The pale sunlight shone feebly through the cypress and gum trees lining the end of Waccamaw Shores Road, its final rays creating silhouettes of two anglers. In contrast to the sun melting slowly down through the western forest of Lake Waccamaw State Park, a brilliant silver disk of a moon was racing higher above the eastern horizon.
“If you want to catch redfins, now is the time,” said Phillip Pearce, 58, who lives in nearby Hallsboro. “They come up the river to spawn starting in December or January.”
Pearce and his first cousin, Christopher Shaw, were standing on the Lake Waccamaw Dam. The dam rises about 4 feet above the bed of the Waccamaw River, which begins at the foot of the dam. Tangles of fishing lines dangling hooks, sinkers and fluorescent yellow or orange bobbers dangled from the ends of nearby river birch and cypress twigs, testimony that fishing is a popular activity here, despite the chilly north wind coming straight at the anglers from across the lake.
“The best time to fish is when the weather is cold,” said Shaw, 42, a forklift driver from Charlotte. “A full moon also makes the fishing good. I grew up here so I have always known about fishing for redfins. I came home for a long visit, so we went fishing to try to catch some.”
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The anglers had a 2-gallon blue plastic utility bucket filled with yellow perch. Anglers call them redfins or redfin perch because of their bright fins. When the fish are hooked, they go into a defensive posture, erecting their sharp fin spines and showing off their spawning colors. Another defense they have is erecting sharp spurs on their gill covers. When the fish flare their gills and erect their fins, they can painfully prick an angler’s hands.
Shaw cast a bottom rig consisting of a short shank No. 4 hook and a half-ounce swivel sinker tied to the end of the line about a foot below the hook. He said the drop-shot rig kept the hook off the bottom of the sandy lake where it was less likely to snag on a cypress tree root and more likely to attract the attention of the fish.
“They’ve been biting since December because the lake has been so high,” Pearce said. “They swim upriver and over the dam to get in the lake. Sometimes we catch them downstream of the dam, sometimes upstream. Today they are biting on the upstream side.”
Shaw felt a strike, set the hook with a slight jerk of his fishing rod and reeled in the fish. For a fish that weighed less than a pound, it put up a strong fight in the powerful current. While low flows in the summer can cause the river level to drop to an inches-deep trickle, today the water level in the river was so high it was nearly at the same level as the lake.
“This is the time of year when we catch the biggest redfins,” Pearce said. “We know they are spawning because they are nice and fat and full of eggs. Redfins are some of the best fish we eat, but if you wait too long to clean them, they are hard to scale. I scale them, gut them and cut their heads off. Then I dust them in cornmeal, add a little flour and red pepper and fry them.”
By the time the sun disappeared, the bucket was so full of fish that adding any more of them was impossible. When Pearce tried to put another one in the bucket, the fish wriggling beneath it pushed it back out.
“They don’t always bite this well,” he said. “They run in surges and will stay around until the middle of March. You might come here and not catch a thing, or you might catch enough for several meals. You just have to keep trying.”