After another winter comes to an end, few folks calling coastal South Carolina home can deny the excitement and euphoria of springtime. It doesn't take but a few warm days of sporting Bermuda shorts and flip flops in March to get the juices flowing.
By late April, avid sportsmen and women living in the Lowcountry face a grueling decision on how to spend their free time:
Cast or blast?
On March 15, Charleston's diehard turkey hunters get the green light to pull the trigger on a bearded tom. They've got until April 30 to get it done, and up to five tags to fill.
Naturally, the hottest turkey action happens to fall right during a spring feeding frenzy among a hoard of finned favorites, from wahoo and tuna in the Gulf Stream to sheepshead at the nearshore reefs and speckled trout and redfish hovering in the creeks. Near and far, large and small, all species will be waiting to smash just about anything that lands in their personal space.
Plucking out spring chickens
Even though the Charleston region's urban and suburban edges keep expanding, huge areas of prime turkey habitat, both public and private, remain just minutes from this historic city.
The spring gobbler season opens March 15 on private lands in Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester counties, and April 1 in the Francis Marion National Forest and Georgetown County. With a little effort and prior planning, the anxious turkey hunter can introduce a long-bearded bird to a load of copper-plated lead in no time at all, and in a place not too far away from home.
The spring turkey hunt coincides with the T-birds' annual breeding season, a time of intense courtship rituals between males and females. These birds exchange calls, giving away their locations in the hopes of meeting up for a hot date. In the turkey's world, the male birds are hustlers, making every attempt to pass along their genetic lineage with as many gals as possible. Their intense sex drive often brings them down the wrong path, right into the range of a skilled caller hiding in the bushes with a shotgun in hand.
Knowing where to find the birds is the first challenge to overcome. Turkeys maintain relatively simple habits that focus on food, water and shelter. The mixture of agriculture, timberland, swampland, and river bottoms surrounding Charleston provides perfect habitat for big boss gobblers and their harems of hens.
Turkeys roost at night in tall trees, often over water, to avoid terrestrial predators. They'll try to roost close to their primary food sources: fruits, grains, nuts, buds, insects, and just about anything else that's packed with nutrition and will fit in their beaks.
During spring conditions, few places won't have food available for turkeys. But some places are far better than others. Hunters can locate such areas using aerial photos, Google Earth imagery and U.S. Forest Service topography maps.
And it never hurts to spend a few days scouting the area looking for tracks, dusting domes and the turkeys, themselves, in their preferred habitats. Be sure to glass agriculture fields, power lines corridors, food plots, and roadways for birds.
Even though turkeys can have home ranges that can extend out to 400 acres, turkeys often will stay in a much smaller area as long as it holds adequate food and roosting areas. When a group of birds is frequenting a specific area, hunters can count on these birds staying close by.
While most turkey hunters out of the Charleston area may choose hunting clubs and private hunting land leases to fill their spring tags, thousands of excellent public hunting areas lie within a short drive of downtown. One of the biggest public properties within the eastern section of the state is the 258,816-acre Francis Marion National Forest, which spans Berkeley and northern Charleston counties with a collection of highly diverse habitats that are perfect for wild turkey.
No matter where they give it a try, successful turkey hunters must learn how to speak the birds' language. With hand-held friction calls made of wood, slate and glass, or with mouth calls controlled by blowing air across a thin layer of latex, hunters can learn to talk turkey in a matter of minutes.
Hens will make many different sounds in the woods, including clucks, purrs, yelps, cuts and a slew of other vocalizations that aren't listed in any instruction booklets. But, just about any of them carrying a tune made up of an authentic cadence and tone will flip on the happy switch of a lusty gobbler looking for love.
Though it doesn't take an expert caller to bring a long-beard into range, hunters looking to bag an early season gobbler should practice a wide range of calls before the season starts. Fortunately, for the first few days of the season, even the unintentional squeaks and creaks will keep an approaching gobbler interested most of the time.
However, knowing when to stop calling may be just as important as choosing which call to use and knowing how to use it. Too much turkey talk can run off a weary bird in no time at all. Even though hens will be loud and chatty at times, they will talk much less than the average turkey hunter.
Turkeys are experts at pinpointing sounds at a distance. If a gobbler responds to a series of yelps and cuts made by the hunter, the best thing for hunter to do is to become silent and prepare for the bird's arrival. If the tom fails to show after 10-15 minutes, another series of calls can be used to locate the bird and refresh his memory.
As the season progresses, surviving turkeys will learn to distinguish between the calls of a real hen and the crafty hunters chatting in their house. Hunters will need to become more selective about when and how much to call as the season winds down. But make no mistake: Hunters still have a better chance of encountering a gobbler at close range through calling than by not calling at all. Remember, by late in the season many hens will have started to nest. Like college kids at closing time at the bar, these old toms will be looking hard for whoever's still available.
Charleston's reel spring mix
After another chilly South Carolina winter comes to a close, Palmetto anglers finally get to frolic on the water again without sporting three layers of clothing and a pocket full of disposable hand warmers. Best of all, the fish will be energetic and hungry, from the offshore ledges along the Gulf Stream to the skinny tidal creeks up the Wando River.
The typical warm fronts of the spring season quickly hike water temperatures back into the 60's in the estuaries and up to the 70-degree mark offshore this time of year. Anglers can pick their poison and reap the benefits.
Beginning in the oyster-encrusted estuaries surrounding the greater Charleston area, anglers can put their light tackle gear to the ultimate test with grueling battles with robust redfish and sensational speckled trout.
New arrivals of small mullet and tiny creek shrimp meet up with their residual cousins left over from last year, all looking for a place to hide in the grass and oyster-lined habitats. Redfish and speckled trout become very active in spring looking for a quick starter meal.
Look for trout and redfish cruising channel edges adjacent to heavy cover on a moving tide. Redfish will be found in shallow water less than three feet deep most of the time. Yet, trout prefer waters a little deeper, say from three to six feet. They also hang in clear, moving water around ambush cover. So target creek mouths, oyster-covered islands and creek banks with good current.
For the bait fisherman, live mud minnows and live shrimp will produce quick results from both reds and trout. Be on the lookout for the season's first wave of menhaden, which usually start showing up in late March and early April. These schools of silver-dollar size pogies get the inshore bite fired up, and anglers quick with a cast net can easily load up their livewell with primo fresh baits.
Anglers boasting a vast collection of artificial options will get bit just as fast and aggressively as the angler using live bait this time of year. Since the majority of the available bait is small, anglers should downsize their tackle to "match the hatch" for the best springtime results.
For speckled trout in the spring, anglers can find success using just about any baitfish- or shrimp-imitation lures, including soft-plastic, paddle-tail grubs, suspending hard lures, and, of course, the newest must-have bait, the Vudu Shrimp by Egret Lures. The realistic action of the Vudu is tough to beat for both trout and redfish.
Spring also offers a lesser-known treat for anglers: a phenomenal top-water bite for feisty trout and powerful reds. This red-hot action also comes during calm conditions early in the day or late in the afternoon, often under an overcast sky. Top-water, cigar-shaped lures 3-4 inches long are preferred, including MirrOlure's Top Dog series, Rapala's Skitterwalk, Heddon's Super Spook Jr., and Sebile's Ghost Walker.
To find the best redfish bite, anglers should concentrate on the lower end of the tide, when much of the marsh areas are void of water. During this tidal phase, redfish will retreat to the nearest deep water or structure points to gorge on bait flushed from the marsh.
The best lures for spring reds are scented soft plastics, spinner baits, artificial shrimp, and of course, the "gold standard," a shiny gold spoon.
Anglers should not forget about blue crabs, either. Redfish will go out of their way to gobble up a blue crab scurrying along the sea floor, especially the soft-shelled variety this time of year. Anglers can use simple Carolina rigs rigged with circle hooks holding pieces of a hard- or soft-shell crab baited for quick results in the spring.
Many anglers also relish making the short runs out to deeper water, a few miles past the breakers, this time of year. The nearshore reefs in 30- to 60-foot depths are flooded with massive schools of striped bandits. Every winter, the inshore gangs of sheepshead migrate to the nearshore reefs to prepare for their spring spawning season. The fish generally show up at the reefs well within the sight of land.
Sheepshead are thought to begin spawning in April and early May, when water temperatures reach 70 degrees. But their long stay at the reefs over the winter make these fish super hungry by March and April, creating the perfect situation for the sheepshead hound.
Fiddler crabs, marsh mussels, live shrimp, dried clams and oysters attached to a ½ to ¾-ounce jig head and braided line will work wonders at places like the Charleston 60, Caper's Reef, Kiawah Reef, and the Charleston Nearshore Reef. ... And even if the sheepshead prove elusive, you're almost guaranteed to come home with a limit of big black sea bass.
Those who long for the longer ride out to the azure waters of the Gulf Stream can expect full days of rod-bending action this spring with screamer wahoo, vivacious dolphin, sailfish, and of course, a strong showing of blackfin tuna.
Blackfin may be considered the black sheep of the tunas by some fishermen, but battling 20- and 30-pound specimens isn't for the faint of heart. Blackfin are just as powerful as their larger relatives, just in a more compact package.
Spring conditions congregate blackfin tuna at the offshore ledges in places with large schools of bait. Anglers looking for a box of tuna to take back to the dock need to concentrate around the structure-laden grounds in 140 to 180 feet of water.
From trolling cedar plugs and ballyhoo to casting top-water poppers to schools busting the surface, the spring run of blackfin tuna can add another level of excitement to the typical offshore excursion.
Regardless if tuna, wahoo, or a feisty dolphin lies in the crosshairs, the spring offshore flurry is undeniably the best time of the year to make the 50 to 75-mile run to the pelagic fishing grounds.
The 69- to 74-degree water due east of the Charleston Jetties and within the vicinity of this famous Georgetown Hole will produce nonstop action during the spring, all the way up until the dolphin run starts in late April and early May.
Conditions in spring hunting and fishing seasons might prove challenging at times, but for many hunters and anglers pent up after the wintry start of the year, the most demanding task might be picking which passion to pursue.
Do you go after a spring gobbler, a fat redfish or a trophy-sized wahoo? Do you drop down for sheepshead or run all the way out to load up on delicious blackfin?
Whether slinging lead from the end of a 12-gauge barrel or from the end of a graphite rod, Lowcountry sportsman are bound to enjoy exciting times in March and April.
Get out there and enjoy!