The rare trout fishery in the Midlands is thriving under improved environmental conditions in the Saluda River, and state officials are considering changes to make the fishing experience even better.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources plans a three-year study of trout in the 10-mile section of the Saluda from the Lake Murray dam to downtown Columbia. The agency also is seeking input from anglers on whether to change catch limits. The second public input meeting on possible changes is 6 p.m. today at Saluda Shoals Park, 5605 Bush River Road.
Any tweaks in regulations would be made with the goal of creating “a quality trout fishing experience for as many people as possible,” said DNR fisheries biologist Ron Ahle.
The agency plans to maintain the current five-fish daily limit but allow only one of the trout to be a large one. At the first public meeting on the subject Tuesday night at Richland County Public Library, DNR polled those who attended on whether they would prefer to stick with status quo or go with a five-fish limit in which only one fish can be longer than 14 inches or 16 inches or 18 inches.
Managing the trout fishery in the Midlands is an unusual case for the agency. The goal isn’t to ensure sustainability of the species. Trout, which need cold water to live, wouldn’t be here at all if not for an annual stocking program and the Lake Murray dam. Water coming from deep at the dam’s base keeps the river cool year-round. Even last month during one of the hottest Julys on record, the average daily temperature in the Saluda near Columbia was 68 degrees.
DNR brings about 26,000 nearly one-year-old trout raised at its hatchery in Oconee County to the Saluda each winter. It’s what’s called a put-and-take program — DNR puts the fish in the river and anglers take them out. (The vast majority of the expenses are paid for by taxes or fees on fishing tackle and licenses.)
Since the trout stocking program began in the 1960s, few of the fish survived to live a second year in the Saluda. If anglers or raptors didn’t get them, the annual drop in dissolved oxygen in the water caused by late summer temperature changes on the lake did. SCE&G began making changes two years ago that improved the rate of dissolved oxygen of water coming through the dam and provided for a steadier flow of water during the summer months.
Now it’s not unusual for trout to make it to a second or even a third year, which means bigger fish to catch.
“There’s a lot of people really excited about the size of fish out there,” said Ross Self, chief of fisheries for DNR. “It used to be a big deal to catch a 14-inch trout. Today, a 14-inch trout is blase.”
Some trout might even be spawning in the Saluda, but DNR experts insist the river never will have a self-sustaining trout population.
With the recent changes, avid anglers in the area began pressing for changes in the five-fish catch limit per day. The Midlands chapter of Trout Unlimited asked if the trout are going to survive for years, why not switch to catch-and-release regulations to allow the fish to grow even larger?
DNR isn’t in favor of catch-and-release. During the question-and-answer session Tuesday, there was little discussion on the limit changes, but Trout Unlimited is recommending the five-fish limit with only one longer than 16 inches.
“We would love to see catch-and-release, but we realize we’re not going to get that,” said Trout Unlimited member Ken Kinard.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler asked how the agency would deal with the need for more enforcement with a new size limit. Self noted that the agency got funding for more than 20 new law enforcement positions this year. Also, the agency will have a larger presence on the river because staffers will be in the water often doing the study of the trout fishery.
Starting with next winter’s stocking, some of the trout will be tagged. Different colored tags will be used each year, allowing researchers and anglers to get a better idea of how many trout survive two or three years in the river.