I’ve never entirely understood salt-water fly-fishing. Perhaps because I started as a salt-water gear fisherman as a kid and moved on to fly-fishing it always felt like a reversion to a dark and distant past I’d left behind. I’d caught plenty of Kahawai on the fly here in New Zealand and a smattering of bonefish in Aitutaki and Mexico, and I thoroughly enjoyed both experiences. They were thrilling, strong and hard fighting fish. But neither spoke to me the way trout fishing does. Neither gave me that sense of childish curiosity that I still feel every time I walk up a river. There is something in the intimacy of the experience sight fishing a small river that simply resonated with me. And in my ignorance, I didn’t believe I could find that in the salt. How wrong I was.
I stood there on the casting platform of the skiff, totally transfixed on just one thing: a huge red tail, adorned with a single black spot, waving proud and free against the spartina grass. My heart was pounding, fingers clumsy in my attempts to strip line, and my ears barely grasping Luke’s none-too-subtle instructions. But more than anything, I was engaged to a level I’d never been in the water of this salinity. I’m still not sure exactly what it was that elevated it to a higher level. I found myself completely and utterly focused on the bull redfish digging for crabs in the mud 25ft in front of me on what had, just an hour earlier, been a totally dry expanse of mud flat covered almost completely with grass.
We’d only been in Charleston, South Carolina for about four hours at that stage. Long enough to drop our gear at Jerms’ house and meet his baby boy, Zealand. Luke met us at the boat ramp and we quickly loaded the skiffs, stocked up on the uniquely Southern delicacy of Cajun boiled peanuts and cracked a celebratory beer. This beer had been a long time coming. Luke and Jerms had first suggested I let them show me around the lowcountry nearly 3 years earlier, whilst chasing mouse-fed trout in the heart of the Southern Alps. Of course, that was all well and good, but Charleston was an awfully long way from New Zealand.
They tempted me with tales of tailing redfish and stories of the beautiful Charleston women, but as luck would have it was a Georgia peach I met in Wyoming the previous year that helped me get there. The world of international long distance dating is a strange and unfamiliar one (read: you’d have to be mad), but it’s not without its perks. Morgan had joined me for three months in New Zealand over our summer, so it seemed only fair to return the favour and trade winter in for three months of Wyoming sunshine. Now it has to be said that Charleston is still a long way from Wyoming, but the wedding of an old friend of Morgan’s in Georgia proved catalyst enough for us to load up the car with all the ingredients necessary for adventure and hit the road. Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee, the states simply fell away as the arid climate of the American West dissolved into humidity and lush vegetation. Some 3200km later we rolled into Charleston, over-caffeinated, under-slept and with wildly idealistic visions of the fishing we were about to enjoy.
I didn’t catch that fish, waving its tail like a marching band’s colour guard. Truthfully, I didn’t even come close. Perhaps our visions were a little too idealistic, as with Luke and Jerms’ blessing I was throwing a top-water gurgler at a fish whose entire attention appeared singularly fixed an inch below the mud. All I could do was watch its tail disappear and reappear with decreasing frequency, watch the bow wave push another 6 feet further away, until finally, as absolutely as it had appeared, it was gone. As the water rushed off the flats with the outgoing tide and the bow of the boat began to catch in the mud with each push of the pole, we cut our losses and headed for deeper water. We didn’t catch a fish that day, but I’m unlikely to forget the feeling of floating alongside the boat down the middle of the intra-coastal waterway with a beer in one hand and a thick slice of watermelon in the other. Motor idling, Luke spoke of the beauty of the architecture, how Charleston was resisting the gentrification inherent with such a popular city but above all he told me not to forget that this whole area was built on the backs of slaves. His words were sobering, but he spoke with love and passion for his hometown. I’m instantly drawn to people who do not shy away from the darker sides of history, but rather allow it to add context to their understanding.
One of the most charming features of the fishing in Charleston was that it was heavily tidal, with a few hours of prime fishing per day centered around each flood tide. This left us plenty of time to take in the sights of Charleston, and to satisfy our curiosity at the local breweries (Revelry, in particular, was superb). That night we began what can only be described as an onslaught on the absolutely excellent Charleston food scene (Leon’s Oyster Shop, Lewis BBQ and Little Jacks Tavern – get the burger – are all mandatory watering holes after a scorching day on the flats). Conversation flowed freely, matched only by the beer, as old friends got reacquainted and new friends were made. And yet, in the quiet moments, I found my mind wandering back to that vivid scene, and that lazy tail that had eluded me.
Around 3pm the next day Jerms, Morgan and I picked up Luke’s skiff and put in further up the coast. There seemed to be plenty of beer involved in this kind of fishing, which I wasn’t averse to, and we spent a very pleasant hour watching water flood on to our chosen flat whilst drinking a local IPA and eating boiled peanuts. I found myself staring at the spartina grass, and the multitude of different shades of green it embodied, as I watched the flux of an ecosystem undergoing its twice-daily transformation. While I’d listened to Jerms talk of fishing amongst the grass I’d imagined something sparser, less lush, a peripheral, as opposed to integral, part of the environment. But it was everywhere, and the fish were right amongst it, weaving between it, pushing it aside as they sought food on the now flush mud flat. Our first encounter of the day saw Morgan casting at a fish whose tail only occasionally broke the surface, but whose path was easily tracked by the rustling of the spartina. Quick as the fish was moving, her fly never quite intercepted it. As he poled Jerms confidently predicted the ominous storm cell sitting overland wouldn’t make it to us as a result of the onshore breeze. His confidence put us at ease, and the sight of a tail wagging amongst the grass put the thought completely out of our minds.
There was nothing different about this fish’s behavior, nothing to suggest it would react any differently to the plop of my fly 3 feet ahead of it. I managed one strip before the tail disappeared, one more before I felt it hit. It wasn’t savage, but nor was it subtle. To my enduring pride and surprise, I managed to keep my rod tip down and produce a functionally effective strip strike (a real feat for a trout fisherman!). The 8-weight fiberglass rod bent deep as the fish surged through the grass, dragging my fly line and my nerves with it. It’s a scintillating, yet unsettling, feeling to finally be attached to the fish you’ve been dreaming about: you know you’re enjoying it, but you know you’re not quite allowed to enjoy it fully until that fish is landed. After a couple of strong runs the redfish was boatside, and a second later Jeremy had his hand firmly wrapped around its tail. Looking closer I could see the red hue the fish takes its name from intermingled with iridescent blues and that one ubiquitous black spot near the tail. The joy was palpable on our faces as I held the fish aloft for Jeremy to photograph. Three years since its inception, we’d finally carried out the plan we’d hatched around a campfire in the New Zealand backcountry.
By this stage, the sky had taken on a purple tint, and the storm that Jerms had assured us would remain overland would be overhead in a matter of minutes. With just a few minutes of viable tide left, we made for a creek running between the flats and gunned it for the ocean. Skiffs are wonderful boats to fly-fish from, nimble and able to be poled silently right up to sighted fish. They are not, as we soon learnt, well suited to rough seas and torrential downpours. Battening down the hatches, in this case, meant turning our back to the waves spilling over the bow and trying to give Jerms a semblance of shelter so he could see our way back to the dock. Arriving at the dock just as the storm subsided Morgan and I were so soaked we decided to jump in and swim the last hundred meters, reveling in the warmth of the sea and the calm that followed the storm.
The following day Jerms and I made the highly questionable decision of getting up at 3:45 in the morning to tow his canoe into a saltwater impoundment on an outer lying island. Armed with a liter and a half of coffee…each… we ran the short distance in the skiff and hiked the canoe over the dike. Dead calm water greeted us, with the first rays of the morning sun just cresting the tops of the trees and the sight of tails, both redfish and black drum, breaking the surface. The goal for this morning was simple, to make my idealized visions from the first day into a reality by getting a redfish on a topwater fly. As we poled towards the head of the impoundment and the water shallowed to well under a foot Jerms noticed a disturbance moving across the bow of the boat some 30 ft ahead of us. Not a tail, nor a bow wave, but rather the whole top half of a fish moving above the water in an audacious display of shallow water feeding.
My gurgler led the fish by 10 feet, just as the water started to deepen and from the moment the fishes eyes hit the gurgler there was no doubting the result. Its pace quickened, its track changed and without hesitation or restraint, it launched itself out of the water at the fly. There is something distinctly comical, yet deeply satisfying, about watching a fish so clearly designed to feed off the bottom take a fly off the surface. A full moment before the fish takes your fly, too early for even the most trigger-happy angler to strike, the fishes entire forehead breaks the surface as it launches itself up before rolling down on the fly. This time around, with the monkey firmly off my back, I was able to settle in and enjoy the fight before seeing the fish back on its way. Coffee was drunk, naps were had, and at the end of a long day we even found it in our heart for another beer or two.
On the boat ride back Jerms told me how tough our fishing had been over the last few days, how few fish were active and how we’re just going to have to come back again. Yeah, something tells me that won’t be my last trip to Charleston. The food alone was enough to draw me back, the beer not half bad and I know for sure I want to get back for another crack at those tailing redfish. But there’s another reason. They say if you go a little off-shore, and you’re lucky enough to get the conditions just right, there are rolling tarpon to be had…
Article from Jack Kos, be sure to follow Jack to keep up with what he is doing down south and check out his recent video below The Introduction.
Photos from Jeremiah Clark @jerms1977.