Fishing For Wild Trout In The Palmetto State
October 04, 2010
For those who take pleasure in wild mountain country and freshwater trout, here are the places to go in the South Carolina Upcountry. (April 2008)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
That great poet of the British imperial experience, Rudyard Kipling, once wrote: "Oh East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." He referred, of course, to affairs far more momentous than trout fishing, but the distinct differences of which he wrote certainly apply when one compares stream-raised wild trout with those born and bred in a hatchery. Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against stocked fish. They have in large measure been the salvation of public trout fishing here in South Carolina and across the country, and fish that once swam in concrete pens have brought pleasure aplenty to countless anglers.
Still, the divide separating a wild trout from its "tame" cousin is wide. When I was a boy, hardy mountain fishermen actually viewed stockers with such disdain they gave them disparaging names — "dough bellies," "soap heads" and "rubbed fin uglies." That's been more decades than I really want to ponder, and there's no question that hatchery-raised trout have since improved dramatically. Today, they have better color, are far tastier than those liver-fed ones of yesteryear, and when hooked give quite a respectable account of themselves. Nonetheless, as an old-timer put it to me in pithy fashion, "They just ain't wild, and all them fancy government boys can't change that."
Mind you, catching wild trout presents problems. In many cases, plenty of them. Yet, most anglers agree that the difficulties are also an integral part of the delight. You've met a worthy adversary on his terms in his habitat and managed to outwit him. More often than not, and certainly such is the case in South Carolina, that takes place in geographical settings that rival the loveliness of the fish you catch for sheer beauty. Add to that joys of a pan of fresh-fried trout cooked over an open fire (if you are a catch-and-release purist, fine, I just happen to enjoy the occasional release-to-grease experience), splendor of solitude, and knowledge that you are about as close to the good earth's essence as one is likely to come, and you have the makings of truly memorable fishing.Let's get down to the essence of the matter at hand — where to find and how to catch wild trout. We'll begin with some thoughts on the species of fish and then turn to matters of geography and technique.
South Carolina waters carry wild trout belonging to all three types of "trout" commonly found in the eastern part of the country: namely, brookies, browns and rainbows. Only brook trout, which are also known as specks, are true natives. And if you want further confusion, they aren't really a trout at all but a close cousin, a char. Such stuff is best left to the scientists though, and the places where you will find speckled trout are so remote, the streams and fish so small, as to be barely worthy of mention. Yet, I do so because the speck is a thing of surpassing beauty, the wildest of the wild, and to hold a little 5-incher in one's palm, gazing at vivid red specks surrounded by bluish halos, or looking at the fascinating markings atop its back, is to know a moment of wonder.
For most purposes though, rainbows and browns form the focus of the fisherman's quest for wild trout in South Carolina. Both are imports, with the original browns coming from Europe and rainbows from California. Long ago, though, both species found some Palmetto State streams to their liking and established breeding populations. Once the first stream-raised fish survived and grew to the point where they produced another generation of trout, you had what is generally agreed to be a "wild" trout. In other words, one which hatched from eggs laid in a stream, grew from a fingerling to an adult, and has never known anything but the cold, clear waters it calls home.
While it is almost certain that some of the brown trout that call Lake Jocassee's deep, cold waters home are wild, we'll confine our excursion into the world of wild trout to streams. All of the major feeders of Lake Jocassee have wild trout, but you need to be a careful student of geography before you say, "Oh boy, that's where I'll go" and rush off to trout fish.
A small portion of Lake Jocassee actually lies in North Carolina, and two of its largest feeders, the Horsepasture and Toxaway rivers, have their entire flows within the Old North State. Since the two Carolinas do not have a reciprocal licensing agreement, you can get into trouble in a hurry if you don't know where you are or don't happen to possess licenses for both states.
However, two other significant feeders of Jocassee do have South Carolina flows. Roughly a mile of the Thompson River, downstream from the so-called "Blue Wall" (the immense escarpment or fall line running along the border between the Carolinas) is in the Palmetto State. It is home to many brown trout, some of them of trophy size, and their numbers increase even more when browns make spawning runs starting in late autumn.
The Thompson is no place for the faint of heart or unfit of physique. Its hallmarks, at least in the South Carolina section, are deep plunge pools and drops which can present appreciable problems as the angler works his way upstream (the preferred approach, although one of the two ways to get to the Thompson places you right at the line between the two states).
Access is about as difficult as the terrain is demanding. One approach is to boat across Lake Jocassee to where the Thompson enters it and work upstream from that point. The other is to hike the Foothills Trail — no Sunday jaunt in the park, but a walk of several miles — and work downstream. Either way you'll be doing some scrambling. You'll find it necessary to get out of the stream at times to move from one deep hole to the next, and be in what, frankly, can be some potentially dangerous terrain. Anyone venturing to the lower reaches of the Thompson River should only do so with a fishing companion, period. The great advantage, of course — and one not widely found in South Carolina — is that these characteristics guarantee the Thompson will never be overly pressured.
Somewhat similar to the Thompson, at least in terms of fishable water, is the Whitewater River. A portion of the Whitewater lying between the upper and lower falls, a distance of some two miles, is in South Carolina. Again, you'll be dealing mainly with brown trout, and access is easy. Once you are there (go to the Bad Creek Project just off S.C. Highway 130, then follow a spur of the Foothills Trail from the parking lot there to the stream — it's a short, easy walk), the wading and maneuvering make for simple, smooth going.
For all their appeal, and particularly in the case of the Thompson it is considerable, these short stretches of water take distinct back seats when
compared with the Chattooga River's upper reaches. For mile after mile, you have fine fishing on the Chattooga. From U.S. Highway 28 all the way upstream to Ellicott Rock, there are wild fish. To be sure, the lower section, which is stocked by helicopter, mixes wild and hatchery fish, but from the access point at Burrells Ford Bridge upstream, you will find nothing but wild trout. It might be noted that there are other entrance points as well, with a good network of trails serving the stream. Trail access is available at Burrells Ford by hiking in from any of several points, including the Foothills Trail from Highway 107, or you can start at the Walhalla fish hatchery situated on the East Fork of the Chattooga. The trail is on the South Carolina side of the stream. The stream itself forms the boundary between the state and Georgia for many miles — but conveniently, the two states do have a reciprocal licensing agreement.
You'll find both wild rainbows and browns in this water, with rainbows becoming more plentiful as you work farther upstream. Nor should the feeders of the Chattooga's East Fork be overlooked. Part of the enduring joy of fishing for wild trout is the process of discovery, and there are most certainly discoveries to be made here. I'll mention two or three and then maybe just give some hints that can lead readers to others. Certainly, Bad Creek, King Creek and Indian Camp deserve some attention, and the higher up these streams you go, the less likelihood of encountering another fisherman. The reverse holds true for encountering numbers of trout, provided you understand small- stream techniques such as bow-and-arrow casts, dappling, or precise roll casts if you are a fly rodder, along with delicate and accurate little flips for the spin-caster.
Once again, you'll find wild fish during all seasons, but don't overlook the spawning runs of browns. When the eternal urge of reproduction draws them from big waters into much smaller ones, it's a mighty fine time to be astream.
At least one other stream deserves treatment in some detail, and that's the Eastatoe River. Set at the easternmost edge of the spectacular Jocassee Gorges area, once it gathers strength from countless springs and rivulets and builds its strength, this stream flows through a deep, wild gorge that eventually ends in a beautiful valley. Most of the valley section is posted private land, but that is not the case with the gorge. It is arguably the Palmetto State's best destination for wild rainbows.
To reach the Eastatoe Gorge, you hike in from a parking area in the Laurel Valley region off U.S. Highway 78 immediately south of the North Carolina border. From the parking area, walk a short distance down a logging road and then take the trail directly to the river. Once there, the maintained trail ends, but you will find a readily discernible angler's trail that gives you options to maneuver once at water side. It is a modest walk of about two miles that can be accomplished in an hour or less traveling at a moderate pace. There's plenty of elbowroom here, but keep in mind that special regulations specifying artificial lures only are in effect. Also, the limit is seven fish instead of the standard 10 trout in the upper section known as Heritage Preserve lands.
Returning for a moment to the process of exploration, don't forget that maps can be mighty fine friends. All of South Carolina's trout water, except for the special situations created by tailwaters, is found in the northwest corner of the state above Highway 11. Take a gander at any detailed map (USGS topo maps are best), check out the proximity of streams, and dive into the Regulations Digest published by the Department of Natural Resources. There are several streams where special regulations are in place, such as catch-and-release only at certain times of the year, and as the saying sometimes goes, "There's your sign." Well, one of them anyway.
Another "sign" comes with experience in reading topo maps. Study the length of a drainage, the closeness of the contour lines, and the proximity of roads. Collectively these factors can tell you a small stream just might merit a half day's exploration. I'll have to admit I've done relatively little of this in South Carolina, although I think I can confess that some of the guides to waterfalls can have an unexpected and welcome fringe benefit (check out Waterfall Hikes of Upstate South Carolina, by Thomas King or The Waterfalls of South Carolina, by Benjamin Brooks and Tim Cook). These books were not written with the fisherman in mind, but there's no reason the curious angler shouldn't benefit from their pages.
Similarly, trail guides, again written with non-angling audiences in mind, can be fine friends. You will find Alan de Hart's Hiking South Carolina Trails, which is now in its fifth edition, helpful. Similarly, since the Foothills Trail crosses so many promising streams at watersheds, any of the several guides to it, such as Guide to the Foothills Trail from the Foothills Trail Conference or Johnny Molloy's Long Trails of the Southeast, can be beneficial.
That's enough secrets and tips (after all, a fellow has to retain some information, especially if it pertains to small streams which simply can't persevere under the spotlight of publicity) when it comes to destinations, but I will add that there are what my Grandpa Joe loved to call "secret holes" or "glory hideaways" waiting to be found.
Turning from terrain to tactics, here it's possible to be completely straightforward. Any of the many approaches that will take trout up and down the spine of the Appalachians can be productive in South Carolina. For flat-out effectiveness, it's hard to beat natural baits, and that's doubly true if the water has a hint of color or if there's been a recent rain shower. The flyfisherman can certainly do well, especially on smaller streams and those sections of larger ones characterized by relatively flat water with glides and runs as opposed to deep pools. He can, of course, adjust in big, deep plunge pools, where dry flies are seldom the ticket, with a nymph sunk with a couple of split shot or a weighted streamer. The spin-fisherman using ultralight gear has the trout world as his oyster, although offerings like Panther Martins, beetlespins or Mepps Aglias seem to do better when streams are in full spate than in low water conditions, such as those typical of late summer and early fall.
In conclusion, South Carolina has more wild trout water than is generally realized. The process of finding wild trout and unraveling their secrets, both in terms of how to catch them and the hideaways holding them, is an experience to cherish.(Editor's Note: Jim Casada is a full-time freelancer who has fished for trout in the southern Appalachians all his life. He is the author of two books on fly-fishing and some two dozen other volumes. To learn more about these books or to sign up for a free subscription to his monthly newsletter, visit his Web site at www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.)