This excursion with Capt. Mike McDonald had a double purpose – one, to check out the shrimp population in Winyah Bay as the fall shrimp baiting season approaches.
Secondly, with the calendar finally reaching September, who in their right mind would venture out into the bay and not do a little fishing?
McDonald left from his usual launching spot – South Island Ferry – early last Sunday with myself and my fishing partner, Terri Dunn of Myrtle Beach, along for the trip.
A few minutes after leaving the ferry, we entered the south end of the bay via the Intracoastal Waterway as the sun made its full appearance on the horizon, starting a perfect day on the bay, with light wind.
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McDonald, owner/operator of Gul-R-Boy Guide Service, zoomed to a couple of shell islands in the middle of the bay in the 21-foot Carolina Skiff and anchored about 30 yards off the bank. As the boat set up in the rising tide, McDonald handed each of us a spinning rod and firmly emphasized for us to keep the rod tip up and the grubs on 1/4-ounce jig heads moving, or else get hung up on the shell bottom.
The bite was on from the get-go, as I caught spotted seatrout under South Carolina’s 14-inch minimum size limit on my second and third casts of the day. Meanwhile McDonald caught a trout and Terri reeled in a 13-inch undersized flounder, all within the first 10 minutes of fishing.
About 45 minutes later, we had tallied 10 trout including two keepers and four flounders including one 16-inch keeper but the action had slowed.
We then checked out gulls diving on glass minnows nearby and cast grubs into the vicinity to no avail. Next, McDonald netted a few shrimp and we dispatched them along a grass bank, but had no bites in about 20 minutes of fishing.
Then, right at high tide, McDonald eased the skiff into an area of the bay that narrowed into a small creek and we commenced checking out Winyah Bay’s fall crop of white shrimp.
After several throws of the cast net produced only a few shrimp and baitfish (mullet, menhaden), McDonald found the shrimp. Soon, each cast was producing 2-3 dozen medium-to-small shrimp which were placed in the live well for bait.
The consensus was the shrimp currently in the bay are plentiful but relatively small as the start of South Carolina’s shrimp baiting season approaches. The season opens on September 14 and closes on November 13.
With the tide just past high and starting to fall, McDonald moved to a grassy area on the south side of the bay just off the main channel. Here we dispatched the live shrimp well into the grass on popping corks, with the targeted species being trout, redfish and – hopefully – tripletail. Yes, McDonald has produced several tripletail for his clients this summer.
McDonald also placed a live mullet on a Carolina rig just on the outer edge of the grass.
The live shrimp produced several trout bites including three keepers in the 2-pound range. But the highlights of the day came on the Carolina rig when redfish well over the slot limit of 15 to 23 inches nailed the mullet.
When the rod, sitting in a rod holder, bent over the first time, I grabbed it and worked a feisty red to the boat that was measured at 27 1/2 inches and released. Not to be outdone, it was Terri’s turn and she grabbed the rod on the next bite. This time the red took off well into the grass and put up a splendid fight, thrashing around in the grass before it too was netted, measured and used for a photo op.
Terri’s redfish easily topped mine, measuring 30 1/2 inches before being released. Talk about Lady Luck!
We also had a few bites from marauding garfish and we never got a bite from the elusive tripletail, but we both wound up catching a Carolina slam (trout, redfish, flounder). The final tally on the day was 15 trout with five keepers, four flounders with one keeper and two beautiful oversized redfish released in good health to join the species’ spawning population.
White shrimp, the main shrimp found in South Carolina waters, typically spawn in the ocean in May and early June and the post-larvae shrimp move into the upper reaches of the estuaries. There they rapidly grow to about 3 to 4 inches in two to three months. At about this size, the shrimp move to the higher salinity areas near the ocean and continue growing, just in time for shrimping season.
Dean Cain, a biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources from the Samworth Wildlife Management Area office, has been out in Winyah Bay sampling shrimp the last three weeks, getting a handle on the population.
In late August some areas on the coastal plain received 6-to-7 inches of rain in a week, which had a negative impact on the bay’s shrimp population, Cain says.
“We’ve been looking at it pretty closely the last three weeks,” said Cain on Wednesday. “We had a good looking stock of shrimp until the freshwater hit. We had just enough local rain and rain upstate that came down and freshened everything.
“The salinity got pretty low and ran the big shrimp out of the bay. There are still a lot of shrimp in the bay, but they are still about two weeks from being a 46-50 count shrimp.”
Cain remains optimistic the shrimping season will produce plenty of shrimp for the recreational baiters – how big they will be is the question.
“The big ones will come in and out with the tide, the saltier the water gets, the better it is,” Cain said. “The water is 83-85 degrees in the bay, 81-82 on the bottom. So, the water’s good and warm and if we don’t get any more storms or rain, that’s the whole key right now.
“In a couple weeks, people could come to Winyah Bay and do really well but the shrimp are still going to be fairly small.”
Larry DeLancey, supervisor of DNR’s Crustacean Monitoring Program, has been testing the waters for shrimp from Charleston and points south in the state.
“We had a mild winter so the shrimp survived the winter really well,” DeLancey said. “We know we had good spawning so the season should be at least average. We found some nice ones in [Charleston Harbor]. There are a lot of little shrimp around. As long as it stays warm they’ll grow throughout the fall.”