Folks from all over the world head to Hilton Head every year in search of one thing; golf. Golf courses, condos, shopping centers, jet skis, and likely the greatest concentration of Ohio license plates outside of Ohio pretty much sums up the Hilton Head experience for most visitors. A lesser known fact is that Hilton Head is also home to some of the best tailing redfish flats in the state.
Hilton Head is sandwiched between the Calibogue and Port Royal sounds and has several small inlets and large creeks that are highways for reds searching for forage on the numerous big flood-tide flats. While all of the flats will contain tailing reds at times, some flats are naturally better than others. Doing a little homework before heading out, experienced anglers regularly find dozens of tails-up reds shortly after leaving the boat landing.
Capt. Mark Nutting credits most of his success to doing homework before scouting out new areas. He said, “I use Google Earth like everyone else, but mostly I use nautical charts when searching for good tailing flats.”
Why use an old fashioned chart when a desktop offers such easy access to maps? The answer is in the available details.
“With a chart, I can see the gradient of the bottom and what the lead-up to the flat looks like, and I can easily find the areas where fish will stage before and after the flood” said Nutting (508-309-0069).
The staging areas are usually pockets of short grass on the edge of the flat or wide, shallow and grassy creeks cutting into the flat. Reds do not just pop up on a flat after it is covered in water, but rather, they will push through the grass on the rising tide searching for fiddler crabs and other critters that are easy pickings in skinny water.
By finding those areas where reds stage, an angler can add to the hours available for sight-fishing instead of just when the water is on the flat.
“The rule of thumb for fishing a tailing tide is an hour-and-a-half before the top of the tide and after, but fish will be in the shallow pockets around a flat for some time before and after, allowing for many more opportunities,” Nutter said.
As soon as the water starts to flood the high grass — or approximately three hours before dead high tide — Nutting is searching those shallow pockets near the flat for reds. The same goes for the outgoing; as long as water is still on those shallow pockets, chances are reds are, too. Many anglers consider tailing tides a two to three hour opportunity at most, but Nutting has found a way to stretch it to almost a full day of sight fishing.
Opinions on the best tide height for tailing reds in the Beaufort/Hilton Head area vary, but the general consensus is 7.5 to 8 feet at the Savannah River entrance. Local angler and fly tier John Holbrook, who does most of his tail-searching on the flats on or near Hilton Head, has come to rely on weather conditions as much as tide-chart predictions for determining when it is go time.
“A lot of time, people won’t even think about flood-tide reds when the chart says it will only be 7.0 or less, but the wind is a big part of tide height, and if it is blowing from the east, offshore, it will be a lot higher than predicted inshore” he said. “Some of my best days chasing flood-tide reds have been when the tide-chart prediction was low but the wind east, and on those days, I had my choice of flats without ever seeing another angler.”
Fortunately, reds do not read tide charts, nor weather reports; their movements are never dictated by what is supposed to be. Any day can be a good day for tailing reds. Even when the water is not high enough to flood the firmer walking flats, the staging areas Nutting likes to target will still hold tailing fish. Also, reds like to push shallow and are not scared to get a little sun on their backs if it means a crab dinner, so anglers on foot can often find a tail or too on the deeper edges of a flat.
High fishing pressure on reds makes sense, but in actuality, the pressure is quite low, at least on the flats farther away from the landings. These lesser-educated reds will readily eat a number of artificials and flies and are much less likely to spook from a poor cast, skiff, or wading angler. Let the hordes of visitors to Hilton Head have their golf and shopping, the real sport is just off the course and often in plain sight of the greens.