He knew before he did it that it was wrong. He'd only be thirty feet away and only for a minute, and hey, what were the chances? We all heard it go. The frantic sssssssss of the line followed by a violent popping of metal as the guides were torn off and forced up against the wooden railing on which the pole had been wedged. Three heads turned in unison just in time to see Sam's entire rod and reel set jettison into the air for a ten foot flight and then dive into the stained waters. Gone.
Over the years I've seen more than a few expensive rigs end up on the wrong side of the boat or the dock but never had I seen one taken so forcefully. Whatever hit this had size and power and was moving at a speed.
The sting of losing his gear was made all the deeper because Sam and I had just paid to have our rod and reel cases count as a second piece of luggage when we flew down. Bryon, the third fisherman and brother-in-law in the group, had taken the option of buying something when he arrived. Further, Sam is an experienced, careful fisherman and while taking any physical leave, no matter how brief, he had always left his gear in a way that, if the bait was taken, there shouldn't have been a problem. Rod wedged in tight with a metal guide snug under the rail. Line left slack and the reel tension reduced to let the line more or less run out under pressure. Under normal circumstance he should have gotten away with it, but whatever was plying the water that day didn't qualify as normal.
The popular TV series, "River Monsters", starring biologist and extreme fisherman Jeremy Wade, often points out that there are creatures both legendary and enormous to be found hiding under the noses of the locals even in the waterways of modern, crowded cities. He tracks them down like a zoological detective and then catches them using both technique and a dogged persistence that as a fellow fisherman I find humbling to watch.
"So you're a golfer ?" is the usual question from the customs officer when I am crossing the border from Canada into the U.S.A. Hilton Head Island, South Carolina is located north of Savannah, Georgia and south of Charleston, S.C. This bit of coastal low country is a mecca for golfers due to its fine weather and over 20 golf courses. Moreover it hosts the Heritage Golf Classic, a stop on the PGA tour. However, I never pack a set of clubs as neither Bryon, Sam or myself are golfers. So when I tell the officer, "No I'm going there to fish", it always leads to more questions.
The island is shaped roughly like a foot with the toes pointing SW and the heel NE. You enter over the bridge at about the ankle. Since this foot is in the water it has about 12 miles (19 km.) of beachfront on the Atlantic Ocean.
Hilton Head, South Carolina has more than its share of finny fare, for the area has fresh water, brackish water and salt water. Each type of water has its own specific panoply but sometimes crossover creatures can be found. You can fish the lagoons, the canals, or the ocean.
We had rented a house that backed onto the canal in the Palmetto Dunes area. From there we could walk or bike ride to the beach or watch how the golfers were doing, or relax by the swimming pool. But more importantly we could fish from our backyard. In autumn a lot of the houses are empty. There is little traffic by either kayakers or boats driven by electric motors. The largest number of fishing boats I have seen out at one time in one day is two and that usually includes us.
Following Jeremy Wade's example we began by listing the possible suspects. From guided expeditions in the area we had learned first hand that when you set the hook it could be a lady fish or a trout or a black drum or a flounder or hopefully a big redfish. Redfish are the target fish of sport fishing because of their size and fighting ability. For those who fish they power through the water and leap through the air like a giant sized small mouth bass. In fact they are often called spot tailed bass based on their acrobatics and because they have one large black spot on the base of their tail. At three years old they go about 6-8 lbs and by the time time they are about five years old they have become the hefty 27 inch plus specimens known as bulls.
While Sam went on a hunt for new equipment and more information, Bryon and I took up his spot on the bench. Bryon was using cut bait while I had an unweighted live five inch bait fish swimming under a bobber. After Sam's experience we sat right in front of our gear. Rods propped, hands ready. Well not that ready. After awhile I found mine filled with a beer in one and a cigar in another. Both went flying when the hit came. My reflexes were just fast enough to keep the rod on this side of the water. The hit was brutal. Line screamed and the pole bent deeply as I hung on with both hands and the butt of the pole jammed into my waistband. A few seconds of fury and then nothing. I reeled in slack line to find that the bait and hook had been bitten off, the heavy duty leader severed. Could a red fish really do this?
In Sam's words, "The next day I was relaying my sad story to a professional fishing guide, who works this lagoon where we fish daily. He wasn't fazed one bit. Turns out, what I thought was a unique event, is a common occurrence. 'Them big ones'll do that', he said dryly. 'Lottsa tackle layin' in here'. "
I still wasn't convinced and I became a lot more sceptical when Bryon came running in from the dock to show me a picture that he had just taken. You could just make out the figure of the top of the back and head of the five foot alligator that had cruised by our section of the canal.
I was shocked. We had been coming to this area for six years and had yet to see an alligator in this section of Hilton Head. What was it doing here? There is probably no one with a better working knowledge of the ecology of Palmetto Dunes than Captain Trent Malphrus.
We hopped on his electric powered boat and we began the slow wakeless glide over tea coloured waters. "Don't worry boys. It might take a while to get there but it will be worth it." Some time later we arrived at the back of our house. "You can start throwing casts to the bank starting here.
"The gators are not extremely common in here but we have had a few. They cannot live for extended stays in the brackish water because of the salinity levels but they seek out the lagoons to clear their skin of mites that attach to them. If he becomes a nuisance or aggressive, definitely let security know. We don't usually have a problem with them bothering anyone but unfortunately pets can be curious and fall prey if they get too close, so if you have a dog or cat with you there, keep them a safe distance. These gators are very quick on land. We look forward to hopefully seeing you guys again this year!"
- Captain Trent
Well we had our answer to what the gator was doing there but I still didn't think that this was our mystery monster. I have seen alligators feed many a time. They might snap and tug and even throw in roll or two but they don't take off like an aquatic dragster. I ruled out the gators.
It seemed to me that the best bet for our mystery river monster was a large redfish so in the tradition of Jeremy Wade, the next step would be to track a big one down ourselves. Our timeline was short, Trent was booked, and another guide and client who was passing by that day said that the bite was really slow. This meant fishing outside of the lagoon and that meant only one thing, Captain Mark.
Sam and I had been fishing with Mark since the days when he would plunk us in kayaks and have us paddle out to the good spots. Sometimes you would have to go through some eye widening waves to get there, but there is nothing like having your boat towed around the ocean by a big red that you have just hooked.
We were pretty keen to get fishing as soon as possible but Mark had us wait a day due to changing weather and timing of the tides. That's one big plus when booking with Mark, he'd rather that you have the best chance at being successful than just take you out in the hopes of catching fish. It might cost him a day's pay to stay ashore but by gaining a reputation as someone who isn't just going to take you for a boat ride, he is gaining a loyal following.
On a beautiful 62 degree F sunny morning we gently made our way out of the South Beach Marina and then blasted around the corner and stormed at top speed heading for the mouth of one of his favourite creeks. The engine had barely shut off when Bryon got into his first red. I followed immediately with an 81/2 pounder and the tone of the day was set.
After a few minutes without a hit, Bryon started complaining that we only had him there to watch Sam and I catch fish. His next fish was a 10lb red followed immediately by an 11 lb monster followed immediately by crossed lines and a lost position on the boat. Sam and I countered immediately with double hits that brought in 8 and 9 lb feisty beauties. By this time Sam and I had started to resort to subtle hockey style hip checks to gain bow territory. We refer to this technique as the Deck Rhumba.
We were catching them by the species - rays, flounder, trout, redfish - and Mark was working hard to keep up with the doubles and triples. Over the course of the morning we had put Mark through the paces of landing over thirty fish EACH. Guiding probably should be made an official Olympic event. It would include weather reading, marine chart reading, navigation, boat operation skills, equipment selection and repair, tying knots, untying snarls, finding bait, baiting hooks, and filleting as qualifying events. In the semi finals it would be unhooking a fish, measuring, photographing and safely releasing said fish and rebating the hook all at the same time for multiple people. In the final round it would be poling the boat entirely by oneself in snag strewn shallow water, while lighting a smoke in the wind, passing a beverage, and never losing a beat telling a good story.
On the way back in, Mark spotted some giant redfish laying against a bend in the shore. Bryon and Sam hooked but finally lost a truly huge fish each. I managed to hang on to mine and although at 12 3/4 lb it may not quality as a true monster, I was thrilled to hoist my biggest redfish so far.
"On our next trip with Capt. Mark, ( just over 20 fish each) I also told him my tale of woe, to which he replied with a laugh, 'I've seen guys on my boat have the rods ripped right outta their hands, when a big Red hit their bait!' His advice - 'always keep a good grip, and never leave your rig unattended when the baited line is in the water. If you want to take a break, reel your line in'. Lesson learned! I just had to ask though - "Mark, just how big do you think this fish is, that made off with my rod?" Without hesitation he replied, 'I'm guessin' 20 to 30 pounds', and chuckles again! 'There's some big ol' Reds in there, 'cause there's no pressure on 'em'. So, somewhere in that expansive Palmetto Dunes Lagoon, on Hilton Head Island, in South Carolina, is one very large Redfish, towing around one very expensive rod and reel! Until next year......…..
You can reach these two great guides yourself and look for your own monsters.
Trent email@example.com and www.PalmettoLagoonCharters.com
Trent introduces the boys to flounder fishing.
Mark firstname.lastname@example.org and www.tailermaydcharters.com