinkers are pieces of lead with several metal arms sticking out that grip the sand and are very resistant to strong currents and turbulence. That enables fishermen to keep their baits in the target zone much longer.

A bottom rig consisting of a lead sinker and two hooks is a popular terminal-tackle choice when surf fishing. A small- to medium-sized hook should suffice, but the weight of the sinker can vary greatly depending on currents. Common designs are the bank sinker, the pyramid sinker, and the wired-grip sinker or “Sputnik.”

If current is running parallel to the beach, a 4-ounce bank sinker may hold your bait on the bottom, but if the rip current is stronger, it may take a sharper-edged, 5-ounce pyramid sinker to hold your position.

Often, it will take several casts with various size weights before you discovery the exact one necessary for the strength and direction of the current — requiring the surf angler to keep a good supply on hand.

Simmons prefers Pflueger reels and 11-foot Star rods for his surf-fishing trips, and he cautions that trying several different spots and offering various baits is all part of the deal. He emphasized that cut mullet works well, but his secret weapon is, “My wheeled-cooler that is rigged with oxygen so I can offer live finger mullet to the surf-zone drum wherever I may be fishing.”

A typical set-up for Simmons would be a single-hook leader rigged with a circle hook and a 2-ounce pyramid sinker. Another popular rig, the “fish-finder rig,” consists a sinker attached to a hollow sleeve of plastic that slides along the leader. This allows the fish to pick up the bait and move with it without feeling the weight.

Sandbars can be fished from the beach; keep an eye on how the tide brings the water across the bar. If the sandbar is parallel to the shoreline, water will come around either end, creating a hole or cut and currents that will carry bait in and out with the tide. Also, any natural point that juts into the ocean is a likely place to try a cast; just be careful for deep drop-offs hidden by the water when wading.

Plant your surf spikes, cast your baits, and keep a sharp eye for the rod tip to bend, indicating a strike. Patience is essential when surf fishing because it is rare that you cast and immediately get a strike. Occasion-ally in the summer, you may see a school of Spanish mackerel working the surf, so it’s always handy to have another rod ready to make long casts with artificial lures.

Perhaps you could daydream about the famous bluefish blitzes for which North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The water churns with large bluefish as they blitz the surf to ambush menhaden or even speckled trout.

Surf fishing is more of a way of life on the Outer Banks than in the Lowcountry, but if you can find a good spot, you may catch the redfish of a lifetime in the surf zone.

If you do have some free time, and it’s a nice afternoon, you may want to try the unique experience of fishing on into the night, which is when fishermen break out the Coleman lantern. As the weather cools, a pair of waders will allow you to cast from the surf without catching a chill.

Sometimes, the best fishing does not even start until well after dark, so it is best to vary your techniques when fishing. The moonlight reveals the phosphorous in the breaking waves, and the ghost crabs invade the beach from the dunes — and your lantern and flashlight become irreplaceable.

Food and drink in the cooler are enjoyed with a sandy crunch, held by hands that smell of cut mullet. Wade into the surf, draw back the rod and give it one heck of a cast in search of fishing memories. Surf fishing is a great way to experience the blessing that is coastal living.


View other articles written Jeff Dennis


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