May/June 2009A Day At The Beach: The Art of Surf Fishing by Ford Walpole, photographs by Phillip Jones
Surf fishing along the South Carolina coast can be the key to big family fun, offering easy access to a tasty catch for novices and old salts alike.
An age-old observation notes that people on the beach are always looking in the same direction, out at the water - their eyes fixed with that same curious intensity of the rural cur, propped on its haunches in its own yard - tirelessly staring off into an apparent nothingness. The infinite thoughts of both surf-gazers and country dogs may be hard to fathom, but the musings of those beachgoers wielding a rod and reel are a bit easier to reckon. These folks do not study a life across the ocean, but rather the living world beneath.
Angling in the surf can offer a far more relaxing experience than fishing from a boat, points out my friend Capt. Gresh Meggett III, of Absolute Reel Screamers Charters. "You can relax in chairs, spread out, and eat your lunch," says Meggett.
"It's a family affair; there's something at the beach for everybody," adds Wayne Haltiwanger, who has spent a lifetime fishing our state's shores. A more conducive setting for children, the beach inspires walking, swimming, sunbathing, relaxing and playing. Still, fishing can also be a seashore unifier.
"When you catch a fish, it brings the whole family back together; they all run over to see," says Haltiwanger. "All of a sudden, everybody wants a rod!"
Meggett's son, Gresh IV, is eight, and naturally too restless to fish with the intensity of his father and grandfather. So when the three surf fish together, he explores the beach with a cast net and catches bait.
I recently embarked on a journey to Botany Bay Plantation Wildlife Management Area with three generations of Puckette fishermen: Elliott, Trap and Trap Jr. During our adventure, Trap Jr. likewise occupied himself with artfully being a boy: splashing in the water, running down the beach, collecting and skipping shells, and occasionally wetting his line - activities impossible to perform from the confinement of a boat.
While fishing can be a solitary activity, it is rarely lonely, and it is never individual. Most anglers are well-attuned to their obligation to pass on the sport of fishing. "Half the fun of fishing is teaching others," says Haltiwanger. "To me, that is the beauty of catching a fish: showing how to set up, what to bait with and where to fish. It's all about the kids."
DNR's Kattie McMillan is a marine educator with the Carolina Coastal Discovery Program. And though this angler denies being an expert, her very profession seeks to pay forward the art of surf fishing. "The objective of the FABulous (Fishing And Barrier island) series is to reach out to students from economically depressed areas of the Lowcountry who would not otherwise have the chance to experience natural resource-related activities or explore barrier island ecosystems," explains McMillan, a rewarding experience for teacher and student alike.
"Once while fishing at Morris Island, a little girl told me that she didn't think that she was going to catch any fish - this was her first time," says McMillan. "When I asked her why, she said that she just had bad luck. So, I showed her how everything worked, taught her how to cast, and off she went.
"Well, about a half hour went by, and all of a sudden, I heard screaming down the beach. When I got to her, her line was pouring off the reel. I assumed that she didn't have her drag set tight, so I reached down to tighten it and realized that it was as tight as it could go. She just kept fighting and fighting, and she finally got the fish to the shore. There on the other end of her line was a two-and-a-half-foot Atlantic sharpnose shark. She was so excited she could barely contain herself. I don't think I've ever seen a bigger smile or anyone as happy as she was that day!"
For many coastal South Carolina residents, surf fishing is a family tradition. As a boy, Elliott Puckette tagged along with his father, Stephen Elliott Puckette, who liked to fish the north end of the Isle of Palms in the days when the road stopped far short of their destination. "I don't remember anything about the fishing, but I certainly remember all of the walking," he chuckles.
Elliott's son Trap, now an oceanographer, shares similar memories of fishing on Deveaux Bank with his father. He describes trekking through the sand, burdened with gear like some desert refugee. These outings often were aided by homemade carts, which were cumbersome in themselves.
It is not difficult to understand the chosen career path of Capt. Meggett, given his childhood filled with surf fishing outings. "When I was about seven, I was surf fishing with Daddy on Morris Island, right in front of the lighthouse," recalls Meggett. "I hooked a 14-pound black drum. I wasn't strong enough to reel, so Daddy told me to walk back up the beach. I must have backed up 100 yards before I brought it in!"
The vastness of the beach can be overwhelming to newcomers to the sport trying to determine where to fish. A lifelong surfer, Capt. Meggett brings that sport's intense awareness of surrounding environment to surf fishing as well. "Usually, a beach that is going to have good waves is going to have sandbars," says Meggett. "Wherever there are sandbars, there is bait, and there's game fish."
Meggett sometimes uses a boat to locate likely spots at low tide. "When the waves come in, they break on a sandbar. What I want to do is find a cut through the sandbar. I take the boat up behind the outer sandbars an hour before dead-low tide. I anchor and walk to the outer edge, where I fish until the [incoming] tide forces me back to my boat.
"I don't fish if the surf is really good, because the waves will roll your sinker, and the current will wash it up on the beach," continues Meggett. "However, you want some wave action because it stirs up the bait. Without some turbulence, fish do not bite; fish feed more on smell and instinct."
DNR biologist and fishing author John Archambault advises thinking like a predator when scoping out potential fishing spots.
"Whether I'm hunting squirrels or fishing, I do not want to be in the middle of a homogeneous environment. I am going to look for an edge, or I am going to key in on something different: features like inlets, points and groins, because these differences often cause bait and fish to concentrate," says Archambault. "Beaches are made of bowls, points and returns. South Carolina beaches tend to show zig-zag patterns with sandbars running diagonally out from the beach, and behind them are sloughs, where pools of water form at low tide. Waves are constantly pushing water up the beach, but it doesn't flow back to sea uniformly. Where the water flows back out through the slough is a 'return,' also called a riptide. Because these returns wash bait out, they can be good places to fish, but they are tide dependent."
Archambault considers surf-fishing methods to be determined by target. For instance, when he seeks "pan-fry" species, he fishes with light tackle.
"In my school days, I liked going to the north end of Pawleys," he says. Mole crabs are a plentiful bait source in that area.
"Where receding waves form a sheet one-quarter of an inch thick, you see a series of ripples in the shape of the letter V," describes Archambault. Those interruptions in the water are formed by filtering antennae of thumb-sized mole crabs, a favorite of pompano, black drum, sheepshead, croaker, spot and whiting.
When seeking these smaller, tastier fish, Archambault uses light line, small hooks and a small rod. "I don't use a sand spike; I only cast out about ten yards. I'm holding my rod the entire time, and I am always moving."
Archambault contrasts this light-tackle style of surf fishing with the pursuit of trophy spottail bass, at such locations as Murphy Island and Cape Island, home of the Cape Romain lighthouse. "With a big rod, you are looking to anchor."
Knowing how far out to cast a line is also crucial for successful surf fishing. Archambault estimates that "seventy percent of the people I see surf fishing are casting beyond the fish."
Confirming this observation, Capt. Meggett adds: "People tend to think: the bigger the water, the bigger the fish. Actually, fish are in the surf zone: from the water's edge out to where the waves initially break. Sometimes, the fish are right at the breaking point; other times, they are right off the beach in the surf."
Archambault's friend and fishing partner, DNR biologist and Information Technology Director Tim Snoots, offers additional advice for beginners. "Another mistake I see is people with too much hardware," says Snoots. "Their rigs are too complicated, and their hooks are too big. Instead of using a whole shrimp and a big hook, use one-third of a shrimp on a small hook."
In terms of location, beach groins offer another form of the predator's edge sought by Archambault. These structures, initially made of wood and later refurbished with rocks, are intended to inhibit the current.
"Groins give you a hard substrate, which is a good place for bait," agrees Snoots. The currents are stronger at the tip, and form small eddies near the structures, according to Capt. Meggett, suggesting that the plentiful groins on Folly Beach enhance surf fishing from that beach.
Tidal pools serve as another potential hot spot for the beach angler in search of pan-fry species. Pools are advantageous "because you can fish either side," says Snoots. He describes an especially appealing pool on Isle of Palms, half a mile from Breech Inlet. This body of water "is enormous," says Snoots. "It is several hundred yards wide and half a mile long." Such pools can provide easier fishing and warmer, more tranquil water for youngsters.
As for the ideal time of day to catch fish in the surf, Snoots and Archambault prefer dusk. "It's like a magic switch goes off, reels begin to scream, and every rod on the pier bends over at once," says Snoots, describing the twilight hours. Perhaps all fishing tips should be heeded with a grain of salt, though. For instance, while Archambault and Snoots recommend evening fishing, Wayne Haltiwanger prefers "morning fishing, especially after a dark night. I feel like fish feed all night after a full moon, but the morning is more active after a dark night."
The same conflicting advice abounds regarding tides. While Archambault agrees that "people seem to prefer a flood tide, believing the fish tend to come closer to the beach on the flood," he's quick to add, "but this may not be true."
"There is better water clarity at high tide - it's nice and green on the beach," says Snoots. "At the end of the ebb, the water is muddy. But," he adds with a smile, "the fishing might be fantastic as the mullet come out of the pools on the ebb."
With all this conflicting advice, the lack of pressure to succeed just might be the sweetest reward of the surf-fishing experience. You are, after all, at the beach, a vacation in itself, a destination for visitors from across our nation. A place where the weather is rarely too hot, the salt always heals, the sun soothes and the soul begins to sing.