Justin Carter likes to fish the Santee-Cooper lakes for largemouth bass, but he’s never done much targeting of catfish. That made the sight of his boat drifting sideways while dragging cut baits across the bottom of the ocean look even more out of place. 

Carter, who guides saltwater fishermen in the Charleston area, could have easily been drifting a point off the Russellville Flats for trophy blue catfish. Instead, he was using the same tackle, gear and tactics to tempt bull redfish along the edge of a sandbar near St. Helena Sound that stretched for 3 miles.

During September, two overlapping events occur that might explain the method to Carter’s madness. The first is the annual mullet run, when mullet of all sizes make their way out of the marshes along South Carolina’s coast and into the ocean. At the same time, adult redfish, those big specimens that crashed through the upper limits of South Carolina’s slot limit years ago, also pack up and begin heading to offshore locations. 

The September correlation is not complete. Many species of baitfish are also headed out of the marshes, as are shrimp and smaller gamefish and bottomfish. It’s a good time for the bull reds to stock up on groceries they’ll need for the winter, and when found, getting them to eat usually isn’t much of a problem.

Carter uses three primary tactics to target bull reds this month. His newest and favorite is the sideways drift — assuming he can line the tides, the wind, and the sandbars up in the right direction. His next favorite is a variation of the first drift pattern, but fishing live mullet in three different levels of the water column. The third is an old, tried-and-true — anchor up on a break line, edge of a hole or some other bottom contour or structure, and throw out cut bait behind the boat.

He much prefers to drift cut mullet, rigged Santee-style, around the mouths of inlets or along the nearby beachfront for bull reds holding on a hardbottom or around structure like rocks, oyster shell or any hard substrate in deep water. Drifting also works well when moving along a series of shallow troughs and sandbars commonly associated with big inlets 

“I prefer to use an egg sinker or bank sinker for my rig,” Carter said, “something that’s going to allow the bait to slide up into the current a little bit while the weight keeps it up a couple of feet off the bottom.”

Drifting in nearshore waters require an angler to calculate wind, tide and any cross currents to move across likely fish holding structure.

“I’m going to check the current first,” he said. “Then I’m going to check the wind to see which way we’re going to go, and then I’m going to set the boat up in the best-possible position to maximize the longest drift possible in the target area.  A lot of times, depending on the amount of current and the amount of wind, I’ll deploy a drift sock to help slow down and keep the bait going at about a knot or so, just drifting along the bottom.”

Typically, a southwest or easterly wind makes for calmer water and better drifts depending, on which inlet you are fishing. Side-drifting is best, but northerly winds and choppy water may not permit a sideways drift.

“I prefer to drift from the side,” Carter said. “That way I can deploy more rods with a greater spread.  Having them set up across the length of the boat; however, if the conditions don’t allow for it and it is a little bit choppy, then I would put the bow of the boat into the waves.”

Tackling a drift around the mouth of an inlet that does not have jetty rocks lining its entrance is a matter of understanding the area’s makeup. It’s a classic scenario of big fish pinning smaller fish against the structure, or big fish hiding in deeper water, out of the main current, waiting for food to come to them

“Almost all the bigger inlets have that big, long, side sandbar coming out of one or two sides of the inlet, and then you’ve got a deeper channel coming out of that inlet,” said Carter. “A lot of times, the bait are going to be holding in the shallower ends, running along the edges where your bigger fish — your redfish and sharks and whatnot — are holding in the deeper parts of the draw. It’s not a straight run. The sandbars tend to stagger, leaving troughs and blow-throughs between rises, and that’s where drifting pays off.”    

Carter varies his presentation by using live bait rather than cut bait. He said when the mullet are running, it’s nothing to stop on the way out to the inlet and collect a livewell full in just a couple throws of the net.     

“I still use an egg sinker for drift-fishing with live bait,” he said. “I certainly like to have multiple bait options out there. I’ll use a smaller egg weight to keep the mullet in the middle of the water column. I also may put a live bait on a balloon if the reds are really aggressive and they’re pushing the bait up.”

Further south down the coast, guide Dan Utley prefers to anchor up and let the bull reds come to him when fishing vast inlets on either side of Hilton Head Island. 

“Off of Spanish Well is about as far inland as the bull reds will go on the Calibogue (Sound) side,” Utley said. “In (Port Royal Sound), you catch them all the way up to (SC) 170 bridge,  at the same spots they catch cobia up near the bridge — the same sandbar areas that you fish cobia working your way out to the mouth of the sound. They’re so predictable when you fish out at the mouth of the sound, that’s where most people go.

Utley doesn’t get caught up in the whole September mullet run scenario. He said the reds are hungry, having finished their spawn, and they will eat just about anything.

“I think they’re hungry after the spawn,” he said. “The reason they’re holding in the inshore waters is to spawn. They spawn in some of those hardbottom areas in the (Port Royal) sound and up the Broad River and in Calibogue. They hang around to fatten up after the spawn.  They will eat cut mullet, but the mullet I see running are on the surface. You can put most anything cut on the bottom and catch big redfish.”

Refining the areas he prefers to fish, Utley targets hardbottom areas. He said reds love to spawn on hardbottom, and it’s a good place to catch them from late June until the leave the area altogether in the fall.

“Out there off Bay Point, is a hardbottom area close to Hilton Head, and a little further out Bay Point running out to the Port Royal shipping channel,” he said. “It’s just a hard, limestone bottom that they’ll congregate on around certain tides.

“The majority of these redfish are between 33 and 47 inches; you can’t keep them. It’s all catch-and-release. As these fish get older, they don’t grow in length that much; they get bigger girth. They go anywhere 18 to 35 or 45 pounds.” 

DESTINATION INFORMATION

HOW TO GET THERE — There Popular public boat ramps in the Charleston area include Remley’s Point and Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant and Wappoo Cut in West Ashley. Several public ramps are popular in the Beaufort/Hilton Head area: Sands in Port Royal, C.G. Haigh Jr. on either side of the US 278 ramp from the mainland to Hilton Head, and Edgar Glenn at the SC 170 bridge across the Chechesee River. 

WHEN TO GO — The mullet run can start anytime in September or October; it’s usually keyed to the first big northeast wind blow of the fall, which lowers water temperatures and sends big reds and mullet streaming toward inlets and the ocean.

BEST TECHNIQUES —  Look for them around any hard structure or hard bottom areas, plus sandbars. Drift cut or live baits across the areas or anchor up and fan-cast baits to them, covering the entire water column. Heavy tackle is required, and an Owen Lupton rig isn’t a bad idea.

FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Justin Carter, DIG Charters, 843-725-8784, www.charlestoninshoreoffshorefishingcharters.com; Dan Utley, Fishin’ Coach Charters, 843-368-2126, www.fishincoach.com; Tom Siwarski, Carolina Aero Marine Adventures, 843-327-3434. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS — Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, 843-853-8000, www.charlestoncvb.com; Hilton Head Island Visitor and Convention Bureau, 800-523-3373, www.hiltonheadisland.org.

MAPS — Maps Unique, 910-458-9923, www.mapsunique.com; Sealake Fishing Guides, 800-411-0185, www.thegoodspots.com.