Sweet Southern Belle

Living the High Life in South Carolina

Capt. Jordan Pate October 26, 2015

A warm and inviting east wind greeted us as we arrived at a regular tarpon haunt in the pre-dawn hours of the brisk fall morning. The distant silhouette of the historic Georgetown Lighthouse emerged on the horizon as the sights and sounds of diving pelicans, showering mullet, and lunging tarpon ignited a sensory overload while we did our best to tame our nerves. It wasn’t long before the first tarpon of the morning was in the air and the distinct sound of the rattling gills of a well-fed opponent reminded me of why I’m so in love with the Lowcountry of South Carolina.

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Photo: Captain jay Nelson

The Lowcountry is a genuine Southern belle—playful, delicate, beautiful and capable of making any guest feel welcome. For curious anglers, all one would have to do is pull up a satellite map of the coast and you’ll quickly understand why this fishery has so much to offer. South Carolina has more marsh acreage than any state along the Eastern Seaboard, with a variety of habitat including vast spartina marshes, winding creeks, shallow oyster bars, inlets, and miles of unspoiled barrier islands.

The Lowcountry is a true southern belle—playful, delicate, beautiful and capable of making any guest feel welcome.

Georgetown, South Carolina, is a historic port city located approximately 30 miles south of Myrtle Beach, and 60 miles north of Charleston. Georgetown also lies at the base of the Pee Dee, Waccamaw, and the Black Rivers, which fuel the nutrient-rich watershed and help make Winyah Bay one of the most diverse inshore fisheries on the entire East Coast.

Georgetown also sits on the northern end of one of the largest stretches of undeveloped coastline on the entire Atlantic Coast—approximately 60 miles of low lying estuaries and barrier islands that haven’t changed much in the last 100 years. The overwhelming feeling that you are stepping back in time is a bonus to the excellent fishing opportunities available in the region.

While the angling opportunities are indeed incredible, the Lowcountry has much more to offer than good fishing and unspoiled natural beauty. History and culture are deeply embedded throughout the region, which helps shape the landscape as well as the fishery. Numerous historic rice and indigo plantations line the banks just upriver from Georgetown, which prior to the Civil War was the largest exporter of rice and indigo in the world. Although these plantations no longer harvest rice or indigo, many are still intact and the impoundments that were once used to manage water levels for rice now serve as prime feeding grounds for migratory waterfowl and also provide a nursery for a wide variety of marine inhabitants.

There’s no bad time to visit the Lowcounty, with the months of August, September and October some of my favorite. You can load up the skiff and run the beach looking for tarpon, cobia or schools of bull redfish, then move inshore to run the crab pots looking for tripletail before stalking tailing redfish on fly. And if you still have enough daylight, you can go catch a limit of sweet Carolina shrimp.

Perhaps the most sought after game fish in all the southern coastal states, it’s no surprise redfish are plentiful year-round, however the season and prevalent weather patterns determine the most effective approach. Beginning in the late fall through early spring, anglers are presented with the best opportunity to sight fish schooling redfish. As our water clarity improves dramatically with cooler water temperatures, large schools of redfish can be found in shallow water as they forage on mullet, crabs and shrimp, while also seeking refuge from hungry bottlenose dolphin. Shallow drafting skiffs are the most effective rigs for accessing isolated schools of fish in shallow water, which often number in the hundreds during the cooler months of winter.

Spring through late fall, redfish can be found on all tides in nearly every nook and cranny, from deepwater areas like jetties and shipping channels, to the flooded grass flats and tiny oyster-lined creeks where they forage for fiddler crabs and grass shrimp. While all of these areas can be productive, perhaps the most rewarding way to target redfish is on the grass flats during ideal flood tides, which occur April through October. Known locally as tailing tides, these periods of extreme high water occur about every two weeks when the tides are large enough to flood the marsh. Stealth, accuracy and presentation are critical when fishing tailing tides for reds, and many find that fly-fishing is the most productive approach due to the subtle presentations mimicking small shrimp and crabs. When using spin tackle, weedless flukes and the DOA Shrimp can also be very productive. While there are many productive flats in the Georgetown area, some of the best can be found about 30 minutes south in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.

While seatrout can be caught in most areas year-round, the biggest trout of the year are typically caught in the spring and early summer during their spawn. While South Carolina doesn’t hold a candle to the gators found in Florida waters, we do have a very healthy population that provides consistent action. Seatrout tend to be the most sensitive to changes in salinity, clarity, and tidal movement, so we often hit as many spots as possible to find ideal conditions. White and brown shrimp begin to fill the bays and creeks by mid-August, which put the trout in a feeding frenzy. During this time, artificial shrimp like the VuDu are very productive, as well as grubs and other soft plastic imitations. Although trout fishing can be great throughout the winter, the best fishing occurs in the late fall until water temperatures dip into the low 50s.

As spring rolls back around, the first sign of blooming azaleas and dogwoods means flounder are returning to the creeks. Southern flounder spend the winter offshore and begin to migrate back into the shallow creeks and estuaries after their annual spawn. Pawleys Island and Murrells Inlet are popular areas where you can load up the wife and kids, grab a bucket full of mud minnows and target flounder by slowly bouncing bottom. While flounder fishing in these areas is primarily a family pastime, there are a few old timers who will tell you there is an art to consistently catching doormats. Outside of the shallow estuaries, the Winyah Bay jetties and near shore reefs provide habitat for truly massive flounder during the early summer and late fall.

From May through October, we welcome a large number of migratory tarpon to the Georgetown area. The mullet run typically begins in mid-August, which marks the start of peak tarpon season, often lasting until the beginning of October. While tarpon fishing in South Carolina isn’t a new thing, it has become increasingly popular as local guides and recreational anglers dedicate themselves to the migration.

Granted it’s hard to compete with the lure of clear tropical waters of our neighbors in Florida, or even the vast amount of game fishing opportunities in the Gulf of Mexico, but whether you are a fly-fishing enthusiast seeking the heart stopping thrill of stalking tailing redfish on a flooded grass flat, or a tarpon junkie that just can’t get enough excitement of large acrobatic game fish, chances are that the Lowcountry of South Carolina has something special just for you.

South Carolina Facts

Coastal water area: 72 sq. mi.
Miles of coastal shoreline: 2,876
Population per sq. mi.: 153
Average temperature in January: Low 34°F – High 55°F
Average temperature in July: Low 70°F – High 91°F

There are several variations on the geographic extent of the Lowcountry. The most commonly accepted regional designation includes the counties of Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper. Originally dependant on the harvest of indigo, rice and cotton, tourism now dominates the economy in much of the Lowcountry.

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