A tale of two boats, and the decisions that made the difference
By Lawrence Jordan
With the cooling weather, it would be a short matter of time before the tarpon made their swim south to warmer waters for the winter. We fished for tarpon the weekend before in the rough conditions of tropical storm Sally and determined to try one last time, Daniel Coleman, Tyler Thornton (my brother in law), and I met in Georgetown for our final attempt of the year. The weather was calmer than I had seen it to be all summer and we could not be in the water soon enough.
After getting supplies at Winyah Bait and Tackle, we were on our way. I received a text from Caleb Olney, captain of the Heybo boat and he asked if we were fishing today. He was back from the weekend before as well to make up for what we couldn’t do a week ago. He told me that they were at the lighthouse and that there was plenty of bait. We rushed to launch my skiff, the “Varia Fit,” and we were soon underway. Winyah Bay was foggy this morning and visibility was so low that we didn’t want to ride as fast as usual in case we were to cross paths with another boat. The fog lifted as we approached the coast and we could see our sister boat by the lighthouse. They yelled, “The menhaden are all around the lighthouse, right on the beach!” Just then, two of their rods bent and they had to handle their fish.
We were eager to get in on the action and I drove the skiff to shore almost until the bow hit the beach and put the engine in reverse when Daniel threw the net. As we backed away from the beach, the net rose to the surface full of large menhaden. Menhaden are the perfect bait for reds and for tarpon and we were set for the day after Daniel’s first throw of the cast net. He threw the cast net a second time for good measure and filled a 5 gallon bucket with fish. We selected a position up current from our friends and dropped anchor on the ledge, within casting distance to land. The slope of the sand bottom is very gradual from the shore and then dramatically drops from 6 to 20 feet deep. This ledge attracts fish in addition to the surplus of bait in the area. Daniel, Tyler, and I rigged lines, baited hooks, and cast lines in different directions. Our spread included a live menhaden on top, live menhaden suspended mid depth, and 2 cut menhaden on the bottom.
With lines in the water, we established our batting order of Tyler, Daniel, then me. Sometimes having an order for the crew is the only way to keep a count on how many fish were caught. We waited for a moment and I said, “If a fish doesn’t bite in 5 minutes, then were moving.” Suddenly a rod starting to shake in the holder and line zipped off the reel as the fish charged away from the boat. The fish were using the current to help in the fight which makes things harder for the angler. Tyler worked to gain line any time he could feel the fish taking a break and eventually, the bull red drum broke the surface. We all screamed with excitement to see the 30 pounder on our line. The fish tried to dive a few more times before we took him by the head and tail to pull him over the side. The hook was removed and Tyler held it in the water, face into the current, until the fish was ready to swim away. Daniel did not have to wait long before the next hit. The shallow side was where the fish seemed to be feeding. Daniel carefully worked the fish to prevent it from swimming under the propeller. We landed this fish too and were amazed by the bright copper color that all of the fish have had. The color of the fish can be affected by their food and these bull reds must have been eating lots of shrimp.
I had the next fish and while we shifted positions around the deck, I could see that the other boat was experiencing the same chaos of fighting fish. We landed my fish too and started over with our rotation. The boat behind us was fishing with 4 baits on the bottom for reds and were catching fish faster than we were. We had 2 lines on the bottom for reds and even though they usually eat on the bottom, we did catch one bull red that ate our suspended menhaden.
We caught 9 fish by the time the current slowed and the action came to a halt as the falling tide became low tide. The current was still and it was time to change plans. I expected the incoming tide to bring schools of tightly packed menhaden into the shallow Mud Bay, where schools of tarpon can be found visually eating them. To find this action is a peak in a fisherman’s experience and I was sure not to miss it. The Heybo boat moved on to the North Santee where we always find red drum, even more than in Winyah Bay.
I drove to the Shellbank Islands where we thought the tarpon would come first according to what I saw the week before. We anchored and set lines out behind us. The Heybo boat could be seen riding away in the distance and our radio communications ended. Waiting at this new spot, we caught 2 more bull reds for a total of 11 fish for the day.
The action slowed down until we saw a tarpon rise to the surface. We were confident that we were in the right spot and that the schools of tarpon will soon be feeding around us. We waited and I began to wonder, “Maybe the current pulled the bait on the inside of the shell banks and into Mud Bay?”
The Varia Fit raised anchor and circled around the shell bank islands and found the bait. Scores of menhaden were tightly grouped as the tide carried them into the shallow Mud Bay and we watched closely for tarpon. It was clear that tarpon were following them but they did not seem to be feeding as ferociously as seen before. We lead the schools with our bait drifting way back behind us and into the school. We continued to circle the bait for a while and eventually decided to scope out the rest of Mud Bay. The sun finally came out and the bay was calmer than I had seen all summer but the tarpon did not seem to be present. It was 5 in the afternoon and considering the drive home, we returned to the boat ramp. This was a great day of fishing and even though we did not catch our target, the tarpon, we caught more bull red drum than we had on many days where we specifically targeted the reds. The fact that we did not catch our target did not negate the day’s victory at sea. The reds put up a great fight, looked beautiful with their bright copper coloration, and kept us busy all day.
The Heybo boat made their way into the North Santee Delta where we often go as the primary destination for bull reds. There, they continued to fish for the bull reds and had a bite like no other. Among the count of 63 bull reds that they caught by sunset, the Heybo crew accidentally struck silver catching themselves a tarpon. We make our plans to target fish and can be stuck to what we have seen. My expectations of how fish behave can easily become too rigid. Tarpon and reds eat the same bait and like similar areas. Next year I plan to focus on spending more time with bait in the water and less time searching. I am happy for Daniel Oates and Caleb Olney for catching a tarpon and I aim to have a similar encounter next year.