January 26, 2015
If you could only pick 11 months of the year to fish in South Carolina, it would be legitimately challenging to decide which month to cut. Pressed to choose, most folk would likely pick August or February, but that would only be because they get weary of either the hot or the cold. Each month has unique virtues from a straight fishing standpoint and offers excellent fish-catching opportunities.
Fortunately, all 12 months are fair game, so you won't have to make that choice. That said, you will have to decide where to go and which species to target. With that in mind we've selected three outstanding fishing options for each month of the year, with picks spread all over the state and covering many different styles of fishing.
Lake Hartwell Stripers
Striped bass and striper/white bass hybrids utilize the same habitat and forage at Lake Hartwell, so fishing for one species really means fishing for both. Fortunately both species get stocked in big numbers and grow large on plentiful forage. During January, stripers and hybrids congregate near the dam and near the mouths of major creeks. Depending on conditions and which forage species the stripers are keying on, they could be close to the surface or several feet down in the water column.
Use live shiners or blueback herring fished on flat-lines and/or down-lines and watch your graph carefully as you fish. If the fish are shallow, side-planers can help you get baits away from the boat.
Other Options: In the mountains, Lake Jocassee trout move shallower than normal during winter, providing good catching opportunities. Off the coast, black sea bass offer good bottom fishing action when weather allows boats to get out.
Cooper River Largemouth
Bass grow to jumbo proportions in the fertile waters of the Cooper River and the river's expansive connected backwaters, and the first warm February days that foreshadow spring seem to bring out the Cooper's biggest largemouths.
A tidal system, the Cooper is quite complex, so it's important to consider how the fish move up and down with the water and relate differently to structure as natural feeding lanes and ambush points change. During high water, the bass move into flooded broken rice fields and other backwaters and feed aggressively, making moving baits like Chatterbaits and square-billed crankbaits effective. On low water, they tend to utilize deeper treetops and main river structure and become susceptible to a jig with a crawfish trailer.
Other Options: Along the coast, bridge and pier pilings hold tasty and hard-fighting sheepshead, which will gladly grab a live shrimp but are incredibly adept at steeling bait. Stripers, meanwhile, provide good action on sun-warmed flats at Lake Greenwood.
Lake Thurmond Crappie
March and crappie fishing go together, and there's no finer place to put a mess of slabs in the boat than Lake Thurmond, which impounds 71,535 acres along the Georgia/South Carolina border. Biologists' sampling results reveal that crappie currently average 1/2 pound in Lake Thurmond, with plenty of 2-pound-plus fish in the mix.
Spring draws Thurmond's crappie into the lake's many creek arms, where they stage around brush along channel edges as they prepare to spawn. Trolling with jigs or minnows works well for finding the best concentrations of fish.
Other Options: At Lake Marion, the big bass move into shallow backwaters and become very accessible this time of year. On Lake Monticello, drifting chunks of cut shad is likely to yield big numbers of hefty blue catfish.
Lake Wateree Largemouths
Lake Wateree produces quality bass fishing year after year, but over the past couple of years, the largemouth population has come on extra strong, with large numbers of heavyweight fish. During the spring, tournament anglers know they need at least 25 pounds to even make a splash in a local event.
Spring moves the largemouths shallow, both for sake of spawning and because that's where the most food is found at that time. Through most of April, some fish will be in all three stages of the spawn. Focus on the backs of protected pockets for spawning fish. Work cover along adjacent banks and the points just outside of spawning pockets for pre- and post-spawn bass.
Other Options: In the salt marsh, working the tides with grubs or shrimp under corks often produces big speckled trout during April. Meanwhile, at Lake Hartwell, minnows fished around brush off the ends of docks account for big numbers of crappie.
Chattooga River Trout
Mid-May delivers an annual change in delayed harvest regulations, bringing an end to the "delay" and a start to the "harvest." What that means is that anglers who enjoy catch-and-release fishing with artificial lures and anglers who like to fish with bait and take home a limit of trout all enjoy the best prospects of the season during May.
Of course, the Chattooga River isn't limited to three miles of delayed harvest waters. The river offers several distinct sections between the tri-state border and the Highway 28 bridge, with good opportunities to catch wild and stocked trout. Some remote sections are accessible only by hiking trails or by fishing through the river bed.
Other Options: On the Santee Cooper Lakes, May produces good action for all three catfish species, especially when current is flowing through the system. Along the coast, cobia utilize bridges, buoys and nearshore reefs and are susceptible to live bait and jigs.
Tidal Creeks Flounder
Beginning late in the spring and continuing through the summer, flounder feed actively in tidal creeks and sounds all along the coast. Flounder lie flat on the bottom, looking up, and waiting to ambush prey, so best presentations deliver enticing offerings close to the bottom.
Arguably the most effective way to find flounder and to present baits naturally is to drift slowly with the tidal flow, dragging a bottom-bouncing rig that keeps the bait off the bottom but very close to it. Most flounder specialists agree that the most effective baits is a mudminnow, but a strip of cut squid can also be very effective.
Other Options: During June, Lake Wylie's largemouth bass set up on offshore humps for the summer and provide dependable jigging spoon and crankbait action. Meanwhile, just off the coast, schools of dolphin create big excitement.
Although far less celebrated than many other billfish destinations and lacking a real signature species, South Carolina offers excellent billfishing during the summer, with an opportunity to hook up with blue marlin, white marlin or sailfish. Mid-summer generally brings the largest number of fish and the best variety reasonably close to the shore and therefore stands out at prime time. Adding appeal, any given day's trolling for billfish is apt to produce various other sport fish, including dolphin, wahoo and tuna.
Although the fish move closer, they tend to hold deeper through the summer, and most feeding is concentrated early and late in the day. Present some offerings deeper, and troll with big, bright offerings. Also, plan your day to take advantage of prime feeding periods.
Other Options: Cut bait presented around deep treetops on the Savannah River can incite fast catfish action through the summer. Meanwhile, on the Broad River, smallmouth bass will hammer topwater lures.
Lake Jocassee Bass
Lake Jocassee bass fishing isn't for everyone because it can be somewhat of an all-or-nothing proposition. Steep slopes and low fertility keep bass numbers low and make the bass tough customers; however, the lake contains all four black bass that reside in South Carolina (largemouth, smallmouth, spotted bass, redeye bass), and all four grow to big sizes in this relatively small lake. In fact, the state record for all except the largemouth came from Lake Jocassee, and the same clear waters have produced many double-digit weight largemouths over the years.
During late summer, all serious bass fishing is done at night. A slow, gurgling topwater lure can prompt heart-stopping strikes. Other good choices include a big, single-bladed spinnerbait and a dark-colored jig.
Other Options: For Lake Russell crappie, like Jocassee bass, night is the right time to be on the water. Off the coast, high-flying wahoo highlight the mix of species that attack trolling baits.
Nearshore King Mackerel
September typically brings a major run of mullet to the South Carolina coast, and when the mullet show up, so do many of the fish that like to eat mullet. High on the list of celebrated species that come closer to feast on the hordes of baitfish is the hard-battling king mackerel. The mullet run draws the kings much closer to the beaches than they are at other times, making them accessible to far more fishermen.
Among the best baits for king mackerel at this time, not surprisingly, is a live mullet. However, a variety of plugs that imitate a mullet or baitfish can be cast or trolled to attract kings.
Other Options: Targeting deep brush with crickets at Lake Murray will produce big bluegill this time of year. On Lake Wylie, shrimp, chicken livers or cut shad will yield steady action from channel catfish.
Pee Dee River Blue Catfish
Ever twisting through deep, timber-tangled turns and loaded with varied forage, the Great Pee Dee River grows blue and flathead catfish to jumbo proportions. In truth, good fishing can be found year around, but during October, when fall conditions begin to replace the summer heat, the fish tend to feed aggressively and they feed well during the day.
The best places to fish are the obvious picks — the outsides of big, hard bends. Set up at the head of a big river-bend hole with large chunks of cut bait for blues and live bluegills, bullheads or shad for flatheads. Use seriously stout tackle, and stay ready.
Other Options: The fishing lakes operated by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources are all managed to offer good bluegill fishing, and October yields excellent opportunities to catch these fish from the shore. Meanwhile, on Lake Moultrie, following birds and being ready with bucktails or live bait can produce good striper action.
Saluda River Trout
When folks think about trout fishing in South Carolina, most think about Lake Jocassee or the streams that drain the mountains in the northwestern corner of the state. However, one of the state's finest trout rivers flows right through the Columbia metro area and almost into downtown, and best Saluda River fishing occurs through the cool months. The outflow from Lake Murray keeps the lower Saluda cool enough for trout, and shoals that dot that section of river provide quality habitat.
The SCDNR stocks the Murray tailwater both with catchable-sized rainbow trout and with smaller brown trout, which grow up in the river and therefore act like wild fish. Adding even greater appeal, some fish survive multiple years in the river, so any trout that strikes could turn out to be a big one.
Other Options: In the Diversion Canal, which links lakes Marion and Moultrie, fishing crickets or worms just off the bottom along the edges is apt to produce whopper shellcrackers. On Lake Tugalo, trolling crankbaits produces walleyes, a species most South Carolina anglers rarely see.
Lake Keowee Spotted Bass
Similar to Lake Jocassee, just upstream, Lake Keowee supports at least some representation of all four major black bass species. That said, spotted bass are clearly the main attraction in this lake, which offers plenty of the steep rock that spots favor without being quite as vertical as Jocassee.
Finesse worms fished on dropshots or shakyheads around docks work well on Lake Keowee, as do Flukes and small clear-water spinnerbaits. A topwater bite also can occur twelve months a year at Lake Keowee, so always keep a small walking topwater lure handy.
Other Options: Along the coast, sounds and tidal creeks turn extra clear as the water cools and the redfish gang up in huge schools. Meanwhile at Lake Murray, stripers follow schools of shad and herring onto flats and provide great opportunities.