The inshore and nearshore waters around Little River, S.C., and Sunset Beach, N.C., are a complex saltwater ecosystem in a variety of ways.
With a combination of extensive marshes, sounds, the Intracoastal Waterway, several small and one large, stable inlet, these waters contain nursery areas, many places with excellent spring through fall fishing and even some locations where redfish and a few speckled trout and flounder choose to spend the winter.
These waters are known across both Carolinas as an excellent place for primo inshore and nearshore fishing.
Using Little River Inlet as a centerpiece, the Atlantic Ocean to the south, Dunn Sound, Hog Inlet and several creeks off the Intracoastal Waterway to the west, the Calabash River and its tributaries to the north and Bonaparte Creek, the ICW, Tubbs Inlet and the marshes behind Sunset and Ocean Isle Beaches to the east. This area has a significant tidal exchange, which is a major influence on the fishing and also determines if many areas are passable or not.
The towns of Little River and Calabash are fishing villages that have been transformed into popular vacation spots. Their working waterfronts illustrate the area’s fishing heritage. Linked in many ways, they are separated by two miles and the North Carolina/South Carolina border.
Several ramps are available for boaters in the area. Public ramps are on the ICW Waterway at both ends of the US 17 Bridge between Little River and North Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. On the North Carolina side of the inlet, ramps are being constructed on the mainland side of the Sunset Beach Bridge, and a public ramp is beside the Ocean Isle Beach Bridge; it was closed for renovations in January and should reopen soon. There is also a small fee ramp on the Calabash River beside Capt. John’s Seafood Restaurant.
Capt. Mark Dickson grew up in Cherry Grove, S.C., and has been fishing the coastal waters around Little River and Calabash since. For a few years, he abandoned the backwaters and chased king mackerel, and while successful, he felt the unrelenting tug of flat water and oyster rocks. He returned home to open Shallow Minded Guide Service, and his clients count on him for fun days fishing for redfish, flounder, trout and other species.
Extremely important, Dickson said, is that because these waters straddle the state line, a knowledge of where that boundary runs is important. His blanket guide’s license covers the saltwater in both states for his parties, but he suggests individuals interested in fishing the area purchase saltwater licenses from both states. One very particular location is across the line that divides saltwater from freshwater in South Carolina, and thus requires a freshwater fishing license from the Palmetto State.
Dickson said when crossing state lines it is mandatory to adhere to personal limits that meet the requirements of both states.
For example, flounder size minimums are 14 inches in both states, but South Carolina allows 10 per person or 20 per boat, while North Carolina allows eight per person. The North Carolina limit is observed with two fishermen, and the South Carolina limit with three or more fishermen.
The minimum size for speckled trout is 14 inches in both states and South Carolina allows 10 per person. While North Carolina usually allows six specks per person — with only two longer than 24 inches — an emergency proclamation closed North Carolina waters to trout harvest in January that remained in place when this magazine was printed. When minimum sizes are the same, the number must be held to that of the lowest state.
Redfish regulations differ in size and number, with South Carolina allowing three per person in a slot of 15 to 23 inches. In North Carolina waters, the limit is one, with a slot of 18 to 27 inches. Dickson uses and recommends a self-imposed limit of a single redfish in a slot of 18 to 23 inches, which is legal in both states. Other limits should be checked by visiting the websites of the respective agencies at www.ncdmf.net and www.dnr.sc.gov.
1. Little River Inlet South Jetty
Little River Inlet, especially the jetties, is a focal point for area fishermen. A variety of species is caught during the year, and some are usually around at any time. The prime season is typically from late March through December, but extended warm or cold weather can influence it.
“I really don’t know what to say is the most-popular fish caught along the jetties,” Dickson said. “At times, they have excellent trout fishing, redfishing and flounder fishing, plus more. I believe the most popular would be one of those three, but it’s really difficult to say which one.”
Dickson said the first flounder and redfish arrive in the spring. It could be early March in a warm winter or mid- to late April after a cold winter. Both can be caught on artificial baits, but most fishermen begin with mud minnows, then switch to mullet minnows while they are available. He said redfish switch to shrimp once they begin moving through the inlet, but flounder retain their preference for minnows.
Trout arrive several weeks later and usually have a small spring run, bite sporadically through the summer and bite readily during the fall. Dickson said trout prefer shrimp but will also bite minnows.
Dickson said Spanish mackerel will hold around the jetties, as will sheepshead. Sometimes tripletail drift through with the tide, while whiting, spadefish and more will occasionally be around in good numbers. At times, a few king mackerel venture in to the tideline off the jetties and make things exciting for the fishermen.
“One special fall run is when large redfish gather in the inlet between the jetties,” Dickson said. “This usually begins during September, when the water begins to cool and mullet minnows start moving down the beach. It usually lasts two to six weeks. In 2010, it lasted until the cold fronts began rolling through during November.”
2. Dunn Sound Point
“Quite a few fishermen motor by this shell point every day going to and from Little River Inlet,” Dickson said. “Even when there is a boat anchored here and fishing, they tend to ride on by. For a hundred yards or so, the bank running down the inlet channel to this point or right around the corner in the entrance to Dunn Sound is a great place to fish for trout in the fall. Occasionally, there is also a flounder laying under them, or some drum come to see what the commotion is all about.”
Dickson said the point is in the outside of a turn in the channel, and the current naturally sweeps bait past it. He said the falling tide carries shrimp and minnows from the ICW, Calabash River and the marshes, and it blends with the current running out of Dunn Sound at this point. Dickson suggests suspending a live shrimp under a cork and drifting it down the bank as the best way to fish this spot. He said there is a lot of area where the fish might be, and they will move up and down the bank.
3. Bluff, Trees in Dunn Sound
Entering Dunn Sound, the channel turns toward Little River Neck and this bluff, with trees and a dock. A slough runs up to the dock, with an oyster rock just to its right. Dickson said this area is usually good from early spring until late fall for redfish and also occasionally surprises with a few flounder. A small bay on the right holds redfish when the tide first starts falling, but drops out to nearly dry by low tide.
“I fish this area with soft plastics and live bait,” Dickson said. “This spot has so many oyster rocks, I keep it simple and use only a light jighead with either. The light jighead doesn’t seem to get hung up nearly as much as a Carolina rig.”
Dickson said he occasionally catches trout working the channels and sloughs, but he considers this spot, as well as most of Dunn Sound, as a good redfish area. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources stocks fingerling redfish in the area, and Dickson believes they hang around. Dickson often catches many redfish in the same year-class in Dunn Sound, so it is either from spawning or stocking.
4. Tilghman’s Point and Dock
“Tilghman’s Point and Dock is the first structure after turning from the ICW into the channel out to Little River Inlet,” Dickson said. “It is a local landmark and tends to hold some flounder from late spring to late fall, and it often holds trout, especially during the late fall. There may even be a school or two of reds that follow a school of bait down the bank and pleasantly surprise fishermen.”
Tilghman’s Point is on the outside of a curve in the channel to Little River Inlet. A concrete sea wall once stood there, but years of exposure have scoured it out, and it is collapsing in places. Part of it is visible to the right of the dock, and rip-rap is visible to the left of the dock. This and the pilings of the dock create places for flounder and trout to lie in wait as the strong tidal current sweeps baitfish and shrimp past.
Dickson advises fishermen to position their boats so they can cast slightly upcurrent and let the current sweep your bait back past the boat. He said trout usually prefer live shrimp, and the flounder usually prefer live minnows, but both can be caught on a plastic shrimp or grub bounced past with the tide.
5. Sunset Beach Barge Bridge
Sunset Beach is now accessed across a high-rise bridge that opened in late 2010 and is just a few hundred yards west of the floating-span barge bridge that provided its link with the mainland for the last 50 years. The barge that provided the floating span has likely been removed, but the town is working to keep the approaches for use as waterway observation decks and fishing piers. Most contracts that involve federal funds for replacement bridges stipulate the old bridges must be removed, but there is hope that with the floating span removed, the approaches can remain.
“I sure hope they work out the details to keep this old bridge,” Dickson said. “It has been a great fishing spot over the years, and everyone would like it to stay. Heck, many locals fought tooth-and-nail to keep it as the primary bridge, but while they delayed the new bridge multiple times, they finally lost the battle.
“The old Sunset Beach Bridge is a good spot to catch trout, flounder, red drum and black drum,” Dickson said. “If you look at any of the local fishing reports, it is always mentioned. Many times we catch red drum, trout and black drum all winter — not just from spring through fall. These past two winters have been awful cold and pushed the fish away, but until then, we caught fish all year, even during the construction.”
Dickson said live baits on Carolina rigs or jigheads are usually most productive along the bridge and its bulkheads. They can be fished vertically and left stationary for a while to attract fish. He said some folks have good luck with soft-plastic grubs and shrimp, but those lures require movement to attract fish, but sometimes they are too fast in cold or hot water, and sometimes the tide just sucks them into the pilings and creates tangles.
Dickson suggests live shrimp for both drum and trout as long as they were available. He said flounder usually prefer minnows, but they will feed on whatever is available when the water is cold.
6. ICW Docks
Dickson said redfish and flounder might be found under almost any dock along the ICW, but some are better than others. This dock is one of the better ones. A hump is visible where the walkway leading out to the end crosses over a small creek. This creek drains just to the right of this dock, and a falling tide sweeps the water under the dock.
Dickson said the small creek falls out to almost totally dry at low tide, so any shrimp, minnows or small fish that were hiding in it have to come out to the edge of the ICW. Larger fish know this and will feed from the edge of the marsh grass out to the drop into the ICW channel on a falling tide. With this dock so close to the creek mouth, they will often remain in the shade and stage behind the pilings of the dock during the rising tide.
“This area of bottom is pretty clean, so I’ll use a Carolina rig with a mud or mullet minnow to fish for reds and flounder,” Dickson said. “The fish may be holding anywhere from the mouth of the small creek to under the dock, so it is important to give the whole area a try before moving on. To cover more ground, I usually cast and either retrieve slowly or retrieve a little and pause.
Dickson said this spot also holds some speckled trout, but while the flounder and reds will readily move into only a foot or so of water, the trout prefer staying deeper. They will occasionally run up to the edge of the marsh on the rising tide, but on the falling tide, they are usually holding somewhere along the edge of the drop into the channel. He said the trout will also eat minnows, but they are much more aggressive with live shrimp. Trout and flounder are spring-to-fall fish, but reds may be around all winter.
7. Hurricane Fish-Cleaning Dock
This is the fish-cleaning station for the Hurricane Charter and Headboat fleet in the Calabash River. Fish scraps are thrown and washed over, which creates a food chain and attracts numerous species of fish. Dickson said this is a spot where almost any bait has a good chance of catching something. He likes to use live minnows but said cut bait and any of the bio baits would also work.
Dickson said some red drum, black drum, flounder, trout and more will usually hang around the docks during warmer months. The competition for food is rampant when someone is cleaning fish, but a few fish usually hang around waiting to feed at other times and may be easier to catch. Black and red drum should be around all year, with other species in the warmer water from late spring through late fall.
8. Mullet Creek
Mullet Creek is a small creek that runs well back into the marsh near the Calabash River and is home to an abundance of baitfish and shrimp during the warmer months. This creek has enough depth near the mouth to enter and anchor in position to fish its entire width.
“Because of all the bait it holds, Mullet Creek is a spot that attracts multiple species.” Dickson said. “Redfish and flounder will go up in the creek and sometimes follow the bait into water you can only reach with a poling skiff. However, as the tide falls, the bait and those fish have to retreat to the main body of the creek, and there are opportunities for everyone to catch some fish.”
Dickson said trout will also hold around the mouth of the creek and in the channel up through the first few turns. He said flounder like minnows; redfish aren’t choosy and trout usually prefer live shrimp. Letting the falling tide carry a bait suspended under a float or pinned on a light jighead down the creek or across the mouth is a great way to fish this creek.
9. Rip Rap at Coquina Harbor Entrance Lighthouse
Dickson said this is a spot to catch speckled trout, which begin to stage along the rip-rap in the fall and will usually be there until Christmas — and maybe later during a warm winter. Other species may be caught, but they are incidental. He said moving water is best, and a falling tide is usually better.
“I like to fish live shrimp under a float and let the current drift them along the rip-rap,” Dickson said. “As long as live shrimp are available, they are worth the extra time or expense. Some folks do well with minnows once the shrimp are gone, but I prefer to switch to soft plastic shrimp then. My favorites are the Betts Halo, DOA and 3-inch Gulp! White and new penny are usually the best colors.”
10. Little River Swing Bridge
“The Little River Swing Bridge is almost like an ecosystem to itself,” Dickson said. “During the warmer months, it holds a few flounder, then, as it cools, it becomes a haven for stripers and specks. This is an area that requires both saltwater and freshwater licenses. The bridge is in water designated as fresh, while the closest ramps, which are only a couple of hundred yards away, are in saltwater.”
Dickson said flounder hang around the bridge’s bulkheads and like to eat minnows. It could take several hours to fully fish both sides of both bulkheads, but he said a few nice flounder will usually join you in the boat if you have the patience.
Striper tend to show up in late fall and hold through the winter into spring. Dickson said they hold tight to the bulkheads and pilings, and he has found vertically jigging green and white bucktails is most effective for them. Just like fishing for flounder, it takes a while to cover all the area.
“A couple of years ago, speckled trout started holding along the edges of the channel just south of the bulkheads during the winter,” Dickson said. “It can be hit or miss fishing, but when they are there, you often catch one almost every cast. These trout usually respond well to any of the bio baits fished slowly. Many are not quite to barely keepers, but you can catch some nice trout for dinner if you stay with it.”