Fly fishing offers its disciples ample opportunities to lose themselves. For some, it is the intricate skill of fly tying, in which the feathers of winged creatures are repurposed for harvesting fish. For others, it is cherishing the fit and finish of a bespoke fly rod. However, it is truly a melange of these experiences that has fly fishermen hooked, culminating with that jubilant moment of casting a line from the deck of a flats boat and having a fish take the fly.
Salt flats along the coast of South Carolina offer year-round fishing opportunities depending on the season and the tides. During the winter months and until the cold snaps end in spring, sight fishing for redfish could deliver an exciting day on the water. This species is arguably the most popular, and they are usually grouped in large schools during winter. Moving deeper into spring, the water warms up and allows for king tides as well as low tides. During this season, the redfish are feeding on crabs and other bottom dwellers in the spartina grass, attracting the attention of anglers by waving their famous single-spotted tails in the air. Summer provides the best chance of hauling in a mix of species, such as the bluefish, ladyfish, cobia, tarpon, jack crevalle, triple tail, and Spanish mackerel that cohabitate with the native redfish.
Captain Michael Bruner’s journey into the sport fishing world began unconventionally, to say the least, though he is now considered one of Charleston’s best inshore guides. He grew up in Columbia, graduated from Heathwood Hall, and studied fine art in Colorado, where he learned glassblowing. His work gained national acclaim after he returned to South Carolina, moving into a Charleston studio where he produced pieces for galleries across the country. He soon discovered the refreshing outlet of saltwater fly fishing after he was not able to hunt as often as he liked on his family property near Columbia. “With fly fishing, it’s like a hunt. You literally hunt for the fish,” Michael says. Saltwater fly fishing provided a new challenge while also satiating Michael’s need for the outdoors.
What began as a hobby eventually turned into a business. He earned a captain’s license, saved enough money for his first skiff while working on the Gulf oil spill, and helped open the Lowcountry Fly Shop in Mount Pleasant with one of his friends and owner Scott Davis. After building a strong client base and forging relationships with other local fishing guides, Michael later struck out on his own with a guide service called Fins and Flies Charters. “If you would’ve told me 12 years ago that I would be a fishing guide, I probably would’ve said, ‘No way! That’s awesome,’” Michael exclaims.
As greater numbers of people have moved to the Charleston area, the waters have also become populated by more sportsmen, putting a greater amount of pressure on the resource. Michael adapted to these pressures by expanding his knowledge and abilities. “As a guide, you’re depending on so many factors beyond the scope of your control. Fly fishing is something I did well, but when I started to guide I realized, ‘I’m pretty good, but I need to work hard and get better,’” Michael says.
Jeff Graves, of the bluegrass and folk band The Mustache Brothers, has fished with Michael since the early days of the Fins and Flies guide service. Michael plays the banjo, and the two of them met through the bluegrass music scene. Jeff caught his first redfish on a fly with Michael. “I thought I was a good fly fisherman, but I had a humbling experience my first time out. Michael never gave up. He kept going from spot to spot teaching me a little bit more each time,” Jeff says.
Though he learned plenty that particular day, Jeff was well acquainted with the sport of fly fishing from his formative years. “I started fly fishing in sixth grade when my folks moved into a home that had a pond behind it. My father taught me how to fly fish. We would fish for bass and bream in the backyard using a popper,” Jeff says. Their family vacations also offered him opportunities to practice his fly fishing skills on mountain trout every summer.
Jeff enjoys the peace and serenity offered by mountain stream fly fishing but appreciates the complexities of saltwater fly fishing. “Saltwater fly fishing scenarios present some unique challenges compared to fishing a small mountain stream. Mountain stream situations require precise and controlled casting abilities to stay out of overhanging trees and to land the fly in the correct spot with the flow of the river. Saltwater fly fishing calls for much longer casts that still must be controlled with precise accuracy,” Jeff shares.
Greg Placone, a Columbia attorney and experienced fly fisherman, regularly finds his way to low country waters. His interest in saltwater fly fishing began while he was studying law at Tulane University. Though Greg grew up in South Carolina, his hometown was in the Upstate, so Louisiana provided the perfect opportunity for Greg to hone his skills at saltwater fly fishing. By the time he returned to South Carolina, he was ready to experience the fishing offered by his native state.
While serving as president of the Saluda River Chapter of Trout Unlimited, a ubiquitous nonprofit dedicated to fly fishing and conservation, Greg hosted meetings at Lowcountry Fly Shop, where he first met Michael. Since then, the two of them have chased fish together off the South Carolina coast for several years. They target redfish and tripletail from the deck of Michael’s boat, a Hell’s Bay Boatworks skiff made famous by its developer, Florida fishing guide Flip Pallot. These craft are renowned for their stability and maneuverability in the shallow flats where anglers fish for a myriad of inshore species.
Pursuing saltwater fish from an inshore skiff is generally a two-person task. The angler casting the fly stands on a short platform located at the bow of the boat, while the poler stands on a taller platform raised above the outboard engine, maneuvering the boat into position with a long pole. These higher vantages provide better visibility for both the angler and the poler. “In order to catch fish with a fly rod, you’ve got to see them,” Michael explains. The angler rhythmically wields the fly rod back and forth to lengthen the line, releasing at just the right moment to present the fly — and hopefully hook a fish.
Once the fish takes the hook, a battle ensues between man and nature. On a good day, an angler’s entire body will suffer from muscle soreness, the result of multiple fish on their line or perhaps one particularly spry and hulky specimen. Their minor pains are readily ignored after reflecting on a good day’s catch.
However, for the prized trophies of saltwater fly fishing, Greg, Michael, and other veteran anglers make an annual fly fishing pilgrimage to the waters of Belize, targeting varieties of fish not typically found in South Carolina waters — mostly tarpon, bonefish, and permit. Landing a permit with a fly rod is the ultimate prize. Their silvery slender bodies camouflage them in the crystal-clear waters, and their acute senses of sight, smell, and hearing significantly add to the challenge. Along with bonefish, they’ve been dubbed one of the “grey ghosts of the flats.”
Despite all the experience both Michael and Greg have accumulated between them, only Michael has hauled in a permit, and it took him three years to hook this prize. Greg hopes to catch his permit during their trip this year. “Getting a permit would be a huge accomplishment for me, but I’m looking forward to the trip regardless,” Greg says. Though coming up empty would be disappointing, for the dedicated saltwater fly fisherman being in a boat off the coasts of Belize or South Carolina would rarely rate as a horrible day. Most people who develop an appreciation for this pastime wind up realizing the water and the fish will do what they are going to do, and the worst possible outcome will still be a day on the water.
Michael recently guided two elderly gentlemen who had fly fished for many years and never caught a redfish on their fly rods. Their arthritic joints prevented them from standing on the angler’s platform for long periods of time, and their poor vision handicapped them severely at presenting their fly to the fish. Michael poled them into the perfect position, then after accounting for their impaired vision, told them exactly where to place their fly. Soon after the fly hit the water, a redfish could not resist. “They were willing to fly fish in spite of their infirmities. Those guys — they’re the cool ones,” says Michael.