Monsters in the Surf

Botany Bay Beach, South Carolina – May, 2012

When the 4am alarm buzzes I feel no temptation to hit snooze. Not on a rare shark fishing day. Joy brews coffee, sizzles bacon and packs lunch while I load fishing gear into our Toyota Corolla. We gobble up our breakfast and hit the road. It’s dark outside but the humid South Carolina air is already warm so we roll the windows down. During the first hour of the drive, from our apartment in Columbia to Walterboro—the self-proclaimed “front porch” of South Carolina’s Lowcountry—we finish our coffees and listen to NPR news.

From Walterboro we follow charming back country roads—strips of black asphalt winding through living tunnels of gnarled oak draped in Spanish moss—toward the coast. A dense fog lingers in the swampy air, glowing golden in the sun’s first rays. We pass decrepit homes and long-closed gas stations juxtaposed among tidy white plantation mansions and well-attended churches until the landscape abruptly opens into an expansive salt marsh crisscrossed with tidal creeks. I draw a deep breath, relishing that pungent yet oddly endearing sulfur-and-salt aroma emanating from the exposed marsh mud.

Sunrise at low tide on one of the tidal creeks on Edisto Island. The exposed mud gives off a distinct sulfur smell.

We crest the high bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway and descend onto Edisto Island. We pull over and park where a culvert crosses one of the tidal creeks. I rig up a couple of light lines and survey the scene. The murky water swirls from the culvert, tugged by an outgoing tide. Frequent splashes disrupt the surface, signifying the presence of baitfish. A white egret wades stealthily in the shallows, poised to nab any fish that comes too close. An older gentlemen bends at the water’s edge, checking his crab traps. Some other folks are cast-netting Menhaden. Joy and I bait our bottom rigs with shrimp and cast them into the current. We get immediate nibbles and catch a pair of Pinfish, which I swiftly kill before placing them on ice in the mini cooler I use for storing bait. After collecting half a dozen Pinfish we are ready to move on. Now I will be able to bait our shark rods while we spend valuable time catching more effective bait later. The growing swarm of biting midges is insufferable and the sun continues rising. It’s time to get to set up for big fish. We return to the car and make the short drive along the quaint gravel road leading into the heart of Botany Bay Plantation.

The road to Botany Bay.

At the parking area we slip off our tennis shoes and replace them with rubber-soled diving shoes to help protect our feet from the sharp shell fragments that make up Botany Bay Beach. We load ourselves up with awkward-to-carry gear including a pair of 11-foot surf rods, several lighter rods, rod spikes, our food and bait coolers, backpacks, and tackle bags stuffed with, among other things, several pounds of lead sinkers. What would be a comfortable half-mile hike on the elevated trail through the salt marsh is instead a strained hobble that forces us to stop frequently in order to shift our grip on the burdensome equipment. We pass skittering fiddler crabs and vocal gulls until we reach the vegetated dune ridge separating the flat marsh from the beach. As usual, the Atlantic Ocean looks brown, churned up by the rolling waves and laden with suspended sand, but the conditions are mild enough to allow for surf fishing. That’s not always the case at Botany Bay Beach.

Joy and I walk the beach until we locate a large patch of fine mud, exposed now in the low tide. We set down our gear on higher ground, among the fallen oaks and dying palms of this erosional beach. More than fifty feet of sand, shells, and mud separate us from the edge of the ocean now but in about six hours the water level will be up nearly seven feet and high tide will be pushing water into this dead forest.

Botany Bay is my favorite beach to fish for sharks and rays. The patches of pluff mud and sharp shell fragments dissuade swimmers, which is a good thing for safety because when a big shark or ray is on the line you can’t control where it goes. The mud also holds invertebrates that form the base of the food chain, so it attracts small fish as well as sharks and rays looking for a meal. Finally, rod spikes hold firm in mud. Using rod spikes in loose sand can be very frustrating, especially in strong wind, and I’ve lost an entire rod and reel combo doing that before.

I start setting up by pressing three well-spaced rod spikes firmly into the surf-swashed pluff mud. I then rig up the two heavy surf rods, sliding four-ounce spider weights onto the 65-pound test braided main lines before tying on eight-foot self-crafted wire leaders terminating in #7/0 circle hooks. I check the knots and, satisfied, attach a whole Pinfish to the first hook. I carry the rig down the beach and into the water.

Water flushes into my diving boots as I shuffle forward into the surf. I wade through the breakers into gradually deeper water, bracing as each chilly wave rolls past and sloshes salty water in my face. I hold the reel high to keep it out of the corrosive water and hop along with each wave crest and advance into every trough until I’m about waist-deep. If I go any deeper I won’t be able to cast. I plant my feet and wait for a trough in the waves, then lob the bait and sinker combination as far as out into the ocean as I can. It sails overhead and disappears with a splash. With rod high and bail open I scamper back to the beach, feeding out line while still maintaining tension. I slide the butt of the rod into a rod spike and reel in just a bit to allow the prongs on the spider weight to dig into the substrate and hold the bait in place. I activate the bait clicker and test the drag. Everything seems in order. I repeat the whole process with the second shark rod.

With shark rods set, I cast shrimp on a lighter line to catch bait…most often that means Southern Kingfish.

With both heavy lines set I towel off and Joy hands me a yogurt parfait, which I quickly consume without looking away from the rods. The tips bounce back and forth as each passing wave plucks at the lines. I rig up a light line with shrimp and fire the bait out past the breaking waves. After a minute I feel a tap-tap and set the hook and pull in Southern Kingfish, a common surf catch in this part of the country.

Kingfish seem to make for a more appealing shark bait than Pinfish, so I cut this one in half, reel in one of the shark rods, and switch out the bait. I press through the waves to cast the big bait back out, entrails dangling enticingly out of the head-half of the kingfish. I also swap the bait on the second rod, but as I wade out to cast it back out I hear Joy hollering frantically. I turn and see the other rod is bending hard. Something has already taken the bait and line is peeling off the reel fast!

Joy races to the rod, lifts it from the rod spike, and cranks the reel once to disengage the bait clicker. The drag is set much tighter than the bait clicker, and the abrupt resistance is enough to set the circle hook into the fish’s mouth. Joy can only hang on as the heavy fish runs, pulling line despite the tight drag.

Suddenly a five-foot shark erupts from the surface, spiraling through the air and crashing in a spray of water. Seconds later it leaps again, farther away, but this time when the fish crashes down the line goes limp. Joy reels in and the sinker is still there but the leader ends in kinked and frayed wire. The shark has bitten through the leader and I have learned that 120# wire is not sufficient for adult Blacktip Shark. But today that’s all we have to work with. I finally cast the baited rod and then head up the beach to tie a new rig.

Southern Kingfish – a common surf catch at Botany Bay.

Joy uses the light rod to catch another kingfish while I get the other rod set and soon we are back in action. We take turns pulling in kingfish until we’ve collected an ample supply of fresh shark bait. The tide is coming in fast now, and every twenty minutes we are forced to move the rod spikes up the beach. Now its prime time. The shark fishing at Botany Bay always seems to heat up during the incoming tide.

I look up as a flock of pelicans soars overhead. When I look back to the rods one of them is doubled over. I grab the rod and reel to set the hook. No jumps this time, just a long and powerful run until the fish comes to a complete halt. It feels as if the line has become solidly snagged. But I have experienced this before and I know the line is not hung up on a tree or anything. I’ve got my work cut out for me, for I have hooked into a massive stingray and it has resorted to a tried-and-true technique. I imagine its big disc-shaped body hugging the bottom, wing-like fins flapping sand up in an attempt to bury itself. My challenge is to get the ray off the bottom and back into the water column.

Hooked up to a surf monster and ready for a long battle.

I pull back on the rod with as much pressure as I can maintain and wait for the ray to move. I thrum my fingers on the taut line to create vibration, a tactic that seems to have some effect. The ray starts swimming again and the battle resumes. It runs parallel to shore and I have no choice but to follow it a hundred yards down the beach. The southern sun is beating down hot and sweat is rushing down my forehead and into my eyes. This game of tug-of-war continues for nearly an hour and Joy mercifully holds a water bottle to my mouth. The muscles in my arms are burning but I continue to pump the rod, cranking in bits of line each time. When the ray reaches the breaking waves I catch my first glimpse of it as the tail flips up over its body and out of the water. The fish is close, but it gets a second wind and I have no option but to hang on as it tears off 50 yards of line. It suctions down to the bottom again.

With the tide continuing to rise, and the fight far from over, Joy runs back up the beach to move the rod spikes up again. It takes me another ten minutes to fight the ray back to the breakers and I can tell that it is finally tiring. Time for the endgame. With each incoming wave I place my hand on the spool to stop the drag and walk backwards, literally dragging the ray closer with the help of the incoming water. Each time the swash recedes I hold firm until the next push of water. When the ray is finally shallow enough I transfer the rod to Joy, grab the end of long wire leader with my hands and manually haul the ray, which likely weighs upwards of 50 pounds, up the beach and out of the ocean. It flaps its wing-like pectorals and lashes wildly with its stinger-equipped tail. We (which now includes a growing group of curious spectators) gawk in awe at the massive ocean creature for a moment. I disarm it by carefully grasping its 7-inch serrated barb with a long-handled pliers and cutting the barb off at the base with a knife. With the Southern Stingray rendered harmless I flip the unusual fish over and remove the circle hook from the corner of its rubbery mouth.

This Southern Stingray was 65″ from snout to tip of the tail and was likely the heaviest fish I have caught. I removed the dangerous tail barb before handling.

After snapping a few photographs I hand the camera to Joy and she takes a picture of me holding my catch, to the best of my ability (stingrays don’t exactly come equipped with convenient handles). Then I walk the exhausted ray out past the breakers and, when it is ready to swim again, let it go. It swims away slowly and disappears beneath the waves to join its fellow monsters in the surf.

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Here are some additional fish and scenery photos from Botany Bay—one of my all-time favorite places:

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