There's no telling what you'll catch when you go fishing off the pier at Folly Beach. Sometimes it's an ordinary whiting, and other times it's a gorgeous, and delicious, king mackerel or a prized red drum. Sheepshead, with their eerily human-looking teeth, have been known to munch on crustaceans around the pier's pilings, while sharks and stingrays sometimes take the bait, too.
Joey Crawford, a manager at the Edwin S. Taylor Folly Beach Fishing Pier, says he meets deep-sea fishermen every summer who sell their boats and take up fishing on the pier instead. And while you're less likely to catch a trophy marlin standing on the pier, you're also less likely to go bankrupt if you're not funding an expensive boating habit.
Pier fishing is a fairly cheap way to while away a summer's day, and if you know how to clean and cook a fish, you're also getting a free supper. At the pier gift shop, you can rent a rod for $10 a day (plus a $25 deposit), and daily adult fishing permits go for just $8, or $5 if you're a Charleston County resident. They'll also sell you frozen shrimp, squid, mullet chunks, or finger mullet for $4.60 a container, or you can pick up some live bait at a local tackle shop. Bonus: The pier is the only place where you can still drink alcohol on the beach, provided you buy it from Locklear's Beach City Grill, which is located on the pier.
Crawford says it's best to go fishing when the tide is moving either in or out. "Dead low tide and dead high tide, usually the fish aren't biting," he says. Of course, any number of factors can affect your fishing haul, including sunlight and temperature. In his four years working for the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission, which owns the pier, Crawford has picked up a few odd tidbits about fish behavior — for instance, that enormous 100-plus-pound tarpons have been coming into shallow waters all across the Southeast in recent years. Last summer, he says a fisherman reeled in a sea turtle that had been injured by a shark and took it to the S.C. Aquarium's veterinarians, who treated the animal and eventually released it back into the ocean.
Once you're out on the pier, there are two different ways to go about fishing. The hardcore fishers, who are after the elusive king mackerels, will go down to the end of the pier and use live bait and fighting rods to reel them in. The more laid-back fishers tend to go for surf fishing, which consists of plopping a line down in the water and waiting for whatever bites. "People think you need to cast as far as you can," Crawford says. "But when you're surf fishing, dude, just get right behind where the waves are breaking and drop it. You can cast out a little bit, but there's no reason for that ... Just drop it down. It's easy fishing."
Part of the joy of fishing is to be beholden to the caprices of nature. Veteran fishers can go for half an hour without a bite, and newcomers — like a visitor from Michigan who rented a rod last summer — can catch a 30-pound red drum on their first try. "It's 10 percent skill and 90 percent luck," says Tommy Arnold, a regular who's been fishing on the pier for five years. Crawford looks incredulous at this. "You're gonna give it 10 percent?" Crawford says.
At this point, Crawford hands me his rod and shows me how to bait a shrimp: Just follow the curve of the shrimp with the hook. He leaves me to my fishing, and 10 minutes later, I'm leaning on the pier railing, unsure what a bite will even feel like. I should mention that I haven't been fishing since my grandfather took me as a child.
Around this time, a man and his two grandchildren approach and start watching me. The little girl informs me that her brother thinks I have a bite, but she knows better. "I know what a bite looks like, and that's not it," she says with the self-assuredness granted by her approximately nine years of earthly experience. I take her word on it.
"OK, that's a bite," she says shortly afterward, and I do feel something tugging on the line. I start reeling it in, and the grandfather, whom they call "Papa Murray," helps me adjust the drag on the reel so I can pull in the catch. Halfway up the fish's writhing ascent to the pier, Papa Murray identifies it as a whiting, probably four or five inches long. Up on the pier, the boy and the girl ask to hold the fish, and their grandfather tells them to mind the hook. I grab the fish last, feeling the roughness of its scales and the heft of its body as it fights for life with surprising strength. Then I hand the fish over to the girl, who heaves the fish back into the ocean. It lands with a satisfying plop.
Catch and release. So that's what it feels like.