For the previous few days the wind had been blowing hard out of the east, but it had calmed down to 10 knots or less and shifted to the southeast on Sunday morning.
Thus, when Capt. Robert Strickland cleared the Murrells Inlet jetties at the helm of the New Inlet Princess, the Atlantic Ocean offered smooth, rolling 2- to 3-foot seas that the huge head boat easily plowed through.
It was 7:30 a.m., and Strickland was headed well offshore in a south-southeasterly direction on an 11-hour bottom fishing trip with a crew of 40 passengers.
The stiff east wind had pushed the pretty offshore water toward the beach, and soon pods of flying fish were gliding just above the waves in escape from the approaching boat.
After a run of less than three hours, the roar of the engines quieted as Strickland pulled them back about 50 miles offshore. The water had turned a brilliant shade of deep blue, signifying the boat was in the heart of the Gulf Stream.
A few minutes later, the anglers realized this was a true deep-sea fishing trip, as it took quite a while for the rigs to reach the bottom, some 120 feet below.
The baits – a variety of squid and cut bait – quickly produced results. Vermilion snapper, triggerfish, grouper, amberjack and white grunts soon came over the rail and into the anglers' baskets, ready to be put on ice.
The fishing lasted about five hours, with Strickland hitting at least five bottom spots. On this day, vermilion snapper, triggerfish and grouper, especially scamp, were the top catches.
At the end of the day the stringers were heavy, including a few 20-plus pound grouper and some monster triggerfish. One angler even used a jig to catch a blackfin tuna. The customers were very happy.
“It was a pretty good day, the weather was nice and I think everybody had a good time,” said Strickland on the way in. “That's the main thing, catch a few fish and have a good time.”
The ride in was leisurely and relaxing, with that light southeast breeze at our back – a nice cap to a great day offshore.
The Grand Strand is the hot spot for head boat fishing in South Carolina, also known as party boat fishing.
A quick check revealed there are no party boat trips that offer offshore, deep-water trips operating along the state's coast south of Murrells Inlet.
It's safe to say the New Inlet Princess, which docks at Crazy Sister Marina in Murrells Inlet, is the southernmost offshore party boat in operation along the Palmetto State coast.
The North Myrtle Beach/Little River area is home to several outfits that offer party boat fishing, including:
▪ The Hurricane Fleet docked at Hurricane Fleet Marina just across the state line in Calabash, N.C.
▪ The Pride of the Carolinas docked at BW's Marina and operated by Little River Fishing Fleet.
▪ The Voyager Fishing Charters fleet docked at Dock Holiday's Marina in North Myrtle Beach.
A few years ago, the party boat fishing scene wasn't quite as rosy.
From about 2010 to 2013 the National Marine Fisheries Service had the two most common species landed aboard Carolina party boats – black sea bass and vermilion snapper – under strict regulations as they were deemed to be overfished or undergoing overfishing.
For three straight fishing seasons beginning in 2010 a small recreational quota on black sea bass meant a short fishing season for that species, culminating in a 2012-2013 season that lasted only 96 days.
At the same time, vermilion snapper were closed to recreational landings each year from Nov. 1 through March 31, to go with the annual shallow-water grouper spawning season closure which occurs each year from January through April.
That all changed starting with the 2013-14 fishing season (each season starts June 1). Since then, recreational anglers – and party boat operators – have enjoyed year-round access to both vermilion snapper – known locally as beeliners – and black sea bass.
“From what I have seen, yeah the regulations hurt us but … it's helping us now,” said Strickland. “The fishing is that much better. Fishing is definitely a lot better now than it was the 3-4 years prior. All the stock assessments that are coming up, I think things are going to be positive.”
The only major limitation currently in effect during the fishing year is the shallow-water grouper spawning season closure. Also, red snapper are closed indefinitely in the entire South Atlantic region, but that species isn’t found in great numbers in local waters.
As the tourist season arrives, all is well in the party boat industry along the Grand Strand, including lower fuel prices compared to recent years.
“Fishing is definitely good, I've got no complaints,” said Strickland. “(The customers) want to catch and keep some fish to take back with them. You can definitely get a good stringer of fish.”
Rotary Flounder Tournament
A Murrells Inlet flounder tournament regular found a hot spot and came away the big winner in the Murrells Inlet Rotary Flounder Tournament Saturday out of Crazy Sister Marina.
Mike Leach, fishing with his dad, Dennis, and daughter, Myra, weighed in a 4-pound flounder to claim first place in the tournament. Leach also won the Calcutta for biggest flounder and three-fish aggregate (10-plus pounds) to earn $2,400.
The Leach crew found a hot spot on a sandbar in a main creek not too far from tournament headquarters and used large mud minnows from Big Dave’s II Bait and Tackle on two-hook rigs to catch their fish.
They slow-trolled the baits to catch nearly 40 flounder including nine they kept. South Carolina's minimum size limit for flounder is 14 inches.
“We ended up with nine keepers for the tournament and we were letting a lot of 14-15 inchers go,” said Leach. “We were excited. We've fished every single flounder tournament in the inlet since they started dating back to Voyager’s View (Marina in the 1990s). Finally nobody had one bigger than we did.”
To go with their winning fish, 10-year-old Myra Leach finished second in the Youth Angler division with a 1.6-pounder.
Second place went to Tommy Padgett with a three-fish aggregate of 8.5 pounds. Brunson Miller was third with a 3.2-pound flounder followed by Tommy Collins (2.9) and Chris Lawhorn (2.8).
Ava Heise was the top Junior Angler with a 2.1-pounder followed by Myra Leach (1.6) and Bradley Williams (1.4). Barbara Michaels was the top Lady Angler with a 2.0-pounder.