Jake Howard teetered in thigh-deep water, flicking the fishing rod back and forth, hoping he’d found the right spot in the Saluda River to catch a big trout.
The chilly, blue-black river rushed across boulders and rocks, creating ripples of white water that carried a menu of tiny bugs and fish that trout find delectable.
After just a few minutes, the fishing line tightened and the fly rod bent, and Howard reeled in a 20-inch-long, four pound rainbow trout. The bright, pinkish hue on the trout’s side shone in the early morning sunlight as Howard marveled at what he’d landed.
“‘That is a trophy,” Howard said, a satisfied smile on his face. “You get a rush out of this. That first bite, you don’t know what it is until you actually feel the weight of the fish. (Then) you start shaking.”
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Trout fishing is nothing new along the lower Saluda, but evidence suggests the river is in better shape today for hooking a trout than ever before.
Introduced to the lower Saluda 50 years ago, trout are living longer, growing bigger and, for the first time, reproducing in a river far away from the cold mountain streams where they thrive, say anglers and state biologists.
Until recently, many of the trout stocked in the Saluda each winter were either caught or died by late summer as oxygen levels dropped and water temperatures rose in central South Carolina’s oppressive heat. By fall, trout were sluggish, if they could be found at all, long-time anglers say.
Now, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources has documented scores of cases in which trout survived from one year to the next. In 2013 and 2014, agency research found that 167 trout lived past one year.
“That’s what we wanted,” said Ron Ahle, a DNR biologist who is studying trout survival in the river.
When trout live multiple years, they get bigger, growing to the size of the whopper Howard caught last week in a rocky area near West Columbia. Trout in a dam’s tailwaters such as the Saluda tend to grow faster and bigger than in small mountain streams, according to DNR documents and Trout Unlimited.
“There are some bruisers in there,” said Malcolm Leaphart, one of the original members of the Saluda River’s Trout Unlimited chapter, formed in 1982.
Some of the trout studied by the DNR from 2012 to 2014 verify that. The largest brown trout researchers caught in 2013 weighed nearly 7 pounds and was 24 inches long, the agency said. The largest rainbow weighed 5 pounds and was 22 inches long. The average trout is often a fraction of that size.
DNR officials acknowledge that trout also appear to be spawning in the Saluda River – a phenomenon few people expected. The issue came up at a recent public hearing attended by hundreds of people opposed to a planned sewage discharge permit for Carolina Water Service.
“We’ve seen some fish in the river that we didn’t stock,” Ahle said. “We are expecting we’ve gotten reproduction in the river, but we have not studied that yet to verify. We recognize the potential.”
Late this week, DNR scientists who are working on the trout study caught a rainbow that measured just six inches long. The smallest rainbow trout stocked in the river last winter was eight inches.
The recent catch indicates the little rainbow was the result of reproduction, Ahle said.
More oxygen, cooler water
So why are trout doing well in the Saluda?
Trout need clean, cold water that is high in oxygen to survive and reproduce – and SCE&G is helping to improve conditions by operating the Lake Murray dam differently, said Ahle and Gerrit Jobsis, a former DNR biologist now with the environmental group American Rivers.
Prodded by the threat of a lawsuit from environmentalists more than 10 years ago and the need to obtain a new federal license to run the dam, the power company began pumping more oxygen into the water and releasing higher volumes of water in the summer.
SCE&G has installed devices called “hub baffles” that improve air levels in water below the Lake Murray dam. The company also routinely discharges more than twice the flow of water than it used to, Jobsis said.
The river once suffered from low oxygen levels for up to 40 days each year, Jobsis said, referring to data he has reviewed. Last year, the river had four days with low oxygen readings, a 2014 SCE&G water quality report said.
“It’s better now for trout and all the species that live in the river (than) since the dam was first built” more than 80 years ago, Jobsis said. “We think low oxygen levels were pervasive throughout the summer and fall. Bad conditions started around July and continued into the fall.”
Data provided by the U.S. Geological Survey also support findings that more oxygen is in river water. Data at one gauge for Aug. 27 each year since 1990 show the five highest average oxygen levels on that date have occurred since 2007. The lowest single reading for that date was in 1990.
The increased water flow through the dam also has created more habitat for trout, and it helps prevent the river from getting too warm in spots, Ahle said. Federal data show that water temperatures ranged from 59 to 68 degrees during the last few days of August and the first few days of September. Those temperatures are suitable for rainbow and brown trout.
While the Saluda has challenges from sewage plants that still discharge into parts of the river, its water quality is generally good, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. Dissolved oxygen and bacteria standards are being maintained at three monitoring stations on the river, the agency said.
Ken Kinard, a long-time member of the local Trout Unlimited chapter, said the dam improvements are noticeable to him.
“There have always been a few big fish in here,” he said. “But about three years ago, we just all of a sudden noticed the sizes. We were catching a lot of big fish in here. That’s what got DNR’s attention. They had no idea.”
Tougher rules, more trout
Howard, Kinard and their friend, Shawn Kenney, enjoyed the benefits of trout fishing during a morning on the Saluda last week.
Howard, who runs Saluda Valley Guides, caught a trout within 10 minutes of wading into the water about 7:30 a.m. By 10 a.m., he had caught five more rainbow trout, including the 20-incher he hooked under a big tree branch in the rocky river shoals.
“That’s a good day for this time of year,” Howard said. “It used to be, I wouldn’t even fish this time of year for trout.”
All three said they also hope that tighter fishing restrictions imposed in recent years will bolster trout populations even more.
For years, anglers could keep 10 fish per trip and use the trout they reeled in as bait to catch striped bass or other fish, said Kinard, a well-known lobbyist who represents a variety of clients at the state Legislature.
But about 10 years ago, fishermen persuaded the Legislature to lower the limit to five trout. Then, about two years ago, the Legislature further tightened the law by adding a size limit. The rules now prevent keeping more than one trout of more than 16 inches long. The Legislature also separately banned the use of trout and other game fish as bait, Kinard and the DNR’s Ahle said.
“It’s what other states have done, and it’s the right decision to make,” Kinard said. “Fish have to get to a certain size before they spawn, so if you leave those bigger fish in there, we have a better chance of having more reproduction.”
Kinard, Kenney and Ahle said they doubt the Saluda will ever be a self-sustaining trout fishery because, unlike mountain rivers, it is full of predator fish that will gobble up smaller trout as well as wading birds that gorge on fish. But having a reproducing trout population will help.
Today, the Saluda River Trout Unlimited chapter is discussing whether to support limits that would prevent anglers from keeping any fish from certain parts of the river, or at certain times of the year. The idea is to allow rainbow and brown trout the protection needed for their populations to grow further – and for fish to get bigger, Kenney said.
If “you have a whole section of the river with trophy-type fish, people will come from all over to catch those fish and release them – and spend money,” said Kenney, a former Trout Unlimited president in the Columbia area. “It could be a big economic benefit.”
Spanish moss and trout
The lower Saluda, replete with Spanish moss and wading birds, once was a slower-moving, warm-water river like those found in central South Carolina.
Water temperatures would rise to 80 degrees or better in the muggy, oppressive Columbia summer. And when the water got too hot, oxygen levels in the Saluda would drop, just as they do in other waterways through the coastal plain.
Some fish, such as bream and catfish, were accustomed to such conditions – but trout would have died quickly.
Then, 1930 rolled around – and so did the Lake Murray dam. The superstructure held back the Saluda River to create the huge reservoir near Lexington and Irmo. The deep lake held frigid waters at its bottom. And lake water released through the dam transformed the Saluda into a chilly river that mimicked the cold water streams of the Appalachians.
In the mid-1960s, South Carolina’s wildlife agency decided to stock trout in the 10-mile-long stretch of river, figuring the water was generally cold enough for rainbows and browns.
Virtually every year since then, they’ve dropped rainbow and brown trout from a helicopter to replenish those fish that were caught by anglers or died from natural conditions. The winter-time stocking releases about 28,000 trout, ranging in size from three-inch brown trout to 10-inch rainbows. The fish come from the Walhalla State Fish Hatchery in the mountains of Oconee County.
The effort in South Carolina mirrors that of wildlife managers across the country. Rivers below dams have been stocked with trout from Texas and Arkansas to Georgia and South Carolina.
Many of these stocking programs have created unusual trout fisheries in areas that are nowhere close to the mountains. The Chattahoochee River near Atlanta and the Savannah River below Lake Hartwell are among those in the Southeast with artificial trout fisheries, like the Saluda.
Stocking trout in the lower Saluda has created an interesting contrast found almost nowhere else. Trees that drip with Spanish moss, a signature plant of the coastal plain, line a river filled with trout similar to those that thrive in the Blue Ridge of Oconee, Pickens and Greenville counties.
During one stop along the river last week, a huge hardwood with drooping Spanish moss stood in the foreground as Howard and Kinard stood in the swift current, casting their lines from a rocky shoal.
“Fishing in running water like this is kind of special,” Kinard said.
Trout in the lower Saluda
Two types of trout are stocked in the lower Saluda River below Lake Murray: Rainbows and Browns. The state wildlife department does not stock native brook trout in the lower Saluda because they are more sensitive than browns or rainbows.
- Appearance: Pinkish, colorful sides
- Average size: 8 inches, 5 ounces
- State record: 11.5 pounder caught in 1993
- Diet: Insects, crayfish, small fish
- Habitat: Prefer fast-moving water, cooler than 68 degrees
- Spawning: Spring
- History: Native to western U.S., the rainbow trout was introduced to South Carolina more than a century ago. It is wild in the mountain streams of the southern Appalachians, but there is evidence reproduction is beginning to occur in the lower Saluda River tail water near Columbia
- Threats: Rising water temperatures, low oxygen levels and siltation
- Miscellaneous: Versatile fish, easiest trout to stock in rivers and streams. Tend to grow larger in tail water rivers than small mountain creeks
- Appearance: Olive colored, with bright yellow and black spots on sides
- Average size: 10 inches, 8 ounces
- State record: 17.9 pounder caught in 1987
- Diet: Insects, crayfish, small fish
- Habitat: Small creeks, rivers, reservoirs with water temperatures cooler than 68 degrees
- Spawning: Fall
- History: Native of Europe, the brown trout has been in the U.S. since the late 1800s. It is wild in the mountain streams of the southern Appalachians, but there is evidence reproduction is beginning to occur in the lower Saluda River tail water near Columbia
- Threats: Poor oxygen levels, rising water temperatures
- Miscellaneous: Though it prefers cooler water, considered more tolerant of rising temperatures and turbid water than rainbows and native brook trout. Tend to grow larger in tail water rivers than small mountain creeks
Sources: S.C. Department of Natural Resources, Trout Unlimited
By the numbers
80 years ago: the Saluda River was dammed to create Lake Murray
50 years ago: trout were first introduced to the river
in past 10 years: SCE&G began releasing more water, oxygen into river
5: number of trout that fishermen may remove in one year, and only one 16 inches or longer