Catch the ‘Big Prize’

June 28, 2023

By Clay Bonnyman Evans

Photo: Captain Buddy’s Facebook page

In early spring, anglers in the waters around Hilton Head Island often go after sheepshead, also knowns as “convict fish,” distinctive not just for their black-and-white stripes but also their square, blunt teeth, useful in crushing the hard shells of mollusks and barnacles.

But here’s just one sharp, even pointed, difference between spring and summer fishing in local waters: Sheepshead have taken their human-like teeth farther offshore, while no fewer than 15 species of shark are teeming in and around Calibogue Sound.

“During summer, when the water has gotten hot, we have sharks here in huge numbers,” says Buddy Brinkley, owner of Captain Buddy’s fishing charter service. “We have more sharks in this area than anywhere else on planet earth. It’s a giant shark nursery in summertime.”

Among the species found in Hilton Head waters are hammerheads, bonnetheads, bull sharks, lemon sharks, tiger sharks, blacktip sharks and even the occasional great white. Buddy and his guests often fish for shark in Calibogue Sound, the deep channel between Hilton Head and Daufuskie islands.

But sharks are far from the only, or even favorite, saltwater quarry from June through September, which is generally considered the best fishing season in the Lowcountry, thanks to warm water and offshore current upwelling.

Numerous game species can be found in and around inshore tidal creeks and smaller bodies of water, from red drum (aka redfish) to flounder to speckled sea trout (actually a member of  the drum family, Sciaenidae, not the trout family, Salmonidae).

“The big difference in the near-shore bite is that the sheepshead have left,” says Capt. Buddy. “They’ve been replaced by Spanish and king mackerel. There’s an old saying that once the monarch butterflies have shown up, then the mackerel are here.”

Anglers go for both Spanish and king mackerel, which are known for having teeth as sharp as their distant fishy cousin, the shark.

Near-shore, or littoral, waters off Hilton Head Island provide excellent summer fishing, in part because they are studded with artificial reefs built upon everything from sunken U.S. Army tanks to defunct New York subway cars, says Buddy, an Army veteran. The reefs teem with countless game species in warm summer waters.

From late May through September, cobia, aka ling cod, and known locally as “brownies,” are “the big prize” in nearshore waters, Buddy says. The largest cobia ever caught was 135.9 pounds, and catching cobia up to 40 or 50 pounds is not uncommon during Hilton Head’s summer-fishing season.

“The early part of summer is a really good time for cobia, so that’s what we’re normally targeting at near-shore reefs,” he says, along with smaller sea bass.
Captain Buddy’s also takes guests 25 to 50 miles from the sandy shores of the island to fish deeper, offshore waters.

“We fish live bottom-coral reefs and ledges, which hold vermilion snapper, triggerfish and grouper,” as well as larger sea bass and amberjack, Buddy says.  

Anglers can keep up to two red snapper, prized on seafood menus for their sweet, mild flavor, per day in South Carolina state waters, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. But the species is not often caught close to shore, and regulations have limited the catch in federal waters in recent years.

“You’re only allowed to keep red snapper two days out of the entire year this year” in offshore South Carolina waters, compared to six weeks in the Gulf of Mexico, says Buddy, who lives in Bluffton with his wife Casey and their two small daughters.

Despite the wide variety of prized species in local waters, Buddy doesn’t hesitate to name the king mackerel as his favorite summer-season fish to catch.

“It takes a lot of discipline to get them to the boat. They have huge eyes, so they’re not going to hit big tackle and you have to fight them on a very light drag,” he says. “A million things can go wrong. But bringing in a massive fish on a tiny little treble hook is very rewarding.”

Blacktip Shark

Blacktip Shark
Blacktip sharks are recognizable by a prominent “Z” line along their sides, a moderately long and pointed snout, robust body, and black tips on the pectoral, dorsal, and pelvic fins. They are often confused with spinner sharks, which also have black tips on their anal fins and a longer snout.
Average Size: 60 inches, 40 pounds
South Carolina state record: 163 pounds (2009)
Maximum age: Approx. 23 years

Black Drum

Black Drum
Deep-bodied, silvery-gray to dark gray with blackish fins. Young fish have four to five vertical black bars that disappear with age. Mouth inferior and horizontal, lower jaw with 10-13 pairs of barbels in multiple rows. Body scales large and comblike, lateral line extends to hind margin of tail fin.
Average Size: 14 inches, 2.2 pounds
South Carolina state record: 89 pounds (1978)
Maximum age: Approx. 60 years

King Mackeral

King Mackerel
Back iridescent bluish-green; sides silver; first dorsal fin with light and uniform pigment and 14-16 spines; snout much shorter than rest of head; posterior maxilla (mouth) exposed and reaching posterior portion of eye; lateral line with abrupt downward curve at second dorsal fin.
Average Size: 33 inches, 10 pounds;
South Carolina state record: 62 pounds (1976)
maximum age: Approx. 14 years