October 04, 2010
If you're in good enough shape to do some walking, South Carolina holds some surprisingly good trout fishing. (April 2007)
By Jim Casada
Photo by Jim Casada
Once you get high into the mountains, getting down low to avoid alerting trout is helpful. This angler is fishing the headwaters of Howard Creek.
For those willing to take to the backpack trail and who enjoy fishing for trout somewhere back of beyond, South Carolina holds some welcome and comparatively unknown surprises. To be sure, remote streams aren't everyone's dream. After all, they involve physical hardships, careful planning, some special technical skills, and more. A reasonable degree of physical fitness is necessary, with a willingness to rely on your feet to get where you need to be figuring prominently in the areas we will be looking at in detail. Likewise, some of the finest trout fishing in the state really requires carrying your home on your back and spending two or three nights (or more) in a backcountry campsite. There's even a small element of adventure (some would call it danger), because the rugged terrain around the streams pouring into Lake Jocassee and along the Foothills Trail isn't the place you want to break a leg or have some other type of accident.
But if you relish fish that have never known the walls of a concrete rearing pen, pristine surroundings, the solace of solitude, and what must rank as the state's finest trout fishing, then pull up a chair and let's take an invigorating ramble down mountain paths to an angling world that, thankfully, we have not lost.
One of the key considerations in fishing remote streams is figuring out the complexities of getting there. This almost always involves hiking or backpacking, which often requires knowledge of how to find trailheads along back roads, and in some cases necessitates careful study of trails. With all of this in mind, it seems appropriate to mention a few sources that should be a part of the paraphernalia, as important as his vest or fly box, for any South Carolina angler who is truly serious about getting back of beyond.
A good starting point, especially helpful with roads, is South Carolina County Maps. Organized on a county-by-county basis, it will show you what you need for the three counties -- Pickens, Oconee and Greenville -- that are home to all of the state's remote trout fishing. Nicely complementing this book is the South Carolina Atlas & Gazetteer, which shows topo lines and is written with the outdoorsman specifically in mind. Along with these, there are four books written primarily for hikers that you will find invaluable. The Waterfalls of South Carolina, by Benjamin Brooks and Tim Cook, focuses on giving folks guidance to the wonders of waterfalls. Yet, in many cases, the same streams that produce waterfalls are also prime trout territory, and I know of no better way to find some real secrets than through studying the streams where some of the more inaccessible waterfalls are found. Allen DeHart's Hiking Trails of South Carolina has long been a standard, and it can be a real help. Even more important, because so many of the key trout streams mentioned below cross the Foothills Trail, is Johnny Molloy's The Foothills Trail. Similar in content, and every bit as useful, is the John Garton and Heyward Douglass Guide to the Foothills Trail. Finally, you will find the Web site FoothillsTrail.org helpful.
SOME GENERAL THOUGHTS ON THE PROCESS OF DISCOVERY
One of the favorite sayings my Grandpa Joe, who was a sure enough fishing fool, regularly uttered was: "A man's got to have some secrets." I wholeheartedly agree, but in order to have secrets, you first have to make some discoveries. Frankly, with its limited geographical terrain when it comes to desirable trout habitat, South Carolina doesn't have an over-abundance of these for trout fishermen.
In essence, you are most likely to make "finds" in the form of smaller streams that feed well-known trout destinations, and if by chance, they lie off the beaten path or have no trail system serving them, so much the better. They may be small, but just remember that a stream only 5 or 6 feet wide can and usually will hold trout. I'll mention a few examples, and then leave it to your investigative genius and abilities as an explorer (after all, Grandpa was right -- one has to have some secrets). Check out Cheohee Creek, Corbin Creek, Limberpole Creek, Reedy Cove Creek, and any of the South Carolina feeders of the Chattooga River.
Also, and this is as good a tip as you'll get from yours truly, if you can endure digging through the bureaucratese, take a careful look at the Water Classifications and Standards from the Board of Water of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). This document (Scdhec.net/eqc/water/regs/r61-69.pdf) lists every stream in the state and classifies the waters in each. If a stream carries the designation "TN" (trout-natural), it deserves your attention. If, in addition, that stream is remote and difficult to reach, it merits your undivided attention.
SOME SUGGESTED DESTINATIONS
Most of South Carolina's most desirable, off-the-beaten-path trout destinations are accessed off the Foothills Trail. Fondly referred to in hiking groups as "South Carolina's Appalachian Trail," the trail's entirety encompasses some 86 miles, and with its connectors, there are close to 200 miles of maintained footpaths. They weren't built with the trout fisherman in mind, but the fact that the trail crosses many waterways and is accessible exclusively to hikers is significant.
One note of caution: The Foothills Trail wends its way along the North Carolina-South Carolina line, and the streams it crosses, almost without exception, originate in North Carolina's Transylvania County, sometimes called "the land of waterfalls." With that in mind, it isn't a bad idea to have a fishing license for both states in your possession. It simplifies matters a great deal and removes any necessity of worrying about just which state you are in at a given point.
Also, keep in mind, if you plan on camping (some of the best fishing requires that you backpack in and spend several days in the wilderness), that camping regulations vary according to the portion of the trail you use. It runs through the Sumter and Pisgah national forests, wild and scenic river areas, designated wilderness areas, and state parks, and they have differing regulations for campers. No backcountry camping is allowed in either Oconee or Caesars Head state parks, and the same is true for the Whitewater River Gorge.
Mention of the Whitewater River offers a good beginning point. You reach it via a short trail that begins at Duke Power's Bad Creek Project and connects with the Foothills T
rail. When you come to the stream, a footbridge crosses it and provides a ready access point to work either upstream or down. Alternatively, and the same holds true for the Thompson River, Howard Creek and Laurel Fork Creek, you can travel by boat to the mouth of these streams, all of which empty into Lake Jocassee. One problem with that approach, although the nimble-footed can overcome it, is that most empty into the lake in precipitous fashion and you generally find the stream becoming your trail.
By Palmetto State standards, the Whitewater River is pretty big water. Only a couple of miles of the stream's flow are in South Carolina -- a mile below Lower Whitewater Falls and a mile above to where you reach the North Carolina line. Not much farther upstream, in North Carolina, you come to the Upper Falls.
There are both browns and 'bows in the Whitewater, and in the past it has gotten some stockings with fingerlings. Of course, these are very different from keeper-sized trout planted straight from a hatchery. However, the heart of the Whitewater's offerings focuses on wild brown trout, and its mixture of deep plunge pools and runs and riffles form ideal habitat for them.
Incidentally, despite being home to two truly impressive waterfalls, the rest of the river's drainage is not overly rough or precipitous.
Without much question, this stream is South Carolina's most remote "big" water. Actually, it is only a medium to medium-large trout stream by southern Appalachian standards, but it is so rugged and so remote that somehow it seems larger and more impressive. Almost strictly a brown trout stream, in its lower reaches this is a classic plunge pool water with numerous deep holes.
To get to it, you have to take a lengthy hike along the Foothills Trail (hence, overnight camping is advised) or else do your best imitation of a mountain goat and come in from the lake. Either way, the lower reaches are a classic gorge-type drainage, and a high level of fitness, along with considerable caution, is required. Personally, I wouldn't fish this area alone and wouldn't recommend that others do it either.
Not much more than a mile of the Thompson River lies in South Carolina, but if you have a North Carolina license, you can continue upstream. The depth of many of the Thompson's pools suggests the need to get deep. You may want some split shot with spin-casting offerings, and flyfishermen would be well advised to consider weighted streamers. One other thought -- camping lets you be astream at dawn or dusk, and it is well worth remembering that brown trout are most active in low-light conditions.
Emptying into Lake Jocassee's west shore not too far up the reservoir from Devil's Fork State Park, Howard Creek can be reached by boat, trail, or, in its upper reaches, off Highway 130 (locally known as the Whitewater Falls Road). It forks not far upstream from its confluence with Lake Jocassee, and has two feeders, Corbin Creek and Limberpole Creek, which are also noteworthy.
This is classic small-stream fishing, with plenty of tight canopy but also some relatively open water. Current regulations have most of Howard Creek and its major feeders closed during the late fall and winter (from Nov. 1 through March 30), but you'll find it a wonderful destination for wild trout during the warm-weather months.
LAUREL FORK CREEK
Laurel Fork Creek flows into the Toxaway River arm of Lake Jocassee. It is a four-mile boat ride from the launch area at Devils Fork State Park (after entering the Toxaway River arm, turn right into the finger where Laurel Creek enters the lake). You can see spectacular Laurel Creek Falls from the lake, but it's a tough, long hike (some eight miles) to the falls.
Of course, our present interest isn't waterfall viewing but fishing. The entire Laurel Fork drainage is designated "trout-natural" water by DHEC. You'll find bigger trout in the lower end, below the falls, but don't overlook the headwaters or Laurel Fork's feeders.
The Foothills Trail crosses the stream via a suspension bridge, but it's a long, eight-mile-plus hike to this point. For multi-day trips, taking the trail to here from U.S. Highway 178 (turn off it onto Laurel Valley Road, Pickens County Road S-237, take the gravel road to the right and drive half a mile to the Laurel Valley Access parking lot) is the way to go. For a day of fishing, the lower reaches, accessed by boat from Lake Jocassee, are really the only viable option.
The headwaters of this stream are also situated in the Jocassee Gorges area, but unlike the above-mentioned waters, it is not a feeder like Lake Jocassee. Much of the Eastatoe is readily accessible, but such is not the case with the steep gorge that forms that portion of the headwaters where the stream squares its shoulders and gets down to serious abundance. It really isn't a river here, just a fast-flowing, decent-sized mountain creek. If you are looking for a reasonably remote area that can still be the focus of a one-day trip, the Eastatoe might be just the ticket.
To gain access to the gorge area, you must hike in from the Laurel Valley parking area. This is reached from Highway 178 (Moorefield Memorial Highway) just a short way from the border with North Carolina. A comparatively easy hike of 2 1/2 miles along a blaze-marked trail takes you to the river, where the maintained trail ends. However, there is a readily discernible angler's path alongside the right side of the stream. This is mainly wild rainbow water, although you may occasionally catch a stocked fish that has made its way upstream from the valley area lower down, where stocking takes place on a regular basis.
TACTICS, TECHNIQUES AND RELATED MATTERS
For the most part, both artificial lures (flies, spinners and small plugs) and bait are legal for trout in South Carolina streams. There are a few exceptions where artificials or single-hook artificials only are permitted, as well as special regulations regarding creel limits. You should always check regulations for the current year before venturing to a given stream.
On any of the streams specifically mentioned above, along with all others in the mountain area of South Carolina, an ultralight spinning outfit or a lightweight fly outfit (5-weight or less) will serve you quite nicely. Contrary to the standard wisdom for the latter type of gear, I recommend a long rod (9 feet or more). This makes for longer, more precise roll casts, which you'll need in tight quarters, is better suited to dappling, and also produces longer bow-and-arrow casts.
For the bait-fisherman, most any type of naturals will work, although for multi-day trips you need to give some thought to the "keeping" qualities of bait. In that regard, think wax worms or maybe, in late summer, catch your own 'hoppers. In-line spinners, such as a small Mepps Aglia, a Rooster Tail, or an old mountain favorite, a Colorado blade with a long-shank Yellowhammer fly as the trailer, all work well.
For the flyfisherman, attractor patterns, possibly with a nymph dropper, are recommended. These are relatively infer
tile streams, and that translates to fish that feed opportunistically on whatever is available. It also means that presentation, not pattern, should be at the heart of your concerns.
Whatever your preference when it comes to equipment and lures, the real thrill of remote trout fishing revolves around wild fish, wild settings, roaring water and the incomparable solace of solitude. It is heartening to know that, for those willing to take shank's mare to get to fine water, South Carolina can still offer this type of trout fishing.
(Editor's Note: Jim Casada is a full-time freelance writer who has fished the southern Appalachians all but the first six years of his life. He has written extensively on trout fishing and is the author of two books on fly-fishing as well as dozens of other works. For more information or for a free subscription to his monthly e-newsletter, visit his Web site at www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.)