I meet Chris Black and Kiawah Island Club Captain Elliot Hillock at the Ocean Park dock around two in the afternoon. When I arrive, Chris is sitting comfortably on the poling platform of his Hewes 18’ flats boat, feet dangling, country music drifting out across the water. Hailing from Houston, Black has been coming to the Lowcountry since he was a teenager. In the late 2000s, he bought property on Kiawah’s River Course and became a Club member. It wasn’t until 2015 that Black and his wife began building a home in Ocean Park, just a few houses down from the dock.
Now in his fifties, Black has the energy of someone much younger. He greets me with a wide smile as I make my way along the dock. A few minutes later, Captain Hillock’s truck swings into view. Parking, he grabs his boots from the back and walks towards us quickly. I’ve had the pleasure of going out on the water with Hillock before, and we briefly catch up while Black unties ropes and we push away from the dock. Within moments we’re underway.
Egrets and herons stare impassively from private docks as we motor out Bass Creek towards the Stono River. Black and Hillock fall into talking fish, clearly a shared favorite subject. The afternoon fall light has the marsh grass ablaze, and I’m just warm enough to still be comfortable as Hillock accelerates the boat, flattening out at speed. A wide diversity of Lowcountry birds are on display. Scanning the deep blue sky, Captain Hillock points out two roseate spoonbills, pink and white, long-necked, winging their way south.
We’ve set out in search of redfish, “low tide creek fishing” as Captain Hillock calls it, working the oyster bars up around the mouth of Penny Creek. Reds chase crab and shrimp into the oyster beds at low tide and we, in turn, chase them. However, we soon realize we aren’t the only species higher up the food chain chasing fish at low tide. Coming around a bend, I’m confronted by a sight I’m unlikely to soon forget, one that Kiawah Island has become famous for. A tangle of dolphins heave and roll along the sandy shore, appearing from a distance like drunken sunbathers, feeding on mullet they’ve skillfully managed to herd out of the water and onto the beach. Moments before, they had launched their bodies—some weighing as much as five hundred pounds—out of the water and onto the shore in a feeding frenzy. It’s over in a flash.
Hillock kills the engine and we drift towards the mouth of Penny Creek. Sandy Point, the easterly tip of Kiawah Island, is in the near distance. “You see that tailfin, Chris?” Hillock hisses to his partner. In response, Black grabs his rod and climbs up onto the casting platform. Soon, the air above comes alive with the familiar sounds of fly fishing: the pendular swish of line and the zuzz and clicks of the whirling reel. Letting line out, Black expertly flicks the fly mere inches from shore. Behind me, Hillock climbs onto the poling platform and expertly maneuvers the boat into a better position against the current. All is quiet but for Black’s line and reel and the faint sound of water lapping the boat.
“When they get in really skinny like that, slurping shrimp and hiding from the dolphins, we call it belly crawling,” Hillock whispers down from his perch on the platform. Movement catches my eye near the shore’s edge, amongst the oyster beds. Was that a fin? Black has selected a light, shrimp-patterned fly. Its lightness makes it harder to control in the wind, but in the shallow water a heavy fly can make too big of a splash, spooking the fish. (“I know that from personal history,” Black says with a laugh.)
And that’s the real art form of fly fishing—having both the knowledge of the fish species to understand their changing diet and the skill to mimic what’s going on in the environment around them. The goal is to sneak the bait in. But there’s more to it than just picking the right fly. “It’s about the strip,” Black tells me. The way the fisherman manipulates the fly through the water matters. “Every crustacean does something a little different. If you don’t get the perfect drift on that thing, they’ll pass on it because there’s so much food around them to choose from.”
Redfish have many names. Officially the red drum, its aliases include puppy drum, spottail bass, channel bass, or simply, red. And designations vary by region. Renowned for their fight—“diesel-powered stripers, lots of low-end torque,” as one afficionado puts it—redfish are found in the Atlantic from Massachusetts to Florida, as well as in the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to northern Mexico. These prized game fish have a certain mystique, inspiring poetic descriptors and fanciful legend. One of my favorite redfish fishing accounts included the line, “The red ate the fly like an alligator eating a blackbird.”
A flurry of action at the mouth of the creek quiets all conversation. “Get it, Chris,” Hillock murmurs as Black makes another precision cast, fly gently landing amidst the recently disturbed water. “Eat it,” Hillock urges under his breath. A moment of spasmodic action and Black sets the hook—the fight is on. I hear the whining protest of the reel as line is played out, followed by the more methodical, slower reeling in. Black skillfully plays the fish for a few minutes from his elevated position in the bow of the boat, rod craning like the necks of so many marsh birds we’ve seen this afternoon. Patiently, Black works the red to the edge of the boat. Hillock is there to help haul the iridescent, reddish-silver, white-bellied fish up out of the water. The two men admire the catch, pose for a photograph. At twenty-six inches it’s too big to keep, and Black expertly removes the hook, releasing the beauty back into the brackish water.
Though most commonly a reddish-bronze, redfish range from a deep blackish-coppery color to nearly all silver. Their most distinguishing mark is a large black spot on the upper tail known as the “false eye.” Each fish can have dozens of these spots. Scientists believe that the false eye may help trick predators into attacking the red drum’s tail instead of its head. Additionally, immature redfish can have a blue tail, indicating they are feeding. Capable of living sixty years, redfish spawn during late summer and into fall along barrier island beaches and inlets. Males produce a “drumming” sound by vibrating the swim bladder to attract females. Immature reds grow up near marsh areas and estuaries, before schooling up and becoming migratory around the age of fifteen. Mature redfish, known as “bull reds,” can grow to massive proportions, the largest ever caught topping ninety pounds.
“Having Chris up there throwing is a guide’s dream,” Captain Hillock confides in me as we get back underway. It’s slack tide now and we’ll hit one more spot before heading in. The marsh flashes by and I close my eyes, enjoying the wind on my face as we wind up the river. “We’re about to get super skinny,” Hillock warns, ducking the boat into a tiny creek and killing the motor.
As Hillock returns to the platform, poling us around sandbars up the increasingly shallow creek, I talk to Black about living in Ocean Park. “It’s just wilder out here, a little away from everything,” he says. “There are very few spots on the island where you can get this,” he says, gesturing to the pristine marsh floating by to each side. “We looked for five years. I had to have a dock and wanted the home to have expansive views.” He goes on to detail a combination of access to the water and wide open spaces where the family plays touch football each Thanksgiving. When I ask Black what makes fishing here so special, he shakes his head as if he can’t believe his luck. “Kiawah is just so undisturbed, no pressure in the estuary. Makes it really fun to fish,” he tells me, before adding with a rueful smile, “but that’s our secret, so don’t tell anybody.”
With that, Black grabs his rod and climbs back up into the bow of the boat. He balances agilely on the platform, silhouetted by the sun, surrounded by marsh. Captain Hillock continues to push up the tiny feeder creek, no wider than a two-lane road. I close my eyes again. I hear the slap of the water on the side of the boat, the click of the reel, and the call of distant birds. A fisherman’s paradise, an outdoorsman’s dream. — J.C.