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A fishing tale from warmer days

JIM MORGAN
Special to the Daily A Spartina grass flat evokes a peaceful feeling at low tide. With winter in full swing in Summit County, the vision of a warm-weather fishing hole tugs at the arm a bit harder these days.
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Oh, the weather outside is frightful.Which is why I’m thinking of warmer climes and fishing trips past.These days, with the exception of the “hope springs eternal” diehards in the tailwater below Lake Dillon, most of the fishermen I see are poised statue-like staring at holes drilled in the ice.I assume most are watching for their rod tips to move. On the other hand, they could be frozen in that prayerful pose. After all, the average daytime high this time of year is … well, there’s a reason the water is frozen solid.Which is why I like closing my eyes and conjuring scenes of clear blue water, warm sunshine and saltwater-bred fish that would look at a foot-long trout as bait.Where my mind’s eye takes me is South Carolina’s low country and the Spartina grass flats northeast of historic Charleston on a Friday afternoon in early October.While the sun is bright, the wind is blowing from the southwest. Blowing hard enough that it’s keeping the tide at bay. And because the tide’s not flooding the Spartina grass, the redfish aren’t moving in.Guide Chris Wilson has pushed the Hewes flats boat into the grass. He stands on the bow and peers at the expanse of grass.He shakes his head.”Mother Nature’s not cooperating is she?” I say.

“No, she’s not,” he replies. “This doesn’t look good.”Normally on this tide only the tips of the grass would be protruding the surface of the water. Instead, eight to nine inches of grass rise above the water. It’s tough enough to cast a fly accurately in a 15 miles-per-hour wind, but the low tide means the fly line will hang on the grass and the fly a weightless metallic gold spoon can’t be maneuvered in front of a cruising fish, if we can find a cruising fish.The reds move into the grass at high tide to feed. The grass harbors bait fish and crustaceans, both menu items for redfish. They also move into the grass because it creates a hiding place from eagles, ospreys and dolphins, all of which prey on juvenile reds.Reds are not especially spooky so casts are typically in the 40-foot range or closer.”Accuracy is more important than distance,” Chris said. He explains the need for accuracy comes partly because the mouth of a redfish is located on the bottom of its head, causing the fish to look downward as they search for crabs or mullet.Plus, as my friend Tommy Robinson, who guides out of Apalachicola, Fla., will tell you redfish are really lazy.”They don’t expend much energy to go and chase food down, so you’ve got to put it right where they are and make it easy for them … if it’s not right in front of their nose they aren’t going to eat it.”Despite the odds Chris and I wade out into the water. Becky, my wife, stays on the boat.We move slowly across the flat watching for the flash of bronze tail or the splash from a feeding fish.We see the flash at the same moment. The fish is about 40 yards away and we move toward it. It’s moving slowly from left to right, which means we’ll intersect at an angle that will have the wind blowing almost in our face.

At 40 feet I false cast once and cast the line forward. The fly falls about a yard in front of the fish. The line is draped across the grass. I strip the fly slowly but the fish moves away from the fly and toward us. I try to lift the line but it’s tangled in the grass. Pulling it free will only spook the fish, which is about 20 inches long and has two black spots or false eyes near the tail and a turquoise blue edge along its tail fin, all of which are plain to see as it swims literally a rod-length away.Once it passes, I pull the line free but by then the fish has pushed out into the channel and is gone. We stand silently and scan the grass. We see another red, this one about 30 yards away, and watch it moving. We ease forward. When close, I cast. The result is the same line tangled in grass and fish swimming away.Chris looks across the flat and tells me with the tide moving out it will only get worse.We opt for plan B.Within 30 minutes he’s anchored the flats boat just up current from a dock that juts into a channel running between the grass flats and the shore. The landing is owned by a friend of his. It is, he tells me, as close to a sure thing as he knows.The fly rods are stored and in their place are two light-tackle spinning rods light tackle in so far as saltwater fishing is concerned. Chris pulls a five-inch mullet from the live well, lip hooks it and shows Becky where to cast under the edge of the dock where the tide and current sweep bait to waiting underwater predators. Becky has never fished with live bait in saltwater. She’s perplexed at first at the slight movement she feels. I begin to explain that it’s the mullet moving along the bottom searching for cover, but I’m interrupted when a redfish intercepts my own mullet and I rear back and set the hook.It takes a bit more than a minute to land the fish, which pulled much harder than I expected. I can’t help but grin.Becky, who had reeled in while I landed my fish, casts again. This time she says she can feel the mullet “getting very nervous.” As she’s telling me her rod jerks down and she pulls back in reaction.Even with the drag tightened down the redfish takes line and swims under the dock and around a piling. Becky eases back on the rod and the redfish most cooperatively comes toward her. She winds slowly and once the fish is clear of the dock, pulls b back hard. For Becky landing the redfish really is a fight. Repeatedly she reels as she lowers the rod, then pulls back to gain line. I’m not sure how many minutes it takes, but Chris finally is able to lean over the boat and grab the redfish with the Boca Grip.It was a quite respectable 26-inch, 7-pound. redfish that proved to be the largest we caught that afternoon.

Fall & Winter fishingThat trip was nearly three months ago, just as fall was beginning in the low country.If you’re headed to South Carolina between now and spring, there’s still ample opportunity to fish, but the tactics will be slightly different.As the water cools in winter it also clears – largely due to algae disappearing.Redfish, which have been solitary wanderers in the summer and fall, begin to gather into winter schools, which typically hold about 50 fish. The average weighs about 8 pounds, although it’s not uncommon to come upon a school with larger fish or schools numbering more than 100.During high tide, the schools move into the Spartina grass and as the tide recedes move into more open areas around oyster beds and mud bars. Often it’s easier to target schools at low tide simply because they have fewer places to hide. With the water clearer, sight casting becomes the norm, even picking out individual fish within a school.When it comes to fly rods, don’t be outgunned. This is not the time to try and fish your 6- or 7-weight rod. An 8-weight. is the minimum and a 9-weight better because, as Chris pointed out, you can put a lot more pressure on the fish. You’ll need a good saltwater reel loaded with weight-forward floating line and several hundred yards of backing. Leaders are typically mono and 9-feet in length that test to 10-12 lbs. A 20-lb. Bite tippet is a good idea.In very shallow water you might try a topwater fly such as a Dahlberg Diver, but red fish look down most of the time and not up. Clousers, deceivers and bend back flies all work well. Gold, said Chris, is often the color of choice.Strip-strike to set the hook. Don’t lift the fly rod.

“All that’s going to do is pull the fly out of the fish’s mouth,” Chris explained. “Point the rod at the fish, pull hard on the line and pull it horizontally … but don’t raise the rod.”For someone who’s a habitual freshwater trout fisherman, that’s hard to do.But the technique makes sense for two reasons. First, if you miss the hook set the fly will still be in the water in front of the fish, just like a fleeing baitfish would be and often the redfish will strike again. Second, the power generated from a hard hook set is what’s needed to drive a hook point deep into the fish’s rubbery lips.Fight the fish aggressively.”Wear them out quickly,” said Chris. Basically put as much pressure on the fish as your rod, leader and tippet allows. “The longer you keep them on the line, the more likely something bad can happen.”In other words, as I told Becky while fighting her fish, “Darling, show ’em who’s boss.”And she did.Fishing guide Chris Wilson can be reached at (843) 224-7462. His website is http://www.finaddictfishing.com.


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