When is the best time to go fishing in the Palmetto State? Anytime you can go! Here are some top destinations for every season. (February 2010)
Late winter serves up some of the best bass fishing of the year at Lake Hartwell. Brian Latimer of Belton displays a typical winter bass from the lake.
Photo by Jeff Samsel.
The good news is that South Carolina waters serve up an amazing variety of angling opportunities and that excellent fishing can be found 12 months a year.
The bad news is that South Carolina waters serve up an amazing variety of angling opportunities and that excellent fishing can be found 12 months a year.
Why is that bad news? Because there are only so many days in a year, and most of us have to work and have priorities other than fishing that compete for at least some of our off days. Days that can be spent on the water are limited and precious, while fishing opportunities are limitless. We've handpicked some of the finest fishing opportunities for every month of the year for those days when you can get on the water.
Lake Jocassee: Trout
When the world seems mighty chilly to fishermen, it's downright comfortable to trout, which are cold-water fish that are living at the extreme southern end of their range in South Carolina. That means they don't have to hang out in ridiculous depths to find comfortable water temperatures in Lake Jocassee. During January, they can go wherever the food is most abundant.
Jocassee Outdoor Center sponsors a series of trout tournaments throughout the year on Lake Jocassee, and their winter event typically draws the biggest crowd. That's not because folks expect a lovely day relaxing comfortably on a mountain lake. It's because the fishing tends to be good at that time, and anglers stand a better than normal chance of hooking into a really large rainbow or brown trout.
Most anglers troll with spoons or minnow-style lures, and during winter, the fish are sometimes shallow enough to troll with no downriggers. At night (yes, folks fish at night in the mountains in January!), a stationary approach with lights shined on the water and live bait fished in the lights produces a lot of trout.
Lake Hartwell: Largemouth Bass
Depending on water color and recent days' temperatures, the bass can be doing a lot of different things on Hartwell during February, and the best pattern may vary substantially from one part of the lake to another. The common denominator tends to be excellent late-winter bass fishing action.
A lot of fish will likely remain deep, holding tight to main-lake structure. However, they usually will be close to areas that they will move up onto in the spring and will be holding on the last available deep structure, which often will be flooded timber. Jigging spoons fished vertically among the trees and football-head jigs dragged slowly along the bottom work well for getting these fish's attention.
Another approach that works well in clear water if the fish have begun moving up is to crank a flat-sided, tight-wiggling crankbait, such as a Bomber Flat A or a Strike King Flat Shad, over points that stretch into the deeper water. Up the creeks and in the lake's upper end, where stained water often predominates, flipping jigs or casting lipless crankbaits will produce more action.
Santee Cooper: Crappie
Fertile waters, super-abundant cover and half a dozen species of shad or herring make for fat and happy crappie year after year on lakes Marion and Moultrie, and March begins prime time for putting a mess of Santee Cooper slabs in the boat.
During the spring, a lot of fish will begin moving up to the edges of the cypress stands and even anglers who know little about the lake can do well by casting minnows under corks around the trees. Because there is so much cover, though, it's important to identify those trees that stand out a bit from the rest or are at just the right depth, which calls for searching and paying close attention to details.
While some fish will move into the trees, a significant percentage will stay in slightly deeper water throughout the spring, and many anglers find these fish more dependable. Virtually every major creek or bay has sunken brush along its bottom, and crappie will make heavy use of that brush. Finding good brush requires searching with electronics. Vertical approaches tend to work best for getting fish out, as long as the water is at least 10 feet deep.
Lake Murray: Largemouth Bass
Anglers who first visit Murray during the spring and then return in the summer or fall can't believe they are fishing the same lake. The very waters that had been so productive seem devoid of fish at other times of the year. April is the good time, when the bass are shallow and opportunities for big fish and for big numbers are there for the taking.
Anglers seeking really big bass should go looking for them, donning polarized glasses and cruising the backs of pockets in search of bass beds. Murray's normally clear water lends itself nicely to the sight-fishing approach and dozens of pockets off the lower main body and along major creeks hold plenty of stumps and docks and other structure in shallow water.
An always-dependable spring approach for faster action (which also will produce an occasional big fish) is to twitch floating worms around buckbrush, under docks, beside laydowns and near other visible cover in the creeks and the pockets. Anglers seeking the best of both worlds can actually look for spawning bass while twitching a floating worm.
Lake Thurmond: Largemouth Bass
May fishing at Lake Thurmond isn't for everyone. It's only for anglers who like smashing topwater strikes and feverish feeding frenzies in really shallow water -- plus occasional big stripers that get confused and annihilate lures intended for largemouths. The truth is that May largemouth fishing can be absolutely thrilling on Lake Thurmond. The bass are mostly post-spawn and are beginning to feed hard before transitioning into summer mode. At the same time, the blueback herring are spawning, creating bass buffets over shallow clay points and saddles.
Bluebacks dictate everything this time of year. Finding the bait is the key to finding the bass. Imitating the bait is likewise critical. Two of the best lures for May fishing are large topwater lures and soft-bodied swimbaits in colors that suggest a blueback herring. The bass feed in flurries, turning on and off in spots as if someone was playing with a feeding switch. Veteran anglers fish key spots that the herring are using repeatedly during a day and eventually will hit them at the right time.
Coastal Bridges & Piers: Sheepshead
It's said that you have to set the hook just before a sheepshead bites, and that's not far from being true. They are master bait thieves that can frustrate an angler to tears. That fact acknowledged, sheepshead are brutally strong for their size and they tend to be readily available and easy to locate during June -- and many anglers would rank them among the best-eating fish in the ocean.
Sheepshead are highly cover oriented, and they normally can be found around the pilings of bridges and piers. They also hang close to jetties, seawalls and other hard cover. Often their barred flanks are visible from above the water, and finding fish to target is simply a matter of going from piling to piling and peering into the water. Other times, catching them requires blind fishing around the same kinds of structure.
The best bait for a sheepshead is a live fiddler crab, and fiddlers can be caught on beaches or hard sections of high marshes when the tides fall out. Lacking fresh fiddler crabs, live shrimp offer the next best prospects. When sheepshead are suspended beside vertical cover, such as a bridge piling, it's often necessary to suspend a bait in front of them to draw strikes. Depending on depths, clarity and currents, that might mean tight-lining or suspending a bait under a big cork.
Offshore Waters: Dolphin
Dolphin, dorado, mahi mahi . . . whatever you want to call 'em, these fast-running, high-flying, brightly colored game fish are a load of fun to catch, and during the summer they can be found without having to run quite so far from shore as other times. The best fishing will generally be over 180 to 600 feet of water, but good concentrations can be found as close as 90 feet of water this time of year.
One of the best things about dolphin is that they tend to swim in schools, so when one takes a bait, others are likely nearby. Adding even more excitement, wahoo, tuna and other game fish often can be found with the dolphin and will go after the same baits. Dolphin average 10 to 20 pounds off the South Carolina coast; however, the average size of the fish caught generally will decrease some as summer progresses.
The most popular way to locate and catch dolphin is to troll over reefs with menhaden or mullet pulled with outriggers or downriggers. Once the fish are located, though, anglers often will drop natural baits to them with lighter outfits or work the area by casting big, noisy topwater lures.
Lake Russell: Crappie
As evening fades and most folks begin thinking about heading for home, it's time to slip the boat into Lake Richard B. Russell and begin looking for crappie. Lake Russell supports a fine population of black crappie, and the slabs bite best under the stars during the summer.
The fish hang fairly deep along channel edges and turn somewhat sluggish by day. At night they move shallower to feed. Prime areas offer shallow cover very close to deep water, and some of very best fishing occurs around bridges, both over the main river and over creeks. The best pilings tend to be those that rise closest to channel edges. Standing timber, of which Lake Russell has plenty, can likewise be productive.
Whether under a bridge, among the trees or elsewhere, anglers typically anchor in a potentially productive spot just before dark and shine "crappie lights" into the water. The lights attract minnows, which in turn attract crappie, and the crappie often can be caught quite close to the surface and right next to the boat.
Tidal Creeks: Flounder
While it's true that flounder fishing can be a drag, that doesn't mean that it isn't a lot of fun. Among the most basic ways to get into good summer fishing along the coast is to string a mud minnow onto the business end of a Carolina rig or something similar and drag the bait along for flounder.
Dragging baits along the bottom is especially effective around inlets and in creeks with good tidal flow because the flounder can hold tight to the bottom and ambush prey that gets swept overhead. For the same reason, the best action normally occurs when the tide is moving well.
Bucktail jigs dressed with the same mud minnows or with strips of frozen squid also work well for getting flounder to bite. The jigs can be dragged in the same manner as the mud minnow rigs or they can be cast and worked back slowly across the bottom. Casting bucktails close to jetty rocks can be very productive.
Edisto River: Flathead Catfish
If you consider October a big-game hunting month, you're already on the right track. Flathead catfish, which feed feverishly during the fall, are definite big game within the freshwater fishing world, and targeting them begins with hunting quality flathead habitat and at times hunting the fish themselves with electronics.
Flatheads like deep holes, hard eddies with swift water nearby and dense tangles of timber. Finding that combination on the Edisto, which twists endlessly and is littered with downed trees, is no problem. The key is to scout several holes and pick out the ones that offer the best combinations of all the elements, positioning the boat well in such a spot, getting a bait down among the fish, and then getting a huge and very strong fish out of the cover.
Flatheads can be found from the forks of the Edisto all the way to the river's tidal waters, but the stretch between Givhans Ferry State Park and the Highway 17-A crossing near Cottageville is considered prime territory for big cats. Anglers need to be cautious of constantly shifting shallow sandbars and the ever-present possibility of downed trees blocking navigation lanes.
Chattooga River: Trout
The turn of the calendar page to November brings the "delay" period to the 2 1/2 miles of the Chattooga River that are designated as Delayed Harvest waters. That means that this section is very heavily stocked, and only catch-and-release fishing with single-hook artificial lures is permitted. The result is that plenty of trout are there for the catching (and releasing), and during the first half of the month, especially, those trout have not yet gotten wise to anglers' ways.
The Delayed Harvest section runs from Reed Creek downstream to the Highway 28 bridge, and all access upstream of the bridge is by foot. A national wild and scenic river, the Chattooga is quite large for a free-flowing Appalachian trout stream and tumbles between steep forested slopes. The late-fall scenery is spectacular, and the quality of the fishing can match it. Weekdays are best, as this section of river is understandably popular during November.
Well upstream of the Delayed Harvest section, spawning wild brown trout offer a totally different but equally spectacular sort of opportunity in the Chattooga. Prime areas are the East Fork of the Chattooga and the Ellicott Rock Wilderness, both accessible from the Walhalla State Fish Hatchery.
Lake Keowee: Spotted Bass
Spots and largemouths actually serve up double fun
on Lake Keowee during winter, but fat spotted bass definitely are the main attraction in this clear and steep-sided Upstate lake. Keowee spots don't average quite as large as they did a few years ago, but they are super abundant, usually aggressive and often plump.
As main-lake water temperatures drop, Keowee's threadfin shad and blueback herring and consequently many of its bass concentrate in and around the "hot hole" formed by the Oconee Nuclear Station. The fish attack prey like it's summer in the unusually warm water, and fishing can be fabulous. However, these fish stay very well fed and get a lot of fishing pressure, so at times they can be pretty finicky. Natural presentations with baits that imitate shad and herring are important. Live baitfish drifted on split shot rigs in the discharge current work even better.
Anglers ought not get too caught up in fishing the heart of the hot hole, though. The discharge impacts a significant area of the lake (albeit to a lesser degree), and points and other structural features anywhere in the warmed area can be very productive during the winter. In addition, brushpiles under docks in all parts of Lake Keowee hold a lot of spots throughout the winter.