Ichthyoid Hunting in the Palmetto State
The unfortunate phenomenon of "first spring" is one that is bittersweet in the minds of those obsessed with fish. This refers to a period of random, high-70 degree, sunny weather smack dab in early February. It is mother nature's cruel way of getting fisherman's hope up for spring, for spawning, only to come crushing down on those hopes and dreams with several following weeks of rain and dreary skies. Nevertheless, every year, fisherman and passion naturalists come from far and wide to scour there outdoor areas during this week, knowing full well the dilemma but hoping that some of the aquatic denizens have been fooled into some sort of activity.
So, like all my fellow fools, wrapped around mother nature's omnipotent finger, I traipsed out on three occasions during this small period of temperature spikes in order to hopefully find some fish down here in South Carolina. Thankfully, I can report I was not disappointed.
The first spot I hit on my journey was Todd Creek, a medium-sized, crystal-clear stream about ten minutes from the main campus of Clemson. I had explored this spot a couple weeks prior with no luck, but after reaching a nice pool on the creek I began catching some fish.
The Bluehead Chub (Nocomis leptocephalus interlocularis) look different from most other Bluehead Chubs; they are subspecies unique to the upper Savannah basin.
Fishing the pool more yielded more fish, including one of the most ubiquitous sunfish in the world: The Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus).
Eventually, I began spotting large schools of dark minnows darting in and out of the current, and my next goal became to catch this fish. After tons of bites from the unknown assailant, I finally managed to hook one.
This fish was a Yellowfin Shiner (Notropis lutipinnis), a relatively common shiner throughout South Carolina and north Georgia. The have yellow fins in spawning season. But otherwise, they aren't the most unattractive, or rather nondescript shiner species out there.
There was little structure under this part of the creek but the pool was still full of fish. I eventually meandered on down the creek in search of another pool, with dusk closing in.
The next fish to show up was this lovely Redbreast Sunfish (Lepomis auritus), brilliantly colored up, like most of the other specimens I had caught in the upper Savannah basin. I fished a little bit more and ended up catching some more Yellowfin Shiners, and making a point to snap some better pictures.
This one threw me for a loop at first. I had originally recorded it as a Yellowfin but after looking at it some more I speculated it could be a Highback Chub (Hybopsis hysinotus), uncommon but nonetheless native to the area. A friend on Facebook, Tim Aldridge, supported that thesis as well as some others due to the seemingly arched back of the fish, a telltale sign of the Highbacks typically. Even Scott Smith, a DNR biologist I've fished with before, said he was leaning Highback Chub. Sadly, it was confirmed a Yellowfin by Fritz Rohde, who you may know as the author of the Fishes of NC book. When Fritz weighs in, you know the fish has been identified.
Eventually I meandered down the creek enough to find a rather surprising but undoubtedly beautiful roadblock.
I didn't end up casting into this pool; I only had my micro gear equipped and I was in the time efficiency business today. But I look forward to seeing whats hidden in the deep pool in the future. My time was winding down but I fished one last pool right downstream from the waterfall and managed to catch some more fish, of what you could call the "macroscopic" orientation.
This was quite simply the weirdest Bluehead Chub ever. Even on young specimens I had never seen such a defined lateral line. But even so, Bluehead Chub it was.
The last species of the day was a rather chunky Green Sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus) which I had come to learn really loved these sort of upper Piedmont creeks.
I traipsed back up to my car in the dying light and prepared for the next day.
The next day I had class early on but the rest of the day free, and with high temperatures remaining, I figured it would be worth it to get out and go fishing. I wanted to walk further down the creek I had the day before, so I decided to return with that goal in mind.
Immediately, now familiarized with the creek, I was able to produce fish almost immediately.
The Yellowfin Shiners were even more active, and I made a point to try and get some really good pictures.
I caught some more Yellowfin Shiners and other various creatures before I quickly progressed down the creek and past the waterfall in order to cover the ground I wanted to cover.
It was a bit sunnier today so I took advantage of that and got some good pics of some more creek inhabitants, including this lovely little Green Sunfish. I moved on and down the creek, but there were less deep holes and running water and I found myself encountering less and less fish. Then I found why.
The creek had gotten super swampy above the dam but I was relieved to see moving water again and my fishing hopes reinvigorated. I caught some chubs in the deep pools immediately adjacent to the dam but more a few hundred yards along the creek the water was very shallow and lacking many deep pools.
Eventually, the deep pools returned right about where the creek hit into the lake. I went right to the mouth and couldn't believe my eyes when I saw close to twenty bass cruising the clear water. I immediately threw a gulp minnow at them, but they were less than interested. It took a spinner to finally get a bite from a plump little Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides).
It was my first of the year, having not really targeted them yet, but my goal after seeing this bass honey hole was a Spotted Bass (Micropterus punctulatus), a species very common in Lake Hartwell.
I fished all around the shallow arm of the lake but the bass were very lethargic, typically following lazily or even swiping at the spinner, but not committing to it. Eventually I switched to a small spoon, with which I hoped I could trigger a bit more aggression with. I got some more mean spirited bites from the bass but no hook ups on the lake. I decided it was time to begin the hike back, but as I was walking back up the creek I spotted three bass in a small pool. I quickly got my spoon back out and threw it on top of the bass, which responded by viciously attacking the lure. After a short but energetic fight I landed the fish. It was a Spotted Bass!
It was not a new species, but I was excited because I had only caught one before, and that was almost five years ago. I traipsed back up the creek and decided to kill some time on some more Yellowfin Shiners before heading out. These fish are seriously vicious and one of the easiest to catch shiners I have ever caught.
Thankfully these fish are super gorgeous, so catching and photographing them is a pleasure. After another successful day on the creek, getting some more pictures and finding a spot to hit the bass during pre-spawn, I packed it up and prepared for the long haul I had in the morning.
The target area today was the upper Edisto basin of South Carolina. I had gotten some really good advice and although I knew it was going to be colder and fishing would be tough I had a few species in mind, namely the Lowland Shiner (Pteronotropis stonei) and the Westfall's Darter (Percina westfalli).
Sadly, I didn't see a single darter all day, which I attribute to the low fifty temps and the fact that it was still, well, winter.
My spots were all over the place, and I could describe them but it would take a while and is easy to say simply I must have driven by twelve or fifteen spots with each one being protected by a no trespassing sign. After an hour of driving past gorgeous blackwater creeks without even being able to dip a line, I was getting desperate and finally found a creek unobstructed by the burden of private property.
The creek was a gorgeous little blackwater run called Big Beaver Creek (even though it was not big and had no beavers) and I was excited. I tied on a size eighteen hook and began fishing a wall of flowing grass in the crystal clear creek.
It became pretty clear there were fish here and I got giddy with the though they might be the Pteronotropis I sought. Sadly they weren't, but I had caught a new species.
It was my first Coastal Shiner (Notropis petersoni)! These are technically in range from where I live in North Carolina, albeit kind of rare. It was a species on my target list and although I would have desired another shiner more, I was more than happy at this point in the day to have finally found a spot and caught a fish. Before leaving, I ended up catching one more from the creek and getting a better picture.
I eventually moved on to another bigger, slower creek not too far away from that spot called Little Bull Swamp Creek flowing into the northeast side of Etheredge Millpond. When I pulled up to the creek I had my micro rig but saw it and decided to switch to the spinner and maybe tempt a Flier (Centrarchus macropterus) or Spotted Sunfish (Lepomis punctatus) onto the line.
What happened next I was truly not prepared for. I was equipped with a light-yellow, mealworm-patterned Joe's Fly spinner, my go to brand, casting from a small bank on the swamp. After my four cast, reeling past a lily pad about two yards from shore I felt a small knock and suddenly saw a wake and a massive mouth engulf the spinner from the top of the water column.
I thought it was a bass at first by the absolute size of the mouth that engulfed the spinner, and then when I saw the long, cigar-shaped body I got even more excited because I thought it might be a Bowfin (Amia calva). But as I got it to shore I saw it was an absolute dinosaur of a Chain Pickerel (Esox niger). Before this, I had only caught three ever and it could have easily devoured all three of them it was so big. Landing it was a headache without a net, so, adrenaline pumping through me, I lipped the knife-toothed pickerel and heaved it onto the bank, safe and sound. Lucky for me, because the hook was literally in by the skin of his teeth.
This pickerel was an absolute monster and I was beyond shocked and humbled to have caught and landed it.
Sadly, Mr. Pickerel did not let me away with a scratch. Adrenaline pumping I hadn't noticed, but it became fairly obvious he had nicked me when I went to take a picture and blood dripped profusely onto my phone screen.
He had sliced me open with the ease of a surgeon's scalpel, a battle scar I had to escape to land the old lady, the swamp alpha. I glance down to my thumb as I type this, knowing well and truly I'll possess this scar for some time.
That pickerel had made my day, my weekend really, and was probably gonna be one of the coolest and biggest fish I caught all year. I was beyond happy even when I didn't catch anything else from the ditch.
I eventually headed over to another creek, Murph Mill Creek, which reminded me a lot of the first spot. Sadly I spotted no darters here but the Coastal Shiners were plentiful. I caught a few other shiners, I thought may have been Lowland for a brief fleeting moment but they lacked the dorsal band. I thought they could be Greenhead Shiner (Notropis chlorocephalus), but when I did some research on the basin I learned they were just the same Yellowfin Shiners I had been catching up in Clemson.
I am very proud of this picture however, which I think might be my best picture of a Yellowfin yet. These fish were simply gorgeous, and just as viscous, from this little blackwater run.
I fished a deeper pocket of slower water in the creek and caught a new species for the trip, but a species I have caught bucket loads of in North Carolina.
The feistiness of these Dollar Sunfish, in whatever conditions, will never cease to entertain me. And they ain't tough on the eyes either, especially from such clear, healthy water.
I moved on eventually, hopping a few more spots before finding myself north of the Congaree Forest as night was beginning to fall.
I had stumbled upon an inky swampy in perfect Pirate Perch (Aphredoderus sayanus) territory. Although still too cold and I didn't have the faculties to fish into the night, I bookmarked this spot for next time.
I worked a spinner all around the creek but nothing was interested. Eventually I went to worms and began jigging around all the rocks and crevasses on the creek. Soon enough, I got a large hit right under a big rock, and my heart became racing thinking it might be a Mud Sunfish (Acantharchus pomotis), or some other blackwater ambush hunter. I got broken off so I quickly re-geared myself and got my reward in no time at all.
It wasn't as rare a fish as I could have dreamed of but I was so happy to get the coffee-colored Spotted. I had caught them before in North Carolina but they were one of my favorite sunfish so it felt good to get one before the day came to a close.
I caught some more jigging around the rocks, not for lack of bites. I can't wait to return to this blackwater paradise and uncover more secrets. But the Dollar Sunfish had to suffice for now.
My day had come to a close and I had a two and a half hour drive back to Clemson, but well worth it in the end! Some great pics, fish and a personal best swamp dragon pickerel were what I carried on my back.
Thanks for reading this fish report! Can't wait to share more adventures as spring time comes upon us!