I always find it odd that so many folks quit fishing after Labor Day.
Yesterday I was on Hilton Head Island and noticed that most of the charter boats were tied to the dock. It looked like a ghost town. If the tourists knew that this is, without a doubt, one of the very best times of the year to fish, those docks would be bustling.
I love being on the water in October. The air is crisp, and no matter what the tide, fish are busting the surface everywhere you look. The crabs are fat and meaty, and the shrimp are easing out of the creeks and slowly making their way toward the open ocean. One of my favorite spectacles is the mass migration of mullet. I'm not talking a few here or there, but thousands upon thousands in schools that are, at times, acres wide. Pelicans are diving into the schools from above and, from below, fish with razor sharp teeth are doing their best to get their fill by blasting through the melee. If you have never seen this, it is truly an amazing site.
From the get-go, this year has been beyond strange. Just when I couldn't imagine it getting any stranger, it did.
I was doing some inshore fishing and by day's end I could have sworn I was in the Florida Keys instead of the Lowcountry. It started when I went to a trout spot and pitched out a shrimp under a popping cork. I hadn't popped that cork but once when it disappeared and it was fish on. At first I thought it was a large trout because of all the head shaking. It wasn't until I got it near the boat that I saw it wasn't a trout, but rather a mangrove snapper. I have caught a couple of these scrappy fish over the years so I thought nothing of it -- until I pitched another shrimp and caught another mangrove snapper, then another and another. I think in all I caught about a dozen before I decided to move to another spot in search of trout or redfish.
Arriving at my new spot, I went through the same routine with live shrimp and popping corks. This is where it gets weird. On the very first cast, the cork hadn't drifted two feet when whoosh, it disappeared under the water. It kind of felt like a redfish, but the fight was not quite right. It didn't make scorching runs like a redfish -- more of a dogging, dead weight fight. When it came boat side, I had to look twice before I realized just what it was. A small gag grouper. All right, I thought to myself, I have caught little grouper in the creeks before, so no big deal. On the very next cast, wham, another grouper. So in the space of an hour I didn't catch a single trout nor a redfish, but I did get a dozen snapper and two grouper. I was beginning to think I had drifted to the Bahamas or something.
In addition to the snapper and grouper, I also caught a smooth puffer fish that I have never seen around here in all my 50-something years. It dawned on me that our estuaries are indeed a nursery for all sorts of fish, even those that usually inhabit warmer Southern waters.
As of late, I have regularly been catching baby tarpon in my cast net plus all sorts of fish that are not usually found in these waters. Even offshore during this part of the year it always seems to be the time when odd species are caught. My buddies Don McCarthy, Will Thompson and Harry Morales were bottom-fishing last week and caught what they thought was a type of triggerfish, but it was one that none of them had ever seen before. After sending me a picture of the mystery fish, I researched it. It wasn't a triggerfish at all. It was a unicorn leatherjacket filefish, which are usually found in the Gulf of Mexico.
As I said earlier, it always seems that October is the month that I catch the more odd species around here, but it makes sense. With so many creeks and estuaries, lord knows what fish larvae drift in with the currents from afar and begin this crucial phase of their life in these food-laden waters. They probably have flourished and now that they are large enough to fend for themselves, it's time to head out to sea and use the same currents that brought them here in the first place to take them back to their home waters, which may be thousands of miles away.
All I can say is, what a ride that must be.
God does not subtract from the allotted span of a man's life the hours spent in fishing. Columnist Collins Doughtie, a graphic designer by trade and fishing guide by choice, sure hopes that's true.