Here's a look at 36 fine fishing destinations -- three for each month -- that promise some top action this year. (February 2006)
Tiny, tumbling creeks drain the rugged Appalachian foothills, joining forces to form mountain rivers -- rivers that then take on a Piedmont character after they fall off the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Ever growing in size, rivers tumble over rugged shoals when they cross the Fall Line, where the Piedmont gives way to the Coastal Plain. Through the Coastal Plain, the rivers broaden and slow their courses, running through swamps and eventually tidal marshes. Within the marshes, the streams split into countless fingers. Some open into bays, which are bounded by barrier islands that divide the tidal backwaters from the Atlantic Ocean.
Along the way, South Carolina's streams back up in numerous impoundments that range from pond size to Lake Marion's 110,000 acres and are as varied in character as the stream sections they impound. Not surprisingly, the Palmetto State's fishing opportunities are extraordinarily diverse. With that diversity in mind, we've selected fishing hotspots for every season, looking at all parts of the state, and many different styles of fishing.
Through the first part of January, the best catfishing action on the Santee Cooper lakes is likely to be within a couple miles of Santee Dam on Lake Marion. Threadfin shad and other baitfish congregate near the dam when winter hits hard, and the cats show up in big numbers for the feast. Anglers commonly drift near the dam, suspending live or cut shad just below the baitfish on tight lines. Action can be intense.
If a really cold snap comes through, the shad may begin dying, triggering an even more furious bite. Shad kills don't happen every winter, but when they do, serious catfishermen want to be at Lake Marion. It's a "now-or-never" thing when it happens, though. Within a week after the shad start dying, most fish will be filled to the gills, and the fishing will go from a feast to a famine overnight.
At the other end of the spectrum, any string of sunny, warm days can push cats shallow, where the water warms just a tiny bit faster. They move onto flats in less than 6 feet of water and relate to stumps, ditches and other subtle features. Local anglers spread several big pieces of cut bait across a flat and wait for the lines to take off. With nowhere to dive, big blues make drag-sizzling runs. The fish will go back down with the first hint of cold weather but will return to the shallows with each series of sunny days.
Abundant crawfish, sunfish and various species of shad and herring keep the largemouths very well fed in the Cooper River's short run from the Tailrace Canal to upper reaches of Charleston Harbor. Unlike the coastal streams that lace the South Carolina coast, the Cooper is highly fertile.
Big-fish potential is the Cooper's main attraction. Ten-pound-plus largemouths hardly turn heads among anglers who know the Cooper well, and every year, this broad tidal river yields some absolute monsters. February is prime time to hook a really large fish as the big females fatten up for the spawn and move shallow.
Tidal movements heavily influence fishing patterns along the Cooper. High water draws bass into broken rice fields, where they feast on crawfish. Low tides push them back into the main river, where they pile up in submerged vegetation away from the banks and in the ends of downed trees.
Another very fertile waterway, Lake Wylie is a perennial producer of heavyweight crappie. Despite very heavy pressure brought on both by Wylie's reputation and its Charlotte/ Rock Hill location, this lake continues to serve up fine fishing.
For anglers adept at trolling and those who know the locations of brushpiles in Wylie's middle depths, fine fishing continues all year. During the spring, the fish move shallow, and anglers can catch plenty of fish by casting jigs and minnows around docks, brush and other visible cover.
The key to productive dock fishing is identifying the most productive docks, which is an elimination process. Anglers should work fairly quickly from dock to dock at first, experimenting with some docks along the main body, others in the mouths of creeks and others well up creeks, while at the same time paying attention to depths and watching for visible tips of brushpiles. Typically, it doesn't take long to find productive docks during March.
Big and beautiful, the Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River is also extremely diverse in its offerings to trout fishermen. The upper reaches of the South Carolina portion support a great population of wild brown trout. Downstream, various sections receive spring stockings of catchable-sized rainbows or fall helicopter stockings of sub-adult browns. The three-mile delayed-harvest section at the lower end of the trout waters remains under catch-and-release regulations during April and is loaded with trout.
Unlike many Southern Appalachian streams, the Chattooga produces big insect hatches on spring and summer afternoons, creating wonderful dry-fly fishing opportunities. Fine fishing isn't exclusive to long-rod anglers, though. Anglers who throw minnow- or crawfish-imitating plugs in along deep-dark edges of big pools might just end up tangling with a heavyweight brown trout.
Much of the Chattooga is accessible only by foot, so anglers who don't mind walking a couple of miles -- or even backpacking in and hiking several miles, can find more solitude and less-pressured fish.
No one ever told the spotted bass they aren't supposed to be in Lake Keowee. Although not native to the Savannah River, these vividly marked bass seem to cherish the lake's deep water, rocky points and abundant herring. Keowee spots have potbellies, but they hit lures and fight like they are lean and mean.
Keowee is a terrific topwater lake. Spots and largemouths will come up for Zara Spooks any time of the day. Rocky points and the tops of humps are good places to "walk the dog." Poppers and prop baits work well around brush and other shoreline cover.
If the fish won't come up, local anglers go down after them with finesse-type soft-plastic lures. Carolina rigs work well for fishing humps and points. However, Keowee's banks are heavily developed, and docks produce many fish to anglers who shake little worms on miniature Texas rigs.
With no development around it, Lake Richard B. Russell offe
rs quiet, solitude and nearly complete darkness on a moonless night. More importantly, Lake Russell serves up hot bass fishing on summer nights, with largemouths and spots both a part of the catch. Spots are most abundant in the main Savannah River arm, especially through the lower half of the lake. Largemouths predominate in the creeks.
A great summer night strategy is to "fish the poles," which hold signs that mark channel edges and navigational hazards. The poles used for markers at Russell, unlike buoys used at most lakes, are permanently placed and very precise, marking the highest spots on hazards and the edges of channel drops. Making the poles and the humps or breaks they mark even better, many have brush sunk around them.
Many anglers fish the poles with big, dark-colored plastic worms or jigs. Alternative strategies are to fish flats that are adjacent to major creek channels with big-bladed spinnerbaits or slow-roll the same baits through flooded timber stands. Russell's trees are mostly broken at the normal pool level, but big stands remain intact beneath the surface, and they are shown on most lake maps and marked by signs.
Tarpon catches off the South Carolina coast aren't huge in number, so it would be tough to characterize the fishing as outstanding. That said, when these big silver-sided fish are around, they become the buzz of marine radios and bait shop talk and clearly are the hottest thing going. When anyone hooks a tarpon and the fish starts jumping, every angler within sight stops to watch the show, and somehow all feel like they have claim to a little bit of the catch if the fish is landed.
Tarpon are caught all along the coast during midsummer, mostly near major ocean passes. Some are on the beachfront, others are inside the mouths of the bays. Most tarpon are caught on big live baitfish, often fished on the bottom rig near some kind of rip.
While tarpon are the targeted species when anglers lay out baits, bull redfish and various shark species create sort of a big-game mix and offer fairly dependable action to complement the hope of a big jumping tarpon.
Anglers commonly use a few different strategies to catch Lake Thurmond hybrids (and stripers), and all sometimes produce hot action. The most popular approach is to fish under the stars, using lights to draw in baitfish, which then attract the hybrids. Alternative strategies are to key on the extreme upper and lower ends of the lake, both of which tend to hold concentrations of fish.
Fish move to the upper end of the lake because of the cooler water, current and baitfish concentrations in the Lake Russell tailwaters. However, some anglers contend this action has been less predictable since pump-back operations began a few years ago. In the far lower end of the lake, fish cruise Lake Thurmond's open main body, hanging close to the thermocline. Anglers either troll spoons and bucktails at controlled depths with downriggers or drift slowly in the open water with live bait on downlines.
Nighttime anglers fish exclusively with live bait -- usually live blueback herring. They set up over humps near the Savannah River channel or over the channel edge itself and put down several lines. Action often comes in tremendous flurries as schools of hybrids cruising the channel come through.
With school back in session, South Carolina's beaches become far less crowded during September, making coastal excursions pleasant. At the same time, fish crowd up in the surf, and anglers who venture out onto piers from Myrtle Beach to Buford can have a fine time pulling in a mixed bag of ocean species.
The species mix varies from week to week, and the best baits and strategies differ somewhat according to which fish have been the most cooperative in recent days. Common catches range from spots to king mackerel and generally include flounder, trout, bluefish, Spanish mackerel and small sharks, to name a few species.
If Spanish or blues have been a significant part of the mix, it's hard to beat a spoon fished as fast as an angler can crank the line. Adding a weight to the line a couple of feet from the spoon helps keep the bait from skipping on the surface. Anglers who are seeking a diverse mix of species typically use two-hook bottom rigs and bait their hooks with cut fish, squid, frozen shrimp, bloodworms or other bait shop offerings.
It's worth noting that that there often are definite hotspots and that the best spot isn't always at the end of the dock. Veteran anglers look for water color differences that indicate breaks in the bottom depth. They also move frequently if the fish aren't cooperating.
PEE DEE RIVER
Autumn brings out the best in big catfish, which many anglers consider the main attraction on the Pee Dee River. The Pee Dee produces super-sized flatheads and blues (along with plentiful smaller channel catfish), and good fishing opportunities extend from the North Carolina border all the way to the river's tidal waters.
Boating anglers enjoy the best opportunity in the lower half of the Pee Dee's South Carolina run. The upper reaches are studded with treacherous sandbars and timber tangles and can be especially tough to navigate during the fall when water levels tend to be low. Prime areas all along the river are hard outside bends (of which there are hundreds). Anglers should look for the deepest holes they can find, sharp breaks from shallow flats, cover that stretches into the deep water and distinctive currents and current breaks.
Big live bluegills (and their sunfish kin) are the baitfish of choice for heavyweight flatheads. Anglers seeking big blues typically use large chunks of cut fish, with shad and bluegills being common choices. Whatever the bait, anglers need heavy weights to keep baits in place in the sometimes-strong currents and heavy-duty gear to drag fish out of the thick cover.
Rainbows and browns alike reach jumbo proportions in Lake Jocassee. In fact, the state-record fish of both species came from Jocassee -- South Carolina's only true mountain lake. During November, as water temperatures begin to drop in the lake, cold-loving trout begin to move up in the water column and feed more actively.
Some anglers troll spoons and minnow-imitating plugs at controlled depths with downriggers, picking their depths according to where they spot fish (including baitfish) on their graphs. However, the most reliable time to put Lake Jocassee trout in the boat is after the sun goes down.
Night-fishing offers a couple of important advantages. First, the trout move much closer to the surface and feed more reliably. In addition, by shining bright lights in the water, anglers can attract schools of baitfish, which then draw in the trout. Some anglers get out in the open main lake and drift. Others choose strategic bank positions near channel edges where they can tie off and wait on the fish. Both groups u
se a mix of minnows and worms, which they fish directly beneath the boat with tight lines or cast to the edges of the lights with slip-float rigs.
Two things happen during December that favor really fun redfishing in the vast network of tidal creeks and bays along the South Carolina coast. First, microorganisms die in the cold water, creating the clearest water of the year. Second, much of the natural forage moves out of the estuaries. The results are that anglers can spot redfish in the clear water -- often in huge congregations -- and the fish will readily nab artificial lures.
December is actually a favored time for flyfishermen, who cast Clousers into schools of fish. However, spin-fishermen enjoy even better success with bucktails, soft-plastic lures on leadheads or shallow-running, darting plugs.
The downside to a big congregation of redfish is that 50 fish have 100 eyes, and in the clear water, they can get spooked easily. Anglers must use stealth as they search for fish and limit abrupt movements when they spot fish. It's also important to make quick, accurate casts before getting too close to the fish. Usually if a fly or a lure lands among a school of redfish without the fish being spooked by the angler, one fish from that school is likely to seize that offering.