I was at a holiday get together last week and got into a conversation with a 14-year-old boy, who told me he loves to fish but because his dad isn't much of a fisherman, he had no place to go wet a line.
This struck a deep chord with me because when I was his age, fishing was all I could think about -- with the exception of a girl or two. Luckily, I had a dad who loved to fish but even so, there were a lot of days I was on my own because he was working. Any entertainment was up to me and my old, beat-up Schwinn bicycle. There were but a handful of kids on Hilton Head Island back then, so fishing took the place of companionship in my little world.
As if it were meant to be, the day after I had that chat with the boy, my nephew, Byron Sewell, arrived from New Zealand after crewing a mega yacht for the past year, scouring the Pacific and exploring places like the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti and Fiji. Byron is now nearly 40.
Starting when he was 6, I mentored him on the art of fishing -- much of it in the lagoons that dot the length of Hilton Head. Maybe some of you look at lagoon-fishing as cheating, but when a 6-year-old boy hooks into a 4-foot long redfish, it pretty much seals the deal that he will grow up with a deep-seeded love of fishing. For Byron, that love has become a way of life. He has spent years as a charter-fishing captain, both here and in Costa Rica.
Even with a touch of memory loss that comes with age -- or as I prefer to think of it, a brain that is simply too full -- I can pretty much tell you what lives in every single lagoon on Hilton Head. Some hold 14-pound largemouth bass and 5-pound crappie, while others are more brackish and have fish so big they could eat a small child. I kid you not, because I have hooked and landed redfish that are longer than 50 inches, black drum more than 45 pounds, tarpon pushing 40 pounds, and trout in the 8- to 11-pound range.
Most always, I practice catch and release when lagoon-fishing so that maybe, just maybe, some kid from Ohio will latch into one of these bruisers and go home with a story and pictures that might inspire him to fish the rest of his days.
Thankfully, I no longer have to ride that old Schwinn bike loaded down with rods and buckets of water to go lagoon-fishing, but every so often I get the itch to head back to my roots. And with Byron in town, I had the perfect excuse to give it another go. The plan was this: Get some big live shrimp and, using nothing but ultra light spinning tackle, head to the 14-mile-long lagoon system at Palmetto Dunes and sight-fish for redfish.
Thanks to my good friend, Trent Malphrus, who runs Palmetto Lagoon Charters, we were able to fish in style in the fully decked-out electric boat he uses for charters. You would think because I have done this type of fishing since I was knee high to a grasshopper that the excitement of going would be somewhat diminished, but I was stoked. Why? Because you never know what you might encounter in this amazing ecosystem.
The conditions were perfect. It was one of those unseasonably warm days; the wind was nonexistent and I had lucked into some shrimp that were the size of freshwater prawns. It was if the fishing gods had made sure the day would picture perfect.
We had just loaded the boat and pulled away from the dock when not 50 yards away something big busted through a school of mullet that were basking on a shallow sand bar. Edging toward the commotion, we saw there they were redfish ... and lots of them. These weren't small redfish, either. I really don't think there was a fish in that group that was short than 23 inches. It was like watching a fishing show as the tightly grouped school of mullet swam in lazy circles over a white sand bottom. Every so often six or eight monster reds would rise from the depths along the edge of the sandbar and scatter the mullet.
Using the lightest outfit we had, I hooked one of the shrimp through its horn and waited. It was at most five minutes before a big redfish edged toward the mullet, and I pitched the shrimp about 4 feet in front of him. That shrimp didn't last three seconds when the brute exploded on it. It's one thing to catch reds you don't see, but when you pitch to one right there in front of you, it is a totally different experience. Like a runaway locomotive, I felt like Captain Ahab as he took us on a Nantucket sleigh ride, pulling the boat along with powerful sweeps of his tail. After 10 minutes, and numerous heart-stopping moments when that fish headed for any and all obstructions, I got him. With a picture and a kiss on the nose, I released him for the next person to battle.
In all, Byron and I caught about 10 redfish, all while sight-casting. All I could think about -- and puzzle over -- was how not everyone enjoys this type of fishing. Lagoon-fishing is a blast, and you never, ever know what you will hook into.
If my Palmetto Dunes story has you itching to give this unique type of fishing a go, one thing is for sure: You'll never look at a lagoon the same again.