South Carolina's Five Best Trout Waters
October 04, 2010
Whether you like mountain streams, tailwaters or lakes, the Palmetto State's cold waters offer something for your trout fishing pleasure. Here's a close-up look.
Photo by Kurt Finlayson
By Jeff Samsel
Knee deep in a rocky creek, an angler drifts a dry fly across a swift current line and watches intently for a snappy strike from a feisty rainbow or brown trout. The fish probably won't be more than 10 inches long, but it will strike with vigor and put up a respectable fight against a 2-weight rod and a tiny tippet.
Only a dozen miles distant the scenario is vastly different. Rainbow and brown trout are once again the target, but now three anglers sit comfortably in a big pontoon boat and watch for downrigger rods to pop up. Most fish that take their spoons will be at least 16 inches long. Any fish that strikes could turn out to weigh several pounds.
Compared to other Southern Appalachian states, South Carolina's trout waters aren't very extensive. Good things can come in small packages, however, and that is the case in the Palmetto State. Trout offerings are quite good here, despite being limited in scope.
Diversity of opportunities is likewise outstanding. Whether fishermen like wild trout or stocked fish, moving waters or reservoirs, free-flowing creeks or tailwaters, South Carolina has something good to offer. Let's take a look at the best of all worlds.
CHATTOOGA RIVER South Carolina's best-known trout stream, the Chattooga River is arguably the best stream in the state. Clearly, no other waterway offers a greater variety of opportunities for trout fishermen. Beyond a legendary wild brown trout fishery, various sections of the Chattooga also offer good prospects for stocked rainbows and semi-wild brown trout, plus heavily stocked rainbows, browns and brook trout in a specially managed three-mile section.
The Chattooga rises in the North Carolina mountains and forms the uppermost border between Georgia and South Carolina. A National Wild and Scenic River, it tumbles almost exclusively through U.S. National Forest Service lands. Automobile access points are limited, but trails provide good fishing access to all trout waters.
The two most significant access points for trout fishermen are Burrells Ford, which is located three miles from the North Carolina border, and the state Highway 28 bridge, another 10 miles downstream.
No trout get stocked upstream of Burrells Ford, so hiking upstream of the bridge takes anglers through the best wild trout waters. Catchable-sized rainbow trout are heavily stocked at the bridge and from the campground just downstream, so the first mile or so of waters downstream offers the best prospect overall for anglers who want a limit of trout to take home. Downstream, the river transforms back into a brown trout stream, with a good population of trout, most of which come from fall helicopter stockings of sub-adult fish.
The Highway 28 bridge marks the lower end of the relatively new delayed-harvest section. From the mouth of Reed Creek to the bridge, the river is heavily stocked from November through the middle of May and only catch-and-release fishing with single-hook artificial lures is permitted during that time. Beginning May 15, this section reverts to general regulations. Some trout also get stocked each spring at Highway 28 and just downstream of the bridge.
The creel limit for the Chattooga River is eight trout (except in the delayed-harvest section). The state line runs down the center of the river, but a reciprocal agreement between Georgia and South Carolina allows anglers to fish either side of the river with a valid license for either state.
LAKE JOCASSEE Just as the Chattooga offers an outstanding river fishery, Lake Jocassee stands out as South Carolina's premier still-water trout-fishing destination. Trout grow big in Lake Jocassee, which covers 7,500 acres in the northwestern corner of the state. In fact, Jocassee lays claim to the state-record rainbow trout and brown trout, which weighed in at 11 pounds, 5 ounces and 19 pounds, 9.5 ounces, respectively.
Lake Jocassee is managed as a trophy trout fishery. Most trout in the population are hatchery produced, but a 15-inch minimum size protects fish for a while and allows them to grow. Fish harvested range from 15 inches to several pounds. Most trout that have been in the lake awhile are plump, regardless of size, because of the lake's abundant shad and herring.
Most anglers fish Jocassee using one of two major techniques. Many use downriggers or lead-core lines to troll spoons, plugs or bucktails at controlled depths. Others fish at night, usually under lights, using live shad or minnows, night crawlers or cut herring. Both techniques are somewhat specialized but highly effective once anglers get them down.
Jocassee's trout move a lot, both vertically and horizontally, often in relation to movements of baitfish schools. Veteran anglers, therefore, spend a tremendous amount of time of time watching their electronics. They look for game fish and baitfish, taking note of depths and the types of structure that the fish are holding over. They also take note of every detail anytime a fish strikes.
Anglers who fish Lake Jocassee need to be aware of special regulations. The trout limit is five fish, with a 15-inch minimum size. It is unlawful to fish on Lake Jocassee with corn, cheese, fish eggs or imitations of the same or to possess a cast net on the lake. Also, a small part of Lake Jocassee lies in North Carolina, and there is no reciprocal licensing agreement between North and South Carolina.
Access to Lake Jocassee is from Devils Fork State Park, which has a very nice boat ramp.
LAKE TUGALO Less well known than Lake Jocassee and notably smaller, Lake Tugalo nevertheless offers a very good trout fishery - and one that continues to get better. This lake has long produced some trout (including occasional big browns) for many years, with the fish having come from a combination of scattered light stockings and naturally reproducing fish. However, trout numbers are much higher now due to a shift in the management scheme.
A few years ago, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division began regularly stocking rainbow and brown trout in Lake Tugalo. The added stockings (along with increased walleye stockings) were designed to control a booming population of non-native blueback herring and to provide anglers with added sportfishing opportunities.
Lake Tugalo, which is remote, steep-sided and fabulousl
y scenic, covers 600 acres. It impounds the Tugaloo River, which begins beneath the lake's impounded waters at the confluence of the Chattooga and Tallulah rivers. The South Carolina border runs down the center of the Chattooga arm and then down the center of a very short main-lake body.
The best spring fishing on Lake Tugalo typically occurs in the upper ends of the lake's two main river arms, where moving waters flow over boulders. Small minnow- or crawfish-imitating plugs work well in these areas, as do various live-bait offerings. Arguably, the best single bait for prospects of catching a large trout is a live spring lizard.
Other good areas during spring and early summer are bluff banks in the upper Tallulah arm and cool waters in the backs of coves, most of which are fed by waterfalls. During the summer, most trout will move to the lower lake arms and the main body, where they will feed on herring. Through summer, night-fishing offers the best prospects.
The daily limit on Lake Tugalo is eight trout, with no minimum size. The reciprocal licensing agreement with Georgia applies to all of Lake Tugalo. No motors over 25 horsepower can be operated on the lake.
WHITEWATER RIVER Best known for its two dramatic waterfalls, each more than 400 feet tall, the Whitewater River serves up very good trout fishing in the section between the Upper and Lower Whitewater Falls. Both rainbow and brown trout do well in this tumbling, medium-sized mountain river, and the dominant species seems to vary from year to year, according to Dan Rankin, upstate fisheries biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
Wild trout predominate in the Whitewater, which is a major tributary of Lake Jocassee in Oconee County. However, the river also gets stocked periodically with fingerling trout. These "semi-wild" trout grow up in the river and therefore look and act like true wild trout. The land bounding the river is owned by Duke Energy, but open to public access and is part of the broad Jocassee Gorges area.
Access to the Whitewater River is via a short spur trail that begins on the property of Duke Energy's Bad Creek Project and leads to the Foothills Trail. The trail crosses the river on a small footbridge, which is a good access point for fishing upstream or downstream. Because much of the river's drop is contained in its two big waterfalls, most of the waters in between are modest in grade and fairly easy to wade at most water levels.
The modest grade also makes this section great for fly-fishing. The river drops enough to create good drifts, but currents typically are not strong or complicated. Like most Appalachian streams, the Whitewater is not overly fertile. Therefore, the fish are fairly opportunistic. A good drift and a stealthy approach generally are far more important than the perfect fly.
Anglers fishing downstream from the footbridge clearly should remain aware of Lower Whitewater Falls, which is roughly one mile from the bridge. Anglers fishing upstream must also be cautious, as the North Carolina border is roughly a mile upstream, and it is not marked along the river. The best bet for an angler who wants to seriously fish the Whitewater is to purchase a North Carolina license in addition to a South Carolina license.
The limit on the Whitewater River is eight trout. Only artificial lures may be used.
EASTATOE RIVER Near the eastern edge of the Jocassee Gorges area and high in the mountains, the Eastatoe River heads up and then tumbles through a fabulous gorge. Eventually the gorge opens into Eastatoe Valley, where the river flows mostly through posted private land. Downstream of the valley, the lower river contains both private and public waters, but public access is permitted at several points, so trout are heavily stocked through the spring and summer.
Wild rainbow trout abound through the gorge, which is accessible via a two-mile hike from the Laurel Valley parking area off U.S. Highway 78, just south of the North Carolina border. The river (or creek, as it is often called through its upper end) is a bit smaller than the Whitewater, but it tumbles through big boulders within the gorge, creating a fairly open river with plenty of pools and deep pockets.
The trail to the Eastatoe, which begins a couple hundred yards down a logging road from the parking area, officially ends at the river. However, an unofficial trail parallels parts of the public section, allowing anglers to begin farther upstream or downstream, bypass areas that are difficult to wade or appear uninteresting, skip around other anglers or return to the main trail without having to backtrack completely by water.
The limit in the upper river section on Heritage Preserve lands is seven fish, and only artificial lures may be used. Through the lower river, statewide regulations apply, including a 10-fish limit and no special bait restrictions.
LOWER SALUDA RIVER (LAKE MURRAY TAILWATER) The Lower Saluda River stands alone among South Carolina trout streams - geographically anyway. Unlike other trout waters in the state, this section of the Saluda is more than 100 miles from the mountains. The tailwater of Saluda Dam forms Lake Murray, and this stretch of river carries waters that come from deep in the lake and therefore run cool enough for trout, despite location and topography.
The Lower Saluda is managed as a put-grow-and-take fishery using two types of stockings. Sub-adult brown trout are stocked by helicopter each November or December. The SCDNR puts the young browns in during the fall and spreads them throughout the tailwater so that the fish might get acclimated to the river and have the opportunity to grow during the cool months. Catch-and-release of brown trout is encouraged during that time. Catchable-sized rainbow trout are also stocked monthly from November through April. Annual stockings total approximately 40,000 trout.
Habitat in the Saluda becomes marginal through the dog days and into early fall. In addition, stripers eat a lot of the trout that remain in the river beginning in late spring. Nevertheless, a few fish always carry over from one season to the next, so anglers catch multi-pound trout from time to time.
Like many tailwaters, the Saluda can vary dramatically in character from one day to the next, based on water flows. Zero to five generators can be running at any given time, creating water level fluctuations of up 10 feet. On high water, currents are strong and some rapids become dangerous.
The Saluda runs mostly through private lands, so anglers must either float from one access point to another, wade from public access points during periods of low flow or gain landowner permission to access the river across private lands for wade-fishing.
There is river access to the upper tailwater at Hope Ferry Landing on the south bank and Saluda Shoals Regional Park on the north bank. Carry-in boat access is available at the Gardendale/SCE&G put-in, 3 1/2 miles downstream and at the park behind Riv
erbanks Zoo. The rapids behind the zoo lend themselves to wading on lower flows, but trout habitat is only marginal that far down the river.
Any angler wading anywhere on the Saluda must remain keenly aware of water levels. The water rises quickly when generators get turned on, and the water is cold enough to bring on hypothermia in a hurry. A good strategy for wading is to pick a rock that is easy to recognize and sitting just out of the water and glance at it often. If the rock ever disappears, it's time to get out!
The lower Saluda River attracts a wide range of trout fishermen. Fly-fishermen, spin-fishermen and bait-fishermen all enjoy the river's offerings, and often they fish side by side. Natural offerings generally produce the quickest limits, but anglers catch trout on a little bit of everything.
April, which is the last month that rainbows are stocked, offers very good fishing if the water stays at good fishing levels. Trout abound, having been stocked for several months, with good quality fish quite common. They also tend to feed quite aggressively this time of the year. In May, when stockings curtail, the stripers move upstream and the river begins to warm, trout numbers and fishing pressure both drop off dramatically.
The daily limit on the lower Saluda River is five trout. Water flow information for the Saluda is available by calling (800) 830-5253. A recorded message provides the number of generators South Carolina Electric and Gas intends to use any given day.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to South Carolina Game & Fish