Planning a fishing road trip is always a good way to discover new waters and types of opportunities. For a few different reasons, such a plan is especially good in South Carolina.
First, great fishing is truly spread all over the state. Next, that fishing is ultra-diverse, so if you always stay close, you really are missing out. Finally, South Carolina is sufficiently small that nothing is too far away for planning a reasonable road trip.
With such thoughts in mind, we’ve selected seven destinations in different parts of the state that offer exceptional summer fishing prospects and would make fine road trip stops. We’ll start in the northwestern corner of the state and work our way to the coast.
CHATTOOGA RIVER BROWN TROUT
The spring typically delivers great conditions for fishing throughout trout waters in Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River area. Flows tend to be strong but not at flood levels, and temperatures high enough to prompt active feeding but not too warm for trout. As summer progresses, the lower end of the trout run gets a bit warm, but this is a great time to hike upstream from Burrells Ford and target wild brown trout in the first few miles of river that flow along the Georgia/South Carolina border.
Many Chattooga browns are stream-bred and purely wild. Others are semi-wild, having been helicopter stocked as sub-adults but having grown up in the river. Either way, the browns find great habitat in deep, dark pools and plenty of food.
Browns favor meals over snacks, so don’t be scared to fish streamers with a fly rod or crankbaits that imitate crawfish or minnows with a spinning rod. Whatever your offering, stay low and back from the water, when possible, and avoid quick movements. If an adult brown trout detects your presence, which can happen easily given the Chattooga’s normal clarity, it is very unlikely to eat. Also, if you have a choice, fish the Chattooga on an overcast day.
If You Go
Mountain Rest Cabins & Campground (mountainrestcabins.com) offers a host of camping and cabin lodging options, all tucked in the woods and handy to the Chattooga. One is even located on a 30-acre private lake!
LAKE THURMOND CRAPPIE
If you want to hook up with some slab crappie, plan travels to Strom Thurmond Reservoir (also called Clarks Hill), which covers 71,535 acres and straddles the Georgia border. Plentiful Thurmond crappie average 1/2 pound, based on biologists’ sampling, with many 2-pound-plus fish available.
Virtually every major tributary arm on either side of Lake Thurmond has an abundance of brush sunken along its channel, and crappie make good use of brush in the lower ends of creeks during the summer. Slow trolling with minnows along a channel and going back and forth across the drop will help you find the brush with the crappie on it. Watch your electronics as you fish and be ready to drop a marker buoy if a couple of rods go down at once or you spot a Christmas tree that appears to be decorated with crappie.
Circle back and give that spot a closer look, and if you get bit on the return pass try vertical jigging for a while.
An alternative approach that can be highly effective during the summer is to set up under a bridge at night with a floating crappie light and wait for the minnows and then the crappie to come into the light.
If You Go
Palmetto Angler Bait & Tackle in McCormick has everything you need for a day on the water and can provide a heads up on what the crappie have been doing.
LAKE MURRAY BREAM
Although more famous for its largemouths and linesides, Lake Murray supports a fabulous population of bluegills, shellcrackers (redear sunfish) and other sunfish species. In May, the bream moved to the backs of coves and pockets to spawn, and many remain relatively shallow throughout summer.
Bluegills tend to spawn quite shallow, often in the very back of a pocket around buckbrush, dock supports, stumps or other cover. Shellcrackers might be a bit deeper, usually over a hard bottom, but still back in a cove where beds are protected. The best finding and fishing strategy is simple: Work likely areas with a cricket or worm a few feet under a float and keep moving until the float starts darting out of sight.
As summer progresses and the bream begin focusing on feeding instead of spawning, artificial lures come into play and create fun opportunities. Again, keep moving to find active fish. Instead of using float rigs, though, use a little popper, a Rebel Crickhopper, a micro jig or a small spinner. Cast to everything that looks fishy, including dock supports and brushpiles that are out from the banks a bit and slightly deeper, and hang on tight.
If You Go
Eptings Landing in Chapin, owned and operated by the same family since 1939, offers cabin rentals, bait and tackle and place to launch your boat.
LAKE WATEREE LARGEMOUTHS
Sometimes overlooked for larger lakes Murray, Marion and Moultrie, Lake Wateree supports an outstanding bass population that provides great opportunities for numbers and quality. Covering 13,800 acres, Lake Wateree gives anglers plenty of room and a diverse fishing habitat.
Similar to Murray, Lake Wateree supports a fine bream population, and an excellent bass strategy beginning in May and June is to target cover in the backs of coves and pockets with poppers or topwater prop baits for bass that are capitalizing on the congregated bluegill. An alternative approach that is quite productive, even if you don’t know Wateree extremely well, is to run seemingly endless points that stretch out toward the Wateree River and work them with a deep-diving crankbait or a plastic worm.
A final option for Wateree bass is to rest most of the day and concentrate efforts on fishing after the sun goes down. Beyond the obvious virtues of reduced crowds and heat, night fishing can produce excellent action from bass that move shallow to feed in the moonlight. Prime locations after hours are the tops of shallow humps that rise close to the main channel and the extreme shallow ends of same main-lake points that you’d fish farther down during the day.
If You Go
Lake Wateree State Park has anglers’ needs covered with a boat ramp, fuel dock and tackle shop. The park also provides a place to camp beside the lake to accommodate multi-day road trips.
PEE DEE RIVER CATFISH
Blue and flathead catfish compete for top billing in the Great Pee Dee River. We see no need to pick, though, because both are extremely plentiful and grow huge in this wild lowland river. Both offer excellent summer prospects and a legitimate opportunity to catch a fish of a lifetime.
Huge cats can be found anywhere in the Pee Dee, but waters between the Interstate 95 and U.S. Highway 701 crossings probably offer the best prospects for most anglers simply because of navigability at any water level. Anywhere along the river’s course, the best areas to set up are along bends in the river that scour deep holes, create complex currents and collect tangles of downed trees. By day, fish will be in the deepest parts of the holes and buried in the thickest cover. At night, they’ll move to inside bends and to the heads of the holes to feed.
The primary difference between targeted flathead fishing and blue cat fishing is the bait. Flatheads like live fish, including bluegills, shad, mullet and bullheads. Blues like a big chunk of cut bait. In either case, very heavy tackle is critical for handing big fish in current and sometimes having to wrestle them out of dense cover.
If You Go
Stalvey’s Bait and Tackle in Conway has all the right stuff (including fresh eel or baitfish) for a catfishing trip on the Great Pee Dee River.
SANTEE COOPER STRIPERS
During the spring, river herring move into Lake Moultrie to spawn, and late in the spring they congregate near Pinopolis Dam before moving out of the lakes. The timing varies, but as long as the herring are around, stripers will be nearby, and fishing big live herring near the dam offers a great opportunity to catch big striped bass. One important note: No targeted striper fishing (even catch-and-release) is permitted on the Santee Cooper lakes after June 15.
Find the baitfish near the lock with electronics and then use down lines to present the baits straight below the boats. Measure baits down to the approximate depth of the bait schools and just above them, staggering the depths of lines initially and paying attention to which depth produces the best action.
As a spectacular bonus, fishing large live herring at this time provide pretty good prospects for hooking into a heavyweight flathead catfish that will test your tackle, skill and endurance!
If You Go
Blacks Camp (blackscamp.com), located at mouth of the Diversion Canal, offers everything road-tripping fishermen need, including a place to stay, food to eat, great team of guides who have tanks that will keep big live baits alive and the right gear for this specialized brand of fishing.
CHARLESTON BULL REDS
Summer delivers big-game fishing opportunities to the Charleston area. We’re officially listing bull reds, as big mature redfish are commonly caught and the official “target species.” However, the same locations and techniques can produce tarpon or sharks of various sorts this time of year. Bull reds average in the upper teens, but fish that weigh 30 or 40 pounds show up on a regular basis.
Prime areas for this style of fishing include the Charleston Jetties, ocean inlets around barrier islands and sandbars in Charleston Harbor and just off the beaches. In its simplest form, the technique is to anchor, put out baits and wait. That said, tides, water conditions, boat positioning, bait placement and more create a complex equation.
Bait options include live fish, such as menhaden and finger mullet. At times, though, a big chunk of cut mullet or a crab bait will produce the best action. Whatever the bait choice, use just enough weight to keep a bait in place and a circle hook to aid with a good hook up and easy release of the fish. Also, be sure drags are set right before a bull red, tarpon or shark picks up your bait!
If You Go
Captain J.R. Waits of Fish Call Charters (fishcall.com) has fished the Charleston area all his life and has been guiding on these waters since 1996, so if you want to make the most of a Charleston road trip, plan a day in his boat.