Author: David Fladd

Artificial Intelligence: “Respect Where It’s Due” Coastal Angler Magazine Charleston September 2021

Ralph used his knowledge of Bowfin from when he was a boy to land this 30+ incher

Its funny how differently species of fish are perceived, based on their abundance or food value or lack thereof. One example is Crevalle Jacks, which, because of their lack of food value and high abundance in Florida, are often considered a nuisance species. But here in Charleston, big Crevalle Jacks have made a reappearance in the last 5 years after mysteriously disappearing from our waters for the prior 10 or 15 years. They have become a sought-after target for recreational anglers and guides alike due to their affinity for an obnoxious presentation of a topwater plug and tackle busting strength after the hookup. No one can deny that if you’re looking for a worthy adversary to catch and release it doesn’t come much better than a Crevalle Jack. Myself, I’m zero for five on landing to hookup ratio on them which make them even more desirable. People want what they can’t get.

In the heat of summer, there is not a lot of action inshore outside of our awesome bull redfish run in Charleston harbor. The creeks are hot. As I write, water temps in the creeks are over 85 degrees, and have very low dissolved oxygen. Catching fish in those conditions is borderline irresponsible if you’re releasing them, as I recently discovered. I was on a surprisingly good redfish bite upriver and had one of my tagged fish found dead the day after release. Knowing the fish were stressed, I put most of them in my aerated live well for a few minutes to recover before release, and still had this happen. It’s impossible to know which fish didn’t make it, but it’s a reminder that catch and release is not always perfect even under the best circumstances, but especially when the water is hot.

So, what’s an angler with cabin fever to do? How about thinking outside the box and targeting another species that doesn’t get much respect and has a reputation for ruining tackle and tangling nets?

Bowfin can gulp air to breathe and have been on earth over 30 million years

I’ve been following the Lowcountry Kayak Anglers club for several years, and they recently had an event known as the Jurassic Classic. In this tournament, the target is Bowfin, a.k.a. Mudfish, a species that most anglers shun as a nuisance. The winner of this year’s Classic won with a 32” giant. Most anglers caught double digits of fish, and in general raved about how fun it was.

I contacted Chris Tweedy, President of the club to learn more about the event. He told me the club started targeting Bowfin while fishing an event called the Kayak Wars, a catch-photo-release online tournament that included Bowfin as one of several targeted species. This motivated participants to seek them out. Anglers quickly discovered how much fun it was to catch them which led Chris to start an invite-only catch and release tournament in 2018. It was a huge success, so it became a club event the following year. The event is now held annually in the first weekend of August and this year’s event attracted over 40 participants.

Bowfin is a species whose ancestors have been on earth for over 30 million years. One of the attributes they have evolved to allow them to survive is the ability to breathe air. While most fish are at a disadvantage with low oxygen levels in the water, the Bowfin simply rises up and gulps air to survive. While bowfin can be found almost anywhere in the low country, a great place to target them is somewhat nearby at a couple Oxbow lakes near the Santee River in Jamestown. These lakes were once bends in the Santee that were eventually closed off when the river naturally changes its course over time. Two of these lakes, Wee Tee and Dawhoo, are publicly accessible. The lakes have very different characteristics, with Wee Tee being shallower but having a wider variety of species, and Dawhoo being deeper with better visibility water.

After seeing the results of this year’s Classic and hearing about how much fun it was, Ralph and I decided to bring his Jon-boat out there to give it a try. We didn’t really know what to expect or how best to target them with artificial lures. Would they want a fast and aggressive presentation, or slow and subtle? What part of the water column would they prefer? Would the strike be subtle or strong?

To us, trying to figure out a new body of water and species is about as much fun as we can have. At the end of the day, the boat was littered with Z-Man Elaztech lure bodies as we switched out profiles and colors on Texas Eye jigs to see what was most effective.  The first thing you notice upon launching the boat are big splashes caused by Bowfin gulping air and returning to the bottom. The fish are large and literally everywhere. They are not necessarily relating to structure. Some of the splashes were clearly by very large fish and honestly its very distracting! It’s important to realize that these are not feeding fish, so it’s not productive to toss a topwater plug at the splashes and expect results, for example. However, the surface activity surely reveals their presence.

Hard fighting, a challenge to catch on artificial lures, and big. What’s not to love?

We did find a few patterns and profiles to be particularly effective and I will leave that to the reader’s imagination and personal experience. We did have results on many presentations and lures, but on this day the bite was very, very subtle. Ralph remembered catching Bowfin when he was a child on the Pee Dee River and successfully applied that knowledge toward a couple 30” plus giants.

The funny thing about these fish is that you can use standard trout rods to catch them, but like a “green” cobia, the real fight begins as soon as you touch it with a net, lip gripper (or gaff, in the case of cobia). Many fish are lost at this point, and a big net is a good idea. Many times we had to cut the lure off the line in order to untangle it from the webbing if that gives you an idea of how they fight.

Chris is on a mission to promote these fish, not kill them indiscriminately and hopefully try and grow out a whole new midsummer fishing experience. If you’re interested in getting a shortcut to learning these fish and how to catch them, Chris offers guided fishing trips for them. Look him up at Topwater Kayak Charters (carolinatopwater.com) and consider participating in next year’s Jurassic Classic.

If I told you that you could catch double digits of 7 plus pound fish that put up a great fight, will hit artificial lures, and are a challenge to hook and land, would you consider it a nuisance? I didn’t think so. If you decide to give them a try, please handle them with care and release them so this fishery remains special for future generations.

David Fladd
Partner, Eye Strike Fishing
dfladd@eyestrikefishing.com
eyestrikefishing.com

Artificial Intelligence: “Striped Marauders” Coastal Angler Magazine Charleston, August 2021

A healthy Saluda river striper caught on Fly with Capt Justin McGrady

A few years ago, I was casting a bank in October and as far as I know I was the only boat in the creek. The solitude was broken by a sudden strike about 50 yards away and by the time I swiveled my head to investigate all I could see was a large disturbance and a couple bait fish landing back in the water. I didn’t have a topwater plug at the ready, but I had one in my tackle box and of course I tied it on. Easing over with the trolling motor I made a cast, but the huge strike I was expecting didn’t happen. However, another blowup erupted (this time within casting range) and I quickly landed my plug nearby and the take was almost instant. After a few drag screaming runs, a 24” striper came to the net. By experiment, I learned that if you could land the plug within 20 feet within 10 seconds of a strike it was almost a guaranteed fish. That day, I landed 9 topwater striper and unfortunately no one to share the experience with. You know I love speckled trout, but you can’t beat a striper topwater strike.

Since then, I’ve never been able to match those numbers, but I always have a rod rigged with a topwater plug within arm’s reach if I’m in that general area in the Fall. I’ve learned over the years that striper are hard to pattern. They are marauders, chasing the last remains of bait out of the estuaries and hunting as a wolf-pack, balling them up and blasting them. You may get frustrated trying to find them, but if and when they show themselves you won’t have time to tie on a plug until they are gone, and you won’t make that mistake again – ask me how I know!

Ralph with a Saluda striper on Texas Eye jig and Scented Jerkshadz

Truth be told, I’ve never fished for them in our lakes, so I am relating what I’ve learned as a saltwater angler who has become somewhat infatuated with these striped fish. I’ve tried to learn what I can about their behavior in the coastal rivers. To try to learn more, I received permission to start tagging striper caught in the coastal rivers. I’ve yet to have one of my tags recaptured but a friend of mine has. It was a 27” fish tagged in Goose Creek and recaptured at the confluence of the Congaree and Wateree rivers – over 90 miles away. Its well known that striper travel way upriver to spawn, but of course there are always exceptions in nature. For example, I’ve caught a male in brackish water in March that was shaped like a football, absolutely full of sperm, which seems to be out of character.

To find out more about what fishing for riverine striper is like above lakes Moultrie and Marion, my business partner Ralph and I chartered Capt. Justin McGrady of The SC River Guide (thescriverguide.com). Justin guides in the vicinity of downtown Columbia in the Broad, Saluda and Congaree River systems. These rivers have vastly different characteristics and are very rocky with high flow and rapidly changing water heights. Accessibility to the fish is difficult and you need to have the proper equipment to be successful. Justin runs an aluminum, shallow-draft boat with a jet-drive motor that allows him to navigate the rivers. He says one of the best parts of guiding new clients is watching their faces as he approaches the rapids and puts the hammer down. From experience, I can tell you it’s a wild ride. Justin literally knows every rock in the river and has navigable pathways that he keeps tight to his vest.
As for the fishing, it’s incredible. On our recent trip with Justin, we caught approximately 30 striper in a few hours, averaging around 25 inches, all on artificial lures. We caught them on Eye Strike TexasEye jigs with Z-Man Scented JerkshadZ, topwater plugs, suspending lures, and even on the fly. The abundance and quality of the fish in these rivers is amazing and not to be taken for granted. Justin is an outspoken advocate for the fishery and his charter business is strictly catch and release only. He believes that many of the fish in his area are resident.

One of my best Striper caught and released in the brackish water of the Cooper river

Ralph tells stories of the coastal brackish water riverine striper abundance in the 1970’s that are incredible in the context of today’s fishery. It would be amazing if the striper can rebound in the coastal rivers as they are such an incredible gamefish. If we had a striper fishery below the lakes anywhere close to what exists above the lakes it would open up a whole new aspect of our inshore fishery in Charleston.

The Ashley river holds striper too. This is my best.

It is my sincere hope that the present abundance of striper above and below the lakes is sustained and hopefully improved in the future. I can’t tell you what the regulations are, because, to me, they are irrelevant. When I catch a striper, it’s automatically getting released. In my humble opinion, they are way more valuable to catch than on the dinner plate, I don’t care how good they taste. As they say, a fish (striper) is too valuable to be caught only once!

David Fladd
Partner, Eye Strike Fishing
dfladd@eyestrikefishing.com
eyestrikefishing.com

Artificial Intelligence: “Fishing From Tupperware” Coastal Angler Magazine Charleston July 2021

The stealth provided by a kayak increases your odds of landing a mature trout like this one

Years ago I owned property on a tidal creek at Edisto. My boys were little then, and I would put my youngest son Ian on the back of our sit-on-top kayak facing backwards while I slowly paddled down the creek trolling two rods rigged with jigheads and paddletail grubs. Ian would watch the rod tip intently, and when it started to bounce, he would reel the trout in. We had many memorable and fun sessions fishing our creek this way. In the Fall, this creek was very productive and catching a few for a delicious “creek to table” lunch or dinner was almost guaranteed. In fact, my son named a portion of the creek Snaggletooth Stretch after the two prominent teeth on a speckled trout.

Although the property is long gone and the boys are now adults, I was reminded of those days after I recently purchased a lightly used Hobie Compass kayak. On my maiden voyage as I left the landing it made me notice again how different kayak fishing is from boat fishing.  There are many benefits to kayak fishing. A relatively high-end fishing kayak will run you between $2,000 and $3,000 depending on how you outfit it. All things considered, it’s a lot less expensive than buying a boat which can easily run you 10 to 20 times that much. The larger the boat, the more complicated and expensive everything is (from personal experience). It sure is nice to throw a kayak on the bed of the truck, a few rods, and the basics and off you go. No fuel, maintenance, or much of anything to worry about.

Kayak fishing has been among the fastest growing segments of the market and the technology and innovation is better than ever. Pedal drives are not new but are better and more efficient. They eliminate paddling and allow both hands free for casting. The latest fishing kayaks are super comfortable, efficient, and stable.  You might think that you will be at a disadvantage since you can’t cover as much range as you can with a boat, and to an extent you will be correct. My response to this is a story. Once I was in my bay boat fishing a stretch of the Wando River where I have several spots I like to try at different stages of the tide. I noticed my friend and tournament kayak angler Dave Jaskiewicz fishing across the river. After what seemed like a short time I looked up and he was nowhere in sight. Eventually, I identified a small dot about a mile downriver as Dave and I remember being blown away with how incredibly efficient pedal drive kayaks are.

One of the better fish caught trolling from a kayak at “Snaggletooth Stretch”

There are a few competitors in the pedal drive arena. Some are basically like bicycle pedals that turn a propellor. The most unique is the Hobie Mirage drive which is nothing short of an engineering marvel. Instead of a propellor it utilizes fins kind of like a seal or penguin. It’s hard to describe but it’s amazing how fast it is.

After observing entries in our Release Over 20 Initiative for the past year, I have noticed that most trophy trout are caught by two categories of anglers: kayakers and waders. Both angling methods are essentially silent but for line coming off a reel and the splash of a lure hitting the water. You see, a mature sow trout is not going to be outwitted easily.  If you have spent much time flats fishing, you will know that you stand a much better chance of landing a trophy if the fish doesn’t know you’re there. Depending on how calm and quiet it is, it does not take much to accidentally reveal your presence to a fish. For example, simply shutting a hatch is enough to alert a fish.

Contrast this with a scenario that may seem familiar: An angler approaches a spot on-plane in a bay boat. He backs off the throttle a hundred yards from the desired spot and shuts down the motor. The motor is heard underwater from a long distance, and the boat coming off plane throws a large wave that no doubt washes the shore of the desired spot. Next, a trolling motor is lowered with a clank, and its relatively silent but spinning prop is enabled to move the boat closer to casting range. Add in conversation, shutting hatches, etc., and it is no wonder that less big trout are caught by motorboaters. I think about this a lot as I am doing the exact same thing myself in my boat. To minimize the noise and disturbance, I try to come off plane well before my intended spot and approach it slowly under trolling motor power or drifting. But it is still not anything close to as stealthy as a kayak.

Kayaking is simple, fun and effective

You may have noticed that if you get back in the creeks or marsh and simply sit quietly and wait, that things will start to happen. A redfish tail might pop up in the flooded grass, a speckled trout may strike the surface throwing a shrimp in the air, or an osprey may dive down and pluck a flounder from the shallows. I have even seen an otter emerge from the water dragging a redfish up the bank for a meal. You notice a lot more of these things when kayak fishing than you do in a boat. To me, that is the best part. It’s as if you are one with nature.

I’m looking forward to getting back into kayak fishing and am planning to join the Lowcountry Kayak Anglers – one of our areas most successful and vibrant fishing clubs and maybe get in on some of their many angler meetups and tournaments.

Maybe this Fall I’ll even try to revisit Snaggletooth Stretch to see if its still as good as it used to be. And, no, I won’t tell you where it is!

David Fladd
Partner, Eye Strike Fishing
dfladd@eyestrikefishing.com
eyestrikefishing.com

Artificial Intelligence: “The Angel and the Devil” – Coastal Angler Magazine Charleston June 2021

A couple years ago I was fishing with Ray and Josh, two friends from my neighborhood. It was an overcast morning and as they say the fishing was great, but the catching was fair. We had a late morning high tide and as we approached slack the bites faded away as they often do when the water stops moving. I decided to try working down a long bank that I usually fly by on plane going from one high producing (and likely overfished) spot to another. If I’m honest, I was just trying to burn time waiting for the flow to pick up again.

We fan-casted down the shoreline aiming at any details likely to hold a fish and picked off a few not worth bragging about. I was casting my favorite confidence lure, a Pearl Z-Man MinnowZ rigged on a gold-eyed TroutEye jig when I suddenly got a hard thump. I was sure this was a nice mid-slot redfish the way it hit and pulled drag on this submerged flat where reds like to cruise along the grassline. When it rose and shook its head violently, I let out a few choice words and prayed for the hook to stay put while Ray grabbed the net. After a few tense moments Ray expertly netted the giant trout and there were shouts of joy and high-fives all around.
And then it occurred to me…What am I gonna do?

This fish was kept in a weigh-in tournament. CPR formats solve this problem.

You see, this day happened to be a Summerville Saltwater Anglers fishing club tournament. On one hand I really want to release this fish, and on the other hand this 25” speckled trout is a sure win and even better it would be good for bragging rights at the weigh in. Releasing it at weigh in was not possible since my 13 ft classic Boston Whaler is too small for a live well. Should I do the right thing, or pump up my ego? Can you picture the little angel and devil over my shoulders? Today I’m not proud to say the devil won. I killed that fish to take the “W” in the tournament.

This dilemma really affected me and motivated me to become Tournament Director for the club at the next opportunity. My first priority was to change the tournament rules to a CPR (Catch, Photo, Release) format following the lead of kayak anglers. You see, there’s no reason to be faced with this dilemma in the present day.

Here are a few ways to have a tournament and practice conservation, a win-win!

Low Tech CPR – Everyone has a mobile phone with camera these days. The Tournament Director announces a unique identifier to tournament participants the night before the event. This could be a physical token, a keyword to be written on something or even a unique hand gesture. A fish is measured on a ruler, ideally a metal ruler with a bump-stop on the end. The decal rulers issued by SCDNR are a poor choice because they tend to shrink up to a quarter-inch in the sun. A photo is taken of the fish with closed mouth and pinched tail and the token clearly visible. It takes a little practice but it is not too difficult to master. This pic can be emailed to the Tournament Director who tallies the results after the tournament is over.

High Tech CPR – In the last few years several competing online web based services have emerged, making running CPR tournaments easier than ever. The generally idea is the same but puts everything in the cloud. Two of the leading services are TourneyX and iAngler. These services handle registration and payment and even allow you to view your ranking up to the minute. You can thank the kayak angling community for bringing these services to the mainstream as several high-profile tournaments are run using them. They work, and work well.

Live Weigh-In – Bass fisherman are way ahead of saltwater fishermen when it comes to conservation. They have been doing live weigh in tournaments for years, but the Redfish tours such as the Southern Redfish Cup also do live weigh ins. Significant penalties are issued for dead fish and anglers spend a lot of effort making sure their fish remain alive and frisky in their live wells. Adding air bubblers to your wells goes a long way to ensuring your fish survive as well as not overcrowding them.

Entering a fish to a CPR tournament is easy

Many people would counter that you can’t do a live release tournament for speckled trout because they are not as hearty as a redfish. My friend Dan Connolly from Murrells Inlet would beg to differ. He runs a successful and growing live release speckled trout tournament called the Speckled Studs every December. I proudly participated in this tournament last year and was impressed with how Dan runs it. Fish are brought live to the scale which is located directly adjacent to the docks. Anglers are encouraged to weigh fish throughout the day rather than keeping them in the live well unnecessarily long. A team can upgrade their fish throughout the day with the best two counting. The fish is very quickly measured and weighed (horizontally, not by hanging from the lip) and returned to the water in under a minute.

The days of fish kill tournaments are over, that ship has sailed. If you are thinking of participating in or planning a fishing tournament, I ask that you keep conservation in mind and protect our resource by releasing these trophies back to the water. That way you can do the right thing, pump your ego and have your bragging rights!

David Fladd
Partner, Eye Strike Fishing
dfladd@eyestrikefishing.com
eyestrikefishing.com

Artificial Intelligence “Lightning Strikes Twice” – Coastal Angler Magazine Charleston May 2021

About five years ago I was fishing with my business partner Ralph and Joey P. from Z-Man Fishing in the springtime in Charleston and by all accounts we were having an average day of catching. The catch could not have been too memorable because I can’t recall many details, however, that was all to change suddenly. We were making a second pass down a stretch where we had some marginal luck when the wind suddenly shifted around to the South and picked up to about 15 miles per hour. Just like a switch flipped, we all started bailing trout, big trout.

Joey P taking a pic of Ralph holding a giant “wolfpack” trout

We were in the same spot using the same lures as we were before, and the feast lasted for about 30 minutes before it shut off completely. When it was all said and done, I think we caught six or seven trout over 20” and at least one threw the hook.  In the days, weeks, and years to follow I have been in pursuit of repeating that day, and also, trying to understand just what the hell happened?

These fish must have been in the area on the first pass, or at least close by, and had ignored our offerings. What exactly caused the voracious feeding frenzy? Clearly it had something to do with the weather. The wind shift to the south surely indicated a front passing and likely a drop in barometric pressure. We have all heard that trout bite well right before a front, but this was something different, a whole different level of feeding.

In many parts of the country, its proven that big fish bite best on solunar periods, when the sun and moon and combinations thereof combine, such as overhead, below or at the horizon. I think this is mostly true in those areas with slight tidal flow. In Charleston, our tides are dominated by the moon overhead and under our feet and coincide with our large high and low tides. New and full moons create our biggest tides and that usually negates the benefits of solunar for us, in my opinion, due to the large amount of moving water it creates.

My friend Chris Bush of “The Speckled Truth” calls groups of big feeding trout wolf-packs. I love that term because how else would you describe what happens when the proverbial switch flips? I feel like there may be many things that can fire off a frenzy, and I don’t know how often it happens. Daily? A few times a week? Once or twice a month? It seems that when these frenzies happen its often about 30 minutes long, give or take, in my own experience and in informal polls of fellow trout junkies. If you think analytically about it, if you aren’t in the right place, at the right time, with the right tackle and skills – you’ll miss it. That’s a lot to come together at the same time, and probably why I’ve only experienced something like it one other time since. The more I think I know about big trout, the less I understand, it seems. But the pursuit of understanding their behavior is a life-long endeavor.

Fast-forward to this Spring. I have been super busy since the beginning of the year and fishing is taking a back seat. I’m trying to fit in half-days when the work schedule allows. To give you an idea, I was on the water just twice in February, well under my usual pace. It was late March and a day of significance: My first COVID-19 vaccine dose. I traveled 30 minutes each way to my appointment and since any semblance of work productivity was lost I figured I might as well hook the boat up and hit the water. I quickly tied on a couple lures that select for big trout; a Rapala Skitter V – as I was hoping for my first topwater trout of the year, and a Mirrolure/Paul Brown Soft-Dine which is a suspending lure I’m trying to gain confidence with. The Paul Brown is a lure I’ve gravitated to since it sinks a little faster than a standard Mirrodine with an enticing wobble and of course I love that it has a giant eye on it.

As I launched my bay boat, I took note of the conditions. The tide was incoming and very slow moving, almost like molasses. When life hands you molasses, you look for syrup, in other words, faster moving water. This will be where the river or creek necks down or turns a corner. Bouncing around to different spots that meet this criterion, I was able to catch several small, grunting, trout and a really nice redfish. Grunting trout, of course, are males, and when the males are feeding often the females are not. The afternoon wore on and casting a Texas Eye to a grassy point a solid thump led to my second “Release Over 20” trout of the year. If nothing else, that was a day maker.

My PB Trout suddenly transformed into this 26″ redfish during the fight

As the sun started to get lower in the sky, I approached a bank where I have caught some nice trout in past years. A long cast to the grass line resulted in a solid strike and the fish turned and sliced off to the side. Glimpsing silver I immediately thought to myself this is a giant trout. I wish I could hear a recording of the narrative as I talked myself through this fight. “PLEASE don’t throw the hook…EASY…Don’t go that way!” You see, most gator trout caught are first mistaken for a redfish, and knowing trout have soft mouths you really need to baby the fish to land it unless you are lucky enough to hook it in some cartilage. Waiting anxiously to catch a glimpse of this beauty it finally came up and…somehow my trophy became a 26” redfish. A great catch no doubt, but very disappointing when you’re expecting the trout of your life.

After I took a few moments to tag and release the fish and gather myself, I noticed the sun had set and it was getting dark. I moved down the bank a bit and grabbed my rod with the topwater plug and launched a long cast. Working the plug slowly and erratically to act like a wounded baitfish I wondered if something would happen. About halfway back to the boat a trout launched itself and the plug like a kingfish a couple feet out of the water, missing the hooks. It did not come back for seconds, so while trying to ignore the 30 or so gnats having their own feast on my exposed skin, I cast the plug back to follow the same path. In about the same spot, this time the plug got slurped, not slammed. That is a telltale sign of a big one. After a tense few moments fighting the current and drag a 21” trout was hoisted to the boat. One strike is random, but two is a pattern, and I knew the big trout were feeding.

The next half hour was a blur as I landed five trout over 20” consecutively on topwater. The largest was 23.5”. The best part, however, was when the topwater bite slowed a bit, I decided to throw the Soft-Dine since I knew the fish were there and feeding. I made a long cast, silently counted to 5 to let it sink, and pumped the “corky” once, followed by long pause, then pumped it again. The plug suddenly stopped and I set the hook and felt the weight of yet another grown trout. Not being able to see very well I could only guess at the size. Sliding the fish into the net I was looking at another 23 incher. Catching this fish on the Paul Brown plug was so satisfying and definitely helped me gain confidence in it.

One of 6 over 20″, including two over 23″. Hood is for gnat protection!

My next fish was only 18”, and since the streak was broken and it was getting late, I decided to leave them biting and head back to the landing with satisfaction that I had just experienced another of these wolf-pack bites where I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. How cool is it to be shaking with excitement after a day on the water?

Based on feedback from friends and entries to the Release Over 20 program we seem to have a fair amount of 23” trout this year. These fish are 6 to 7 years old and survived our last cold snap in 2018. Let’s handle these big females with care (please, no fingers in the gills) and let them go to become even bigger fish to catch in the future.

David Fladd
Partner, Eye Strike Fishing
dfladd@eyestrikefishing.com
eyestrikefishing.com

Artificial Intelligence “The Jetties Are Like a Box of Chocolates” – Coastal Angler Magazine Charleston April 2021

Ty Kotz with one of several nice redfish caught on the rocks

The Charleston jetties, built in the late 1800’s, are a set of immense stone walls running parallel to the harbor inlet. They funnel the tides and provide safe passage for the many commercial ships vital to the state’s economy. They also provide incredible structure, and therefore, great fishing. In the warmer months, the jetties are a popular place to fish, and often boats are anchored all along the length of the rocks. The most popular way to fish there is to cast out heavy “Carolina Rigs” consisting of a 3 to 6 oz weight followed by a couple feet of leader and a circle hook. Although this is a simple and productive way to fish them, I’d like to focus on another way to fish the jetties – with artificial lures.

Before you plan a trip out there, make sure you know what you’re getting into. To get to the jetties you need to cross some rough waters that are always choppy and usually include swell. You need a seaworthy boat of at least 18 ft, in my opinion. There is a lot of water flow there. Three rivers, plus the harbor, at a depth of 5 to 6 ft, must flow in and out of the jetties every 6 hours. That is a lot of water. Ocean liners and the pilot boats that service them are at work and are not paying attention to you in your fishing boat. When an ocean liner passes an immense amount of water sucks out of the rocks and like a tsunami, returns with equal force. Large wakes several feet high are common. You really need to think about your safety and keep your head on a swivel. I have personally had some scary near-misses out there that still haunt my dreams on occasion. If you’re thinking I’m trying to scare you, then, mission accomplished. Please respect the jetties at all times.

Speckled trout are among many possibilities to catch

So, let’s talk about fishing the jetties. What can we expect to catch? Because the jetties extend a couple miles into the ocean, you literally never know what you might catch out there. Red Drum, Spotted Seatrout, Flounder, Sheepshead, Spanish Mackerel, Crevalle Jacks, King Mackerel, and even Tarpon are some of the many possibilities. Your most probable catch will be Red Drum a.k.a redfish. Thanks to our state having an upper slot for redfish, we have an incredible population of “bulls”. Some of these can measure up to 50” and they frequent the jetties.

Fishing the jetties with artificial lures is a blast. You are going to need a trolling motor with spot-lock technology. The basic idea is you keep a casting distance away from the rocks and cast toward the visible rocks. Slowly hop the lure down the slope of the rocks. As always, its imperative that you keep in contact with your lure so you can feel the sometimes-subtle bite. Work the gaps in the rocks and different depths, then move along until you have a new section to cast to. This method can be difficult on a summer weekend because the bait soakers are blocking access. For that reason, I’d advise you to avoid trying it during those times. Although it is always fun when your rod doubles over when soaking bait, I promise you its way more fun to feel the fish thump your lure while you’re working it down the slope. And, like I mentioned before, you just never know what you’re gonna get.

I’d like to recap a recent outing that is pretty typical of what you can expect. This winter I asked my friend Ty Kotz if he’d like to join me for a trip to fish the jetties with lures. I’m still trying to learn the jetties and Ty is the perfect companion for scouting around because he’s just happy to be out fishing. Plus, we’ve only fished together a couple times and I consider him a good luck charm because we have always had epic days together. I warned him before the trip that I had no idea if we’d be successful, and he was okay with that. So, we worked long stretches of the rocks just to see what would happen. We started out working slowly throwing Texas Eye jigs with Z-Man Scented JerkshadZ. We didn’t have a single bite for 100 yards or so, then Ty picked up a couple decent trout. Moving a little further, we picked up a slot redfish. I have found that the fish seem to be concentrated in 100 ft or so lengths depending on the current and tide. That day, though, the fish seemed to be pretty random. It seemed like we would pick one up every so often – just enough to keep it interesting.

Any cast could result in something like this

After the tide changed, we tried the other jetty and eventually stumbled on a pretty good redfish bite. We found a particular rock that held several nice fish and we even had a double at one point. Steadily running the trolling motor and casting at random places, I suddenly got a big thump. I set the hook and I could immediately tell from the low-frequency headshakes that this was a giant. First thing I said was “Uh-Oh!” I don’t think the beast knew it was hooked because it just set there for a minute. I high-sticked my rod and said “Ty, look, I’m not hung up…watch…” As we watched my rod tip it eventually made a long bob and we both started laughing. Did I mention this was on a trout rod with 10 lb braid?

I worked the trolling motor out to deep water and eventually she showed herself. After an excellent job by Ty with the lip grippers we carefully hoisted her into the boat. She measured out at 40 inches and after applying a SCDNR dart tag, I revived and released her back to be caught again.

This is exactly the kind of thing that makes fishing the jetties so fun. You never know what you might get, but even if you don’t hook a giant redfish, you almost always have action and often at least one of your catches will be a surprise.
Give it a try, but remember to pick your days, wear a PFD, keep your head on a swivel and bring a good luck charm like Ty. Please consider letting the big fish go, even if its legal to keep them, and always support bull reds by the belly, not by the lip!

David Fladd
Partner, Eye Strike Fishing
dfladd@eyestrikefishing.com
eyestrikefishing.com

Artificial Intelligence “Challenges of Changing Mindsets” – Coastal Angler Magazine Charleston – March 2021

Last Spring, I wrote about starting a new initiative called Release Over 20 with support of CCA North Carolina. In short, the premise is to create your own personal catch and creel limits stricter than the law allows. The name Release Over 20 suggests creating an upper slot when one may not exist. The 20” mark is a memorable and reasonable size to consider as an upper-slot for most inshore species, however, the premise applies to any species of fish and creel limits.

How it works is, if you catch and release a speckled trout over 20”, and send in a picture to releaseover20.com, we will send you free decals and each fish submitted gets an entry into a monthly giveaway consisting of hundreds of dollars of products from a long list of sponsors such as Eye Strike, Z-Man, Toadfish, Bubba, Mirrolure, and others.  We are rewarding anglers for conservation.

Initially, I had no idea if this would resonate with anglers. However, after discussing it on podcasts in North Carolina, Florida, and Texas it has become recognized and embraced nationwide. Response has been beyond my greatest expectations. The initiative kicked off in May 2020 and we had 1,439 speckled trout caught and released through the end of the year. A 20” trout is approximately 4 years old and releases approximately 20 million eggs a year. The number of eggs spawned annually from these documented releases that otherwise may have been in an ice chest is staggering: 28.78 billion.

You might be surprised to hear that Virginia had, by far, the most trout released in 2020. This was followed by Florida, Texas and North Carolina. Conservation mentality varies greatly by state. For example, we have very few entries from the upper gulf coast states including Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

We are not the only privately run conservation initiative trying to change mindsets. Our friends at The Speckled Truth have a mantra “Take what you need and release the rest”. They have been around a few years longer and founder Chris Bush advised me that initially I would get a lot of pushback. It seems to be the natural reaction when suggesting a change in mindset. It might be that people simply resist change in general. But they noticed that in a few years, more and more people started hopping on the bandwagon.

Thanks in large part to The Speckled Truth, targeting “gator” trout has become increasingly popular. They are an amazing game fish, and to catch a true giant is the thrill of an inshore angler’s career. So, part of the goal of the initiative is also to improve the numbers of trophy fish in our waters.

Although it is true that trout populations in Charleston are influenced a lot by cold stun weather events, releasing more fish helps recovery in a few ways. For example, large trout are old and have likely survived at least one cold stun event in their lifetime. Why? It could be genetics. Speckled trout in Virginia, for example, can survive water at least 5 degrees colder than ours. Maybe the trout that survive can withstand colder water. Why not keep those survivor genes propagating? The healthier the population is at the beginning of a cold stun event, the faster it will recover.

After listening to a couple presentations by SCDNR on the decline of our flounder populations, I decided to add flounder to Release Over 20 for 2021. Flounder are a shared resource along the east coast, meaning that fish migrate along the coast over time. There has been a 10-year decline in the fishery and drastic action is required to help them recover. Most anglers do not realize that every flounder of legal size is female. In my observation, very few flounder caught of legal size are released due to their food value. And the number of flounder taken by gig is not known. Many feel that gigging is a primary culprit.

Reaction to suggestions to release flounder have been quite different than trout. Most anglers are dead set against releasing flounder. I hear a lot of opinions on what the problem is, and also finger-pointing. It’s always the other guy that’s the problem, etc. My reaction is simply to post facts based on scientific research. People have challenged my posts, but when I show them the table or chart where I pulled the information from, they back down and often stand corrected. I think that, again, its going to take people time to understand and accept that change needs to happen. My opinion is that instead of blaming the other guy, let’s affect a change in ways under our control.

As Matt Perkinson from SCDNR told me “On the flounder side, it’s an open and shut case. They are overfished (population of adults is currently smaller than needed to produce a healthy number of offspring) and overfishing is occurring (more fish are being harvested than the population can replace).”

SCDNR has recommended to our legislature pretty drastic changes: a limit of 2 per person and a closed season. Based on initial feedback to Release Over 20 for flounder, I believe the law will have to change to make a difference. Volunteer release is not going to be enough. Even if our government keeps all of SCDNR’s recommendations, they do not include an upper slot. The reasons for releasing big flounder mirror the reasons for releasing speckled trout.

So, we can all do our personal part to improve the fishery even faster by releasing the big ones. And in the meantime, maybe you will be one of our happy giveaway winners. Plus, who doesn’t want to catch (and release) more “doormat” flounder and “gator” trout?
Please give the initiative a follow on Instagram @releaseover20 and Facebook at facebook.com/groups/releaseover20

David Fladd
Partner, Eye Strike Fishing
dfladd@eyestrikefishing.com
eyestrikefishing.com

SC Needs New Regulations to Protect Flounder Population

The following is an Op Ed I submitted to the Charleston, SC Post and Courier and published on March 10, 2021.  As founder of the Release Over 20″ Initiative, it will probably come as no surprise that it is in favor of an upper slot for flounder.  In general, I’m against more regulations, however, from feedback I’ve received toward adding flounder to RO20, I believe that a law is required to make a significant enough change for managing flounder stocks in a timely manner.  Would appreciate any comments pro or con (& constructive)


Last Fall, the SC Dept. of Natural Resources held a series of presentations outlining a steady decline in our population of flounder in South Carolina. This data resulted from statistical sampling of fish from electrofishing and trammel net surveys along our coast. There is no question there is a serious problem.

Should we be surprised? Not at all.

Male flounder are small, they reach a maximum of about 13.5” in length during their lifetime. Therefore, all flounder of “keeper” size, currently 15”, are female. We are removing the breeding females from the population. We must protect the females.

Angling pressure on all species of fish is increasing exponentially. Population along our coast is exploding. The increase in traffic on our roads is mirrored on our waterways. New anglers can tune in to Instagram, YouTube and a multitude of podcasts to learn how, where, and when to target fish with maximum efficiency. This knowledge available at our fingertips used to take a lifetime to learn. In addition, new fish-finding technology allows us to literally run down a creek and locate fish. The newest technology allows us to watch individual fish swim around. These all act as multipliers to pressure on our fishery.

It’s obvious to me that the simplest solution to maintaining a sustainable fishery is to implement slot limits for all gamefish. In most if not all species of fish, the females are the large “trophy” fish. Once they reach a certain size, let them live the rest of their lives as brood stock. Benefits include plenty of fish to catch thanks to healthy spawns, and a large population of trophy fish to catch (and released to be caught again).

Upper slots work. We need to look no further than red drum. We have a slot limit of 15-23” and an abundance of “bull reds” to catch. South Carolina has one of the best redfish fisheries in the country as a result. When the notion of an upper slot was introduced for redfish, there was outrage. However, the notion of putting the big ones back is now second nature.
With encouragement and support of CCA North Carolina, I founded the Release Over 20” Initiative last June. The purpose of this initiative is to encourage anglers nationwide to make their own personal limits more restrictive than the law allows and reward them for doing so. My goal is for anglers to measure their success not by how many large fish they caught and kept, but how many they caught and released. We’re trying to make catch and release “cool”. Since its founding 8 months ago, the initiative has grown by about 20% each month and has support from Texas to Maryland. Clearly, there is widespread, and growing, support for upper slots among anglers. Our ultimate goal is to change angler mindsets to understand the importance of releasing big fish so that it becomes automatic. A fish is too valuable to be caught only once.

Our state legislature is currently debating new flounder regulations. For the reasons stated above, its important that we make changes that will ensure the females of the species are protected. Currently, populations of flounder are low. The current creel limit for flounder is 10 per person per day. In my experience and in informal polls of professional guides, the average flounder caught per person per day is two or less. For a hook and line angler to catch and keep a limit of flounder is unheard of. Therefore, reducing the creel limit by 50% for example, to 5 per person, will not equate to a 50% reduction in fish retained. It will have almost no effect.
It makes far more sense to keep things simple by adding an upper slot for flounder. A suggested upper limit is 20”. A 20” flounder is 4.5 years old and has several more productive years ahead in which to spawn. After a short period of time, populations will increase and once we’ve gotten past the initial pushback, letting the big ones go will be the norm and hopefully our grandkids will have more fish to catch than we do.

The time for a slot limit for flounder is now.

 

“Why I use Eye Strike heads”, by Bradford Beavers – Professional Bass Angler

Before Professional fishing I was a fish biologist. While this did not teach me how to catch fish, it did show me their habits and tendencies. All fish are not the same but, there are certain things that can make them very similar; specifically how they feed.

Predator fish strike the head of prey fish. The focal point for the predator fish is the eye of the prey fish. The eye gives the predator something to hone in on; it’s like a bulls eye on a target.

Reasons fish target the eye of their prey:
1. Fish swim forward, not backwards. Striking at the eye insures the fish will not completely miss its target. If they aimed at the center of the fish or the tail, they could easily miss their mark. Similar to a bird hunter leading a bird with a shotgun.
2. Easier to swallow. When a fish gets a hold of their prey it is facing the correct direction. Predator fish swallow other fish headfirst. Like a snake swallowing a mouse it’s more streamlined.

When fish are feeding heavily you can catch them on just about anything. But we all know those days can be few and far between. I like to do everything to put the odds in my favor. That is why I chose to use Eye Strike jig heads.

Bradford Beavers
Major League Fishing Pro Circuit Angler

Artificial Intelligence “Sweet and Salty” – Coastal Angler Magazine, January 2021

Our first cobia. You can see the thrill on our faces!

I’ve always been of the opinion that one of the best things about the sport of fishing is that there is always a challenge. That’s especially true here in Charleston where we have so many opportunities to catch a fish. I feel like I could spend a lifetime simply learning our local waters, and a couple hour drive up or down the coast would be a whole new world of opportunity. Once you figure out the basics such as when to be where and start to catch fish pretty reliably, you soon start to get tired of feeding shrimp to fish and start looking for a new challenge. That might be using only artificial lures or maybe fly fishing. Some people even start out fly fishing. That’s a challenge unto itself and the rewards may not come until after much personal suffering (speaking from experience!)
One way to challenge yourself is to try to intentionally catch a certain fish. For example, let’s say you set out to catch a Cobia, but never have targeted them before. A logical way to start is to read up on it. Once you are informed and go purchase the necessary gear, it’s time to try. I did this very thing.
As a side note: Thanks to research at the SC Department of Natural Resources, a lot has been learned about Cobia in recent years, one being that we have a separate and unique population of fish that is mostly resident to South Carolina. They spawn in the vicinity of the Broad river and St. Helena sound and return every year, unlike many Cobia that migrate up and down the coast. Several years ago, it was popular to target these spawning fish in shallow water in the sounds. It was not yet known that doing so was decimating the population of these fish.
Back to my story: I read an excellent article on the subject, geared up, and took my youngest son out to target these fish. We had a few embarrassingly bad attempts to catch one and we slowly learned what to do, and what not to do. Then came a morning that I will never forget. We caught our first Cobia, and a nice one! It was 42” fork length and we were very excited at having accomplished our goal. An “old-timer” was watching us from a nearby boat and noticed that we obviously hadn’t planned on what to do if we actually caught one. He complimented us on our catch and suggested we tie her off to the back cleat and let her swim. He said to keep an eye on her because she will attract more fish. Later that morning, my son was keeping one eye on the fish and, sure enough, another one appeared. I rigged a live “greenie” to a rod, handed it to him and said “See if you can catch it”. He kept presenting that bait and eventually the fish took it. “Dad! Dad! I got it!” A great memory…
Although this particular fishery is temporarily shut down while populations recover, my point is that this approach can be applied to any species you choose. The feeling of accomplishment having achieved your goal is priceless.

The “Holy Grail” of Margarita Slams… Solo, on the same lure.

Another great way to challenge yourself is to make up your own “slam”. A slam is a select group of different species of fish, with best known locally being the redfish-trout-flounder slam. Add a species of your choice and it’s a grand-slam.
My favorite slam is one I made up, and in a discussion on a local fishing forum a name emerged: The Margarita Slam. This slam consists of 5 species; redfish, trout, flounder, striper, largemouth. These fish swim in sweet (fresh) and salty water, thus the name. Almost any river that starts well inland and ends near the coast is capable of yielding a Margarita Slam. Salty water will be found near the coast and as you go upriver you encounter brackish water, where salinity is mixed. Keep going up and you eventually end up in fresh water. In Charleston, the Cooper and Ashley rivers fit the bill. South, the rivers of the ACE basin (Ashepoo, Combahee, Edisto) do, and to the north, the Santee, Great Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers can all yield the slam.
I like to try to achieve this slam at least once a year, with the month of November being optimal. To set out to accomplish this slam requires strategy. For example, speckled trout generally prefer salinity and largemouth bass prefer fresh water. It is extremely rare to catch a largemouth and a trout close to each other. However, striper, flounder and redfish are all quite happy in the brackish zone. Each species has their quirks; for example, striper are marauders – they move around a lot and are difficult to pattern. Flounder are ambush predators and are found laying in wait to ambush prey. Redfish are easier to catch on low tide, and trout arguably are easier to catch on higher tides. I personally find striper and flounder to be the hardest to catch intentionally.
For a further challenge, you can try the following, in order of difficulty.
• As a boat (Anyone on the boat can contribute to the boat slam)
• As an individual; Using various lures
• As an individual; Using a single lure
Of course, improving the quality of fish of your slam is another way to measure yourself.
It’s quite rewarding to set out to do this and actually achieve it. Last year, I was lucky to achieve the “holy grail” of a solo Margarita Slam on the same jig head/plastic combo. Best of all, it was on a brand-new lure I was prototyping. It has since been released – the Texas Eye Finesse jig. I’m not sure if I can ever do that one again. But as my business partner Ralph likes to say “You never know when lightning might strike the outhouse”.
Try catching a Margarita slam, or better yet make up your own slam. It’s one thing to catch the slam unintentionally, but far more rewarding to do it purposely.

David Fladd
Partner, Eye Strike Fishing
dfladd@eyestrikefishing.com
eyestrikefishing.com