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When it comes to Charleston anglers, John Irwin is a legend. He has been fishing Lowcountry waters since he was a toddler and knows the inlets and cuts better than anyone. Today, he is one of the leading guides in the now-booming saltwater fly-fishing industry. Here, he shares some wisdom from the water—from first-timer tips to bucket list destinations to the perfect pant length for a keeping hems dry during a day on the boat.
Who taught you how to fly-fish?
My mom. We’re from Charlotte, North Carolina, and she had a hiking business where she led trips along the Appalachian Trail. We always spent a tremendous amount of time outside. I fished with my dad a lot, too, but my mom—she was the spark.
How old were you when you caught your first fish?
I remember catching a red fish in a pond on Kiawah Island when I was about five or six years old. Even then, I fished from when the sun came up until it went down.
How did you end up in Charleston?
I went to Montana and worked as a fishing guide there from 1993-2000. Then, I moved to Charleston in 2001 and started my business. When I started coming here as a kid in the early 1980s, fly-fishing didn’t exist here in the same way. It was just emerging.
You know, interest in the sport of fly-fishing in general didn’t really develop until recently, over the past ten years. When I was in Montana, they filmed the movie A River Runs Through It right where I was, and I’ve watched the sport explode ever since.
As it relates to salt water, I think we just didn’t even realize all of the ways and situations in which you could find and catch a fish that way offshore. Mike Abel, Sr., who owns Haddrell’s Point, and Champ Smith, two of the original guides here—the guiding industry goes back to the 1960s—will tell you that they first started catching redfish on fly rods in the early 1980’s. That’s much later than it happened in, say, the Florida Keys.
So what’s unique about fly-fishing in the Lowcountry?
High-tide fishing is super unique to our area—you really don’t see it anywhere else on the coast. When that happens, the tide floods the grasses and brings the crabs up out of the mud. The fish swarm in to eat the crabs and you can literally see their tails sticking up out of the water. And you’re casting for one fish at a time, which is a beautiful scenario: just the angler and the fish.
What fishing destination around the world is your favorite?
I love it here. Our variety is amazing. I do a lot of traveling, though—Alaska, the Bahamas, Belize, wading for bonefish in the Abacos. I’m heading to Belize for my fourteenth year and I love everything about it, too, from the fishing itself to the people.
What’s on your bucket list?
Cuba is coming up this year. We’re fishing with a group of 12 people who we’ve traveled often with in the past. My dad hasn’t done a trip with me in a long time, and he’s coming back for this. We’ll spend the night in Havana, take a helicopter charter the next morning to this little island, Juventud, then spend six days fishing with the boat moving to a different location each day. Cuba is surrounded by a lot fishing destinations—maybe six of them—and we’ll be fishing for tarpon, permit, and bonefish.
Patagonia is definitely on my list, too. I’d still love to go trout fishing there.
“There’s a progression to falling in love with the sport. First you want to catch a fish, then you want to catch a lot of fish, then you want to catch the big fish. And then, you just enjoy being out there.”
What is a typical workday?
I get up two hours before a trip starts, and then there’s about an hour of work when the day is done. The typical fishing day depends heavily on preparation. I’m usually up by 4am, fish for 8 hours, off the boat by 5pm, so a 13-hour day.
What is the one lesson you tell beginners when you take them out for the first time?
With fly-fishing there are so many variables. You basically need three things: good light, decent conditions (sunny day, not too rough), and a good cast. As a guide, I need two of those three to line up for me, but I always try to give someone the experience of being successful and for most first-timers that means catching a fish. It might not always be catching a redfish, mind you, but maybe it’s Spanish mackerels, a ladyfish.
There’s a progression to falling in love with the sport. First you want to catch a fish, then you want to catch a lot of fish, then you want to catch the big fish. And then, you just enjoy being out there. Because with fly-fishing, you have to enjoy the hunt and the pursuit. 99% of the fish we’re catching are ones we actually see in the water, so we’re crossing a lot of barriers to get any fish.
What is your favorite target species?
I really like just getting out and fishing and letting the day unfold to give you what it gives you. A fish is like any object of affection: The more you try to chase it down, the more it runs away.
If you could fish with anyone past or present who would it be?
Jeff Bridges. My boat playlist features a lot of tunes from Crazy Heart. And I like music and play music, too, so I think we’d get along. I actually play a lot of bluegrass. I sing, play upper bass, piano, guitar, baritone sax.
What is your style when you’re not on the boat? Tell us about your go-to pieces.
I like pieces that breathe. I’m definitely a pants guy, but I need them to be at a length where they won’t get wet—a little lower than my ankles but not much. My ideal dress shirt is definitely Oxford cloth, but I love pattern, too. I have a soft spot for Hawaiian shirts.
What do you do on your day off?
We fish a lot as a family. My wife is great at it, and my daughter, Izzy, is young, she’s only three years old, but she loves it, too. Being out there together is pretty awesome—and we have a fourth fishing buddy, a little boy, on the way.