Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “Somebody just back of you while you are fishing is as bad as someone looking over your shoulder while you write a letter to your girl.”
I have this in mind as I sit quietly in the Blackjack. Tom Colicchio, celebrity chef and restaurant magnate, stands at the bow of the small boat, lightly flicking a fly rod. The line rolls gently onto the surface of the water and he waits, still. Voysey’s executive chef Doug Blair and Captain Elliot Hillock stand at the back of the boat in silence, watching the to and fro of the casting arc. There’s a seriousness in the air I didn’t expect, a subtle veneration that proves contagious as I sit in the morning sun.
It is a perfect fall day in the Lowcountry. We have snaked up a little tributary of the Kiawah River and gently pushed our way through the spartina to the furthest point, the waterway just wide enough for the boat. All is quiet but the low hum of cicadas and the chitter chatter of marsh hens.
We’ve hit the tide just so, planned our early morning departure from Rhett’s Bluff to arrive here just at this hour. Elliot explains that we are tailing redfish as they move through the grass to feed. “It’s getting down to that magic hour,” he murmurs. “We’ve got fish moving in the grass here.” Sure enough, I see the glint of a silvery fin swishing through the water.
Tom turns to us. “Where are they getting in?” he whispers. Elliot, who is a veritable savant when it comes to the marsh and anything that inhabits it, points. “See that little feeder creek right there?”
Tom adjusts his cast, ever so slightly, to place the fly precisely where he thinks the fish will see it. But that’s the thing about tailing redfish—they are feeding in the shallow water, their heads all the way down at the bottom, so you have to place the fly precisely for there to be any chance the fish will see it. “You can see the fish,” whispers Doug. “You can look at the tail and figure out which way his head’s going and pull him off of whatever he was going for.” I watch, squinting, and sure enough, the fin is actually a tail and it’s not gliding along, but twisting around in a little radius. The fish is vertical in the water, tail up.
The tide is changing and the fish we’ve been tailing slips off into the grass. “We’ll push our way back” says Elliot. “And if we don’t see any tailers, we’ll just go straight to the next flat.”
Doug pulls a paper bag from underneath the captain’s seat. “Breakfast anyone?” He’s made parfaits and egg sandwiches. I eat my parfait as we motor slowly towards the Kiawah River, and the waterways widen. A sea plane whines overhead, and two herons startle and resettle in the spartina. As we drift around a wide corner, I point to a peculiar low patch of grass, swaying in the salty water. When I ask Elliot about it, he bends down and plucks a stalk from the water. “Sea pickles,” he says. “It looks like a little pickle. It’s just a burst of salt.”
Tom laughs. “We should harvest these and put them on the menu. Sea pickles!” I am confounded. Mostly I just like the idea that there are snacks to be had way out here. “They’re like a micro-asparagus,” explains Doug. “It has those funny little segments, like miniature bamboo—nice and crunchy.” Elliot offers me what looks like a little green bean, and I bite into it. It’s an explosion of salt, like taking a drink of ocean water. I must grimace because Doug laughs. “Goes really well with the parfait, doesn’t it?”
As we drift towards the river, Elliot is watching the marsh, eyes squinting. After a short time, he motions for Tom, and the two stand at the bow, shielding their eyes and peering towards the shore. Elliot jumps down and readies the rod. “Do you see that tail?” He is buzzing with excitement. “He’s waving right at us. You see those ripples? You can actually see his fin. That’s a big fish!” I stand, staring desperately at the shore for a long time before I see the tail. The fish is up against the shore, near hole number 15 at Cassique and across a wide expanse of spartina. All of a sudden, Tom swings his legs over the side of the boat and drops into the water. Elliot hands him a rod and then drops in next to him. We watch as they wade purposefully away from the boat.
Doug and I watch as the two get within twenty yards of the tail and then slow. “It looks like he’s beached almost,” says Doug, his voice still low. “He’s down, going for hermit crabs or something.” The wind has picked up and the taut lines of the fishing poles at the back of the boat whine eerily in the gusts. Tom appears to be directly on top of the flashing tail. He stands perfectly still. Elliot has stayed back, watching from a distance in the water.
“This is some of the most difficult fishing,” says Doug quietly. “You have to work towards catching him without getting tied up in the grass. They’re always staying away from the dolphins, so you’ve got to chase them up into the flats.” He motions to the shallow pools of water within the expanse of spartina. “As that tide comes out, they’re going to stay just shallow enough so that the dolphins can’t get them.”
After what seems like eternity, Tom and Elliot begin the long, watery trek back to the boat. As Elliot nears, he shouts, “That was the biggest tailing red I’ve ever seen!” Tom is behind him, a big smile on his face. This doesn’t appear to be a defeat—they are just thrilled to have seen such a noteworthy specimen. Tom climbs in the boat, his foot bleeding from who knows what. “These fish are so damn comfortable up here. The sharks can’t get in here, nothing can get them. They’re just sittin’ there, eatin’. At one point I nicked him and he blew out,” he tells us. “I gave up and started heading back, but then I turned around to look and he was right there!” Elliot helps Tom bandage his foot, and the three talk excitedly.
It was crazy how close to the shore he was!
There was no way he was going to go for it!
He was just so thick in the weeds!
That one had my heart pounding!
Once Tom and Elliot are dry and all that can be said about the elusive big red has been said, we motor out to the river. “Okay,” says Tom, decisively, “let’s get some big fish.” We flatten out at speed, careening around wide bends in the river, the green of the marsh blurring and the wind roaring. We round the south end of the island, past the mouth of Penny Creek and past the sandy beach where dolphins are often seen strand feeding. The water gets a bit choppier as the boat surges out into the ocean, and we drop anchor about a half mile from the shore.
Elliot sets the rods and we sit, waiting and chatting. The sun is overhead now. We’ve been on the boat for nearly four hours, but nothing tells me that these guys are tiring.
I talk with Tom about fishing for a while, and he tells me about another fishing trip with Elliot a few years back. He caught an eighty-pound amberjack in heavy waves nearly thirty miles off shore. “It was a big fish,” he remembers, shaking his head. “A reef donkey.” Elliot laughs. Tom tells me about coming to Kiawah for the first time, working with Doug on the concept for Voysey’s. “When I first started coming here, no one fished,” he tells me. “Everyone golfed.”
He is mid-sentence, telling me about seeing a redfish from the dock during one visit, when one of the lines starts to sing, the rod bending sharply towards the water. Suddenly, everyone is in motion. Tom takes the helm, bracing the bottom of the rod with a holster at his waist. He reels like mad, the rod bending so close to the water that I fear it will snap. Finally we see the orange-tan shadow of a redfish just below the surface.
It’s a beauty. The redfish we’ve been waiting for. Elliot takes measurements and we snap a few photos before Tom lowers the massive fish back down into the water, holding it in the current until it warms back to life and swims hastily away.
As we speed back to Rhett’s Bluff, I look out at the wild hummocks dotting the marsh, palmetto fronds flashing in the October sun, the dark greens of the maritime shade. What a place to be. — H.W.