Fly-fishing South Carolina's Kiawah Island
As we round a grassy, flooded corner of Kiawah Island, moving slowly in Capt. John Irwin’s flats boat, all three of us onboard begin scanning the shoreline for fish. Irwin spots one first. “We’ve got a belly-crawler at 2 o’clock, about 20 feet in,” he announces. “You see him?”
Charleston-based angler/artist/musician Paul Puckett is standing on the bow, fly rod in hand. He sees the fish a split-second after Irwin does, and makes a perfect cast, landing the fly 6 inches in front of the feeder’s nose. It pounces without hesitation, coming clear out of the water to eat the fly and connect Puckett with 5 pounds of hard-fighting red drum, a.k.a. redfish, one of the most popular game fish in America.
As he’s bringing it to the boat, a man yells “Fore!” from an adjacent golf course, and I instinctively duck my head. Such are the risks of fishing in coastal South Carolina.
Kiawah is a barrier island along the South Carolina coast, sitting about 20 miles south of Charleston. It is known primarily as a golf destination—a fair assessment, considering that five acclaimed courses weave around the island’s 11 square miles, including the Pete Dye-designed Ocean Course, host of the 2012 PGA Championship. But many anglers have discovered that Kiawah and the surrounding area is also an exceptional fly-fishing destination, especially for tailing redfish found in the Spartina-grass salt marshes.
“The endless interconnected creeks and rivers here make it easy to forget that you’re fishing close to civilization,” says Puckett. “Even with some of the best shops and restaurants really close by, Kiawah’s not quite as developed as other towns, so whether you’re wading or in a boat, you feel like you’re on your own private island.”
Indeed, most of Kiawah is a private island. Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission, through a partnership with Kiawah Development Partners, offers a beautiful public beach on the west end of the island called Kiawah Beachwalker Park. But beyond that, Kiawah is essentially a gated community, albeit one with many rentable vacation properties, where it’s possible to find fish on foot or in a rental car without even leaving dry land.
“There are brackish ponds on Kiawah that hold lots of big redfish,” says local photographer Jason Stemple, who spent five years as the staff photographer for Kiawah Development Partners, exploring the island every day, including its creeks and marshes. “It’s pretty hit or miss. Sometimes you can pull up to a pond, hop out and see fish right away. Other times you can cast for hours and never see a thing. But each little creek is unique, and has the possibility of holding belly-crawling, shrimp- gobbling redfish.” (Kiawah also has a few freshwater-fed springs and ponds with good largemouth bass fishing, along with other fish that can survive in brackish water, like carp and tarpon.)
These belly-crawlers that both Stemple and Irwin refer to are redfish that have come into very shallow water at “flood tide” to feed, swimming half-exposed—sometimes even their eyeballs are above water—through stretches of Spartina grass that look like a flooded hayfield. A flood tide is the term for the highest high tides of each month. The food chain on these flooded flats goes something like this: flyfisher chasing redfish; redfish chasing blue crabs or fiddler crabs; crabs chasing the snails that cling to the stalks of grass. The result is a unique and challenging visual fishery for three or four days on both sides of a new or full moon. “Tailers” are redfish that are nose-down, eating in the mud or grass, with their tail sticking above the water, often wiggling from side to side.
“We usually get two sets of flood tides each month between May and November, which keeps us pretty satisfied,” says Puckett. “There’s just something special about being able to see a fish before you catch it.” Stemple adds that shooting pictures of redfish during a flood tide offers the best opportunity to photograph them without a human involved. “It’s the only time they take a part of their body and place it in our world,” he says. “Flood-tide tailers give you the best chance, whether fishing or photographing, of stalking an individual fish in the most visual way possible.”
As great as flood tides are, they’re certainly not the only time to catch redfish. Nor are redfish the only quarry worth chasing around Kiawah Island. On two consecutive mornings fishing with Irwin and Stemple, a black drum at low tide was my first fish of the day. Black drum are a close cousin to red drum, but grow even larger, with a few recorded catches of more than 100 pounds. Mine were both about 4 pounds, and were just losing the vertical dark stripes they sport as juveniles— markings that sometimes cause them to be mistaken for another Lowcountry specimen, the sheepshead.
The state fish of South Carolina is the striped bass, but with stripers falling on hard times of late, visitors to Kiawah target everything from dorado to cobia to seatrout to sharks to amberjack to false albacore— even the occasional tarpon. We saw several fishermen targeting sharks close to shore, but offshore options are also available, especially during summer months, when bluewater captains use bigger boats to target species like wahoo, snapper, grouper, tuna, mackerel and billfish.
We caught redfish each day on both dropping and rising tides. Some were tailing in the shallowest water of a small bay, some were milling about near the mouths of creeks, waiting for the tide to rise, and a few bigger fish were found cruising alone or in pairs, looking for unsuspecting shrimp, crabs or glass minnows, or working the oyster beds, which they love. All of this was sight-fishing—the best kind of fly-fishing—and would not have been possible without clear water, which doesn’t always occur, especially in summertime. Nor is it possible without the eyes of a competent guide, which Irwin certainly is. It doesn’t hurt, either, that he grew up spending summers on Kiawah, or that his father still lives there, giving him easy access to boat ramps, as well as the occasional golf game.
“I spent seven years guiding for trout in southwest Montana,” Irwin says. “But I decided to return home in 2001, get my captain’s license and focus on the fish I grew up with. Plus, it’s warmer here.”
Trading south Montana for South Carolina also allows Irwin to guide year-round—a huge bonus for a career that’s often seasonal. To accommodate both inshore and near shore clients, he has an 18-foot skiff for redfishing and other shallow-water endeavors, and a 23-foot V-hull boat for trips to the ocean side of the barrier islands, when chasing migrating fish like dorado (also called mahimahi or dolphinfish.)
Come fall, flood tides in South Carolina can last longer than in spring or summer, which keeps most fly-fishers targeting redfish. But as temperatures drop during winter, crabs start hibernating, causing fewer redfish to feed on the flats during high tides. While this reduces the number of tailing redfish, it causes them to school up into larger groups. Winter is when some of the biggest schools of reds can be found, sometimes along the beach, but also in the same marshes they occupy the rest of the year. It’s also when redfish will push into very skinny water to try to avoid dolphins (the mammal, not the dorado)—one of their major predators. If you’ve ever seen an Internet video showing dolphins “herding” redfish and mullet onto dry land, chances are it was filmed near Kiawah Island.
The climate of Kiawah makes redfishing a year-round sport, and with several guides offering early morning or late afternoon options to match the best fishing conditions, it’s possible to get in nine holes or a game of tennis and still have time for fishing the same day. Three great fly shops in the area—Charleston Angler in Charleston, Lowcountry Fly Shop in Mount Pleasant and Bay Street Outfitters in Beaufort—all have knowledgeable staff that can outfit you or connect you with a guide. In addition to Irwin, Captain Mike Tucker lives and works on Kiawah, offering anglers both fly and light-tackle charters.
If you’re interested in lessons instead of, or in addition to, a chartered trip, Bay Street Outfitters offers several one-day “Redfish Schools” throughout the year, focusing mostly on casting, knots and flies. Irwin teaches seminars as well, which are run through Charleston Angler. He also hosts several two- day redfish schools throughout the year, scheduling them to coincide with flood tides. “Having the two-day classes works best,” Irwin says, “because it allows people to screw everything up on the first day, and still redeem themselves on the second.” It also provides what all anglers want from every redfishing trip we take: one more day on the water.