Worried that people strolling Columbia’s new riverwalk will threaten trout populations on the lower Saluda River, state officials are pushing for fishing limits they say will protect one of South Carolina’s most unusual fisheries.
The limits would bar anglers from keeping any trout they catch in a 1.3-mile section of the river upstream from Riverbanks Zoo.
Columbia’s under-construction riverwalk, which throngs of people are expected to use, is the driving force behind the effort. The trail, to run along the riverbank, will increase pressure on the fragile trout fishery as more people use the riverwalk to access trout waters, officials said.
“Once the riverwalk goes in, it will be very easy to access,’’ state Department of Natural Resources freshwater fisheries chief Ross Self said. “You’ll be able to walk up there on the sidewalk and wade out into the river and fish for trout.’’
Trout Unlimited, a national sport fishing group, has advocated tougher limits as the riverwalk nears completion later this year. The Congaree Riverkeeper group also backs tighter limits. The Department of Natural Resources urged state senators Wednesday to impose the limits.
The agency, which stocks about 25,000 trout in the river each year, recently has discovered the cold water fish are beginning to spawn there for the first time.
But the trout population remains vulnerable to overfishing and the 1.3-mile stretch needs special protection from people who use the riverwalk to find fishing spots, boosters of the new limits say.
Anglers and Natural Resources biologists say the area to be protected is full of rocky shoals, cold water and shallow pools that make it prime habitat for trout reproduction. The area where anglers would have to throw back any fish they catch is between the I-26 bridge and Stacy’s Ledge, just upriver from the zoo.
“This is a critical stretch of the lower Saluda that SCDNR has identified as being a prime spawning habitat for rainbow trout,’’ according to the Facebook page of local Trout Unlimited members.
Trout aren’t native to the lower Saluda, a river that is three hours from the mountain streams the fish typically thrive in. But Natural Resources started stocking trout in the lower Saluda after the Lake Murray dam was completed in 1930 and SCE&G began releasing frigid water through the structure. Trout need cold water to survive.
In recent years, rainbow trout have begun reproducing in the river because SCE&G is operating the dam differently. The power company is pumping more oxygen into the water and keeping the river at levels more favorable for trout spawning, officials say.
The lower Saluda, a state-designated scenic river, is different than many S.C. rivers because it contains characteristics of both the mountains and the coast, while running through one of South Carolina’s largest metropolitan areas.
Concerns about the riverwalk’s impact on the Saluda aren’t unique to fishermen. Paddlers also have raised questions.
River Alliance director Mike Dawson, whose organization is overseeing construction of the riverwalk, said the trail will provide access to a scenic river that many people now can’t get to. Dawson said that includes opportunities for more trout fishing.
“We want people to go up there and fish,’’ Dawson said. “I’m of the opinion that you want the sport to grow and be exciting. So if this catch-and-release policy is enabling that, that is a good thing.’’
It will take action by the S.C. Legislature to put trout-fishing limits on the lower Saluda.
State senators discussed a bill Wednesday that would prevent anglers from keeping any fish they catch between the I-26 bridge and Stacy’s Ledge. The rest of the river, about eight miles, is not affected by the proposed ban on keeping fish. Existing rules allow anglers to keep five trout per trip.
The Senate committee is expected to vote on the bill later this month. If approved, the proposal would go to the full Senate for consideration.
Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, said he likes the idea of limiting the take-home catch of trout. But he questioned whether the rules should apply to a greater part of the lower Saluda.
“People I’ve talked to, who I trust, think if you are going to start protecting the lower end of that fishery, you should protect a bigger part of it,’’ he said after Wednesday’s committee meeting.
Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said the limits are needed.
“If you are going to pick a spot to protect, this is the spot.”