Captain Mikey Clark of Right Tide Charters
By Ford Walpole
Captain Mike Clark (or Mikey, as he is affectionately known to his friends) has been inshore fishing Lowcountry waters his entire life. He grew up in Hanahan and was raised jon boat fishing the Cooper River with his father. For the past several years, Mikey has been running Right Tide Charters as a professional fishing guide.
Mikey holds the Louisiana state record for an 8.66-pound sheepshead, caught on a fly in 2017. He also helped his father-in-law, Craig Pagels, to catch the potential South Carolina record for the same species, but his conservationist spirit inspired them to tag and release the sheepshead. Captain Mikey is honored to be a chosen guide for the Lowcountry Red Trout Celebrity Classic, Charleston’s biggest inshore charity tournament, which raises money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
When considering potential fishing locations, Clark’s approach is unique: “I tend to stay away from everybody,” which is why he doesn’t fish the Charleston jetties very often. “Where we’re going today, it’ll be doubtful if we see another boat,” he told me on our first trip out. “I like to fish far up the rivers; the only thing is you spend all that time going up there and if nothing is happening, you have to run all the way back,” he says. “I’ll stay in the creeks throughout the summer because I don’t like to be around anybody else when I’m fishing,” Mikey continues.
Seasonal location options
In May and June, Clark takes clients fly fishing on the flood tides; for these trips, he often ventures to the Ashley River. He also works the Wando River, which gets a lot of pressure from fishing and development but still yields good fishing because of the vast amount of structures in the river and its surrounding creeks. From December through March, Clark heads out to the nearshore reefs seeking sheepshead.
A few years ago, The Post & Courier published an article listing good fishing spots around Charleston and even included a map to such places. “A lot of the guides got mad,” Mikey says, “but I told them: ‘Everybody already fishes those spots anyway; it’s not like they gave away any secrets!’”
Location alone hardly ensures success — it must be complemented with good fishing skills and knowledge. “It’s all in how you fish, when you fish it and what you’re fishing with,” he reminds us. “I like to fish way up the Cooper, but it takes a lot to learn to fish that area. The fish here are picky; they might like a mud minnow, while the fish in the Wando prefer a blue crab.” Up here, Mike often fishes either side of a spillway from a saltwater impoundment. The fish sit on either side of the current, waiting for bait to come out of the spillway. When his eight-year-old son Corbin was only four, he caught a 6.4-pound trout and a 32-inch red drum at this spot; the boy landed both fish on the same day, which also marked the first time he cast the rod by himself.
Live shrimp is a go-to bait for just about any inshore fishing. Joey Coz, a biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), relays an old adage about the popular crustacean: “‘Do you know how long a shrimp lives? Until it gets eaten’! Just about everything will eat a shrimp!” he says.
Shipyard Creek is a popular spot for anglers to throw a deep hole cast net for shrimp. Clark casts a nine-foot, nine-pound net, so rather than wearing himself out, he studies his Simrad, which indicates the presence of shrimp on the bottom. “I would rather spend my time looking for shrimp instead of just casting. If it’s windy at the top, the shrimp stay on the bottom; if it’s calm with no current, they will stay up a bit,” he says. Deep holing is better during the winter, but anglers can usually find bait, though some days, dozens of other boats might have the same objective. You can deep hole shrimp year-round, but Joey Coz reminds us that no more than 12 dozen shrimp may be on board a vessel from December 16 until April 30, when the recreational shrimping season is closed. SCDNR keeps our state’s saltwater fishing regulations updated through the Fish Rules App.
Clark always brings along mud minnows, a favorite bait in the Cooper River. He encouraged Chad Chinners of Blackwell’s Hardware in Hanahan to purchase a minnow tank from a place in Goose Creek that was closing “He has been selling a lot of mud minnows ever since!” he proudly exclaims.
In October and November, when bait becomes scarce in brackish water off the Cooper River, Mikey has caught largemouth bass in the same waters that host red drum, locally referred to as spot-tail bass. He has discovered that flounder love a white trick worm with a weighted hook, an artificial bait designed for largemouth bass.
Bait debates, habitat and wind
In general, trout prefer live bait such as shrimp or mud minnows, but they are also attracted to artificial bait. When Captain Mikey targets flounder, he chooses finger mullet. “When it comes to bait,” he says, “the biggest thing is water clarity. I want something alive and moving. If I am fishing nasty, murky water, I am putting a blue crab or a dead shrimp on the hook — bait that produces scent — to target flounder and reds.”
Different seasons call for different tactics. Mikey continues: “In the winter, you are fishing flats and just trying to keep up with the schools. During the summer, you want to look for what baits are running, and you are trying to fish structure: sea walls, docks and bridges.”
Captain Clark points out that fishing is more of an art than a science and ultimately remains a mystery dependent on luck. “A lot of times, I just know when it’s going to be a good day or a bad day. I used to keep journals of wind temperature, barometric pressure, current, tide and moon phase,” he says. “But when I started looking back at my records, I realized that even when all of the conditions were the same, the fishing was usually completely different each time!
“It does seem like, no matter what, though, when you are fishing a southwest wind, you are usually going to catch fish.” He relays the following angler proverbs that support this trend: ‘If it’s blowing from the south, catch ‘em in the mouth!’ and ‘west is best!’
As a conscientious angler and guide who seeks to protect the future of his craft, Mikey practices conservation, which he hopes proves infectious to his clients. One way he does this is by tagging fish. Clark explains why he became interested in tagging: “The first tagged fish I caught was a 30-inch redfish. I caught her again 364 days later, and she had grown another two inches. I later caught her a third time in the same spot. I even had a fish reproduction mount made of her, and I placed a tag on the mount. That fish really inspired me to get into tagging!
“I strongly encourage clients to practice catch and release, and I usually tag at least one fish per trip to educate clients. Clients love watching me tag a fish; they really enjoy being a part of it.” Species Captain Mikey has tagged include snook, flounder, redfish, black drum, sheepshead and jack crevalle. He notes that a flounder he tagged ended up in Florida.
For the past four years, SCDNR biologist Joey Coz has been heading up the South Carolina Marine Game Fish Tagging Program (MGFTP). According to the website: “[The program] began in 1974 and was the first state-sponsored public tagging program on the East Coast. The program was initiated with a small contribution from the Charleston-based South Carolina Saltwater Sportfishing Association. Today, the program receives funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sport Fish Restoration Act and South Carolina Saltwater Recreational Fishing License Funds. The tagging program has proven to be a useful tool for promoting the conservation of marine game fish and increasing public resource awareness. In addition, the program has provided biologists with valuable data on movement and migration rates between stocks, growth rates, habitat utilization, and mortality associated with both fishing and natural events.”
On my first trip with Right Tide, Joey Coz accompanied us and assisted with the tagging, an activity he conducts with other volunteer taggers several times throughout the year. Next year, he plans to join even more fishing trips with selected guides in the area to provide instruction regarding proper tagging and catch-and-release techniques.
“The true value of MGFTP is in the outreach of catch and release programs,” Coz says. “The most important thing I want people to know is that when you do catch a tagged fish, always release the fish and keep the tag intact.” He notes that anglers should “write down the tag number, the fish’s length, and the location. Then, go to DNR.sc.gov/fishtag, and choose from hats, shirts, buffs, towels, keychains and other swag.”
“Through the program, we are trying to get people away from the grip-and-grin photos. The number-one factor to the fish’s survival is keeping it in the water. With so many people moving to the coast, and fish getting more pressure, proper fish handling is more crucial than ever. You should always support the fish’s body weight with two hands and hold it horizontally if you take it out of the water. Keep your hands out of the fish’s gills, and always use rubberized, knotless nets,” he continues.
Joey encourages anglers to minimize a fish’s time out of the water — he notes that it is even better to leave large bull reds in the water altogether, and snap boat-side photos before releasing the fish. “Red drum are spawning when the water is at its warmest,” he explains. “As the water temperature increases, the amount of dissolved oxygen decreases, and the fish tire out more quickly and revive more slowly. Historically, fish populations don’t do well when they are pressured heavily while spawning. Therefore, anglers should consider targeting bull reds outside of the August through September spawning window. Afterward, the water is cooler, and for the most part, the fish have finished spawning. You’ll still catch them; they’re still out there!” Coz advises.
Andy Johnson and his fiancée Kylie Smith have made four trips with Mikey. Last weekend, Kylie’s mother Laura and I tagged along with them on an amazing trip: Andy caught a 19-inch trout, Laura landed a 26.25-inch spot-tail, her first fish since childhood and Andy caught a 27-inch tagged redfish. Over the course of the afternoon, Kylie and Andy reeled in a number of impressive spot-tails and black drum. The trip culminated with Andy catching and releasing a monster black drum, measuring 33.5 inches and weighing in at 27 pounds.
Andy reflects on why he continues to book return trips with Mikey: “I have fished for redfish with guides in Texas, Louisiana and Florida, but the fish I have caught here in South Carolina with Mikey are bigger than the fish I have caught anywhere else. When you fish with Mikey, you always catch fish, and he jokes around with you; it’s really more like you’re fishing with a buddy than going with a guide!”
Passionate outdoorswoman Tarra Stoddard has fished with Clark numerous times and describes the experience thusly: “Mikey works extremely hard to put his clients on the fish. His knowledge of the bait and location of the particular species you’re fishing for is bar none. As you reel the fish in, you can see his excitement, and his love for fishing! This along with his laid-back attitude makes each fishing trip with him a great experience!”
To book your own trip, check out Right Tide Charters at www.righttidecharters.com and on Facebook or Instagram (@righttidecharters). You may reach Captain Mikey Clark at (843) 991-8154.
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 email@example.com.