Fly Casting The Holy City

No, It’s not the Vatican. It’s Charleston, South Carolina!

September 2023

Article and photos by Jimmy Jacobs.

Sailors entering the harbor saw so many church spires that Charleston got the nickname “The Holy City.” For fly fishers in the know, the waters surrounding the town also instill reverence! Whether plying the open waters of Charleston Harbor or the backwaters of the tidal rivers and creeks, there’s plenty of action to be had. A variety of saltwater denizens provide targets for casting at differing times of the year.

Capt. Ben Young on the poling platform.

Captain Ben Young has done battle with all of them in the dozen years he’s called the area home. A native of northeast Pennsylvania, who grew up fishing the Pocono Mountains, for more than a decade he has been guiding fly and light tackle anglers to those fish as well. Prior to that he spend 19 years in the Coast Guard on the waters of New Hampshire, Maine and Louisiana. His present career suits him well.

“The relationships you build in a skiff are unparalleled,” he said. “I love identifying with fishermen. This is a challenging job. You never know who you’re going to get in your boat. I can’t make the fish bite.” That situation is personified by the sticker affixed to his 18-foot Maverick Mirage HPX flats boat. It reads “Guide, Not God.” On the other hand, during an outing with the crew from On The Fly South, Capt. Young proved his mettle. Frankly it was a bad day for fly fishing. Water temperatures were rather cool for the spring and the winds were whipping at 20 knots. But, after striking out at several locations, the captain anchored just off a dock that had a good tidal current pushing under its walkway right at the shore.

Dropping our casts close to the pilings under that walkway shortly began provoking strikes from redfish. Once the fish began feeding, they also moved farther out from the structure to attack our offerings, which made the casting less dependent on precise placement. That was good, since the wind was continuing to howl. Though the reds weren’t giants, on a day like this just finding fish was an accomplishment.

On The Fly South’s Polly Dean with Capt. Young and one of the redfish.

Part of that success, undoubtedly, had to do with the flies our guide had us tie on. They were a fly Capt. Young ties himself called a Purple Rain. It is basically a purple rabbit Zonker pattern. “No matter where I fish redfish,” the captain offered, “purple works for me.”

Mud flats with shell beds are the places to look for the redfish.

Places he looks for reds in the local waters on a low tide are shallow mud flats. The fish cruise these searching for fiddler and blue crabs, as well as small mullet. During the changes of tides when the currents are flowing, Capt. Young moves to grass edges that have oyster beds along them. Here he tosses flies that imitate mud minnows that are year-round forage for the reds. As the tide crests, he moves into the grass, changing back over to crab patterns.

The reds are present year-round, with the most action in April to December. The prime time, however, is from August to October each year. “An 8-weight is my go-to rod, but I throw a 9-weight if it’s windy,” he added with regard to our fishing this day. In the summer months, however, he keeps an 11-weight handy for sharks and other big fish that may appear. While redfish are a staple of the fly angling on this part of the Carolina coast, there are plenty of other targets. Seatrout are also present year-round. Beginning in April to mid-summer cobia show up just offshore of Charleston Harbor, while the summer months offer shots at flounder, sheepshead, Spanish mackerel and black drum.

Fort Sumter at the mouth of Charleston Harbor.

Probably the most exciting fly casting to be had here is found on Charleston Harbor in the period from May on through to the late summer. That’s when big schools of jack crevalle show up here. As the water warms, these fish follow the bait pods up the harbor. Although the jacks are generally in water 40 to 50 feet deep, they usually are cruising on the surface with their fins out of the water, offering sight casting possibilities. While the jacks come in all sizes, the average fish are around 15 to 20 pounds. Fish of up to 40 pounds have been taken here as well. Popping bugs are the usual offering, which provides some explosive strikes. This is not angling designed for the faint of heart. Crevalle of this size fight hard, putting a serious bend in any rod and some aching muscles in arms.

The jacks in the harbor are always ready for a fight!

The prime area for targeting the jack crevalle is from Crab Bank up to the Port Authority docks. The former is a 22-acre submerged spit of sand in the northeast part of the harbor near the mouth of Shem Creek in suburban Mount Pleasant. The docks are up in the Cooper River.

For information on Capt. Ben Young and his Charleston Low Country Guide Service, click here.

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