The cure for cabin fever is a full tank of gas and a little bit of salt.
In my part of the country, an angler’s cabin fever starts to break when yellow jonquils sprout on the first warm days of February. Along distant tree lines, the maples flush red with flower clusters, and tulip trees unfold their lavender petals in a chorus of confirmation. That’s followed by blooming forsythia, or yellow bell, its star-shaped blossoms the color of the sun. Next comes the ornamental icon of suburban sameness—flowering Asian pear trees—pride of highway departments and office-park developers alike, or as my mother calls it, “kudzu on a stick.”
Their blizzard of malodorous petals is soon replaced by a crown jewel of native Southern flora, the violet branches of Eastern redbud trees. At spring’s peak, a red, white, pink, and yellow explosion of azaleas and dogwoods heralds the full blooming of another Southern fishing season.
Amidst this greening, local perch jerkers believe that the perfect time to fish for crappie is when the dogwood buds are about the size of a squirrel’s ear. That’s usually in mid-February, which happens to coincide with a unique redfish bite along the South Carolina coast, just a few hours away. In winter, the silt settles out to leave parts of the Carolina coast tropically clear, and any sunny, warm day between the jonquils and our first pollen storm will find schools of year-class redfish moving onto low-tide flats to recharge their solar batteries.
Although we knew exactly where we were headed, exploring the coast by canoe and fly rod is a crap shoot at best.
I’d heard about this fishery for years, but a fixer-upper house has exhausted my spare time for nearly as long. This season I decided to literally and figuratively drop the hammer and just go, finally breaking loose on a Saturday afternoon with a canoe strapped to my truck and some local knowledge in the form of one of our ad reps, Chad McClure, who grew up fishing the South Carolina coast.
Although we knew exactly where we were headed, exploring the coast by canoe and fly rod is a crap shoot at best. If you miss the fish, there is not a lot of repositioning to do at one knot. Nonetheless, a winter’s worth of pent-up fishing energy is a powerful force, and so on a 75-degree February day we head southward out of the piedmont and into the coastal plane, images of the Old and New South slide past our fully opened windows: broad swaths of vetch and remnant cotton turn the fields purple and white; trailer homes punctuate the flanks of stately plantations; hobby-farms and isolated whistle stops; a nuclear silo looming here; an abandoned schoolhouse there, its old brick hull sheltering nothing but the wind and rat snakes. Pine forests and wheat fields lead to halls of live oaks and Spanish moss tunneling through the towns of Estill, Scotia, Okatie, and finally to a night’s harbor in the graceful port of Beaufort.
At dawn the next morning, we paddle through dense fog down a tidal creek. It is Sunday, and there is no boat traffic. The tide is half gone, so we stroke hard for an hour to reach the flat before it dumps out completely. The gray veil of morning lifts as McClure picks out gauzy landmarks that guide us to the lee of an adjacent island, where we find our targeted sand flat glass-like under blue skies. The set-up feels perfect as I break out a push pole and begin to work the edge, looking for nervous water. When you find reds under these conditions, you might encounter a school of a hundred fish or more, all year-class clones of one another.
“Right there! Cast! Cast! Cast!” shouts McClure as a school of 8-pound redfish crosses our bow in three feet of water. Our reconnaissance has been flawless, but not so our execution. We’ve paddled right on top of the fish before even getting a rod in hand, and that proves to be our best shot of the day. Soon a large dolphin moves onto the flat, nearly beaching himself while batting at the school with its tail, hoping to stun his breakfast. We anchor the canoe and try wading, but every time I get close to the fish, our dolphin friend moves in and starts swinging.
Church bells toll, and no sooner is the last tithe placed than three other boats ease onto the flat to stake out, hemming us in for the rest of the morning. The fish no longer have eating on their minds, only escape. Like us. So we call it a morning and ride the tide back toward our landing, tired from the day’s worth of effort to get here, leaving fishless but thinking, Man, it feels good to get out. ✦