Columbia may be 100 miles or more from the nearest coastline, but that does not stop between 3,000 and 4,000 licensed saltwater recreational anglers from making the trek several times each year. For some, the goal is to work hard for a week or two, check the DNR tide reports and then head toward the coast. Those who saltwater fish tout multiple benefits: nature, challenge, thrill, fresh air and relationships.
Scott Whitaker, executive director of Coastal Conservation Association South Carolina, says he hits the road an average of two to three times a week to head south. It is his job to tackle marine conservation issues, but he also fishes regularly with Sandy, his wife, children, other family members and friends. “The best way to sell this pastime is to put someone in a boat and put a fishing rod in their hand,” he says.
People often fish for the most popular of South Carolina coastal fish: the spot-tailed bass — or what is commonly referred to as Redfish. Rupert Kuhne, 74, was hooked as a boy. His grandparents, aunts and uncles owned places in and around Charleston, so he was exposed to coastal fishing at a young age. He and Rupert, Sr., his dad, often surf fished.
“My dad would let me sleep until he went out at sunrise and looked to see if conditions were good and the fish were biting,” says Rupert, a local retired orthodontist. “If they were biting, he would come in and squeeze my big toe, and I would know that was the signal to get up and join him.”
Rupert began to fish “seriously” for Redfish in 1988. He says that the best time to catch Redfish is in the fall during high tide. They feed on fiddler crabs. Since he grew up fly fishing on ponds as well, he began to use the technique to catch Redfish. The satisfaction that comes with learning to fly cast, and fly cast well enough to actually catch a saltwater fish, has motivated Rupert to travel to the Bahamas, Belize, Christmas Island and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. Yet, he regularly fishes in the Isle of Palms area and has caught his share of Redfish and many other species, including bonefish and sailfish.
Rupert describes the experience of having someone quietly guide a boat in shallow marsh water while he leans at the front and gracefully waves the fly line back and forth until he feels just the right cast. The experience and beauty of fly fishing was made popular with the release of the movie A River Runs Through It (1992), but Rupert says most people think fly fishing is relegated to ponds or streams. However, he explains that fly fishing in salt water is very enjoyable. “Once you become a proficient caster, you can do it. It’s almost as fun to make a good cast as it is to catch something when you fly fish.”
Rupert has given lessons, and he taught his stepson, Morris Lyles, to salt water fly fish. Rupert also makes his own flies for catching saltwater fish because he says that he could not find the right flies when he first began; he says he will not live long enough to use all of the flies he has made.
He even takes his grandchildren — all girls — fishing, but has only taught them with a spin cast rod thus far. He took Mary Louise, his 14-year-old granddaughter, to Louisiana this past year, and she caught more than 100 Redfish — 98 percent of which she released. “She had blisters on her hands, but a smile on her face,” he says with pride.
What puts a smile on the face of Jeff Gross, M.D., is building his own rods out of graphite components and then personalizing them with specific wraps and color combinations — then heading to the coast to use the rods. Jeff, a Columbia ophthalmologist who specializes in retinal surgery, points to the rewards of the passion he has had for fishing since he was in his 20s. “Fishing is a very peaceful hobby for me. I can be out on the surf by myself … relax and listen to the waves and reflect.” Or, he says, it can be a hobby that involves great friendships. “There’s a camaraderie formed with others who enjoy fishing.”
Tombo Milliken says he cannot remember a time when he wasn’t fishing with his father and two younger brothers. He grew up fishing around DeBordieu and Pawleys Island. Then, in the 1990s, he began fishing for Redfish.
“It morphed from a few weeks in the summer to year-round fishing for Redfish and other species such as trout, flounder and sheepshead,” he says.
Tombo’s family has a home in McLellanville and DeBordieu. He says that from Price’s Inlet to North Inlet, about a 35 to 40-mile stretch, there are a multitude of rivers, marshes and a shoreline that are perfect for fishing. “You might target a species, but you never know what you’re going to get,” says Tombo. “That’s the fun of it.”
Tombo travels to the coast in the summer and fall months at least twice each month. “When you’re using artificial lures for Redfish or trout, you can use some of the same techniques and lures as you would for largemouth bass in freshwater.”
Tombo has become so involved in fishing that he — along with his father and brothers — has been a part of the Josh Thomas Memorial Creekslam Tournament in McClellanville for the past several years, winning three times and placing other times.
Because Tombo and others greatly enjoy coastal fishing, many are involved in efforts to preserve the coastal waters. When he learned of CCASC in 1999, there was only one chapter in Charleston. Tombo was interested in a chapter that would serve the Columbia and surrounding areas. He joined with a few friends to start a chapter that would be focused on support, as well as lobbying efforts, for the conservation of coastal fishing.
Already there are limits to the number and size of fish that can be kept when saltwater fishing. Typically, anglers keep just enough for a dinner or two and release the rest. However, there are other issues on which CCASC has had to focus attention in recent years. For example, it lobbied for the closure of “vulnerable” bays and estuaries to destructive commercial trawling, and the outlawing of gill nets and other indiscriminate gear in almost all state marine waters. CCASC also secured funding for the placement of an artificial reef in the area around McClellanville — and obtained protection for Redfish and trout from gigging during the months of December, January and February when low water temperatures limit their mobility. CCASC has achieved, according to Scott Whitaker, much more.
“We’ve been involved in 64 different projects at 24 different sites in just the past four summers,” he says.
Scott points to the greatest impact on coastal fishing as the surge of people visiting and living on the coast over the past 20 to 30 years. “Because of our envied quality of life, most of the growth in our state has come to the coast. And with that growth, people relocating here want to enjoy our fisheries which has led to an increase in pressure on those resources,” he says. “With that increase in pressure, the how and when of fishing has changed. To our state’s credit, we have done an outstanding job of managing our marine resources in a proactive way. We want a healthy fishery so it’s not exploited. No one wants an ‘aquarium’ on the coast — where there are just fish to look at. And yet we don’t want to wake up one day and realize that we’ve fished a particular species to the brink of extinction either.”
Tombo adds that he wants to do his part to preserve coastal fishing for “T,” short for Thomas, his 7-year-old son and future generations. “There’s just something about being able to leave the boat landing with nothing, catch your own bait fish and then catch larger fish. You start from scratch … you breathe in the salt air … ”