King tides on the fly with Captain Will Sneed
Captain Will Sneed has been angling Lowcountry inshore waters his whole life. He worked as an inshore fishing guide for a couple of years before starting Charleston Golf Cart Rentals, on James Island and Folly Beach. Initially — and like everybody else — Will fished with spinning rods and reels. A number of years ago, though, he tried his hand at saltwater fly fishing.
When he did, he discovered a new world of Lowcountry waters. “It took me awhile to get into it,” he says. “But the first time I got a fly right in front of a redfish and he saw the fly and started going sideways towards it and coming straight at me with his tail out of the water chasing the fly, I was hooked!”
Will loves to fish the flats, a sporadic tide-dependent activity that this year’s high tides have made especially seductive. He explains: “If you want to get up in the good fishing spots, you really want a six-foot tide or higher. To get the most bang for your buck, you need to get up past the thick marsh grass to where the harder ground is — places that don’t get covered by water as often. The fishing is better where the grass is sparse and you have areas with half grass and half water. You need spots where you have enough water to drop a fly. And of course, you’re looking for redfish tails the whole time.”
Will often fishes with his friend Michael Ray. Ray, of Surffish Realty, is also a licensed guide who leads dolphin tours and has taken clients fishing throughout the years. These days, the pair of locals pole the flats in a flat-bottom 19-foot Carolina Skiff.
Will offers an image of saltwater fly fishing: “I tell you an analogy Michael and I have come up with: Fly fishing is a lot like golfing. Once you learn the technique, sometimes your cast goes just right; it’s the same as when you hit the perfect golf shot: you just know it right away. Fly fishing is just like that. We call it the golf shot when we get that perfect cast.
“When you go from 10 o’clock to two o’clock with the rod, it’s all about timing. You wait on the line to load in the air and then, you start your momentum forward, releasing at just the right time — depending on conditions.” Sneed works a nine-foot, eight-weight G. Loomis GL3 rod with a Venture 7 reel. “It’s an old rig, but a nice one,” he adds.
Though Sneed tirelessly works on his casting form, he takes a practical, instinctive approach to fly selection: “We have crab flies and shrimp flies. Water clarity seems to determine what fly you throw; the darker the water, the darker the fly. I like a black crab and a fuzzy-looking fly. I just go into the fly shop and say to myself: ‘That looks like something the fish will bite’; I don’t ever pay attention to the names of the flies!”
Fly fishing has all but become Will’s exclusive means of angling. His current, personal fly fishing record is a 28-inch spottail bass. “Now, I usually don’t even take bait with me in the boat. Even when the high tides aren’t high enough to pole the flats, I fly fish the edge of the grass. At low tide, I get in knee-deep, shallow water and watch for signs: the fish wakes, or their backs, or shrimp popping in the water and telling you where the fish are coming through,” he says.
Captain Will contrasts spin-fishing and fly fishing: “With a spinning rod and reel, most of the time you’re using bait and it’s a scent thing — you’re hoping the fish catch the scent of your bait. On the fly, not only do you have to find the fish, you must be skilled enough to drop the fly in front of them and then, you’ve got to trick the fish into biting an artificial lure. It’s a lot more work. You have to pole through the grass and the wind matters a lot more. You need to be a lot more stealthy with the boat.”
For Will, inshore fly fishing is also a rewarding endeavor, the success of which is determined by immeasurable, intrinsic standards. “You’re definitely not gonna catch nearly as many fish with a fly rod, but when you do catch one, especially that world-class redfish, Man, it’s special!”
On the fly, Sneed has experienced recent success this spring. “Right now, reds and flounder are in the shallow water with the trout out a little deeper. The Spanish mackerel are jumping in the rivers right now; we use a toothy-critter leader to keep the Spanish from biting through the line.
“Last night, we got on some ladyfish in thigh-high water on the outgoing tide. They hit a light, spoon-like fly. We caught them by accident; we were hunting the reds. People call ladyfish a poor man’s tarpon because they jump and flip on the fly rod and are a lot of fun! Man, those ladyfish had us running all over the boat. We caught three that were about three pounds apiece.”
Though Captain Will has experienced success fishing the flats during the fall, he really enjoys spring and early summer fishing. “In the fall, the fish are trying to fatten up for the winter. They are eating good and there’s more bait in the water. This time of year, there is less bait for them to eat, so the reds are more likely to hit a fly — they aren’t as picky.”
Sneed points out the benefits of flats fishing on the king tides. “With that high-water fishing, not as many people are doing it and you have so many more areas to fish. Wind plays a part in the tide, too. If you have an onshore wind, the tide gets a whole lot higher; the wind will push the water from offshore up on the beaches and into the rivers; it’s almost like it has the effect of a mini storm surge. And with an offshore wind, the tide won’t end up getting as high as it was supposed to.”
This April in the Bahamas, Will landed his first bonefish on the fly rod. He has been going to the Keys since high school, when he began making the trip with his friend, Donnie Watson. “We try to get down there to the Keys twice a year. Fishing the Keys and the Bahamas, you learn a lot more about the wind. Here, you can get between trees on the bank or an island, but down there, you have so much more open water and it’s harder to get under lee,” or in an area protected from the wind.
Sneed outlines a goal for his next trip south: “I want to catch a grand slam! Here, a grand slam is a redfish, a flounder and a trout, but down there, it’s a tarpon, a bonefish and a permit. Permits are easy to catch on the reefs, but they’re real hard to catch on the flats,” he notes.
We have some spring tides on the horizon, so the good Lord willing and the creek does rise, we know where Captain Will is sure to be — but “in Lowcountry waters” is about as specific a location as he’s willing to disclose!
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.