At least she’ll have a great fish story to tell.
The date was March 27, and 12-year-old Lilly Carrillo was on her first ocean fishing trip.
Carrillo was with her uncle, Dan Kastel of Pawleys Island, on a trip with Capt. Jay Sconyers of Aces Up Fishing out of Murrells Inlet.
Sconyers was taking advantage of the best action that was available during the cold March the East Coast just endured – fishing for sheepshead on near-shore artificial reefs in the Atlantic Ocean.
Like so many first-timers, Carrillo began feeling the effects of the two-foot seas once the trip was underway.
“It was her first time in the ocean,” said Kastel. “She had never been in the ocean before and wasn’t used to the motion. She said ‘I don’t feel right.’ ”
Sconyers arrived at Pawleys Reef, located south of Murrells Inlet, and began dropping fiddler crabs down to entice a bite from the finicky, light-biting sheepshead.
The sheepshead bite was good and the captain started hooking fish and passing the rod to his customers. Soon, Lilly was ready to reel in some fish, and her first one was a real doozy.
When she worked the fish to the surface, Sconyers quickly noticed it wasn’t a sheepshead, but a tautog, and a big one. Tautog are a species that are more commonly found in mid-Atlantic waters but are occasionally found on artificial reefs, jetties and other structures off the South Carolina coast particularly in winter months.
It was quite a fish for little Lilly, who had only caught panfish in freshwater before.
“That was her first fish right there,” said Kastel. “It was her first time in the ocean, first fish, first time reeling one in. She said ‘I’ve never reeled in a fish like that before.’ She was amazed.’’
Even more amazing, at the dock, Sconyers put the fish on a digital scale and the tautog weighed 5.7 pounds. The captain also noted the current state record for tautog was 5 pounds, 4 ounces for a fish caught in 2003 off Charleston. Hmmm, Sconyers thought.
A few days later, local Department of Natural Resources biologist Kris Reynolds weighed the fish and the tautog tipped the scale at 5.6 pounds, or just over 5 pounds, 9 ounces, more than five ounces better than the state record. But a technicality came into play that prevented Lilly’s tautog from becoming a state record.
“Because Jay did hook the fish and handed her the rod, unfortunately it’s not a state record,” said Reynolds.
On the heels of the colder-than-normal winter, the water temperature has easily been below normal through March before the current early April warm-up. The day Lilly’s tautog was caught, Sconyers noted a water temperature of about 53 degrees. Catches of tautog appeared to have been more common than usual during this late winter and early spring.
“It’s the first year I’ve caught them, and I’ve been catching the mess out of them – 2-3 a trip,” said Sconyers. “I don’t know what’s going. Maybe the water was a little colder this year and it made them move down a little further.”
Reynolds is up to date on fish that are caught along the northern South Carolina coast through his involvement with the S.C. DNR State Finfish Survey and the Marine Recreational Information Program, or MRIP. In the last 15 years, Reynolds has occasionally seen tautog come from spots like the Georgetown Inshore Reef, Paradise Reef (three miles off Murrells Inlet), and the Little River and Georgetown jetties.
“It’s not uncommon at all. It seems like the northern part of South Carolina is where we get that fish,” said Reynolds. “It’s more of a mid-Atlantic fish. That’s the thing about South Carolina, we get tropical fish that come up from the South, and then we get strange things that come down from the north in the winter.”