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Flounder: Giggers dispute claims about overfishing

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Lawton Rogers doesn’t come to North Inlet at night just for the flounder.

Oh, he will gig a fish the size of a doormat in a heartbeat, but there is so much more to this 13-square-mile divot in the coastline between Pawleys Island and Winyah Bay that pleases the eye and the ear and, ultimately, the soul. Flounder is just the exclamation point on nature’s poem.

“When you go out at night,” Rogers said, “it’s like being on the dark side of the moon. It’s an alien place if there ever was one. You have no idea where you are. You go up little creeks and turn corners: left fork here, right fork there. Pretty soon you say, ‘I think I need to be over there.’ This grass line looks like that grass line. There are no road signs. It’s just a weird place, but what I really like about it, its appeal to me, is that I’m more of a hunter than a fisherman. Fishing, I’m dragging a bobber out there or a minnow where I can’t see what’s going on. With these lights, you can see down into the water and see all those creatures that you can’t see during the daytime. You know they are there, but you can’t see them. I love being able to see ’em. I love being out here at night.”

Rogers calls North Inlet DeBordieu’s private estuary, and creek access to it is the reason he lives there. He planned a flounder gigging trip last week with Kim Cauthen, who keeps a boat at his dock, and neighbor Joey Rabon. They had heard about a petition being circulated to limit flounder catches to five 15-inch fish per day for anglers and giggers. Cauthen thought giggers were being unfairly blamed for the perceived shortage because some exceed the daily limit of 15 flounder for an individual and 30 per boat.

Mel Bell of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources said increasing the size limit to 15 inches would reduce the catch by about 30 percent but reducing the limit would have minimal effect. He said very few anglers or giggers are catching the limit. Rabon, another DeBordieu resident who goes to North Inlet regularly, said he couldn’t remember a time when he brought home his limit but knows people who gig more fish than they could possibly need. “Coming out here at night,” Rogers said, “it’s not a case of just picking these things up.”

The three giggers saw plenty of small flounder on their trip to North Inlet last week. In four hours, they gigged just four fish. “It’s more about the experience,” Rogers said.

North Inlet is the gold standard among the 28 estuaries in the U.S. designated to protect and promote coastal stewardship through research and education. A saltmarsh lagoon of creeks and seagrass, it has remained clean because it’s remote. It can be reached from Pawleys Island and Murrells Inlet through the ocean by boaters who know the locations of two dangerous bar crossings. Boaters from Georgetown can reach the inlet by sea or from Winyah Bay through Mud Bay via Jones Creek, No Man’s Friend Creek and Haulover Creek. The bay and creeks are aptly named. Mud Bay is shallow, and the tidal ebbs and flows in the creeks can be half a tidal cycle out of phase with the ocean. Access by land exists only from private property at DeBordieu Colony and Hobcaw Barony.

For sportsmen with a good boat, it’s worth the trip in the late evening to watch the sun set. “It looks like a Clemson Tiger paw right there,” Cauthen said as the orange sun slid behind a cloud. “How could you see something that ugly in a sunset?” Rabon asked. As a former University of South Carolina football player, Rogers agreed. They enjoyed gigging each other before the flounder became visible.

Down in the water, minnows are going wild over the tiny bugs the boat attracts. The sun sinks a little farther in the west, changing from Clemson orange to tangerine. The western sky clings to its pinks and oranges and blues as long as possible. The color reflects off the water, magnifying the beauty. In the east, the sky is dark; the water and land even darker. Night descends on North Inlet, and everything goes black.

“It’s a different world,” Rabon said. “You can see redfish, sheepshead, stingrays; it’s like going to an aquarium.”

Cauthen’s boat is customized for flounder gigging. With its flat bottom, it skims through shallow water where flounder hide to ambush prey. Topside, there’s a platform with room for all three to stand. A troll motor moves the boat in the shallows. The boat’s generator begins to hum, the lights illuminate the bottom, and the search for flounder begins.

The three giggers stand like herons in the shallows ready to strike their prey. They look and look at the passing shoreline — at mud and oysters and crabs but no flounder. If this were easy, there would be a lot more boats out here. The giggers have invaded an alien world, and they are content to be patient because nature makes the rules. “The point is that you can’t just come out here when you want to and gig flounder,” Rogers said. The low tide has to arrive around midnight so they can gig for a time on a rising tide’s clearer water. If it’s too windy, ripples in the water make the bottom hard to see. If there’s no breeze at all, the bugs eat giggers alive. Rain makes the water cloudy. The water is clear in winter, but the flounder migrate. Despite all that, North Inlet is still a magnet for man and fish.

“This is the reason I’m here,” said Rogers, who grew up in Conway in a family with a house at Cherry Grove Beach. “I always loved the creek,” he said, “pulling the shrimp seine, crabbing, fishing. That place got developed in a way I didn’t like.” Easy access to North Inlet sold him on DeBordieu.

A stingray slid past the boat, and the trio remembered stories about contact with a big loggerhead turtle in the inlet and a whale in the South Santee River. Cauthen showed them a video of an octopus a fisherman pulled into his boat on the ocean. Rogers said he saw 300 horseshoe crabs stuck together in a mating ritual on his last trip to North Inlet.

Suddenly, Cauthen plunged his three-pronged gig into a flounder, the first of the night. He measures it at 15 inches — one inch beyond legal size — and drops it into a keeper box where it flaps for a few minutes. The giggers point to another flounder that is little more than a silhouette in the mud. It’s borderline legal size. Cauthen gives it a nudge with the side of his gig, and he moves away. “I don’t like taking them when they are close,” he said.

Rabon said an experienced gigger can tell when a flounder is legal size: 14 inches. “They actually look smaller under the water than they really are,” he said. Stick what looks like a 16-incher and pull out an 18.

Oh, this water. It’s tricky all right. Cauthen heads the wrong way up a creek before he checks his GPS and turns around. It makes members of the fishing party wonder how many giggers have spent the night at North Inlet lost in its maze of creeks until daylight.

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