“It was one of those moments,” says Scott Davis, “where everything lined up perfectly.” A veteran fly-fishing guide and fly-shop owner in Charleston, S.C., he was headed out last September with a first-time client just as the sun was beginning to set. The tide had crested, bringing hungry redfish up onto the Spartina-grass flats in 6-inch-deep water.
Redfish subsist largely on shrimp and small crabs they root up from the sandy bottom of the ocean. When they feed, their tails sometimes poke out of the water, telegraphing their position and making a seductive target.
Within minutes, Davis spotted dozens of tails wiggling above the surface. It was almost too many fish. He had to instruct his charge to hold his fire until he could pole his skiff into position. “We had to shoot for fish on the edges, so we didn’t spook them all back into the deeper water,” he says.
Davis had tied on an olive-colored crab fly, and his client’s first cast landed directly in a tailing red’s path. The fish inhaled it, and from the moment it struck, Davis knew it was special. Landing it, he says, was like “holding a tiger on a leash.”
The catch turned out to be a beast indeed—a 29-inch, 12-pound redfish, a prize any angler would be thrilled to bag. And that was just the start. Not a minute after they released that fish, another tailing red presented itself within casting distance. When they caught it, the same thing happened all over again. In the hour or so until the tide ebbed, the pair landed more than a dozen reds. “It’s as if they were saying, ‘Is that all you got?’ ” Davis says.
Travelers are drawn to Charleston for many reasons. Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began, is an essential destination for the history-minded, and the city’s storied antebellum mansions hold a similarly magnetic appeal for architecture and design buffs. In recent years, Charleston’s downtown has seen an explosion of restaurants, bars, art galleries, and boutiques. Add in the Holy City’s ineffable Southern charm and unfailing hospitality, and it’s no surprise that it’s frequently called the best place to visit in the U.S.
What many people don’t know about Charleston, however, is that it’s also a world-class outdoor-adventure haven, and one of the most enticing local pursuits is fly-fishing for low country redfish.
One of game fishing’s most prized species, redfish are a Goldilocks fish—not too difficult to catch and not too easy. Typically weighing anywhere from 6 to 40 pounds, Sciaenops ocellatus are distinguished by their eponymous garnet coloring and the signature black “eye spot” on their tail.
Unlike traditional fishing, fly-fishing for reds involves finding and sight-casting to individual fish. You wade or pole a skiff on shallow saltwater flats, stalking your prey the way a hunter might an elk. When you spot a fish, you cast your fly just in front of it, then retrieve, or strip, the fly in hopes of inducing a strike. Catching 12 fish in an hour is rare, but if conditions are good, you might get 20 shots in a day and land five or six fish.
Thanks to the late New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme and the blackened redfish craze he inspired in the 1980s, the Louisiana Gulf Coast is probably the best-known redfishery in the U.S. But fishing for reds in Charleston has a unique appeal. The hundreds of square miles of shallow, flat-bottomed waters surrounding the city are ideally suited to tailing reds. Less than a half-hour’s drive from downtown, sometimes within sight of Charleston’s landmark Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, anglers can find themselves in the middle of beautiful Spartina-grass marshes teeming with schools. And the fishery’s size and comparatively low profile mean you won’t be elbow-to-elbow with other anglers.
You can fly-fish for reds in Charleston year-round, but there’s no better time than right now, in the early fall, when the full and new moons bring the high tides to their maximum height. During those periods, reds swim right up on the grass in shallow coastal areas to feast on stashes of crabs they normally can’t get to. And because the water is extremely shallow, it’s common to see tails, and occasionally a fish’s whole back, sticking up out of the water.
Last fall I made my own sojourn to Charleston to see what all the carrying on was about. The tides were perfect, the conditions were ideal, and … I got shut out. We had shots at five or six fish, and I put decent casts on most of them, but for whatever reason, they wouldn’t eat. That’s fishing: Some days it happens, some days it doesn’t.
That night, I met two friends who live in Charleston for dinner at the Ordinary, one of the city’s buzziest restaurants. After a perfectly mixed Maker’s Manhattan, a plate of fried-oyster sliders on Hawaiian rolls, and I don’t know how many low country-style peel-and-eat shrimp, I wasn’t feeling too sorry for myself. That’s another thing about Charleston: Fish may come and go, but you can always count on the bourbon and oysters.
Where to Stay: Located in the center of town, Belmond Charleston Place mixes modern, luxury hotel service with traditional Southern warmth. 205 Meeting St.; 888 635-2350; from $395 a night
Where to Eat: The Ordinary is a new-school Southern seafood hall and oyster bar located in a onetime bank. 544 King St.; 843 414-7060
Whom to Fish With: Lowcountry Fly Shop, owned and operated by Scott Davis, offers a full-day guided trip for $600 and a half-day for $400. 626 Coleman Blvd.; 843 388-5337