LOW­COUN­TRY BILLFISHING

EX­PLORE SOUTH CAROLINA’S AC­CLAIMED OFF­SHORE FISH­ERY

Marlin - - CONTENTS FEATURES - BY SAM WHITE

Ex­plore South Carolina’s ac­claimed off­shore fish­ery By Sam White

THE LOW-SLUNG, WIND-SWEPT AND STARKLY BEAU­TI­FUL SEA IS­LANDS SEPARATE COASTAL SOUTH CAROLINA FROM THE AT­LANTIC OCEAN, BUF­FER­ING THE PAL­METTO STATE’S LOW­COUN­TRY RE­GION FROM ALL BUT THE NAS­TI­EST WEATHER. WITH 187 MILES OF COAST­LINE AND NAT­U­RAL PORTS IN GE­ORGE­TOWN AND CHARLESTON, THE STATE’S IN­TI­MATE RE­LA­TION­SHIP WITH HIS­TORY AND THE SEA CAN­NOT BE OVER­SHAD­OWED.

South Carolina is per­haps most fa­mous as the start­ing point of the Amer­i­can Civil War, where Con­fed­er­ate troops fired upon the Union sol­diers de­fend­ing Fort Sumter in the mouth of Charleston har­bor in 1861. Fif­teen decades later, out­rig­ger­lined sport-fish­er­men rather than square-rigged barken­tines are a more fa­mil­iar sight. The state has an equally rich his­tory in the blue wa­ter, yet most are un­fa­mil­iar with this part of the East Coast.

Billfishing in this part of the world is not for the faint of heart but rather for the pas­sion­ate, for it re­quires pas­sion to re­main ded­i­cated. While it can be con­sid­ered very good, the fish­ing is not on the level of a for­eign hot spot where the bills seem to rat­tle them­selves against the boat gun­wales in an­tic­i­pa­tion of be­ing caught. No, here in South Carolina, cap­tains must ap­ply them­selves to the pur­suit of mar­lin and sail­fish, and an­glers have to be sharp enough to con­vert a lim­ited num­ber of bites into re­leases. But it’s that ded­i­ca­tion that makes the days even sweeter when a blue mar­lin or two does wan­der into the spread.

A HIS­TORIC START

The first billfish caught in South Carolina wa­ters was a sail­fish landed on July 3, 1962, by Robert Steph­son, fish­ing on Ge­or­gia May out of Lit­tle River, South Carolina. Two years later, Kather­ine “Cap­pie” Fitzger­ald landed a 230-pound blue mar­lin in 1964, proof that blue­wa­ter species could be en­coun­tered with reg­u­lar­ity in these wa­ters. For the most part, though, as with other parts of the Caroli­nas, char­ter par­ties were more in­ter­ested in tar­get­ing tuna and mahimahi than fish­ing strictly for mar­lin.

But, as the off­shore fish­ery gained mo­men­tum in the 1970s and ’80s, the fo­cus soon turned to a way to show­case the ac­tion as well as raise funds for con­ser­va­tion projects. The South Carolina Gov­er­nor’s Cup Billfishing Se­ries was cre­ated in 1989 by Car­roll A. Camp­bell Jr., who was the state’s gov­er­nor. The

se­ries was in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to sport-fish­ing in­ter­ests within the state, and the ranks of the tour­na­ment se­ries swelled with those not only bent on a big win but those who sim­ply en­joyed the com­pe­ti­tion and ca­ma­raderie that tour­na­ment fish­ing breeds among sports­men and -women.

In 1995, then-gov­er­nor David M. Beasley made the se­ries an of­fi­cial pro­gram of the South Carolina Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources, ef­fec­tively en­sur­ing its longevity. A per­pet­ual tro­phy was es­tab­lished, on which the win­ners’ names are en­graved; the tro­phy re­sides in the state’s Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources. An ad­vi­sory board of di­rec­tors over­sees the op­er­a­tion of the tour­na­ments, which are oper­ated as a non­profit in co­op­er­a­tion with the Harry R. E. Hamp­ton Me­mo­rial Wildlife Fund. Cur­rently, the Gov­er­nor’s Cup Billfishing Se­ries com­prises five high-pro­file billfish tour­na­ments. A point sys­tem

“IN THE EARLY ’80S, CATCH­ING A BILLFISH WAS A HUGE DEAL AND A BIG CELEBRATION ON THE BOAT. TO­DAY, IF YOU DON’T GET A CRACK AT ONE IN A DAY THEN IT’S DIS­AP­POINT­ING.”

en­sures billfish re­leases will nearly al­ways de­ter­mine the win­ners of the an­nual se­ries; landed blue mar­lin must meet a min­i­mum short mea­sure­ment of 105 inches, which is 6 inches above the fed­eral min­i­mum re­quire­ment and demon­strates the strong ded­i­ca­tion to con­ser­va­tion within the se­ries. In 2018, the Gov­er­nor’s Cup Billfishing Se­ries cel­e­brates its 30th an­niver­sary.

FUND­ING CON­SER­VA­TION

The se­ries also helps fund sev­eral im­por­tant con­ser­va­tion projects through­out the state. A por­tion of the team en­try fees from each tour­na­ment goes to the Harry R. E. Hamp­ton Me­mo­rial Wildlife Fund, ear­marked for marine con­ser­va­tion projects, and over $255,500 has been awarded in schol­ar­ships and re­search grants for blue­wa­ter species since 1989.

As re­lease-ori­ented fish­ing be­came the norm, the se­ries shifted from over 90 per­cent billfish mor­tal­ity to well over 90 per­cent re­lease; in 2017, the re­lease rate was 99.1 per­cent. As more of those fish were tagged, a new un­der­stand­ing of the billfish species be­gan to emerge. A South Carolina-tagged blue mar­lin was re­cap­tured off Brazil, a trans-equa­to­rial cross­ing of some 4,320 nau­ti­cal miles.

Se­ries con­ser­va­tion funds also fi­nanced the con­struc­tion and de­ploy­ment of three ar­ti­fi­cial reefs as part of the Charleston Deep Reef/South Carolina Me­mo­rial Reef Project, which was de­ployed in 2014. The reef project serves as a way to re­mem­ber those

who held blue­wa­ter fish­ing dear to their hearts, and fam­i­lies can im­prove off­shore habi­tat while also hon­or­ing their loved ones. The Charleston Deep Reef is a Type II marine pro­tected area, in which bot­tom­fish­ing is pro­hib­ited but sur­face trolling is al­lowed. Dur­ing the 2017 Carolina Billfish Clas­sic in Charleston, most of the billfish re­leased in the tour­na­ment were caught in close prox­im­ity to these struc­tures, which were cov­ered with bait de­spite be­ing cre­ated just a few years prior. The state’s con­ser­va­tion mea­sures were pay­ing div­i­dends al­most im­me­di­ately in terms of improved fish­ing.

LONG RUNS, HOT FISH­ING

Steve Lea­sure is chair­man of the Gov­er­nor’s Cup ad­vi­sory board of di­rec­tors as well as co-owner and cap­tain of the 57-foot Sea Is­land Sum­mer Girl. He’s seen the fish­ing im­prove over the years, thanks in part to chang­ing cus­toms as well as the improved habi­tats. “I started fish­ing off­shore in South Carolina in the early ’80s while I was in high school,” he says. “Back then, catch­ing a billfish was a huge deal and a big celebration on the boat. To­day, if you don’t get a crack at one in a day then it’s dis­ap­point­ing. I’m a firm be­liever in cir­cle-hook fish­ing and re­ally feel that re­lease prac­tices have helped the fish­ing tremen­dously.” In his six years on the ad­vi­sory board, and his first as chair­man this year, he says the big­gest changes have been keep­ing the many lady and youth an­glers in­volved in the tour­na­ment se­ries, as well as the on­go­ing con­ser­va­tion as­pects.

“In fall 2017, we added a third de­ploy­ment of ma­te­ri­als in the Me­mo­rial Reef, which con­sisted of a lo­cal bridge struc­ture,” he re­ports. “All ma­te­ri­als are in wa­ter rang­ing in depth from 290 to 400 feet, placed about 1 mile apart in a 4-by-6-mile area about 52 miles off Charleston. Dur­ing the tour­na­ments, as well as for recre­ational fish­ing, it’s a hot spot, and the re­lease num­bers show how well it’s pay­ing off.”

Gra­ham Eubank’s Sportin’ Life, a 61-foot Gar­ling­ton, is a fa­mil­iar sight off the South Carolina coast; the boat’s skip­per, Capt. Mike Glaes­ner, has plied the state’s wa­ters since the 1960s and says the blue mar­lin fish­ing can be as good as any­where on the East Coast. “While our peak sea­son for blues is from April through Au­gust, you have a good shot at billfish from April all the way un­til Novem­ber,” he says. “In the early days,

I can re­mem­ber see­ing sails and mar­lin free-jump­ing as far as you could see on some oc­ca­sions; as our tech­niques and boats have improved, so has the catch­ing. Our best day was in the Ge­orge­town tour­na­ment in the early ’80s when we caught four out of six blue mar­lin bites, but this has been done at least two other times by other boats.” Glaes­ner has also hooked triple­head­ers of blue mar­lin on three dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sions through­out the years. And it’s get­ting bet­ter: “In the 2017 Bo­hicket tour­na­ment, the blue mar­lin bite was epic,” he says. “Al­most every­one was get­ting mul­ti­ple bites, and some boats were hav­ing four or five shots at blues a day.”

With a gen­tly slop­ing bot­tom and not as much un­der­wa­ter struc­ture as in other des­ti­na­tions, the run

to the fish­ing grounds can be some­what long. The ac­tion starts about 45 to 50 miles off­shore, with the best fish­ing gen­er­ally be­tween 50 and 200 fath­oms, says Glaes­ner. “The Ge­orge­town Hole is an ex­cep­tion though,” he says, “be­cause the wa­ter drops from 30 fath­oms to over 100 fath­oms very quickly there.” He says ideal con­di­tions for him oc­cur when the western edge of the Gulf Stream is about 60 to 65 miles off­shore, with an eddy spin­ning in­shore on a south­west­ern tide. “I’ve found that mar­lin pre­fer to feed on the edge or in­side the Stream,” he says. “Some­times, you can find a dis­tinct edge with a se­vere color and temperature change, which will nor­mally also have lots of sar­gas­sum weed. The best edge I’ve ever fished off our coast had a 7-de­gree temperature change, with dark­blue wa­ter on off­shore side and green on in­side. The edge was in 50 fath­oms, and the fish­ing was in­sane.”

Glaes­ner says the white mar­lin gen­er­ally show up from May through July and the sail­fish can be found from May through De­cem­ber, although big num­bers are usu­ally caught in June and into the fall. “We can have a world-class sail­fish bite, with dou­ble-digit days not too un­com­mon,” he re­ports.

ON THE HUNT FOR MAR­LIN

When he’s run­ning Sum­mer Girl for a day of fish­ing, Lea­sure looks for good wa­ter con­di­tions. “Blue wa­ter or a color change is great, but usu­ally we’ll start with a 45-mile run to the 150- to 180-foot ledge for wa­hoo and black­fin tuna,” he says. “In the spring and sum­mer, we’re run­ning 50-plus miles to 300- to 1,800-foot wa­ter. Billfish usu­ally show up there in April, with the best num­bers in June, July and Au­gust, although one team caught the first sail­fish of the year off our coast on Jan­uary 21, 2018.” He echoes Glaes­ner’s sen­ti­ments on the ex­cel­lent fall fish­ing as well. “My best day was ac­tu­ally De­cem­ber 13, where we caught a su­per slam: two swords plus one blue, two whites and a sail,” he says. “An­other good trip was in Novem­ber, where we re­leased two whites and 15 sail­fish.” As with any other East Coast fish­ery, find pro­duc­tive wa­ter with bait and signs of life and the chances are very good that the mar­lin and sail­fish will be nearby.

Be­cause the fish can be spread out over a wide area, those tar­get­ing blue mar­lin tend to de­ploy a spread of ar­ti­fi­cial lures on heavy tackle in or­der to cover more ground. How­ever, those fish­ing with a stan­dard spread of cir­cle-hook-rigged bal­ly­hoo, dredges and teasers are more likely to en­counter a

va­ri­ety of species, in­clud­ing yel­lowfin and black­fin tuna, mahimahi, wa­hoo, sail­fish and white mar­lin. Day­time deep-drop­ping for sword­fish is also gain­ing in pop­u­lar­ity, giv­ing teams the op­por­tu­nity to chalk up an­other species for a grand slam. For those in­ter­ested in fill­ing the fish box, the ac­tion for wa­hoo can be very good in the win­ter, es­pe­cially on the off­shore ledges and drop-offs.

Aside from the off­shore ac­tion, South Carolina also of­fers some of the finest cui­sine in the world, with Charleston home to ar­guably some of the best din­ing in the South. The city is chock­ablock with plenty of out­stand­ing eater­ies, from five-star to quaint seafood and bar­be­cue shacks — it’s rare to find a bad meal in this town. The Charleston City Ma­rina is also home to one of the long­est docks on the East Coast at over 1,500 feet, hence the name Me­gadock for its home­town tour­na­ment held in July. Each of the mari­nas that host the Gov­er­nor’s Cup tour­na­ments have great fa­cil­i­ties for vis­it­ing teams, and the ca­ma­raderie is sim­ply un­beat­able. Fam­i­lies with lady and youth an­glers are es­pe­cially wel­come — it’s a far cry from the cut­throat, win-at-all-costs big-money tour­na­ments found else­where.

As Sportin’ Life’s Glaes­ner says, “How can you beat a week in South Carolina, stay­ing in a great ma­rina, fish­ing a re­ally fun tour­na­ment, meet­ing ter­rific peo­ple, din­ing in some of the world’s best restau­rants and also catch­ing blue mar­lin?” It is a sen­ti­ment that we agree with, whole­heart­edly.

South Carolina’s billfish ac­tion, es­pe­cially for blue mar­lin and sail­fish, has steadily improved over the years, thanks to improved con­ser­va­tion mea­sures.

Aside from a steady blue mar­lin bite in the sum­mer, South Carolina an­glers en­joy ex­cel­lent ac­tion for sail­fish, es­pe­cially in the fall and early win­ter months.

An­other beau­ti­ful day of tour­na­ment ac­tion comes to a close on the Low­coun­try coast (left). The founder of the South Carolina Gov­er­nor’s Cup Billfishing Se­ries, for­mer gov­er­nor Car­roll A. Camp­bell Jr., en­joy­ing a day of mar­lin fish­ing on his 38-foot...

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.