On the heels of the prolonged Arctic blast of early January, concern over how saltwater species – namely spotted seatrout – are able to survive the cold water temperatures is at an all-time high on the Carolina coast.
When the water temperature remains below 48 degrees for prolonged periods of time, trout and other estuarine species can be stunned or killed by the cold water.
The water temperature at Customs House on Charleston Harbor dipped below 48 degrees on Jan. 3 and has been below that benchmark since. From Jan. 6 through most of the day on Jan. 10, the reading was below 43 degrees.
From reports, only sporadic dead fish have been found in the Grand Strand area, a dead trout in Murrells Inlet and a few trout and sheepshead in Pawleys Island.
From Bulls Bay in Charleston County and points south, reports of fish kills have been more dramatic.
Dr. Joey Ballenger of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources notes dead red drum, trout, sheepshead and black drum along with forage fish menhaden and mullet have been found.
Ballenger notes that small brackish water impoundments have been especially hard hit.
Locally, a few anglers have been out on the chilly waters from Georgetown County to Brunswick County, N.C., to check on the status of species such as spotted seatrout, red drum and black drum.
Capt. Mike McDonald of Gul-R-Boy Guide Service in Georgetown has made a point over the last 12 days, starting on Jan. 8, to get out on his home water in the Winyah Bay vicinity to survey the situation, look all over for dead fish and, of course, see what’s biting.
“I have been from a mile above the freshwater line in the tributaries above Winyah Bay, through the bay and south to the Santee rivers and I have not seen any dead fish,” said McDonald. “I have been in 39-degree water to 46-degree water.
“I saw scores of mullet in the shallow water, in the creeks, and as I started easing the boat along I saw small black drum, reds and mullet. The mullet schools were so thick there could have been some trout in with them and I missed them.”
As for fishing, McDonald and fellow captain Lin Fore of LowCountry Expeditions Guide Service actually had a super day on Tuesday, catching and releasing 81 red drum.
The duo caught the reds on plastic grubs, but McDonald wouldn’t be specific at all on where the fish were caught.
“Between the jetties and Conway,” McDonald said with a laugh. “The fish all looked very healthy, and they fought like tigers. I can’t speak for what’s happening in Charleston but for here it’s on, the redfish bite is on.”
While McDonald and Fore found plenty of red drum, they didn’t find any trout, dead or alive.
“Through the middle of December, I was catching a lot of trout but they started leaving. My trout had moved,” said McDonald. “I think they felt this thing coming on and they hauled ass. Some went into the ocean and some of them went up the rivers. What I’m seeing on my depth finder won’t bite, but I’ve gotten some of the prettiest marks (on the depth finder) you’ve ever seen in brackish water.”
Capt. Dan Connolly of O-Fish-Al Expeditions went out on his Murrells Inlet stomping grounds on Monday and continued to see 41-42 degree water, but no dead fish, although he has heard of a few in Pawleys Island.
“I haven’t seen any (dead fish) personally,” said Connolly, who noted red drum were the only species he encountered.
“I did see some nice reds in shallow water, two feet of crystal clear water,” said Connolly. “They were 20- to 30-inch reds, swimming around trying to stay warm in the sun.”
Connolly did manage to catch a few red drum.
“I caught a few reds but not many,” said Connolly. “Sometimes they don’t want to eat. All the fish I caught, I couldn’t see them.”
Connolly observed water clarity of 5-6 feet, excellent for South Carolina’s coast, and also noted that “snot grass,” an algae that accumulates on the bottom each winter in Murrells Inlet, has started to show up.
Farther north, Capt. Brant McMullan of Ocean Isle Fishing Center in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., consulted several of his numerous fishing contacts and had heard of no fish kills in the Brunswick County, N.C. area.
S.C. DNR recommendation
As a precautionary measure, S.C. DNR is asking anglers to practice catch and release of all spotted seatrout through the end of September.
“Seatrout numbers have been above average in South Carolina in recent years,” said S.C. DNR spokesperson Phil Maier. “We hope that strong starting point, combined with voluntary conservation efforts by anglers, will help the fish recover quickly.”
Spotted seatrout suffered cold winter kills in 2010-2011, 2009-2010 and 2000-2001. Voluntary catch and release was encouraged after these winters, and full recovery took several years in each case.
S.C. DNR biologists expect to see fish kills for some time and continue to welcome all public reports.
Sightings of dead or lethargic fish can be reported to Ballenger at BallengerJ@dnr.sc.gov. Please include detailed information about the location, date, species, and number of animals seen.
The Murrells Inlet fishing community has suffered another loss, with the untimely death of David “Big Dave” Altman, owner/operator of Big Dave’s Bait & Tackle in the inlet.
More information on Big Dave will be included in next week’s column.
Gregg Holshouser: firstname.lastname@example.org