“Like so many others, I fell in love with the place since the first time we (my wife and I) crossed the causeway,” says Jerry Nerad, co-founder of the Callawassie Island Fishing club. “The natural beauty here is unsurpassed in the Lowcountry.” That appreciation of nature is “why many of us are here and what holds us here,” Nerad says, referring to what he calls “the Callawassie difference.”
An avid fisher from ponds and reservoirs north, Nerad was drawn here 25 years ago and discovered “a whole new fishing experience. I got hooked on redfish, speckled sea trout, flounder, Spanish and king mackerel, cobia, tarpon, tripletail, jacks, and in the fall, shrimp (not many places like this where you can go out, use a cast net, and fill a cooler with shrimp), and blue crab in abundance in local creeks. There’s a seasonal change of fish in this area – a seafood delicacy that makes for good catching and good eating.”
With the unique waterways of Callawassie and the “teeming” opportunities, it seemed an obvious next step to launch the Fishing Club. This came up at a 2012 event intended to gauge resident interests and create the clubs to suit them. Among the usual Lowcountry suspects (kayaking, tennis, gardening), fishing was mentioned by more than a few, including Nerad and former Club President and friend, Alan Offstien, who started the club together in 2013. “We’re very informal,” says Nerad. “There are no dues or regular meetings. The idea of the club is to provide a combination of education, fishing, and friendship.”
The club welcomes speakers from on and off Callawassie Island, like Clubhouse Executive Chef Jim Spratling, who led a session on handling and preparing seafood, or Ted Chapman, another 25-year resident who “knows these ponds like the back of his hand and is out there fishing every day,” according to Nerad. “When we were preparing for the Bass Tournament, he was very helpful, sharing what you can expect per-pond and the type of equipment and technique that works best.”
Situated conveniently midway between Hilton Head Island / Bluffton and Beaufort, the club draws pros from around the area via various tackle and outfitter shops. “These are incredibly experienced and knowledgeable guides,” Nerad describes, “genuinely interested in sharing knowledge about how to fish locally.” Recent examples include Captain Reeves from the Sea Eagle Market sharing the state of the national fishing industry, and Allen Webster from Webster’s Marine who came in to teach boat, engine, and trailer maintenance, essential for anyone who wants to spend any part of life out on the water.
All of this gained knowledge has one application: Fishing, which, in the Lowcountry, is a very different artform than outside the region. “Many come down from the northeast and are accustomed to a certain kind of fish and fishing – where you can go out and catch a lot of fish. When they come down here and experience what can be a 10-foot tide change in a day, they often find they’re not able to catch anything. It’s an entirely different animal. Besides learning a whole new way of fishing for different species, you need to understand the effects of the tide. That takes time, and it’s helpful to be able to learn from others.”
There are the big events that bring everyone together to put hook in water: the spring and fall fishing tournaments, where you apply what you’ve learned and look forward to gathering afterward to celebrate and swap stories.
Not just fish stories, this is where members connect over life stories, shared passions, and of course, the catch of the day. Lowcountry boils, fish fries, oyster roasts, clam digging then clam dinners, cobia dinners like after a recent special tournament, or even just covered dish nights and cookouts make this group even more connected as Callawassie neighbors. Many will agree, “It’s always a good time to meet new fishing buddies because it’s never good to fish alone.”
Fishing buddies come in all ages on Callawassie Island. “We encourage children’s involvement,” Nerad says, “Just like I started as a youngster, many do, and when you’re out fishing with your dad or whomever, those are the kinds of things you tend to remember for the rest of your life.” Just ask newer member Bobby Richardson, who grew up bass fishing just outside the gates in Ridgeland. Richardson recounts, “I was largemouth bass fishing since I was 8 or 9 years old, and those memories stay in my mind vividly, from my first fish to losing it.” Now with three girls of his own, Richardson says, “being able to bring my daughters here to teach them and see them catch and reel it in is a lifetime of memories. When my daughter catches one fish, that’s 1000 lessons right there.”
Nerad and Richardson actually first met over his daughter’s fish skills on Callawassie Island. “I saw this guy fishing with a little girl who had to be about four years old at the time, and she knew how to cast. I was really impressed by that little girl.” That mini pro-caster is now a club-member-kid in a group that knows the value of tradition and time spent with new generations. “I fished with my children along the way, and now with my grandchildren,” Nerad says.
The youngest of those grandchildren has fished with his grandfather in a Callawassie Tournament, resulting in one of Nerad’s favorite fishing moments. “He was using a lure I didn’t think was going to work where he was. I kept telling him he wasn’t going to catch anything, over and over. I turn around, and suddenly he has a 4-pound bass hooked. Children are dedicated. It’s fun to see them win.”
It’s also fun to see them wonder, as in Richardson’s favorite kid-fishing story, which “all happened so fast. I had hooked this monster bass, maybe 8 or 9-pounds, pulled it out of the water, red gills flaring, heart racing. There was a lot of commotion from neighbors, my daughter behind me in a golf cart. All of a sudden, there was this female gator who decided she wanted the bass more than we did, took my fish off the hook, and went her merry way. Nature prevailed, as it sometimes does.”
Getting started in the Callawassie Fishing Club is easier than catching fish in a barrel. “Membership is very informal. All you need is a desire to join in,” assures Nerad. “You show up once, even just to eat, and you’re a member.” Nerad estimates 70-80 families who have been to events, and tourneys pull about 20-30 entrants. All are welcome, with no experience needed. “People are more than happy to share the ‘how’ and have even been known to loan out equipment for first-timers just to get started.” If you’re new or just haven’t reached out yet, check notices sent from the club email system, and get your hook in the water with neighbors.
The Fishing Club at Callawassie is also passionate about giving back to the community that protects the natural resources they enjoy so much. Overflow funds from events and dinners are donated to education, preservation, and research facilities or organizations. Some of those include the Port Royal Sound Foundation Maritime Center and the Waddell Mariculture Center, part of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources that farms stocks of fish that go into local waters or beyond, up to Charleston, and elsewhere along the coast.
The Callawassie Island Fishing Club has the cycle down to a science: Learn from local guides and experts, fish in bi-annual tournaments to try out what you’ve learned, and enjoy some friendly competition, gather for after-tourney dinners where you meet new fishing buddies, and direct the overflow to impact sustainable fishing in the Lowcountry.
Learn. Fish. Eat. Repeat.
Nerad states it best when he puts it most simply: “You bought a place near the water. The next step is learning how to fish in it. It’s only natural.”
Learn more about the clubs and events at Callawassie Island here!