Fish Like You Mean It

Getting down to business on South Carolina’s Broad River.

American Angler
May/June 2013

No one has ever accused me of being overly intense on the water. For me, fly fishing is about relaxation as much as results, the means as much as the end. Such a languid attitude in an increasingly gonzo sport probably comes from having learned whatever skills I might enjoy by often just sitting on a moss-covered bank, eyeing a run, and contemplating the gilded vespers of trout prey rising through shafted sunlight.

But the simple fact is there are plenty of anglers whose fly fishing amperage naturally exceeds my own, and whose predatory drive shifts into high gear when the quarry, season, or setting moves beyond the trout stream or bass pond.

A few experiences come to mind: stalking the Everglades with fly tier and artist Tim Borski, who poled his canoe for hours through the mosquito-infested no-motor zone to get me a handful of shots at backcountry tarpon; paddling kayaks out toward the back reef flats at Turneffe Atoll before dawn with fisheries ecologist Dr. Aaron Adams, who the evening before had accurately predicted that two permit would filter through a cut in the coral precisely at sunrise; or being picked up at Boston’s Logan airport by photographer and fly tier Dave Skok, then driving straight to the nearest put-in behind a runway to fish for stripers until well after dark with little more discussion than, “You made it. Cool. Let’s fish.”

Such is the case with my friend Paul Burton, with whom I had the pleasure of chasing cobia on the fly a couple of years back. Paul is the real estate manager at Brays Island Plantation in the South Carolina Lowcountry, putting him in a prime location to take advantage of one of the more unique fisheries on the East Coast. Each spring, from April to June, large numbers of cobia move into Port Royal Sound between Hilton Head and Beaufort. On windless days they cruise just beneath the surface—often betrayed by little more than a thread of vee wake—and become prime targets for fly casters. The fish range anywhere from 15 to 70 pounds, presenting one of the most interesting sight-casting challenges anywhere. And Paul is hawkish on them, almost to the point of delirium.

A typical cobia encounter with Paul at the helm goes like this: “Okay … there …maybe…no… yes… nope… wait … is it—?” an internal debate escaping as fragments faster than can be fashioned into directive, leaving me rocking back and forth in a spasm of false starts, trying to see what he sees, wishing I were enjoying that level of guide-born engagement, until the synaptic connections are made, the words line up, and out comes a command: “Cobia! Get some line out!

When Paul isn’t chasing “Mr. Brown,” he likes to strap on about 100 pounds
 of scuba gear and muck around on the bottom of the Broad River in 30 feet of water with zero visibility—preferably in winter, preferably at night—grabbling for megalodon teeth. Submarine fossil hunting is not your most placid pastime, yet Paul is at ease in that deadly environment.

A handful of other anglers I know fish this way, locked on to the mission like a heat-seeking missile.

Not too long ago, he was held at knifepoint by multiple intruders during a home invasion, a nearly tragic event that I have to think came to a safe conclusion in part by his ability to process what was happening and not make the wrong move, a kind of yin-cool under pressure whose yang is pure intensity. That is, the calm cannot exist without the storm.

Thus it goes for the two days we team up to chase cobia. Paul scans the river surface for hours on end, unblinking in his singular purpose of spotting game, mentally aligning the shifting vectors of fish, tide, and boat. Meanwhile, I enjoy the ride—pondering the whiteness of the egrets, the greenness of the marsh, and the goodness of life—until suddenly jolted from my reverie by Paul’s verbal windup, the pitch, and a blazing fastball past my ear: “Steve Man! Cobia!

A handful of other anglers I know fish this way, locked on to the mission like a heat-seeking missile. It’s a trait I wish I possessed, but ultimately I’ll have to live with my established mode—happy to be there, grateful to catch a few fish. Who knows, maybe I can ramp it up a notch or two this season. But right now, one thing is certain. May is rising, and two hours south of here legions of cobia are on the move upriver.

Somebody needs to get after them. ✦