Cast & Blast

How the threat of Hurricane Florence stirred up a Lowcountry ‘fishorama’

Will “Catfish” Thompson shows off a nice tarpon
Will “Catfish” Thompson shows off a nice tarpon Special to The Island Packet/ The Beaufort Gazette

All better now?

I swear, when it appeared Hurricane Florence was coming our way, my phone nearly exploded.

“What should I do? Leave? Stay?”

“Collins, you know better than the Weather Channel so what is the storm going to do?”

Honestly, I felt like Johnny Carson’s “Carmac the Magnificent.” The only difference was I didn’t have a turban on my noggin and cards that I held up to my forehead before making a prediction.

So what did I do?

This time around, I was so over hurricanes and tropical storms that I said to myself “let her rip!” Just in case, though, I had a plan to head south to my sister’s house in Melbourne, Fla., and the only things I was going to carry with me were my wife, my essential files and my faithful beagle companion Butter Bean.

The way I figured it, my insurance was up to date so let her do whatever.

Even though I felt it would veer north (but kept that to myself), there is one thing I have learned from approaching hurricanes — fish go nuts. My guess is they are tuned into barometer changes and when that barometer starts dropping, they know to start gorging themselves while the feeding is good.

Having wet my angling appetite lagoon fishing since I was six years old, I knew that big storms and hurricanes don’t just bring fear and anxiety. They also bring huge tides.

Knowing just about every single lagoon in Beaufort County, I can tell you which are tidal fed, which are fresh water and what kind of fish lives in each of them.

Loading up on live finger mullet and shrimp at a low tide pothole, I was ready to roll. So many folks evacuated I honestly felt like it was twenty or thirty years ago. The roads were free of traffic, businesses were boarded up and nary a soul was to be seen. Ah, it was all mine to go wherever I wanted, and boy did I take advantage of this odd phenomenon.

But I wasn’t alone. My good friend Will “Catfish” Thompson was on the same wavelength, so we loaded up rods, reels, live bait and a ton of expectations and hit the road. Before he showed up at my house, I reached back in my memory box and wrote down a list of places I hadn’t fished in years. I would love to share this list with you but I simply can’t. A few of these locations are so darn obvious but thankfully they are so obvious people ignore them.

Our plan was to hit them a couple of hours before high tide with hopes that the storm’s tidal surge would have water pouring into them at a rate you might see only once or twice in a two-year period. When the water is flowing in at such a high rate, it’s like ringing a dinner bell for every single fish in that particular body of water. They all tend to sit at the end of the flow picking off shrimp, minnows or whatever else is being flushed in with the tide.

Using a “gun and run” approach, we hit lagoon after lagoon and the bite was on fire. We caught flounder, trout, mangrove snapper, tons and tons of redfish and the ultimate prize, tarpon.

Having caught tarpon in lagoons many times before, this time around the bite was off the chart, a surprising development. The reason I say that is because if you were here last winter, you know it was in the 20’s for days and days along with that rare snowfall. I didn’t think a single tarpon survived.

Sure there are tarpon here in the summer and some make it into lagoons as juveniles but they are not meant to be here over the winter months. They might survive a mild winter or two but not a cold blast like last winter.

Well I’ll be darned if some actually survived and these weren’t small. Some were in the 15-25-lb. range. A spectacular, hard-fighting fish, many of them were in the thick of the flow. Using live finger mullet and no weight, we would dangle the mullet on the surface of the flow and WHAM!

These tarpon would hit it so hard it just about jerked the rod out of my hand. Almost immediately afterward, they would come flying out of the water, trying to shake the hook loose. It was awesome. Somersaults, deep runs — they did it all. One even flew three feet out of water and landed on a gator’s head, scaring that reptile nearly to death.

Along with all of this, we had front and center seats to watch a bald eagle chasing an osprey that had a fish in its talons. Almost always the eagle won the aerial display, making the osprey drop the fish and then circling back around to pick it up.

So this time around at least, the hurricane break wasn’t stressful at all for me. It was an incredible “fishorama” and one that I will remember for a long time.

My only advice: Should another hurricane pass by, be cautious but don’t get stressed out.

You might just be able to get out your fishing rod and experience some one-in-a-lifetime angling opportunities.

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