Cast & Blast

Hilton Head lagoons full of surprises when treated as more than drainage basins | Opinion

Bill Sanderson with a Palmetto Dunes redfish.
Bill Sanderson with a Palmetto Dunes redfish.

I was at a get together a while back and got into a conversation with a 14-year-old boy who told me that he loves to fish but because his dad wasn’t much of a fisherman, he had no place to go wet a line.

Something about that conversation struck a deep chord in me because when I was his age fishing was all I could think about, with the possible exception of a girl or two or three.

Luckily, I had a dad who loved to fish, but even with that, there were a lot of days when I was on my own with my old beat up Schwinn bicycle. I might add that back then there were but a handful of kids living near me on Hilton Head Island, so fishing took the place of companionship in my little world.

Sadly, shortly after my conversation with that kid, a friend e-mailed me pictures from a huge fish kill in Sea Pines Resort. Having grown up in Sea Pines, the pictures of hundreds of bloated fish, including flounder, trout and redfish of every size floating on the surface really got my goat.

I know it has been hot as blazes, but for years I have begged Sea Pines to manage its lagoon system better, but to no avail. From what I have gathered from numerous phone calls, they view the brackish lagoons as nothing more than catch basins for rain, apparently not realizing that if properly managed allowing a scheduled flow of fresh seawater, their “ponds” would become any angler’s dream for trophy fish.

Originally developed as a model for excellence in environmental planning, that plan has taken a back seat to more lucrative sports like golf. But considering the volume of fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals used to keep golf courses nice and green, that runoff goes straight into the lagoons of many local developments.

I have suggested leaving natural buffer zones where golf courses meet the water to capture some of these pollutants, along with regular flushing to keep the water cleaner, but quite frankly, I have pretty much given up trying.

Many of these very same lagoons were what made me the avid angler I am today.

When I was 6 years old and could regularly hook into a 4-foot-long redfish, I guarantee it pretty much sealed the deal that I would grow up with a deep-seated love of fishing.

Sea Pines, along with other developments, should take a hard look at other places, like Palmetto Dunes, Spring Island and the Ford Plantation in Georgia, that realize the benefits of being a good steward of the waters, and as an added bonus, are renowned for their world-class fishing.

Even with a touch of memory loss that comes with age, 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, more brackish, have fish that are so big they could eat a small child. I kid you not because I have hooked and landed redfish that are over 50 inches in length, black drum over 45 pounds, tarpon pushing 40 pounds, trout in the 8- to 11-pound range, and flounder pushing 14 pounds.

Most of the time I practice catch-and-release when lagoon fishing so that 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.

Using big, live shrimp or live finger mullet for bait, and using nothing but ultra light spinning tackle, I usually head to either the 14-mile lagoon system at Palmetto Dunes and sight fish for redfish. Or if there are big tides, hit some of my tried-and-true, super-secret honey holes.

Thanks to my good friend Trent Malphrus, owner of Palmetto Lagoon Charters, I am able to fish that lagoon system in style aboard his fully-decked-out electric boat used for charters.

You would think since 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 really get stoked. Why? Because you never know what you might encounter in these amazing ecosystems.

One day in particular a few years ago stands out in my memory. It was one of those unseasonably warm days like we’ve been having lately. The wind was dead calm and I had lucked into some shrimp throwing my cast net that were the size of freshwater prawns. It was as if the fishing gods had made sure that the day was picture perfect.

My pseudo-nephew Byron Sewell and I had just loaded the boat in Palmetto Dunes and had just pulled away from the dock when not 50 yards away something big burst through a school of mullet basking in the sun on a shallow sand bar. Edging toward the commotion, 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 less than 23 inches long. It was like watching a fishing show as the tightly-grouped school of mullet swam in lazy circles over a white sand bottom and 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 5 minutes when this big redfish edges toward the mullet and I pitched the shrimp about four feet in front of him. That shrimp didn’t last three seconds when that brute exploded on it.

It’s one thing to catch redfish that you don’t see, but when you pitch to one that is right there in front of you, it is a totally different experience. After inhaling my offering, that fish took off 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 landed it.

With a picture and a kiss on the nose like fishing personality Roland Martin is known for, I released him for the next person to battle.

In all, Byron and I caught about 10 redfish that trip, all while sight casting. All I could think back then and even now was how could anybody not thoroughly enjoy this type of fishing.

Lagoon fishing is a blast and you never ever know what you will hook into. It may be a redfish, a trout or some fish less common to the area, like a tarpon, snook or snapper.

If my Palmetto Dunes story has you itching to give this unique type of fishing a go, call Trent Malphrus at Palmetto Lagoon Charters. One thing is for sure, you’ll learn the benefits of keeping lagoon systems around here clean and healthy and not simply catch basins for rain. Once the fish get going in these lagoons I guarantee you’ll never look at them the the same again.