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Quite a catch off the ol' S.C. coast GREGG HOLSHOUSER OUTDOORS COLUMNIST

On the heels of two weeks of aggravating northeasterly winds, last Saturday dawned clear, crisp and, most of all, calm. It was an hour before sunrise as Jeff Martini carefully eased his 30-foot Robalo - dubbed Dirty Martini - around an approaching barge and its blinding spotlight as he approached the jetties at Little River Inlet. Moments later, Martini pushed the quiet twin 250-horsepower Yamaha four-stroke outboards up to a cruising speed of about 30 knots on the gentle seas just outside of the inlet. In a little over 90 minutes we arrived at our destination - the ledges and rock outcroppings about 45 miles to the southeast in 95 feet of water. Martini, of the family-owned Martini's Fine Dining and Piano Bar in North Myrtle Beach, has a serious hobby - diving, spearfishing and bottom-fishing these offshore ledges. Also along on this trip were Tracy Huggins of North Myrtle Beach, John McLaurin of Nakina, N.C., in Columbus County and myself. Martini and Huggins were the divers and McLaurin and I the designated bottom-fishermen. The previous day, Martini had checked the water conditions on www.terrafin.com and saw the extended northeasterly blow had pushed the brilliant blue Gulf Stream waters over the ledges. As Martini maneuvered the boat into position over the desired ledge, the sun was just rising above the cloud-free horizon and McLaurin and I stood ready to drop our bottom rigs. Suddenly, no more than 15 feet off the port side of the boat, an eagle ray burst out of the water and rose about 10 feet above the surface before splashing down. If I wasn't awake yet, that did the trick. Then, on my second drop to the bottom I had a good bite on a strip of fresh grunt and a few minutes later the first fish of the day was in the box - a 22-inch red snapper, known locally as a genuine. Talk about a good start! Soon, Martini and Huggins donned their considerable gear and splashed over the side. On their return to the surface about 45 minutes later, they displayed their catch on the first dive, a few hogfish, a gag grouper and another red snapper. Later, after a short move, the second spot proved to be the honey hole for the divers. About 35 minutes after their descent, I gazed down through the bubbles as they hung out on the anchor rope for a 3-minute stop at 30 feet below the surface. The water clarity was superb and, even from that distance, I could see the unique orange-yellow hues of hogfish along with the brownish tint of a spiny lobster in the divers' grasp. "The water was crystal clear and blue - it was Bahama blue," Martini said. This time, the grinning duo put several large hogfish and one sizable lobster on the deck. A third and final dive in deeper water produced a few more hogfish. All the while, when we weren't assisting the divers, McLaurin and I used squid and strip baits to land several reef species, including vermilion snapper (beeliners), black sea bass, grey triggerfish and red hind, also known as strawberry grouper. Of course, marauding amberjack were ready to pounce on any live bait or catch headed down to or up from the bottom. Several of the reef donkeys provided quite a tussle. All in all, the catch of the day was hogfish, also known as hog snapper, a reef species more associated with climes farther south such as the Florida Keys. Off the South Carolina coast, hogfish are found only on the deep-water offshore reefs and ledges and are largely unknown to hook-and-line anglers thanks to their reluctance to take a bait. They are well-known among divers and spearfishermen, however, and rank among the very best species in table fare. The larger specimens are, well, just plain wild looking, featuring an extended, narrow mouth with a crazy patch of teeth and a purplish band running from the snout past the dorsal fin. When extended, the dorsal fin is marked by streamers that rise well above the fish. "They're not really a snapper, they're a wrasse," Martini explained. "They're curious. When your anchor hits the bottom of the ocean floor, fish come to it because they want to see what it is. The grouper are smarter and faster - they'll swim in the ledge and out. Hogs never go in the ledge [and] when you see one hogfish there's usually three or four. "They're exotic. Their mouth opens so wide you can actually put your whole head in their mouth. They're a beautiful fish, just different I guess. The Florida [hogfish] probably get up to only 5 pounds but - here they get a lot bigger. But keep in mind we're out there 45 miles and the deepest dive was in [a depth of] 117 feet." On the comfortable, smooth ride back to the inlet on the blue-green water, with a little Jimmy Buffet on the radio, you could close your eyes and imagine being in the Caribbean, knowing there was hogfish and lobster in the box. Nope, just a super day offshore from home, the good ol' South Carolina coast. Contact GREGG HOLSHOUSER at 843-651-9028 or at wholshouser@sc.rr.com.

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