Isle Of Palms Fishing Is Off The Hook
Don’t just go fishing—go catching—in the island’s bountiful waterways. By Stratton Lawrence. Photos by Hunter McRae.
It’s 7 a.m. and cold—in the mid-40s—and traveling at full plane up the Intracoastal Waterway against a constant breeze from the east isn’t helping matters. Is this really a good time to go fishing? But an early March cold snap doesn’t hamper Captain Geoff Bennett. The prior week has been warm, raising the water temperature nearly five degrees in as many days. “That really gets the fish stoked,” says Bennett with excitement in his eyes.
We arrive at our destination—a row of docks along the Intracoastal Waterway, across from the Isle of Palms. Bennett rigs three fishing rods with cut mullet, casting them just underneath a dock about twenty feet downwind, with the direction of the tide. He’s careful to keep the lines taut and use enough weight to keep the bait stationary so it doesn’t drift and catch on oysters or debris along the creek bottom.
After five minutes, a rod bends over and line goes buzzing. I reel in a juvenile red drum (also called “redfish” and “spot tails” in the Lowcountry). “See the neon blue on his tail? You can tell he’s been eating a lot of crustaceans,” Bennett offers, but before he can carry on with his biology lesson, another line goes screaming, and no sooner than we’ve released our first bite of the day, we’re posing for pictures with another, slightly larger drum. But it’s the third fish, just minutes later, that takes the prize, caught from a heavily weighted line and cast upstream toward another adjacent dock. It’s a 24-inch, 6-pounder. Not a trophy by any means, but it’s the biggest red I’ve ever landed. We take note of the two wounds on its side from an apparent attack by a dolphin. “This guy knows what he’s doing,” I think to myself (about both the resilient fish and Capt. Geoff), just as another charter trip pulls into the creek, greedily eyeing the big fish in my hands as I release him back into the water. Even on a chilly winter day, it turns out, this isn’t out of the ordinary for these waters or for Bennett. If you know what you’re doing and where to go, the creeks around Sullivan’s Island and the Isle of Palms are a hotbed of inshore fishing action.
HOW TO GET HOOKED
“Redfish are my business partners,” jokes Bennett, adding that he often downplays their taste to encourage catch-and-release fishing. Fortunately, the population around the ICW is thriving, providing a year-round saltwater fishery that’s among the East Coast’s best. In the winter, reds travel in massive schools, so if you find one that takes your bait, you’re likely to find more. It’s also best to fish at low tide, when the schools are concentrated in smaller areas. “Never leave fish to find fish,” Bennett advises. So, in our case, we stay put, rotating cut mullet with shrimp and live mud minnows as the bite ebbs and flows. In turn, we continue to catch fish. Still, if we weren’t having luck, we’d change locations before long. “If I don’t get popped on a bait in ten minutes, I’m switching or moving on,” Bennett says.
Bennett’s tactics change as the water warms in the spring, and redfish begin to split into smaller schools, hunting for fiddler crabs in the grassy fats that food at high tide. Ten, he’ll pole along the edge of a creek, letting his clients cast along the bank—some with flies and fly rods—for “tailing” reds, so called for the fins that break the water as they nudge their nose into the mud for crabs.
Spring is also the beginning of trout and founder season. For the former, the trick is just finding the schools. “Trout stay put,” Bennett says, but once they’re located, they’ll bite all day at shrimp and mud minnows on a popping cork or well-cast artificial lures. Flounder are bottom feeders, so baitfish held to the bottom with weights are the best bet for hooking them. “They’re not coming up two feet to take your bait,” Bennett says.
With summer’s warmer waters come a bonanza of bait fish, making it possible to target the “Big Three” of reds, trout and founder simultaneously and more aggressively. “There’s a huge transition in May and June as menhaden and mullet fill the waterways,” says Bennett. “It’s go-time for fishing.”
But by August, high water temperatures mean trout are only likely to feed at dawn, when water is slightly cooler. And as the fall sets in, cooler water means the seasonal fish become scarce, and it’s back to focusing on redfish. “the best time to fish for reds is fall, for three reasons,” Bennett explains. “One, there’s still plenty of bait, but two, the water is cooling, so the fish are eating before the bait leaves. Tree, there’s nobody out. Once SEC football starts and you can shoot stuff, this place empties.”
FIND YOUR HONEY HOLE
Whether you’re targeting the smorgasbord of early summer fishing or homing in on reds in the fall and winter, turning fishing into catching requires know-how, from choosing the right bait to picking a location likely to hold fish. “You have to have a reason to fish somewhere,” Bennett says. In other words, don’t just cast your line into open water. Try to think like a fish and go to places they would like, and when you get there, put something in front of them that they can’t resist trying to eat. Docks, creek mouths and oyster shoals are all prime habitat, because they harbor communities of small animals that provide food for bait fish, and thus attract the larger fish that you want to catch. It’s all about considering the food chain and placing yourself in the right place, Bennett emphasizes.
When fishing around Sullivan’s and IOP, Bennett recommends that those unfamiliar or new to the area stick close to the ICW to avoid the perilous oyster shoals that fill the creeks and bays behind the islands, often just out of sight at mid and high tide. From the Isle of Palms Marina, however, the ICW provides an increasingly wild experience as development ends and countless creek mouths present themselves. “Just find a corner to protect you, and cast your line,” Bennett advises, adding that of the 200 days a year he spends on the water, at least a third are in Sullivan’s/IOP waters. “You can connect with an amazing amount of fish in the ICW. Just head north and you’ll own the place.”
For visitors and locals alike, there’s plenty of incentive to get out and explore. Whether you bring home dinner or catch and release, the waters around these islands harbor an open invitation to harvest their bounty