Scouting the Highlands
On September 23rd, 2018 I was given yet another chance to fish the highlands of South Carolina, mainly focused around Oconee County and the Sumter National Forest. Up here the rivers are wide, and in the mountains, rocky and pockmarked with pools and trout, and in the lower highlands filled with chubs, sunfish and the rare Bartram's Bass (Micropterus sp. cf. coosae). I fished this area about two weeks prior - focusing my effort on the Chauga River at Chau Ram County Park and an access point on the same river higher in the mountains. This time, I fished Flat Shoals River at Tamassee Bridge and the Chauga River at Cassidy Bridge, as well as returning and exploring the mighty Chauga downstream where it becomes a raging set of rapids and waterfalls as it limbers down the highlands.
The first spot was the Flat Shoals River in Tamassee. The access is challenging to say the least, steep, rocky cliffs prove for adverse terrain, but the view is absolutely extraordinary, and the fishing, while underwhelming at times, seems to be fairly undeveloped here and the pressure certainly seems nonexistent. At this location, the river descends a massive set of waterfalls and pools, filled with fish, as it cascades into the cliff-lined valley below and continues on to Lake Keowee.
Nearly every pool I found was fed by a waterfall and pretty deep, despite not being too big. I got plenty of action as well, mainly from chubs, which I am still having trouble deciding if they are Blueheads (Nocomis leptocephalus) or Rivers (Nocomis micropogon), which both live in this range. For now, they are both just going to remain unidentified.
I was fishing with a Joe's Flies Short Striker, the classic, undefeated lure that catches it all in these mountains streams. I hiked a bit down the shoals and found a good ledge in a sizable pool.
I was getting plenty of follows from smaller minnows, sadly I didn't try any microfishing here, but I definitely will be back. Running the spinner along a ledge close to the shore resulted in a very strong hit from under a boulder, and soon I had a personal best fish on the end of my line.
These Bartram's Bass are one of the top predators in these rivers and creeks in the South Carolina highlands, which is a blessing for any angler because of how beautiful they are, and how beautiful the places you catch them are. This was the best I've ever caught, and although they sadly don't grow very big, their attitude and strong fight definitely makes fishing for them as exciting as any other bass. Fishing the same pool I got a huge, trout-like hit from under the waterfall and ended up with a massive Nocomis on the end of my line.
I was definitely leaning towards River Chub on this guy, but I still hadn't found any good online resources regarding the differentiation between non-spawning members of the Nocomis clan. For Bull Chubs, which i had caught across central NC, the watershed/range was a pretty good identifier but here where the ranges of the two aforementioned species overlapped, catching these outside of spawning season was definitely cause for issues. I solicited some help from Scott Smith (ncfishes.com), a NC biologist who I had gotten help from before. He was able to give me some tips to look for. One way to tell is that River Chubs have scaleless breasts, compared to Bluehead Chubs, and I couldn't really decide looking at my picture what to define as the breast, but eventually I just decided I should catch another one and make sure to photograph it better. If anyone would like to offer anymore advice please contact me, I'd love to hear what anyone has to say. For now, the fish will remain in identification limbo.
I hiked some more through the cliffs below, and found a deep and black, but fishy looking river.
I could have explored more, but I had other places across Oconee County I wanted to try, and in turn packed up and headed out. The goal of that spot is definitely to find some more trout and get into some micros, I saw plenty of shiners there as well as a few darters in the marginal pools.
The next spot on the list was the Chauga River, which, in the upper reaches, was a pressured but veritably good trout stream. I had fished it at the Land Bridge before and caught some Rainbows (Oncorhynchus mykiss), but wanted to add to my resume with some other trout cousins. Sadly, I wouldn't end up finding those, but found plenty of good fun to be had fishing the rural, unexplored reaches of the river.
The access I hit up was off Cassidy Bridge Road. Here there is a nice parking lot, with a well-defined trail giving access to several waterfalls up and down the river. I had seen and passed several people fishing, and tried some spots off the main trail. I had spotted a couple trout, but for such a pressured river, and in the middle of summer, I figured my best bet was leaving the main trail and finding some riffles that hadn't been touched by fishermen. I ended up hiking through a big field for about half a mile, checking out some riffles and small dams along the way. The first spot I hit up I ended up losing a small trout but I packed up and headed down even further. Once you started hitting spiderwebs in the woods you knew you were in the right place.
I waded for a while, but realized, in my ignorance regarding trout fishing, that I probably should have been a bit more discreet in my approach so I ditched the wading and instead walked along the bank in the woods to try and find a spot. Eventually, I did come across a really nice looking riffle. There weren't many big pools but I did see some promising spots, and I did my best to enter and proceed across the river as conspicuously as I could.
I launched my weighted spinner into a rushing pool across the river, and immediately I was rewarded by a very strong hit and a muscular fight. I eventually produced my catch and wet my hand, probably my personal best and simultaneously most beautiful trout I had ever caught.
I was inclined to think this was a wild trout, it was definitely a better fighter and had much better coloration than the others I had caught, but I'm far from an expert on this and if anyone trout guys would like to offer their two cents please go ahead. I ended up fishing this set of rapids and added two more trout, including this very pretty specimen.
I eventually started to hike back, and at one of the waterfalls right next to the parking lot I lost a small trout but I ended up catching a nice Bluehead Chub.
Eventually though, time ran out at the trout stream, and I headed down out of the highlands. I decided to make another stop at the Chauga River, near Westminster, a place where I got my lifer Bartram's. It was a hot Saturday, and the river was full of people. I began fishing Ramsey Creek, which runs adjacent to the river, and ended up catching a pretty nice specimen from under a rock.
It was a ubiquitous species that I caught plenty of, the Green Sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus), but it was a welcome addition with its energetic fight. I fished the large waterfall on the creek, photographed in my previous post, and was hoping for a Bartram's but had to settle for a stunningly good-looking Redbreast Sunfish (Lepomis auritus) instead.
I hiked down the river, finding good spots was hindered by the presence of the crowds though. I found a good hole and eventually broke out a bigger jerkbait to try and find some bass. I was fishing off a ledge in a deep pool, when suddenly a fairly large bass came up to sniff my bait. It didn't take sadly, and about a hundred more casts into the river did not produce the trophy Bartram's I was hoping for. I put it down to the crowds and the blistering heat. I didn't have any bait, and the plan coming in was to fish solely with lures, but after the bass fishing tapered away I was desperate for some action.
I had been seeing minnows all day, and finally, after finding a massive school right outside the moving water I knew I had to try for them. I broke out the size 14s and ripped off a tiny, tny piece of curly tailed grub that was in my tackle box. It didn't take long either to get my reward.
I knew instantly it was a new species; I had never caught a Notropis before. I had no clue what it was in the field, but after some careful research and some thoughtful input from some peers I was able to deduce it to be a Spottail Shiner (Notropis hudsonius). I caught plenty more, they were voracious, and if I had had smaller hooks I could have sat there for hours getting one after the other.
I fished the river quite a bit more, mainly targeting micros and finding some deeper holes upstream to cast a lure into, but the heat was beginning to build and fatigue me. I ended up catching a beautiful redbreast from under a rock where I thought I had spotted some minnows.
This was the final fish of the day, so before I bid this a parting adieu I will include a few more scenery pics because a place this stunning really deserves a bit more justice.
There will definitely be plenty more fishing in the future, even some Georgia spots coming up, so the species list should keep growing. The next post will be coming up in a minimum of two weeks so be prepared, should be a good one.
Total Species Count:
Bluehead/River Chub (Nocomis spp.): 4
Bartram's Bass (Micropterus sp. cf. coosae): 1
Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss): 3
Green Sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus): 1
Redbreast Sunfish (Lepomis auritus): 2
Spottail Shiner (Notropis hudsonius): 8