The deep-water trout fishery at Lake Jocassee produces most of the biggest trout taken in the state each year. Here's how the local experts approach spring trophy trout fishing.
Standing near the console of the equipment adorned transom of the specially rigged pontoon boat, trout enthusiast and sometime guide Alex Orr kept a close eye on the sonar graph as the boat methodically motored through the churning water erupting from the twin water outtakes that adorn the eastern corner of the Jocassee dam.
Although brown trout are not as common as rainbow trout in the spring at Jocassee, the browns that do show up tend to be trophies.
Photo courtesy of Jocassee Outdoor Center.
The trip had begun well before daylight and skies threatened rain as gray daylight beckoned from the other side of the concrete structure. Rolling water pumped backward through the turbines from Lake Keowee on the other side of the dam. The machinery churned from deep within the complex, ringing out a veritable breakfast call as baitfish from the lake below arrived at Jocassee in pieces. Some 50 feet beneath Orr's feet, two downrigger balls, a mere 10 feet apart, plowed through the cold spring-fed water, towing hammered willow-blade baits.
Amidst the melee of churning water, herring soup, and foreign metals, the flash of a silver spoon caught the eye of a chunky rainbow trout. Just days from its exhausting return across the entire expanse of the deep, clear lake, the big rainbow was famished from weeks of participating in the annual spawning ritual. Slipping up on the bait from below and behind, the fish cut an arc, closing the distance between itself and its prey and snatched the bait with its jaws.
"Fish on!" cried Orr to his fishing partner as the bright yellow rod to his left snapped to attention then began a slow bow to the as-yet-unseen fish. Orr expertly stepped in behind the rod and lofted it from its perch along the transom and began manipulating the fish to the surface.
Located in the northwest corner of South Carolina, beautiful, pristine Lake Joccassee offers anglers a variety of fishing adventures that are found nowhere else in the state. The lake is home to several state-record catches, including the state's smallmouth bass, spotted bass and redeye bass, as well as both rainbow and brown trout species. The 7,500-acre mountain lake is the deepest in the state, measuring nearly 300 feet deep. The lake is fed by four Appalachian rivers that keep its depths cold throughout the year. An impoundment of the Whitewater, Thompson, Horsepasture and Toxaway rivers, Jocassee remains almost virtually undeveloped-- surrounded by steep mountain terrain owned by Duke Power, the creator of the lake, and public trust lands owned by the state.
While Jocassee is a well-respected, trophy black bass fishery, it is best known for its abundant rainbow and brown trout, which are stocked and regulated by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. The lake's trout fishing strategies have evolved over time with most anglers now relying almost completely on trolling tactics using downriggers to reach the lake's deep-water trout.
Alex Orr, from nearby Salem, is not only a trout angler, he's also the manager of Jocassee Outdoor Center (864/944-9016), the central focus for all things related to the lake and its trout fishery. He's been with the store since 1999 when it was known as Hoyett's and owned by the late and un-related Jimmy Orr, for whom the Annual Trout Championship tournament is named. He guided for the store until it was purchased by Ken Sloan in 2003 who made Orr the manager and concentrated on expanding the store's focus.
"We get a lot of people up here who just want to sightsee or come and ride around the lake for the scenery," said Orr. "We also have a lot of scuba divers in the spring and summer and, of course, we also cater to the fishermen. We even sponsor a series of trout tournaments on the lake from November through April."
While some trout anglers find success using live or cut bait tactics from an anchored boat typically night-fishing near the hydro station, most veteran trout anglers who fish during daylight hours prefer to troll artificial baits for Jocassee trout. Because of the trout's propensity for cold, dark water, trout are often caught as deep as 100 feet throughout the year. This deep-water fishing necessitates the use of specialized equipment in order to present the baits at appropriate depths. For years, Great Lakes and saltwater anglers have relied on downrigger setups to reach deep-water fish. This has become the norm on Jocassee.
"I sell downriggers that run anywhere from $100 to $2,000 apiece," said Orr. "But most people who fish out of pontoon boats or center consoles do very well up here using a couple of relatively inexpensive setups in the $200 range."
Orr said some of the most dependable setups are the Cannon downriggers (www.cannondownriggers.com). A downrigger uses a round or oblong 8- to 10-pound lead ball to get lines down to the desired depths. The weight is suspended by a 150-pound-test cable that connects to the boat with a metal arm or boom. The cable is attached to a spool that allows line to be released or retrieved by either a hand crank or electric motor. A line release is attached to the cable just above the weight, which holds the main fishing line. Baits are either cast or measured out behind the boat then the line is clipped into the release. Two rods can be fished from each ball by employing a double stacker release, which spreads the lines so they don't tangle. When a trout strikes, the line releases from the cable and the angler plays the fish.
Like most fish species, trout pattern differently around Jocassee depending on the time of year and the water's surface temperatures. Although neither brown nor rainbow trout successfully spawn in Jocassee, both species make annual spawning runs up the river arms. April finds trout spawn weary and hungry. It's for this reason that the majority of fishing takes place around the water intakes at the hydro station.
"They normally release water at night and then pump it back the next morning," said Orr. "The back pumping chops up a lot of baitfish and the trout come in to mop up. I once caught a rainbow trout that had 17 whole shad and a whole bunch of bits and pieces in its stomach. They go crazy when those turbines start running, but it can be tough to catch fish if they aren't running water."
Orr's favorite baits are hammered willow-leaf spoons in either gold or silver. He indicated that purple was often a good producer as well as green or firetiger green.
"I like a 71 Sutton spoon down to a 31 Sutton spoon," he said giving sizes that range from 4 inches to 6 inches. "One of our guides also makes the Badcreek Baits, which come in the same colors, and thes
e work great too."
With the gin-clear water, Orr doesn't use any line over 10-pound-test. He also prefers a long, limber rod to set the baits up in the down riggers, favoring either a 7-foot Shakespeare Ugly Stik or Eagle Claw Ocean trolling rod in light action. The rods are matched with an Ambassadeur 5500 or 6000 baitcast reel.
The shop manager suggests using the main outboard motor to troll on Jocassee. Trolling speeds are normally from 1.0 to 3.0 mph with 1.5 being the preferred speed on a normal day. The newer four-stroke motors are well adapted at the slower speeds and make less noise than the older two strokes.
"If they're pumping water, the better bite in April usually lasts from about an hour before daylight till 10:30 a.m.," said Orr. "You can still catch fish even if they aren't running water, but the fish are not as concentrated and you'll need to do a lot of searching and cover a lot more water. There's a lot of submerged timber out in the lake and the trout will hold in that if they aren't ganged up at the dam."
The trout bite in April is primarily rainbows with just a few browns scattered in. Orr wasn't completely sure why the rainbows took center stage this time of year. In either case, he indicated that 90 percent of the trout catch would be rainbows with a few brown scattered into the mix although the browns tended to be really good-sized fish.
Stocking of both rainbows and brown trout are the lake's source of recruitment, with stocked fish coming from the nearby Walhalla Fish Hatchery. Stocking numbers vary from year to year, but Orr estimates the SCDNR stocked over 100,000 trout in the lake last year.
The daily creel limit for any coldwater trout caught from Lake Jocassee is five per person per day. There is a minimum size limit of 15 inches for any species of trout. A freshwater fishing license is required. South Carolina does not require a trout stamp.
So, whether you come for the scenery, the trout fishing, or a little of both, head up to Jocassee this month to get in on some of South Carolina's beauty and majesty in the mountains.