After another hot Carolina summer, the fall fishing season finally arrives this month in all corners. From slab crappie gulping shiners at Lake Moultrie to gator trout crushing Flukes around Little River, cooling conditions ignite a feeding frenzy in freshwater and saltwater environments.
And outside Murrells Inlet, S.C., the Spanish mackerel fishing reaches its peak, and live bait is the name of the game.
When September rolls around, water temperatures begin to decline a little each week, and that kicks off the mullet run along the beachfront. Toothy predators like mackerel are ready for it and will be waiting in places where baitfish congregate, and .the waters off Murrells Inlet offer endless opportunities for anglers to set up and bust a limit of Spanish in a hurry.
Jason Burton of Murrells Inlet Fishing Charters said nearshore reefs and bottom structures are prime locales to encounter big schools of Spanish mackerel this month.
“I like to fish over some kind of structure that will hold bait,” Burton said. “The Spanish are usually abundant at the 3-mile and 10-mile (reefs), but ledges and other rock outcrops are also good. We set up on the Myrtle Beach rocks a lot and get into them real good in the fall.”
The ocean is full of sandy, clean bottom, and when structure is present, it creates an environment full of life — from the sea floor all the way to the surface. Spanish mackerel and other predators gravitates to these oceanic anomalies to feed. Murrells Inlet has dozens of options within 10 miles of the sea buoy.
Traditionally, anglers have cranked their outboards and trolled an array of flashy metal spoons behind their boats, but fall is prime time to take a different approach, especially when inshore waters are chocked full of baitfish and mullet are parading down the coast. Burton is a strong proponent of targing schooling Spanish with free-lined live baits, but Burton first creates a feeding frenzy by slinging a net-full of live mullet into the water that brings the Spanish to the boat.
“I start off the day by catching an enormous amount of bait and fillong up the live well until you can’t fit any more bait in there. We usually get 70 to 80 dozen mullet in there before we head out the inlet,” he said.
Burton decides on a spot and anchors down above the structure. It doesn’t take long for the Spanish to show up when several schools of mullet are darting back and forth and churning up the water. After fish start to crash on the bait, Burton will pitch another live mullet with a treble hook hidden in its tail.
“We usually hook mullet and other live fish in the lips or through the eyes, but I like to hook the mullet in the tail in this scenario because the mullet will naturally flee away when hooked in the rear,” he said. “As they go to get away, the Spanish will turn around and get him.”
Even though the Spanish will slide relatively close to the boat to eat the mullet, they can be a little shy of hardware and boats. When conditions permit, Burton will break out kites to get baits away from the boat a little and pull hardware out of the water. The kite presents the baits vertically versus horizontally and when the water is clear, it takes all the hardware out of the water.
“The kite rig really works fabulous for any ocean predators that feed at or near the surface,” he said. “The bait will be swimming right at the top of the water, making a bunch of racket, and fish will react without seeing any of the gear in the water like with a traditional rig.”
Older, larger fish can be caught using the kite rig because there are fewer red flags to alarm them.
“Many tournament king mackerel fisherman that take the top, winning spots use kite rigs routinely. It’s a good way to catch a big fish,” Burton said.
With several kite systems available, Burton prefers the Boston Big Game Kite, made with two tubes to fly with ease in a light, 5-mph wind or a blazing 20-mph wind. Burton will clip two lines to the kite to fish a line at 25 yards and another at 50 yards.
“One needs to be fairly close or near the chum school, and the second one can be further out,” he said. “You can fish as many as four lines on the kite, but they can get tangled easy when you have more than two.”
When dealing with the wind, the baits can be jerked out of the water routinely when the wind velocity changes abruptly. On gusty days off the Murrells Inlet, Burton will keep a close eye on the kite and will release more kite line to get the baits back in the water.
“Kites are a real fun way to catch them,”he said. “Often, you can see the fish coming, and it’s real exciting when they crash on the bait on top.”
HOW TO GET THERE —Murrells Inlet is at the southern tip of South Carolina’s Grand Strand and is easily accessible from the public boat ramp on US 17 Business, just south of the heart of Murrell’s Inlet’s famous restaurant district.
WHEN TO GO — Spanish mackerel arrive in April and stay in the waters off Murrells Inlet until October when the water cools down. The best time to live-bait is in September when the mullet run begins and when inshore mullet from inshore begin to leave the inlets. Check out the beach front, around the jetties and nearshore reefs.
TACKLE/TECHNIQUES — Spanish mackerel are suckers for live mullet, and the best way to fool them is by creating a feeding frenzy. Anglers should catch several hundred live mullet and toss out handfuls of bait at a time above a reef. The Spanish will come to the schools and start crashing on them. Anglers should hook a live mullet in the tail with only a small No. 6 treble hook and toss out in the area of the feeding frenzy. A kite rig can be used with two to four lines running off the kite at 25- to 50-yard increments. Spinning gear is recommended to be able to pitch baits away from the boat. Medium-heavy action rods in 6½- to 7½-foot lengths are preferred. Spool reels with 15- to 30-pound mono, but use a small, wire leader tied to the hook and main line using an Albright or a double surgeon’s knot. The leader needs to be double the length of the bait and no shorter than 4 inches long.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Jason Burton, Murrells Inlet Fishing Charters, 843-798-9100, www.miffishingcharters.com; Perry’s Bait & Tackle, 843-651-2895. See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Hampton Inn, Murrells Inlet, 843-651-6687; Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.visitmyrtlebeach.com; or South Carolina Association of Visitors Bureaus, www.discoversouthcarolina.com.