Mar/Apr 2014Charleston Jetties, The Incidental Reef by Pete Laurie

Constructed 120 years ago to create a dependable shipping channel, Charleston Harbor's three-mile-long rock jetties provide an unintended bonus: great fishing.

Suddenly, Robert had a fish on. With the graphite rod bent double, he gradually pumped it up to the boat, and a bonnethead shark, about fifteen pounds, that had taken a menhaden came thrashing to the surface. Seeing the boat, the shark immediately dove, and after another few minutes of keeping it away from the jetty rocks and gradually horsing it back to the surface, Robert grabbed the dorsal fin and lifted it aboard. Pinning it to the deck between his knees, he quickly removed the hook from its upper jaw and carefully released the animal over the side.

"It'll be fine," he said, noting the hardiness of the species, which has little or no food value. An avid saltwater angler, Robert Wiggers, a public information specialist for the DNR's Marine Resources Division, spends many of his non-working hours fishing the Charleston jetties. The jetties have long been a very popular fishing spot, although certainly not built for that purpose.

A Turn-of-the-Century Engineering Marvel

The natural seaport of Charleston served the region well since the mid 1600s, but increasing industrialization in the 19th century, especially following the Civil War, required a deeper channel at the harbor entrance. The existing channel, less than fifteen feet deep at low tide and blocked by a massive sandbar just offshore, made navigation in and out of the harbor difficult as commercial ships grew larger.

In 1869, Army Col. Quincy A. Gillmore, who ironically had directed the devastating bombardment of Charleston during the Civil War, received command of the country's coastal defenses from Cape Fear to St. Augustine. After surveying the tidal ebb and flow at the harbor mouth, Gillmore devised a plan to bracket the approach to the port of Charleston with parallel jetties stretching three miles into the ocean. Gillmore's plan relied on the natural scouring power of the ebb tide to extend the shipping channel beyond the harbor's entrance between Sullivan's Island and Fort Sumter. With an average discharge rate of four million cubic feet per second, the outgoing tide would push the sand out, and by keeping the landward end of each jetty subtidal, the design allowed the incoming tide to flow gently back into the harbor, reducing silting of the channel. Gillmore's jetties, one anchored on Sullivan's Island, the other on Morris Island, initially curve inward, forming a funnel. Then, at 9,000 feet from Sullivan's Island and 14,000 feet from Morris Island the jetties straighten and run parallel, 2,900 feet apart, crossing the harbor's original sandbar near its northeast end.

Gillmore's plan offered a simple, straight-forward solution to deepening the shipping channel, and his calculations have proved essentially correct ever since, but he did not live to see his design become reality. Construction dragged on for seventeen years, beset with numerous delays due to weather and, more often, funding, and in 1884, Lt. Fredrick V. Abbott took over and saw the job to completion.

Construction began with wooden mats - ten- to twelve-inch logs fastened together and covered with as much brush as possible. Once floated into position, the mats received a two-foot layer of small stone - none bigger than a man could throw overboard - packed closely together. Workers then slacked off the anchoring ropes to sink the mats into place. Steam-powered hoists transferred larger rock from barges to the mats, starting at the seaward end of each jetty. Much of the granite, transported to Charleston by rail, came from the Trenton quarry near Edgefield, 120 miles inland. While the building of these massive underwater walls proceeded, a steam dredge gouged the channel to depth and removed sand from the offshore bar. By 1895, Charleston Harbor had a wide entrance channel with seventeen-and-a-half feet of depth at low water, protected and maintained by three-mile-long jetties. Total cost of the project: $3.9 million, an incredible bargain by today's standards. Finally, Charleston stood ready for the challenges and opportunities of the 20th century.

An Unexpected Bounty

Through all the years of jetty planning and construction, neither Col. Gillmore nor Lt. Abbott likely thought much about fishing, yet basically by happenstance, they built an incredibly productive artificial fishing reef. The ocean floor along the Southeast coast consists mainly of sand; not a particularly productive marine environment. However, hard surfaces, such as natural rocky outcrops or manmade structures, attract all manner of attaching organisms, including algae, oysters, mussels and barnacles.

At the jetties, each outgoing tide brings these stationary, or sessile, organisms a rich soup of nutrients from the Ashley and Cooper rivers and the extensive marshes that make up the Charleston estuary. With a reliable food supply, the miles of jetty rocks have developed huge populations of attaching plants and animals.

Crabs, whelks and starfish, along with sheepshead, spadefish and black drum, feed on these sessile organisms. Meanwhile, blennies, gobies, silversides, anchovies and spot find food and shelter in the many crevices among the granite blocks. Larger predatory species in turn feed on these invertebrates and smaller species. Because the jetties stretch from the beach well into the ocean, they attract inshore species such as red drum, flounder and spotted seatrout, as well as offshore bottom fish like black seabass and gag grouper. For many of these offshore species, the jetties serve as nursery areas, providing food and shelter for juveniles. Surface predators, including king and Spanish mackerel, bluefish, tarpon and various sharks, frequent the jetties, foraging for food. On top of that, the jetties intersect the north-south seasonal migrations of a number of species. And the jetties lie close to shore, making them easily reachable for small boats. In short, the jetties make for great saltwater fishing.

To novice jetty fishermen, professional guide Robert Felts of Mt. Pleasant offers this advice: get there early in the day to get your spot before it gets crowded, and bring lots of gear, because you will lose some among the rocks.

"Generally, if you're not hung up on the bottom, you're not fishing in the right spot," he says, adding that anglers should fish the same spot day after day to learn how the changing tide can affect fishing success. An otherwise slow day can suddenly come alive with fish.

According to Felts, slack water at either high or low tide with little current and steady, not gusty, winds provide ideal conditions. While he sometimes uses artificial lures, he prefers bait either frozen or live, as does Robert Wiggers.

After releasing the bonnethead, Wiggers eased the outboard further down the jetties, searching for a low spot where the water lapped over and around the jumbled boulders. He prefers to fish the last hour or two of the outgoing tide, when gamefish congregate to take advantage of small fish, shrimp and crabs swept from the rocks by the current. Finding just the right spot, he nosed the boat close in so that the tide held us gently away from the rocks, their green carpet of algae glistening in the salt spray and overhead sun. Thick colonies of scorched mussels huddled in the crevices. Here he dangled a fiddler crab on a small hook. Standing on the bow, he could see a sheepshead in the clear water but could not entice it to the bait.

"Just like fishing for bream with a cane pole," he said, and indeed, some anglers regularly use cane poles at the jetties, which lend themselves to all types of gear and techniques. After losing a few fiddlers, he finally caught and released a small black seabass, well under the thirteen-inch minimum size.

Later, we anchored at the edge of Dynamite Hole, a gap in the south jetty. Never knowing what might lurk around this well-known spot, Wiggers had come prepared. In addition to the fiddlers scrambling, he had brought a half-dozen live blue crabs. And on the way out, we stopped off Cummings Point at the north end of Morris Island to net some live menhaden, a huge school of which flipped at the surface in the slight chop. We rigged several rods with either a live menhaden or half a blue crab, all on non-stainless circle hooks, which prevent gut-hooking and dissolve quickly in saltwater. While waiting for some action of our own, we watched the other anglers on the several boats near us catch and release several medium-sized red drum and a few bonnetheads.

An ocean-going tug, white with blue trim, towed a hulking barge through the jetties on its way to port. Within an hour, a breakbulk freighter followed; then two larger container ships, their decks stacked high with the multi-colored rectangular boxes glowing in the afternoon sun.

Hugging the north jetty, the ships slid silently into the harbor with deceptive speed, just a wisp or two of black smoke drifting from the stacks. Anglers fishing on the inside of the jetties need to keep a sharp watch for these huge vessels, which cannot quickly change course to avoid small boats.

As the tide began to turn, Wiggers declared the day's best chance to catch fish over. We reeled in the lines, hoisted the anchor and eased the boat through the chop of Dynamite Hole and into the channel. We skimmed past Fort Sumter, flags standing stiff in the onshore breeze, the city of Charleston spread before us, and tied up at the dock just three hours after we had left: a brief, interesting introduction to fishing the Charleston jetties, the state's most historic and multifunctional fishing reef.

Fishing the Jetties

As a general rule, you cannot go wrong if you fish the jetties in moving water near the time of low tide with a Carolina rig on the bottom with live bait from April to November. At specific spots as indicated on the map:

  1. Dynamite Hole: Anchor at edge of channel and fish the last two hours of outgoing tide with live or cut bait on the bottom with a Carolina rig to catch large red drum, flounder, trout, sharks.
  2. Bend (and beyond) in the south jetty: Fish inside or outside of the jetty on outgoing tide, anchored or trolling. Fiddler crabs and oysters will catch sheepshead year around if fished straight down among the rocks. Catch trout and red drum with shrimp fished with a float.
  3. Inshore end of north jetty: Fish outside on the outgoing tide, inside on incoming. Live menhaden, fished with a float or on the bottom will produce ladyfish, red drum and tarpon.
  4. Tip of jetties: Best at low tide. Fish grubs, jigging spoons or live bait for weakfish in the fall. Free-lining live bait on the top or bottom will produce king mackerel in the summer.

Mysterious Modifications - Unintended Consequences

Today, 120 years after their completion, the jetties remain virtually unchanged, a testament to their quality of design and construction. However, one curious modification, Dynamite Hole, a breach in the rocks near the shoreward end of the south jetty, remains something of a mystery. Not everyone agrees when, why or even who saw fit to blow a hole through the jetties at that point.

Retired Mt. Pleasant shrimper Karl Cameron trawled for shrimp in the Charleston area in the 1950s and remembers the Coast Guard placing a submarine net across the jetties during World War II to keep out German submarines. A Coast Guard cutter remained on station to open the net for Allied shipping and U. S. Navy vessels. Dynamite Hole, Cameron says, allowed shrimp trawlers and other small vessels access to the harbor without the hassle of opening and closing the net. But other old-timers claim Dynamite Hole existed before the war. Oddly, records of the creation of this important modification appear lost to history.

Regardless of its history, many people blame Dynamite Hole, and indeed the jetties in general, for increased erosion on Morris Island and Folly Beach. Dynamite Hole, they argue, causes part of the outgoing tide from Charleston Harbor to sweep southward carrying sand away from the island. The Morris Island Lighthouse now stands two thousand feet out in the Atlantic, as the island has eroded to a narrow sliver. Unquestionably, the jetties do block the normal north to south transport of sand, and Folly Beach has suffered accelerated erosion since their completion. At the time, few people lived on Folly, and beachfront property had little value, but by 1920 it had become a popular resort. As the population grew, beach erosion became an increasing concern, attacked at first with various groins and seawalls, and more recently with expensive and short-lived beach renourishment projects.

Safety First

Despite their proximity to shore, the Charleston jetties can be a dangerous place. Wakes from larger vessels, changing tides, currents and strong winds can all make for difficult conditions, and only boat operators experienced in these types of conditions should attempt fishing there. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources strongly recommends that all boaters wear U.S. Coast Guard approved personal flotation devices at all times while on the water.

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