Discovering Hunting Island

This popular South Carolina destination is at its best for redfish right now.

On The Fly Saltwater

January 2023

Article by Jimmy Jacobs

It was frustrating! The On The Fly South crew was nearing the end of a half-day charter out of Beaufort, South Carolina. Our guide had poled us into the grass just northeast of the Sea Island Parkway bridge spanning the Harbor River to connect Butchers and Harbor Islands.

Our target species was redfish. Though we were back inside the marsh grass line, farther inland and out of casting range, the movement of reds was obvious. Yet the water was so shallow we could not get closer. Our day of exploring the water near Hunting Island State Park, thus came to a disappointing end.

January is a good month for redfish at Hunting Island. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

Hunting Island State Park covers 5,000 acres of beaches, maritime forest and marshes roughly 17 miles east of Beaufort. The park is home to an historic 1875 vintage lighthouse. This isle is not a secret and the site is the Palmetto State’s most visited state park, with more than a million folks showing up annually. Fortunately, the waters around the island are just as popular with game fish as is the park for tourists. The top species here are redfish, seatrout, flounder, whiting and pompano. Of those, the red drum are at the top of the list.

But, let’s double back to the anecdote that opened this story. Having surveyed the shoreline while getting frustrated on the boat, we developed a plan B for the next day. Driving out to the bridge over the Harbor River, we parked on the right-of-way on the mainland side. Stretching to the north was a field of short spartina grass. Describing it as a field was because it had a hard sand surface that was completely dry during low tide. It was so firm one could easily walk on it. And, that is exactly what we did.

The spartina grass “field.” Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

We first headed north toward a small tree-covered hammock, then turned east toward the river. There we picked out a couple of spots where the grass was not so thick. It was then time to dig into our bag of saltwater tactics for one of the toughest techniques to master. We patiently waited for the rising tide to bring the water to us.

And then the water arrived! Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

Once the tide began lapping at our ankles, movement farther out in the grass revealed the occasional tail or back of a redfish moving our way. By the time the water reached our calves, those fish were within casting range. We may have gotten skunked the day before, but we gained a bit of helpful knowledge.

On The Island

Hunting Island itself also holds several good places to find redfish, trout and flounder. With regard to the redfish, January also is a great time to target them here. Smaller keeper-sized reds can be found in Johnson Creek that separates Hunting Island from the mainland. Probably the best place on this tidal creek at this time of year is from the Sea Island Parkway bridge to the  mouth of the creek at the inlet on the north end of the isle. A boat or kayak is best suited for this fishing, but the beach at the north end also borders some fishable water.

The better areas for shore-bound anglers are found nearer the southern end of the island. In that location there is a fishing pier jutting out into the channel separating Hunting from Fripp Island. For fly casters, however, that structure is of little interest. Rather you can walk east from the pier on the Nature Center Scenic Trail to reach the boardwalk to Little Hunting Island and its Boneyard Beach. This stretch of sand gets its name from the many dead trees that have been felled by erosion and lay on the beach as driftwood.

Little Hunting Island Boneyard Beach. Photo by Zane Jacobs.

When the tide is coming in it floods much of this woody debris, providing structure that attracts game fish. Redfish, seatrout and whiting are species that show up here. Also, a long sandbar is just off the shore, running north along the beach. The trough between it and the island is noted for giving up some bull reads of up to 48 inches in the fall and winter months.

Another angling opportunity is found inland and a bit farther north on the island, A saltwater lagoon with a drain opening on the beach fills and empties with the change of the tide, but the north end of it is deep enough to hold water and fish  constantly. Access to the lagoon is best near the junction of Hunting Island Drive and Cabin Road in the park.

Seatrout can turn up on Boneyard Beach, in the lagoon or at Russ Point. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

A final angling option is found at the Russ Point Boat Launch that is at the end of the road running west from the fishing pier. The ramp is at the mouth of an unnamed tidal creek that runs inland past the observation deck at the end of the park’s Marsh Boardwalk Trail. The area around the mouth of the creek is a good spot for kayak anglers to sample the fishing.

Whether during a serious fishing trip or an afternoon during a family getaway, Hunting Island provides some great fly casting options.