South Carolina's Best Brown Trout Fishing

South Carolina's Best Brown Trout Fishing

Brown trout are a breed apart from their rainbow cousins. Let's explore Carolina's best waters for browns. (April 2006)

"It's a brown!" my buddy called out with a song in his voice, and I could see him perk up as he fought the fish. The trout wasn't of spectacular size -- maybe 12 inches -- but its golden flash revealed that it was a brown trout, and my friend was basking in the extra satisfaction that comes from coaxing cautious browns from their secret hiding places.

My buddy and I often fish together in the Chattooga River watershed and value every trout we catch -- whether stocked or wild, rainbow, brook or brown, small or big. However, we have an undeniable bias toward browns. Added wariness makes a brown a greater prize in our minds, and we know that when we target brown trout, we increase our odds of hooking into a big wild fish.

Brown trout are far more apt to grow to larger sizes than rainbow trout in Southern Appalachian streams, partly because the dietary preferences of brown trout vary slightly from those of, for example, rainbows. Browns largely abandon aquatic insects and other small bites upon reaching adulthood, turning to crawfish and various small fish. In addition, browns generally live longer than rainbows in our streams. Even small creeks occasionally produce large brown trout, and big rivers like the Chattooga, with its massive pools, hold quite a few fish that are better measured in pounds than inches.

Brown trout aren't native to South Carolina. In fact, they are European immigrants, not native to the United States. However, wild populations have been in several mountain streams for decades. In addition to stream fisheries, Lake Jocassee, which has been stocked with brown trout since the lake was impounded in the 1970s, stands as one of the South's premier brown trout destinations.

Veteran anglers know that browns are a different kind of trout and require unique approaches. They lurk in deep boulder-filled runs, well-defined eddies and tangles of timber, favoring thick cover, refuge from current and plenty of shade. They feed best early and late and on cloudy or even drizzly days, and they are far more cautious than their rainbow-colored cousins. Because browns favor large menu items, plugs tend to outproduce spinners, and streamers offer greater chances for big browns than do dry flies or traditional nymphs. Now let's explore some of the waters that South Carolina brown trout call home.

LAKE JOCASSEE

For high-quality brown trout, Lake Jocassee is without rival in South Carolina. Browns, which make up about 80 percent of the trout catch, average about 3 pounds on South Carolina's most mountainous lake, and anglers fairly commonly bring in trout up to about 8 pounds, according to Ken Sloan, owner of Jocassee Outdoor Center and a guide on the lake.

Lake Jocassee gets stocked annually with 40,000 sub-legal-sized brown trout, which grow very well on a diet of threadfin shad and blueback herring. Growth averages 1 inch per month for the first year after trout are stocked. Creel surveys reveal that anglers harvest several thousand Jocassee browns annually and that harvested fish average 3 1/2 pounds, according to Dan Rankin, upstate fisheries biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

Jocassee, which produced South Carolina's state-record brown trout, no longer yields giant browns like the 17-pound, 9 1/2-ounce fish that Larry Edwards pulled from the lake in 1987. In fact, double-digit weight fish, which were once common, are virtually unheard of in the lake's modern era. Concerned anglers like Sloan are seeking to learn what has changed between then and now. Sloan recently helped establish the Jocassee Trout Club with the goal of enhancing opportunities, especially for trophy-class fish.

Rankin believes simple exploitation is the major culprit. Far more fishermen target Jocassee's trout than once was the case, and anglers are far more skilled at specialized deep-water summer fishing with downriggers and leadlines. Rankin doesn't believe special regulations would help unless deep-water fishing were made illegal, because fish pulled from 100 feet deep during midsummer are very difficult to release alive.

Jocassee trout favor water temperatures in the 50- to 65-degree range, according to Sloan. During the cool months, they can find suitable temperatures high in the water column, so they spend the bulk of their time swimming between the surface and 40 feet deep. Sometime in May, as the surface temperature warms, the cooler water begins settling deeper in the water column, and the trout go down with it. While summer offers consistent fishing for anglers who know how to troll deep, many fishermen favor winter and spring, when the fish tend to be shallower.

Many anglers consider April the best month of the year for Lake Jocassee brown trout, according to Sloan. The fish are active, and they haven't gone deep yet. Anglers fish by day and by night -- trolling during the day and dropping live bait in the moonlight.

The challenging part about daytime fishing during April is that the fish can be virtually anywhere on the lake. They follow roving schools of blueback herring all over the lake and won't be over any particular depth or type of structure. Anglers begin by looking for baitfish with their electronics, or they simply begin working in areas where trout have been found in recent days. Many troll spoons or minnow-imitating plugs. They'll set spreads similar to what striper fishermen use, employing planer boards to get their baits away from the boat and to broaden the swath of water they are able to cover. They'll also use downriggers to get lures down to the 20- to 40-foot range.

At night, the baitfish and the trout congregate near Jocassee Dam. Anglers tie up to the dam, put down lights to attract baitfish and fish live bait straight down. The baitfish often will come all the way to the surface, but most trout will linger below the bait, generally staying 20 to 40 feet beneath the surface.

The trout limit on Lake Jocassee is five fish, with a 15-inch minimum size. Corn, cheese, fish eggs and imitations of any of the above may not be used as bait. Cast nets are not permitted on the lake. A small portion of Lake Jocassee is located in North Carolina, and there is no reciprocal agreement between the two states. The North Carolina portion is up the Horsepasture River and Toxaway River arms of the lake.

For much more about fishing Lake Jocassee, including information about guided fishing, contact the Jocassee Outdoor Center at (864) 944-9016 or check them out online at www.jocasseeoutdoorcenter.comThe Web site also contains a link to the Jocassee Trout Club homepage.

JOCASSEE HEADWATERS

With Lake Jocassee being bounded by mountains, it isn't surprisin

g that the streams that tumble into the lake are trout waters. The trout are wild or semi-wild (some fingerling trout are stocked) and include both rainbows and browns, with each stream containing a little different mix and having its own personality.

A couple of major tributaries are fully in North Carolina. Others offer marginal trout fishing or are dominated by rainbows. However, two streams in the Jocassee Gorges region -- the Thompson and Whitewater rivers -- offer quality brown trout fishing.

The Thompson River is strictly a brown trout stream. Few, if any, rainbows, call this ultra-rugged stream home, and brown trout grow large in the river's massive pools. The Thompson, of which only a mile or so in the river's lower reaches is in South Carolina, is actually only of medium size. However, it fishes much larger because abundant rapids and waterfalls create broad and deep plunge pools.

Beyond being exceptionally rugged, the Thompson is extremely remote. The only access is by foot, either by hiking a few miles along the Foothills Trail or by fishing up the river from the lake and climbing around waterfalls. Access through some portions of the river gorge is very difficult and requires extreme caution. When the river is high, some spots become impassible.

The Foothills Trail crosses the Thompson very close to the North Carolina border, so anglers either need to fish downstream only or they need to possess both states' licenses. The latter option is the best for backpacking anglers, because the most accessible portion of the Whitewater is likewise split between the two states, and other tributaries that the Foothills Trail crosses, including the Horsepasture and Toxaway rivers, are located fully in North Carolina.

The Whitewater River, which is fairly large for a mountain stream, supports an excellent brown trout population and a good population of wild rainbows, according to Rankin. The fishable section of the Whitewater is located between upper and lower Whitewater Falls, each of which plunges more than 400 feet. The section between the falls is about two miles long and is about evenly split between the Carolinas.

Access to the Whitewater begins at the Bad Creek Project parking lot off state Highway 130. A gate blocks the entry road, but it is automated and will open after a car pulls up to it. The gate is used to bring attention to a sign that lists basic rules and hours. A spur trail to the Foothills Trail crosses the Whitewater via a footbridge less than one-half mile from a parking lot within the Bad Creek Project area.

Near the bridge, the river is modest in grade and fairly open, making it well suited for fly-fishing. Farther upstream, the river eventually becomes more rugged, with more rapids and plunge pools. Anglers opting to travel downstream from the bridge need to be keenly aware of Lower Whitewater Falls.

CHATTOOGA RIVER

Three miles from any road access and deep in the Ellicott Wilderness, the Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River exits North Carolina to form the uppermost section of border between South Carolina and Georgia. From Ellicott Rock, the tri-state border marker for which the wilderness is named, to the U.S. Highway 28 bridge, the Chattooga offers more than 10 miles of backcountry trout waters, and deep, dark pools throughout those 10 miles support fine populations of brown trout.

No trout are stocked upstream of the Burrells Ford bridge, three miles south of the border, and wild browns are the main attraction. Downstream of the bridge, the river contains a mix of wild trout and stocked fish, including 20,000 brown trout that are stocked as sub-adults every fall.

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Georgia Wildlife Resources Division and U.S. Forest Service stock this section by helicopter to help spread the fish over several rugged and remote miles of river. Between Burrells Ford and Big Bend Falls, three miles downstream, wild fish make up roughly two-thirds of the brown trout population. Below the bridge, helicopter stocked fish become predominant.

Brown trout enjoy good nourishment in the Chattooga. Insect hatches are far better than on most Southern Appalachian rivers, and populations of crawfish and various small fish offer great forage for adult browns. The river's drop-pool character also creates great brown trout habitat in the form of massive pools, some of which offer sanctuaries because there is no practical way to fish them.

The result is that the browns grow to good sizes. Fish up to about 20 inches show up from the North Carolina line all the way to the state Highway 28 bridge, according to Dan Rankin, upstate fisheries biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Big fish are least abundant in the wild trout waters and hardest to catch near the Burrells Ford bridge because of heavy fishing pressure.

Stocked rainbows make up the biggest part of the catch near Burrells Ford and in the delayed-harvest section, which is the final three-mile section of trout waters upstream of the Highway 28 crossing. Because browns predominate in other areas, fishing can be a feast-or-famine affair. The browns' fussiness and disdain for feeding in bright daylight make one of the South's finest trout streams sometimes seem like it has no fish in it.

That said, when the Chattooga is right, it can be an absolute gem, with wild browns coming up to snatch insects (and dry flies) from the surface. And while dry-fly fishing can be great, anglers increase their odds of doing battle with big browns by stripping a big streamer or by spin-fishing with a Rebel Wee-Crawfish or a minnow-imitating plug.

The time of the day also is important. The Chattooga is far better late in the afternoon than at any other time. Anglers who fish through early afternoon and even those anglers who get off the river an hour before dark miss the best hour of the day. Truly the best way to fish the Chattooga is to backpack in, camp deep in the backcountry and fish until the sky is black.

Trails parallel the Chattooga on the South Carolina side and are accessible at the Burrells Ford and U.S. Highway 28 bridges. Anglers also can hike in along the Foothills Trail from state Highway 107 or from the Walhalla State Fish Hatchery along the East Fork of the Chattooga River.

The limit on the Chattooga is eight fish, except through the delayed-harvest section, where only catch-and-release fishing with single-hook artificial lures is permitted though May 14. A reciprocal agreement allows anglers licensed by Georgia or South Carolina to fish either side of the river.

EAST FORK CHATTOOGA RIVER

Finally, brown trout fishermen should not overlook the East Fork of the Chattooga and a few smaller tributaries. While the East Fork is heavily fished near the hatchery, where easily accessible runs are heavily stocked, waters upstream and downstream are lightly fished, and the East Fork supports a very good population of wild brown trout.

Except during the fall, when large browns move up Chattooga tributaries to spawn, the East Fork doesn't produce many really large fish

. However, this tumbling creek's many plunge pools support a good population of wild browns, and fish up to 18 inches will show up from time to time.

The entire South Carolina run of the East Fork is on public land with all except the hatchery portion tumbling through the Sumter National Forest. The first access is well up the creek, where it is quite small, at the state Highway 107 crossing. The best access is from the hatchery, and anglers can fish upstream or downstream from that point.

A hiking trail parallels the East Fork from the hatchery all the way to the Chattooga. The upper part of this trail stays close and offers easy access in and out of the stream. Closer to the main river, the East Fork pours through a deep gorge, falling well away from the trail, and access through the gorge is challenging. Through this section, the river tumbles often, creating big pools that offer great brown trout habitat.

Rankin noted that in addition to the Chattooga and its East Fork, serious brown trout fishermen might be interested in smaller tributaries of both streams. Specifically, he pointed toward Indian Camp Creek, which is a tributary of the East Fork, and King and Bad creeks, both direct tributaries of the Chattooga.

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