“If they’re here, we’ll know quickly.”
Captain Brian Vaughn was in the process of sending a piece of cut bunker to the bottom after anchoring his 19–foot flats boat up-tide of a rockpile in 17 feet of water. Things looked promising. We were set up in the open water of Calibogue Sound, between Hilton Head Island, South Carolina and Tybee Island, Georgia, but there was barely a breeze. The sun was just over the horizon, and in several directions, tennis-court-sized schools of bunker (menhaden, Brian called them) splashed at the surface and occasionally erupted as unseen predators tore through.
A few minutes later, the first hit came, and since my brother-in-law Jeremy doesn’t get the opportunity to fish very often, I deferred to him. He grabbed the rod out of the holder just as the circle hook took hold and the drag started to whine.
The fish ran hard and reversed direction several times, easily peeling line with the help of the running tide. I smiled as he struggled to control the fish, enjoying the sight of Jeremy breaking a sweat over reeling in a fish.
As the experienced fisherman, I offered some coaching, explaining that he was using a relatively light spinning outfit and should let the fish run when it wants to, and then work the line back in when it stops. Redfish fight hard for their size, I told him, and I knew that because I’d caught them up to 10 pounds. Then, the fish suddenly came up and started thrashing water, and I stopped talking. Was I really looking at a redfish with all the bulk of a 30-pound striped bass?
There wasn’t time to reflect, as Brian was trying to pass a second bent rod off to me so he could land Jeremy’s fish. It continued at that pace for the next hour and a half—we took turns lobbing cut bunker behind the boat and anticipating the hit, which usually came within minutes of the bait reaching the bottom. We had several fire-drill double-headers that required passing rods under the anchor line and around the stern as the fish zigzagged at will under the boat, and 25- to 35-pound redfish sometimes came to surface with three or four similar-sized followers. Taking time out for photos, we still landed about a dozen bull reds in under two hours.
When the big redfish are that aggressive, explained Brian on the ride back to the dock, they can sometimes be fooled into striking an artificial or a fly, just like the smaller reds he targets in the backwater marshes. I made mental plans to get back to Hilton Head next fall to find out what it’s like to try to turn one of those incredibly stubborn fish with a fly rod.
Although the fishing that morning was about as good as it gets, it certainly wasn’t atypical for the time of year in South Carolina. According to Brian, the fishing for bull reds is pretty consistent and pretty remarkable from late September into October. At other times of the year, he keeps clients happy with sharks, cobia, tarpon, tripletails, and backwater sight-fishing for smaller redfish and topwater seatrout.