By Ty Butler
Wade fishing on the Georgia Coast and the South Carolina Low Country is one of the best ways to access the marsh flats which redfish invade on a bimonthly basis. Most tidal swings in the area average 6 to 7 feet, which is a large swing anywhere else on the Southeast coast. However, for a few days around the new and full moons each month the tidal change can approach 10 feet or more. Fishing for species such as seatrout, sheepshead, or flounder can be very problematic during big tidal changes. These periods, called “spring” tides, flood the higher areas of the tidal flats where bottom predators can’t normally reach. Redfish (locally known as spottail bass), invade these virgin areas in order to gorge themselves on fiddler crabs and shrimp. This gives anglers a unique opportunity to sight fish for the premier inshore saltwater gamefish of the South.
A beautiful Georgia redfish caught sight fishing.
There are some issues with accessing these areas. Georgia and South Carolina marshes are mostly bottomed with soft, deep “pluff” mud, which is not only annoying to wade in, but can also be life threatening and has taken lives. There are areas that are much safer, though, and luckily redfish flock to them. Hard, sandy bottom can be found at the back of most saltwater creek systems, and this is exactly where reds go when the tide floods high. I recommend that you scout for such areas at low tide before you start targeting fish when the grass floods. There are several indicators you should look for in a redfish flat, but you need to know what to look for.
Coastal Georgia holds a winding maze of inland wetlands within its 100 straight miles that holds one third of all salt marsh on the entire Atlantic East Coast. The Low Country of South Carolina and the First Coast of North Florida have similar ecosystems. Most of this salt marsh is composed of smooth spartina cordgrass, which is very tall, thick, and re-grows each year. It grows in the soft “pluff” mud which should be avoided if one wants to wade fish. The best areas to look for are those with a compacted sand bottom with a species of short, scattered spartina grass known as “salt marsh hay”. You can tell from afar that these areas look like “potholes” in the taller grass. These are the types of areas that fiddler and ghost crabs burrow in large colonies and redfish love to target them. Old timers will tell you that another plant to look for in a good redfish spot is a short, bright green edible plant known as “saltwort.”
A kayak is a perfect choice to attack the marsh flats.
Once you find a good spot with firm, safe wading bottom, you need to choose your approach. There are a select few areas that are accessible by foot from dry land. However, most areas will require a flats boat or kayak to access. A flats boat can get you to far, remote areas- but a kayak can get you right up on the fish with a stealthy approach. Some ambitious anglers combine both by using their boat as a mothership and launching their kayak within striking distance. Either way, I like to get out of my vehicle and foot it into the enemy territory. I find this is the most “ninja-like” approach and least likely to spook the fish. For protection I do prefer to wear a full coverage, draining shoe, such as Sperry SON-R. You never know when you might encounter a stingray or razor-sharp oyster shells. For gear, I prefer a fairly long rod, 7 to 8 feet, with a 3000 or 4000 size spinning reel. This will give you the longer cast you will want. Braided line is a must as it will allow you to use 17 to 50 pound test line though it is a much smaller diameter. This will give you much-needed line capacity and abrasion resistance in grass and shells. I like to end it with a 15 to 25 pound Seaguar fluorocarbon leader. Fluorocarbon is even more abrasion resistant and is almost invisible underwater.
So much marsh, so little time...
When you arrive on the marsh flat, you will only have a short window to go after the red battlers. Most flats are only flooded an hour or two before and after high tide. When the current starts to pull off the flat, redfish know they need to leave quickly. I like to arrive about 3 hours before high tide and move back through the grass as it floods. Even though time is short, you need to slow down and be observant. Use polarized sunglasses, such as Costa del Mar and search for tails breaking the surface and slowly waving. If the wind is blowing, this can be tricky- but look for anything that doesn’t move with the wind. These are usually redfish grubbing around on the bottom in search of fiddler crabs and other crustaceans.
Z-Man Jerk Shad
When you spot a redfish, or a school, it is time to make a presentation. With all the possibilities out there, I have a few select go-to lures. When fly fishing I prefer Clouser Minnows or shrimp/crab patterns, like the redfish toad. With conventional gear I almost exclusively use the scented Z-Man Jerk Shad or a weedless-rigged DOA Shrimp. I buy DOA baits in the money-saving body kits offered by BPS and hook them using a ⅛ ounce weighted-shank Gamakatsu swimbait hook. I heavily scent all my baits using shrimp Pro-Cure Super Gel, which we offer at Bass Pro Shops in Savannah. This scent is a gel-based concentrate that lasts all day and has proven results.
The most critical juncture when chasing redfish on the flat is when you make your cast. If you are off my just couple of inches, you may spook the fish. Take note of the direction the fish is moving, take account for the wind, and aim just beyond and ahead of the redfish. When your bait lands, make just a couple of cranks to reel in the slack and pull the bait into the path of the fish. Then just let the bait sit and hold your rod tip high. If the fish attacks, you will see a swirl and feel weight through your rod tip. Set the hook hard, because redfish have rubberlike lips and hard jaws. If you are successful in your hookset, you will know quickly.
Attwood Folding Net
With a fish on, keep your rodtip high, but let your drag do the work. Redfish, especially large ones, will take a very hard first run. It will strip yards off the drag, but just let it run and use your rodtip to maintain its direction. If the fish starts to near a thicker, taller patch of grass (which they all seem smart enough to do), then you should try directing it away or slightly tightening the drag. If you are successful in stopping that first run, you are in good shape. Reel the fish in, slowing down if the fish shakes its head or takes a secondary run. I like to use a folding net to land the fish once it gets close. Attwood makes an excellent net which folds up into a very compact package.
SpyPoint X-Cel Camera
Redfish can only be kept in this area within a slot limit. In Georgia, they can only be kept in a slot between 14 to 23 inches with a 5 fish per day limit. Similarly, in South Carolina they can only be kept 15 to 23 inches with a 3 fish per day limit. A lot of fish caught on the flats, though, are above the slot limit. Breeding-age fish 24 to 36 inches are often caught on the marsh flats before they move off the beaches. I would hope that all these fish are released to secure the future of this amazing fishery. Take a picture with your smart phone or use a video camera like the Spypoint X-Cel Sport or the GoPro Hero to capture the moment for the future.
The Southeast coast from the Low Country through the Coastal Empire, the Golden Isles, and into North Florida offers some unique opportunities to target redfish in an environment where they are particularly vulnerable. Take some time to look ahead to the next new or full moon tide, and plan on visiting Bass Pro Shops to gear up for the next “red dawn” when the spottails invade the territory of the walking angler.
Some info provided by our friend Captain “Wild Bill” Jarrell- http://captainwildbill.com/