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On the fly

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Three generations of the McLaurin family — Don, Barnes and 10-year-old Keane — went flyfishing together for the first time at Hobcaw Barony this summer.

None of them seemed to mind that they didn’t catch a fish, even though they paid guide Steve Thomas $300 for the half-day outing. The opportunity to fish in Hobcaw is a rare treat for the Charleston fishermen, who spend time together at the McLaurin home in DeBordieu during the summers.

The fact that they didn’t hook an elusive spottail bass — called redfish in other places — was not a surprise to fishing guide Mark Young of Hagley Estates. “I tell everybody it’s the toughest game in town,” he said. “That being said, the reward is just fantastic.”

Thomas, the McLaurins’ guide, has fished around the world and has a reverence for the pristine Hobcaw marshland fed by North Inlet. When the textile business went south, he went to Alaska and worked as a salmon fishing guide. He returned to the South Carolina coast and recognized there was something special about Hobcaw. He approached the Belle Baruch Foundation about setting up a fishing program. “They said let us set up a program and you run it for us,” said Thomas, who guides clients to the marshgrass flats at the southern end of the Barony from May to October when the fish come in to eat fiddler crabs. “Very visual,” Thomas calls the experience of fishing the marsh grass on high tide.

Fishing trips to Hobcaw with Thomas or his associate, Young, are strictly catch-and-release. The trip is more about the experience. “The only way I keep a fish,” Thomas said, “is if it’s legal size — 15 to 23 inches — and it’s hurt real bad. I only kept one, and I led it around on a string for three hours and it was still living.” Young has his own respect for the Barony. “I think that place is sacred ground,” he said. “With it being kept in a pristine state, every time I go in there and get in the water I wonder when was the last time another person set foot here. It could have been a hundred years, a thousand years. Who knows? It’s extremely special.”

When Thomas and his party arrive at the end of the causeway near the Barony’s observation tower, a southwestern wind is keeping the tide at bay. “If it was a northeast wind, we’d be covered up already,” he said, pointing to the dunes that define the entry to North Inlet.

The spottail bass is a relentless predator that favors fiddler and blue crabs hiding in mud. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources says crabs make up 68 percent of the fish’s diet in summer. Thomas says he and his fishing party will wade into the marsh, sight fishing. “We’re not just going out there and stand, hoping one comes by,” he said. “We’re going to be walking and looking for tails up in the air where they’ve got their head down on the bottom feeding, normally, on fiddler crabs.”

The fish is concentrating so hard on its own prey that it fails to recognize a predator with a fly rod. “This is as much like hunting as it is like fishing,” Thomas said. “It’s like slipping through the woods and trying to find a deer. You can get fairly close when he’s got his head on the bottom. He’s got the water all stirred up. When that tail goes down and he starts to move off, you strip the line. You don’t strip the fly toward the fish. Fish are not used to the bait swimming toward them. They are used to it swimming away. We are trying to simulate the prey-predator response from the fish. If he’s cruising, looking for something, you see a bow wake. Throw 4 or 5 feet in front of him, let him get to it and move the fly.”

The fly is part of the beauty of the sport. Young ties dozens of different ones in his home office at Hagley and sells most of them through Pawleys Island Outdoors. “There is no bait made by man that comes alive when you put in the water like a fly does,” Young said. “They look like they are alive, they are breathing in the current. It’s a game to figure out what the fish wants: the colors, weight, size, all those things.”

He learned his trade on the Great Lakes, and met Thomas while working at the Orvis store in Myrtle Beach.

“For whatever reason,” Young said, “we just hit it off from Day One. We’ve been best friends since.”

A licensed guide, Young has taken some clients fishing when Thomas was overloaded. More and more people want to try it. “The attraction for me, and for most everybody,” Young said, “is that all fish live in beautiful places. Normally, you are in a situation where you are sight fishing. You are hunting them. When they expose their position, it’s up to you to get a fly in there. The difficulty is dealing with the wind. Uniquely at Hobcaw, we are at a disadvantage because your line can get hung up in the grass. It’s the most difficult flyfishing I’ve done.”

Young tells fishermen they are throwing a line, not a fly. “Everybody loves to watch a beautiful caster,” Young said. “We all think we are and find out we are not. To take a piece of fur and feather and tie it on a hook and catch something, there’s just nothing else like it.”

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