There are not many times in your life when you get to catch fish on the fly and blast birds with a shotgun; let alone on the same boat, in the same day. Take a few seconds to imagine the idea of shooting a bird on the bow of a Maverick flats boat then laying down your shotgun, picking up your 8-weight, and casting to a tailing redfish. You might miss the bird or hit the fish on the head with the fly in a matter of minutes between the two, but it’s pretty damn fun either way. Cast ‘n’ blast is the name of the game here and one hell of an experience for any outdoorsman who likes to fish and shoot birds in the Lowcountry of Beaufort, S.C.
You might be wondering by the photos what the hell kind of birds are these? The people with a college degree call them clapper rails but as a local here I call ‘em marsh hens. Marsh hens are like a quail and woodcock that forgot to use protection on the first date. They are big, brown/tan, have long beaks, chicken-like feet, and fly slower than just about anything with wings. Marsh hen hunting originated back in the day when plantation owners wanted to mix things up a bit from quail, dove, or ducks, so I guess you could call me a 20th century indentured servant poling the skiff around in the marsh shooting birds. It’s a bird that you never see because they live in the tall spartina 95% of the time, and you only get the opportunity to hunt them during the 10-20 big tides during the season every year. When one starts chattering, it sounds like a chicken that already had its head cut off, which I’m sure you’ve heard if you have ever fished the east coast marsh lands from Northern Florida up to North Carolina.
As a kid growing up, we always shot marsh hen for fun to get warmed up for the upcoming duck season, and little did I know that years later, it’s something most wing shooters have never experienced. The season for marsh hen usually opens up for a week in September and goes from sometime in October all the way until the end of December, depending on the yearly dates from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. The tides are key for hunting these funky birds because here in Beaufort, you have to have a big tide between 8.9 and 9.5 feet to push the birds out of the spartina grass for a good day of hunting, which is usually 20-30 birds in an hour, with a 15 bird limit per person for two anglers. It’s the easiest bird in the world to hit, so I usually recommend smaller gauge guns like a 20 gauge, 28 gauge, or .410 caliber. If you miss more than three or four birds, then I’m sure your buddy will likely not invite you on any other hunts that year. It’s also a great way to get kids or anyone new into wing shooting. They tend to stay in small cubbies between three and 10 birds, which allows for a lot of doubles and even triples at times, because they don’t fly very high or very fast. High winds usually make it a little more challenging when the birds can catch a good 20mph gust.
The great part of about the Lowcountry cast ‘n’ blast is that it’s during some of the best fishing of the entire year. Fall is prime time in the LC and brings some incredible action due to cooling water temps, clear water, and tons of shrimp filtering onto the flats. The fish turn on like a light switch in the fall and gorge for weeks, tailing on fiddlers during the floods and chasing shrimp on the lows, which means unlimited action sight fishing with fly. The day usually starts out waiting for the flood tide as the sun comes up and nailing a few tailers to cure your hangover. Then as the tide gets high enough to flush birds, you put down the rod, and pick up the gun. We are poling the whole time for these birds, which also leaves room for sight fishing laid up floaters in the thick grass, or tailers in the shorter stuff. After an hour or so of hunting, we move off the flat, crack a few beers, clean up the blood/feathers, then start working the edges for fish laid up along oysters and white shell as the tide drops. Then, once the tide gets low enough, we switch over to low tide cruisers and schools busting shrimp in mere inches of water, which is some of my favorite fishing here. Simply cannot beat watching schools of fish under birds crushing shrimp on top water.