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Bangin’ The Drums
Hilton Head Island is best known for its emerald-green golf courses that lie behind guarded gates in private communities. Scores of well-to-do executives and other VIPs jet to this historic island to test their skill on such courses as Sea Pines, Palmetto Dunes and other world-famous links. But for guys like Brian Vaughn, the beauty of this South Carolina island lies in the marshes and sounds that surround those golf courses. A 37-year-old Hilton Head native, Vaughn grew up on the saltwater around the island, swinging a fishing rod instead of a golf club. For him, nothing beats a day of casting to red drum in the creeks and flooded grass flats, especially this time of year. Vaughn targets drum, also known as redfish, that he spots as the surging tide floods the cordgrass marsh. It’s as much hunting as it is fishing.
“If it’s fairly calm, you can spot tailing redfish up in the grass,” he explains. “When you see the tail, you have to get close enough for a cast but not so close that you spook the fish.”
The drum actually tip downward as they feed in the soft mud bottom. When their noses go down, their tails come up, poking above the surface just an inch or two. Spotting those tails is an art that can be difficult to master. Easing into range and making an accurate cast is equally challenging. Vaughn pushes his 19-foot flats boat across the flooded grass on a high tide with a long fiberglass pole in an effort to put his clients a cast away from those tailing drum. The trick is to drop a lure a few feet in front of the fish, close enough so they can see it in the dingy water, but far enough away that it doesn’t plunk down on top of them. Do that and you might as well search for another tail. Redfish are as unforgiving as a deer during hunting season, skittish to the point that the slightest noise, the faintest hint of danger sends them shooting off to deeper water.
“You usually get one chance,” explains Vaughn.
On this blustery day, however, Vaughn and I weren’t chasing anything. A steady, stiff wind and low tide forced us to change our tactics. Instead of stalking reds on the grass flats, my guide’s boat was anchored in a protected creek no wider than a two-lane road. When the wind blows and the water turns to chocolate milk, the best way to catch South Carolina reds is to hide from the wind and put out three or four rods baited with live shrimp, mullet or even cut bait. Bottom fishing isn’t as glamorous as sight-fishing, but it’s effective.
It’s also much more forgiving, making it the perfect opportunity for children and beginning anglers. Vaughn says the redfish population around Hilton Head is nothing short of fantastic; 6- to 10-pound drum are generously scattered throughout the tidal creeks that surround the island and mainland. Some places are better than others, of course, and with so much experience, Vaughn knows the best holes and flats.
Within minutes of casting out the first baited hook, a rod tip danced and then bowed from the pull of a fish. Reds don’t jump. Instead, they take off like an angry bull, peeling line off the reel as they head for the ocean. With a stout rod and strong line, it wasn’t really a fair fight, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. After several minutes of give and take, my guide slid a net under the 10-pound redfish, held it up for a few photos and then released it. We caught and released a half-dozen more reds before the tide swept in and moved the fish up into the thick grass. On a calm day, we would have followed, but like a Hilton Head golfer searching for a ball hooked into the woods, we would have been hunting something we would have never found.