Fall fishing in the Lowcountry is one of the best kept secrets from the summertime tourists. The smell of Hawaiian Tropic, snow cone stands, and traffic are long gone from the local beaches. Football season only means one thing, it is time to fish. Weekends are spent on the water or preparing for the upcoming waterfowl season, another favorite pastime. One of the special fall treats is the ability to sight fish for red drum, and what a treat it is. The water has cooled off enough for fish to not want to expend more energy than necessary so they spend time in the shallows for the sun to warm their armor-clad backs. Add a small poling skiff, polarized glasses, and a couple light fishing rods and you have collected the tools for success. If you have read Seein’ Specks, you have heard of the famed Chicken Nugget. Chicken Nugget was the perfect boat for this, a 17 Maverick Micro. The best “fun per gallon” ride on the water, and enabled Matt E and I to get back into the marsh and stalk these copper toned fish.
A successful weekend would start with getting on the water early Saturday and making sure we had enough time to find the fish. The sun was often just starting to peak through the grey morning sky as we were filling up the boat while getting ice and snacks at the gas station. Depending on where we wanted to fish or, in reality, where the weather dictated where we would fish for the day, a typical run would be anywhere from 2 miles to 15 miles on the water. Those cool early morning runs led us to look like the Michelin Man with as many layers as necessary to keep the bite of the wind suppressed, and I can remember a few mornings that I regretted forgetting an extra layer. If you had any bare skin showing the wind would surely let you know quickly, and a tell-tale shuffle usually took place to block that biting air.
After reaching the first creek another scramble would begin, to get the heavy coats off to avoid overheating with air temperature climbing from blizzard level into the wonderful fall air category. With the jackets stowed and the light spinning gear rigged it was time to start peering into the water. Matt E would take the bow of the boat while I would stand on the poling platform, even with the advantage of height on my side Matt E would typically see fish first. We would either drift down the bank, pole through a small creek, or use the trolling motor to stay just far enough away to find the fish without spooking them. Working the creek while staring at the water looking for an oval shape that had the hue of a dull penny in the water, the sign of a laid-up drum waiting on something to eat. There were times we would spot them, other times we missed the school and got busted as copper footballs shot through the water in every which way. Eventually we would find some fish, and it was off to the races.
When a pod of fish was located, we would put a piece of “biodegradable” bait on a jig head out in front of them without spooking the school. There were times they would pounce on the bait anxious for a meal and others it took a little convincing with a couple twitches. If we were lucky the bait would disappear with the white flash of the fish’s mouth. When a fish inhaled the bait the rod tip would be lifted in a smooth sharp motion to drive the hook in the hard into the jaw. The fish would act confused about why the food it just sucked in suddenly bit back and gave him a tug. The majority of fish we encountered were never the “bull drum”; some were under the slot limit, others were a bit larger than the slot, and then there were those that were just right. A good day would bring a limit of these tasty creatures to hand in just a few hundred yards of fishing, while other days it seemed like our eyes burnt the water for miles. The great days always leaves a sense of guilt that it was too easy and we hoped it would always be like that. The tough days made us appreciate the great days all the more. I think we learned more about the fish themselves on the days they seem to be jumping in the boat, but we learned more about the fishing and the fishery on the slow days. Fortunately, South Carolina has changed the limits on the Red Drum, and I think this will only make the fishery stronger for future generations. That being said, we could usually rob the bank of the creeks for a fresh fish dinner at the end of the day.
As an afternoon sun started to dip we would stow the rods and got the heavy clothes back out to prepare for a long chilly run back to the ramp. As a toast was given with the Miller Lites dug out from underneath the fish in the cooler, we would feel sorry for the folks who may never get to experience the fall in the Lowcountry. The chilly ride back to the ramp would usually get me thinking about a hot meal to cap the day off. There isn’t much finer eating than a 22” puppy drum on the half shell: a filet of drum with the bones removed and scales still on, place scale side down on the grill and coat the top with blackened seasoning and a tab of butter. Just take the fish off when the meat flake away from the skin, it is easy as can be. One of my favorite things in this world is to share the spoils of a fine day on the water with friends and family. There is something primal about everyone coming together to eat well and tell stories that appeals to me. Ultimately that could be the reason behind the whole production, to bring people together and give thanks for the ability to enjoy each other’s company over good food and a crisp fall evening.
Until next time
Capt. Paul Pancake