by William F. Randall
On the north end of Folly Island, a short drive from downtown Charleston, South Carolina, a worn asphalt road—once the primary corridor of a U.S. Coast Guard Station — points visitors onward toward the transition between ocean waves and salt marsh. Now, only the occasional concrete foundation and haphazard spray painted decorations remain as signs of human occupation. Walking this path toward the water on a Memorial Day evening, a group of four friends marched ahead of me to the tune of a handheld boombox. An elderly man passing by in the opposite direction looked down at my Penn spinning rod, looked behind him toward the group, shook his head slightly, and said, “Good luck having a peaceful evening out here.”
“You never know,” I said amicably, continuing on. The man turned and walked away, in evident disbelief.
My stride was relatively unburdened by the weight of my rod, tackle bag slung over one shoulder, and bucket with a half-functioning cast net and navy blue Yeti cup. In short order I passed the group. As the road turned from asphalt to the thick sand of a rising dune, the path narrowed. A group of two women and two men with a little boy of about four walked methodically ahead. I slowed my step to follow them to the dune’s crest. Like a curtain drawn back to bathe a stage in spotlight, the white and rust-colored Morris Island Lighthouse seemed to slowly ascend from the sand, the wind-tossed waters of the Atlantic appearing below.
One by one, each remarked, “Oh my. Oh my.” The little boy’s pace quickened with excitement toward the water, white t-shirt tucked into dark shorts.
Surveying the beach below, I decided to approach a rock jetty extending between waves and river, fully exposed by low tide. I set my bag, rod, and bucket down, and sat on a flat rock at the jetty’s end to observe the evening and sip on the cold Yeti.
It was just after 7:00 p.m. The nadir of low tide had passed, and an east wind gusting between ten to fifteen knots appeared to gently urge waves to return inshore. In time, they yielded. A current formed along the beach, carrying refreshment once again to the creeks and mud flats and oyster beds between Folly and Morris Islands. Small shore birds drifted overhead in the wind to examine the waves below for baitfish, like sentries of secrets held beneath the water’s surface. I watched them. They pitched and rolled, wings almost motionless, and a handful of seagulls and a lone pelican joined their search party. Approximately forty yards into the water’s edge, one dove and secured its evening meal. Another followed. Where baitfish school, larger fish often lurk nearby—especially on a moving tide. I set down my refreshment to pick up my rod.
From a fishing trip the previous Wednesday with my friend Robert, I had been given a red ¼ ounce jig head with a soft plastic jerk bait that still adorned my line. The bait produced a twenty-inch redfish while fishing dock pilings around Crosby’s Seafood that afternoon, and I hoped it might do the same once more. I cast the bait toward the area where the birds dived. Encumbered by the crosswind, it flew perhaps only twenty yards. I retrieved it in a combination of short jerks interspersed with reeling and waiting. Moving swiftly in the current, it returned off to my left, as if coming from downstream. The second cast, sent low above the water to eliminate as much wind as possible, carried ten yards farther. Compensating for the current, I slowly walked down the shoreline and twitched the bait along, as if trolling. A handful of casts and walks later, I felt a slight tension on the line. Doubtful as to whether a fish or some sort of structure beneath the water was responsible, I pulled back to set the hook and the bait returned with ease, though the soft plastic was pulled down on the hook beneath the jig head.
Maybe it was a fish after all, I thought.
Walking back up the beach, I cast again to the same spot as before and started to twitch the lure down the beach. In seconds my rod tip bobbed twice in return, as if the recipient of a polite handshake. When it bobbed a more vigorous third time, I pulled back quickly and firmly on the rod to set the hook. The reel’s braided line came to life, and the fiberglass rod bowed toward the sea as if in tribute to its wonder.
After a short fight, a small Spanish mackerel flopped ashore. My excitement was immediate as I saw its characteristic yellow spots and sharp, powerful “V” of a tail, designed to swim with maximum efficiency and speed in the assault of baitfish from the Gulf of Mexico all along the east coast in warmer months. I snapped a quick photo and returned it to the water to be gently revived, as it had become surprisingly lethargic after the brief fight. A curious gull swooped down to observe as the mackerel slowly swam with its head above water, then disappeared beneath the brown-blue surface in a flash of light, its strength recovered.
Despite the Spanish mackerel’s tendency to feed in schools, no more bites were produced that evening, and as the sun set around 8:30 I packed my gear and began the walk back up the dune. Orange beams of light cast shadows of Palmetto trees and rock jetties on the sand below. The Morris Island Lighthouse continued to stand guard, resolute, witness to thousands upon thousands of similar stories and joy and excitement at the beauty of nature, yet modest enough to not speak a word throughout decades. Music from the group of friends, stationed near the tree line, drifted on the breeze and out to sea, imperceptible in its tune but sure in its rhythm. The lone pelican above the river was joined by another, then two, then a dozen, continuing to dive into the center of the channel and then right along the jetty where moments before my bait had drifted through the water. They glided overhead and wove back and forth between each other like couples slow-dancing, wings spread wide, then exited the aerial dance floor with a fold of their wings and a meteoric descent in pursuit of a buffet of tiny, silver baitfish.
Tempted though I was to return and cast again, I stood and watched from the dune’s peak as that circle of life, and hunter, and hunted, and the beauty of winds and waves and lighthouse unfolded with the grace of a Broadway production. To cast a rod and catch a fish on an evening such as this was to be reminded, in the paraphrased words of my brother Hampton, that though the play of nature and life continues on all around us, for a brief moment I was allowed the privilege of connecting with it through line and lure, joining in the performance.
In a way, the old man’s sarcastic well-wishes along the spray-painted Coast Guard road proved fruitful; though even without a fish or a rod, satisfaction is found in knowing that to simply witness the rhythms of nature, as the world drifted off to sleep, would have proved fruitful just the same.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.