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Hooked: State park casts a wide net for anglers

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Nikki McKenna wades into the surf at Huntington Beach State Park and casts her hook, line and sinker just beyond the breakers. The waves knock her down as she retreats to the beach where her husband, Terence, and three sons, Aron, Ruari and Riordan, dip their toes in the water without noticing her determination.

“Now that’s fishin’,” Chris Bowers, a park ranger, says in admiration.

Nikki has caught the bug, an obsession with fishing. People lounging on the beach constantly look at the water, not knowing what’s out there. Fishermen on the beach know the answer: fish.

The McKennas were attending a surf fishing clinic at Huntington Beach State Park last week. Nikki thought it looked like fun during a family vacation and held the potential to keep her three little boys occupied for a time while their father handled the leashes of two dogs, a St. Bernard named Buttercup and a poodle named Coco. Who knew that Mom would get hooked?

Along the beaches from Pawleys Island to Garden City, there’s usually somebody with fishing lines in the water from spring to fall. Park ranger Leanna McMillan organized last week’s free fishing clinic and demonstration to help bring people to the park and give those already visiting something fun to do. Bowers, Jessica Perry of Perry’s Bait and Tackle of Murrells Inlet and Dan Triano of Bunker Up Fishin’, also of Murrells Inlet, assisted with the clinic and demonstrations.

Perry and her husband, Eric, run the tackle shop that started at the inlet in 1954. She said her father-in-law, the late Winston Perry, taught her how to tie knots and make rigs to target specific fish.

“My husband was in the water all the time catching bait,” Perry said, “and I was in the shop. Dad taught me how to tie rigs, even though he couldn’t talk due to Alzheimer’s. He could still tie rigs. I would just watch.”

Jessica and Eric have been running Perry’s Bait and Tackle since 2005, featuring local bait and rigs specific to what’s biting in the surf and at the jetties. “Through summer,” Jessica said, “people go for blues, whiting and pompano — and sharks.” Blues prefer finger mullet or cut mullet; pompano, sand fleas; and whiting, blood worms or any bait cut into small pieces. Weights of various shapes and sizes are designed so they won’t roll along the ocean bottom. The rigs hold hooks off the bottom to keep crabs from stealing the bait.

The first thing people attending the clinic learned was that they would need a state saltwater fishing license. Annual licenses expire June 30, so Bowers suggested fishermen buy a five-day license using a smart phone: $8 for state residents and $11 for others. He also provided rulers marked with size limits for most fish and rules about the number that can be legally taken. Little did any of the students know, the rulers would be unnecessary on this day.

McMillan demonstrated how to bait a hook with a sand flea — it won’t pinch — and a bloodworm — careful, it’s a leach that bites. Finger mullet is another popular bait that can be rigged with a hook on a wire running through its mouth and out near the tail to catch snapper and Spanish mackerel. The bait fish flails around in the surf, simulating the movement of a live minnow. A float holds it at the target fish’s eye level. “Snapper blues,” Perry said, “snap the bait in half. The wire extends the hook to the back of the bait and keeps you from reeling in bait heads. Spanish mackerel undershoot the bait, and the trailer hook snags them too.”

Cut mullet works best for bigger fish, McMillan said. “Red drum like it,” she said. “They are lazy fish that won’t chase live bait.”

But fishermen know anything’s possible once bait and hook are in the water. Fish that can be caught from the shore include red drum, black drum, pompano, blue fish, black sea bass, flounder and small ones like croaker, whiting and spot.

For those willing to walk a little more than a mile northward along Huntington Beach, the Murrells Inlet jetty offers a “great place to fish,” according to McMillan.

The top of the jetty is paved and serves as a nice pier offering a chance to catch more variety of fish than anywhere else on land. She said sheepshead and black drum will bite fiddler crabs there, and “bull reds” exceeding the keeper limit “camp out” in the fall at the jetty on the Garden City side of the inlet.

The state Department of Natural Resources has dropped some concrete structures near the south jetty to lure larger fish into shallow water. “You see boats trolling super shallow there,” Perry said, “going after Spanish.”

Dave Lanier, who just moved to this area from Wilmington, brought a brand new rod and reel to the seminar. “This is my tackle box,” he said, holding a plastic grocery bag with hooks and sinkers.

He needed some help, so Bowers spliced more line on to his reel, showing him how to tie a knot and secure it tightly before tieing on a hook and sinker rig.

Once it was time to go to the beach, Triano and Bunker Up Fishin’ took center stage. Triano sells what can only be described as a bait cannon — for $900. The stainless steel barrel shoots a torpedo shaped piece of fish, hook and sinker 300 yards into the ocean.

Triano’s bait lands far out in the water between two sandbars. “That’s where fish like to go,” he said. “I’m just all about catching fish.” It’s not long before Triano reels in a shark and tells his admirers that he will soon be featured on an episode of “Animal Planet.”

The McKenna boys and dogs were especially interested in Triano’s second shark, a 60-pounder that headed the wrong way when released.

“The wee fella is fearless,” said his father.

“I’ve got to get me one of those cannons,” said his mother.

Lots of advice, but experience is the best teacher

John Archambault fondly remembers fishing at the north end of Pawleys Island.

With mole crabs as bait, Archambault used light line, small hooks and a small rod in his younger days as a grad student before he went to work for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. He would cast out about 10 yards and walk along the surf fishing for pompano, black drum, sheepshead, croaker, spot and whiting.

He would avoid spots on the beach with vacationers sitting in lawn chairs, watching their big rods stuck in spikes.

He walked along casting his line weighted only with split shot.

Pawleys Island is loaded with good fishing spots. Groins on the south end offer edges with stronger currents where bait — and predators — congregate around washout holes, Archambault said. The pilings of the Pawleys Pier are good fishing spots, too, and Pawleys Creek’s tidal currents move bait fish.

When scoping out a beach for fishing, Archambault looks for bowls, points and returns while the tide is low. He likes to wade out on sand bars, looking for predators’ “ambush points” and fishes with small finger mullet, shrimp or an artificial grub jig.

“South Carolina beaches tend to show zig-zag patterns with sandbars running diagonally out from the beach,” he said. “Behind them are sloughs, where pools of water form at low tide. Waves are constantly pushing water up the beach, but it doesn’t flow back to sea uniformly. Where the water flows back out through the sloughs can be good places to fish.”

Novice fishermen often try to cast far beyond the surf and miss opportunities. Chris Bowers, a ranger at Huntington Beach State Park, said he uses two rods: one deep and one shallow, where the waves break over sandbars, a likely place for larger fish to be feeding. The wave action stirs up the bait. Sometimes, the fish are right at the breaking point, he said.

Another tip: Instead of using a whole shrimp and a big hook, use one-third of a shrimp on a small hook while fishing in shallow water.

As for the ideal time of day to catch fish in the surf, Archambault prefers dusk. But there are just as many successful fishermen who like dawn, especially after a dark night. The same conflicting advice abounds regarding tides. Archambault said a flood tide can bring fish closer to the beach, but that’s not always true. The water is clearer on high tide, but the mullet come out of their pools on the muddy ebb.

Jennifer Brown at Pawleys Island Supplies fishes for flounder in Pawleys Creek within two hours after the tide turns either direction.

“We fish in a small jon boat against the current, trolling as slow as you possibly can using a basic two-hook flounder rig,” she said. “You’re dragging on the bottom, but flounder fishing is different because a flounder bites at the minnow, then he grabs it, a two-hit process. Don’t hoss him, like a bass. You just let him eat it. Be patient.”

For fishing in the surf, she tells people to use live bait if they can catch it and cast beyond the breakers. “Not everybody has a cast net or someway to keep live bait, so we offer them cut mullet or finger mullet or shrimp that’s frozen,” she said.

Most of the surf fishermen in summer are just having fun and hanging out, she said, so catching fish is not everyone’s priority.

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