Cast & Blast

You never know what you’ll find on the end of your line when fishing Lowcountry waters

George Norton with one of the bull reds we caught last week.
George Norton with one of the bull reds we caught last week. Special to The Island Packet/ The Beaufort Gazette

I always find it odd that many folks quit fishing as much after Labor Day.

A day or so ago, I was on Hilton Head and noticed that most all the charter boats were tied up to the dock. It looked like a ghost town. If only visiting 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 has a clear crispness to it 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 out toward the open ocean.

One of my favorite spectacles is the mass migration of mullet. I’m not talking a few here or a few there but thousands upon thousands in schools that are at times acres wide. Pelicans are diving on the schools from above. From below, every fish with razor sharp teeth are doing their best to get their fill by blasting up through the panicked schools. If you have never seen this mass migration, it is truly an amazing site.

From the get go, this year has been beyond strange. Warmer than usual, I couldn’t imagine it getting any stranger but it did.

I was out doing some nearshore fishing for bull redfish with my good friend George Norton, a part-time Kentucky/Haig Point boy, along with his son and grandson. They each caught some stud bull reds but it wasn’t until the next day that I could have sworn I was in the Florida Keys instead of here in the Lowcountry.

I was fishing inshore at a trout spot of mine and pitched out a live shrimp under a popping cork. I hadn’t popped that cork, but the one I’d put in the water quickly 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 that it wasn’t a trout but rather a mangrove snapper.

I have caught a few of these scrappy fish around here over the years so I thought nothing of it until pitched out another shrimp and caught another one and another and another. I believe in all I caught about a dozen before I decided to move to another spot in search of trout or redfish.

At the 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 but was more a dogging, dead weight fight.

When it came boat side, I had to look twice before I realized just what it was. 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 now, in the space of an hour, I haven’t caught one trout nor redfish but a dozen snapper and two grouper. I was beginning to think I had been zapped to the Bahamas or something.

I also caught a puffer fish that I had never seen around here in all my fifty or so years. Called a smooth puffer fish, it dawned on me that our estuaries are indeed a nursery of sorts 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. It was also in October while bottom fishing that I caught what I thought was a type of triggerfish. But it was like no triggerfish I had ever seen before.

I researched a picture I had taken of it.

It was a Unicorn Leatherjacket Filefish that are usually found in the Gulf of Mexico.

As I said earlier, it always seems that October is the month that I catch the 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 have probably 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 to head back to their home waters, that may be thousands of miles away.

All I can say is what a ride that must be.