Cast a line for these top species swimming in local waters.
Story by Lucy Elam
The South Carolina coast provides the quality and diversity of saltwater angling that has made it one of the top sport fishing areas along the Atlantic coast. With 190 miles of coastal shoreline, there is ample access for all anglers, and there are even more opportunities in the coastal bays, inlets, tidal creeks and rivers. Whether you want to experience saltwater angling or trout fishing, all you need is some bait, fishing gear and a valid South Carolina fishing license to catch a wide variety of species. Here we offer a peek into a Lowcountry “Fish Hall of Fame,” featuring some of the most popular fish species that are staples of the local angling community.
Redfish (red drum)
The facts: Warm waters bring seasonal and tropical species like the redfish. This world-class sport fish can be found within the coastal estuaries that bless the South Carolina coast. With huge mouths that allow them to eat just about anything that fits inside, red drum will readily take a variety of live baits. Croakers, menhaden, spot, pinfish, mullet, small-scaled sardines, live shrimp, crabs, and blood worms are all good choices for redfish.
State record: A.J. Taylor caught a massive 75-pound redfish in 1965 at Murrells Inlet.
The facts: The annual migration of tarpon to South Carolina waters usually starts in late May, and these 80-100 pound fish usually will stick around until mid-October. Mostly fish-eating predators, tarpon consume mid-water prey like striped mullet, silversides, and pinfish. Gear up with heavy tackle, a stout rod, and follow the bait to find a tarpon.
State record: S.B. Kiser caught a 154-pound, 10-ounce tarpon in 1987 off Hilton Head Island.
The facts: Often mistaken for sharks, the average cobia usually weighs around 35 to 40 pounds and can reach 60 pounds in adulthood. Menhaden, live eels, whiting, shad chunks, and crab can be used as chum and bait. Hooked or not, cobia will often swim right up to the boat, but they will definitely put up quite a fight. The waters of the Broad River, between Beaufort and Hilton Head, are one of the country’s best fishing spots to find concentrations of cobia.
State record: Robby Maroudas caught a 92-pound, 10-ounce cobia in 2009 off Hilton Head Island.
The facts: Kingfish mackerel can be found concentrated on artificial reefs, ledges, and at various depths. High season for king mackerel is April to September, and baitfish are the key to king mackerel fishing. With the onset of spring and the warming of water temperatures, king mackerel migrate into Carolina waters, following the mullet, menhaden, and other baitfish that congregate around nearshore structures.
State record: J. Brownlee III caught a 62-pound king mackerel in 1976 off the coast of Charleston.
The facts: Present in South Carolina waters year-round, the croaker gets its name from the deep croaking sounds created by muscular action on the air bladder. Large concentrations of croaker are often observed in shallow waters less than 4 feet deep and in close proximity to a source of fresh or brackish water. They prefer mud, sand and shell bottoms, as well as areas around rocks, jetties, piers and bridges.
State record: C.I. Frasier caught a 4-pound, 9-ounce croaker in 1979 off the coast of Charleston.
The facts: Nicknamed “chameleons of the sea,” summer flounder are able to change their appearance to better blend in with their habitat. As one of the most sought-after commercial and recreational fish along the Atlantic coast, summer flounder can be caught with live and dead bait, from the shore or at anchor. Slow-trolling and drifting are common methods of summer flounder fishing.
State record: J. Wallace caught a 3-pound, 8-ounce summer flounder in 1982 out of Murrells Inlet.
The facts: Found offshore on the continental shelf, red snapper may live more than 20 years and attain 35 pounds or more. From June to October, these crimson fish inhabit our waters and feed on crustaceans and fish. Red snapper favor rocky bottoms at depths of 60 to 400 feet. These are hard-hitting fish that are primarily caught on slow-moving or still baits such as squid or cut bait. Recreational harvest is scheduled to reopen July 9, 2021.
State record: K. Henry caught a 37-pound, 8-ounce red snapper in 1964 out of Little River in Horry County.
Mahi-mahi (dolphin fish)
The facts: One of the easiest of the offshore game fish to catch, mahi have no closed season. High season is May to July, and low season is January to February and November to December. Mahi inhabit the open ocean and are usually found close to the surface where they cluster around floating objects, especially buoys, driftwood and seaweed. The most common method of fishing for mahi is trolling ballyhoo, although some have tried mullet, squid, Spanish mackerel or artificial baits.
State record: R. Riggs caught a 77 1/2-pound mahi in 2008 off Seabrook Island.
The facts: Wahoo were originally plentiful off the Hawaiian island of Oahu, once commonly spelled “Wahoo,” which accounts for this remarkable fish’s name. With razor-sharp teeth and a lower jaw that can open impossibly wide, wahoo are able to hit speeds around 60 mph. March is wahoo time offshore of Lowcountry beaches. Wahoo gather around banks and pinnacles and can be occasionally found around wrecks and deeper reefs where smaller fish are abundant. High-speed trolling is the key to catching them.
State Record: R.J. Moore caught a 130-pound, 5-ounce wahoo in 1998 out of Murrells Inlet.
The facts: South Carolina anglers can target tripletail all summer and expect to take home a few fish every trip. When the heat peaks, the tripletail action gets really hot. You can start seeing them in May, and they will stick around all summer. Look for tripletail near the surface, floating sideways. They are generally found near inlets and around structures just inside estuaries.
State record: J. Johnson caught a 33 1/2-pound tripletail in 2005 on Hilton Head Island.
The facts: This marine fish has a hard mouth, with several rows of stubby teeth – the frontal ones closely resembling human teeth – which help crush the shells of prey. As sheepshead feed on bivalves and crustaceans, successful baits include shrimp, sand fleas (mole crabs), clams, fiddler crabs, and mussels. Sheepshead have a knack for stealing bait, so a small hook is necessary.
State record: J. Widener caught a 16-pound, 6-ounce sheepshead in 2008 in Mt. Pleasant.
Black sea bass
The facts: The black sea bass is a bottom-dwelling species found around wrecks, reefs, piers, and jetties, as well as over beds of shells and rock. They prefer warmer waters, living offshore in winter and moving inshore during the spring. They migrate offshore and south in the fall, returning north and inshore to coastal areas and bays in spring. Black sea bass feed on clams, shrimp, worms, crabs, and small fish. Still and drift fishing on or near the bottom with squid and live and cut baits are effective methods of catching these fish.
State record: L. L. Hudson caught an 8-pound, 3-ounce black sea bass in 1995 out of Fripp Inlet.
The facts: A member of the sea bass family, groupers are big, abundant, and meaty. When you eat grouper, you are likely enjoying black or red grouper, sometimes called “gag.” These fish are frequently taken with live and cut baits fished around natural rocky outcroppings, artificial reefs, and other irregular bottoms. Adults prefer sardines, porgies, snapper and grunts, as well as crabs, shrimp, and squid. Young gag feed mainly on crustaceans found in shallow waters.
State record: James L. Lasher caught a 54-pound, 4-ounce gag grouper in 2018 out of the Isle of Palms Marina.
The facts: A member of the croaker family, whiting can be caught in excellent numbers during the summer and fall. Whiting can be found in the surf or inside edges of inlets, and most fish are probably caught in less than 15 feet of water. Use a smaller hook, and bait them with pieces of shrimp, clam or earthworm.
State record: W. Mobley caught a 2-pound, 12-ounce whiting in 1976 in Georgetown.
Spotted sea trout
The facts: Spotted seatrout are an inshore, bottom-dwelling species inhabiting shallow bays, estuaries, and rivers. They are most abundant in September through July. In South Carolina, sea trout tend to congregate in the cooler months and are taken by trolling, jigging, surfcasting, and fly-fishing with both natural and artificial baits. Live shrimp is the best bait.
State record: A. Pendergrass caught an 11-pound, 13-ounce spotted sea trout out of Murrells Inlet in 1976.