Drifting slowly through Marion County along the oil-black vein known as the Lumber River, swollen cypress trees line its banks draped with gray beards of Spanish moss.

The small boat slips silently along, barely making a ripple in the current that is scarcely noticeable except for the passing of trees and the many switchbacks and curves along this river's course.

Nichols' Donald Ray Turner, who caught the reigning state-record redbreast sunfish, is at the helm of the boat. He is known in these parts as the go-to guy when it comes to catching stringers of redbreast on the Lumber and Little Pee Dee rivers.

The northeast corner of South Carolina, also known as the "Pee Dee" region, draws its name from the river that flows from North Carolina through this area into Georgetown. The smaller version, the Little Pee Dee, along with the Lumber, flows slowly, almost lazily, through swamps, marshes and small towns.

Small johnboats, sneak boats, kayaks, and canoes are the norm. Locals and transients alike converge on Nichols, Mullins, Galivants Ferry and other towns along its passage, searching through these black waters for redbreasts. Highly regarded, the redbreast is unique to these blackwater rivers.

The water is not actually black, it's more of a tea color; the decomposition of the local fauna on their bottoms gives these rivers their appearance. The Lumber flows into the Little Pee Dee, forming the border between Marion and Horry counties. Ample access points allow for easy fishing.

On this particular spring day, the mercury was high, more than usual, something Turner is accustomed to.

"A lot of people like to fish for redbreast from the bottom, but I prefer to cover more ground by using light spinning gear," he said.

Preferring a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce Beetle Spin, - "I'll use any color as long as it's black," he said - Turner said the 1/16-ounce model will outfish any other artificial lure.

"Sure, a lot of people catch bedbreast on other in-line spinners: Blue Fox, Mepps and Rooster Tails. But I just stick with what I know works." said Turner, who keeps it simple: if fish aren't hitting the Beetle Spin, he switches immediately to live bait.

For the live-bait fishermen, crickets are the norm, suspended from a floating bobber, fished beneath overhanging limbs. Using a 10-foot Bream Buster pole to reach the areas that are difficult to cast to, these rods allow anglers to reach fish that would normally be missed. Float along and gently toss your rig beneath overhanging limbs and let it drift to waiting fish. Turner said that it's very productive.

"Most of the local anglers will use crickets over any other live bait," Turner said. "They will fish them right close to the bottom."

Robert Stroud, a bisheries biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources who oversees fisheries on the Little Pee Dee and Lumber rivers, said redbreasts are the most-popular sunfish in the Pee Dee area. There are a lot of bluegill and catfish in these black water rivers, "but the most popular is the redbreast," he said. "It's a lot of fun to catch, and the beauty of the area makes even bad fishing days a lot of fun."

To support the two fisheries, SCDNR stocked approximately one million redbreasts in the Little Pee Dee this past March. While it's virtually impossible to accurately calculate survival rates, Stroud said, "If we were to achieve a survival rate of these fingerlings at approximately 25 to 30 percent, I would see that as a success."

One of the factors that the SCDNR and local anglers cannot control however is the drought that has plagued this area for going on three years.

"The drought has affected all fish in these systems," Stroud said. "The low water level stresses the whole ecosystem."

The redbreast has been affected; being concentrating by the lower water levels allows predator fish such as flathead catfish and bowfin to more easily prey on all species.

While Turner feels that over the past few years, redbreast numbers and sizes have diminished, he's also pleased at what he feels has been an uptick in fishing this year. "I can definitely see the fishing is better this year than in years past," he said.

Local anglers are attributing the perceived decline in redbreast numbers to the recent influx of the flathead catfish. In 1990, no flatheads were report in creel surveys, but their presence is not debated. Long seen as an apex predator, the flathead prefers live fish for its diet, and it will certainly prey on redbreast if given an opportunity. Couple this with redbreasts' tendency to live near the bottom, and it's easy to see how they could fall prey to the aggressive flathead.

"A preliminary electro-fish survey began in the spring of 2011 to determine two things," Stroud said. "First, is the population of flathead catfish increasing? And second, is the redbreast fishery being affected negatively?"

The data is unclear as to what, if anything, is causing a decline - or even if a decline exists at all. More studies are forthcoming and should shine some light on the original findings, but overall, the fishing has remained relatively stable considering the low water.

"Last summer, I could literally walked across the river and never got my knees wet," Turner said. "That's how low the water was in many places."

SCDNR is monitoring this situation, but there is little it can do to increase the water flow.

"We have to wait for the rain, just like everyone else." Stroud said.

Winter rains and a few storms have helped the rivers considerably. While the water levels aren't at normal flow rates yet, SCDNR and other climatologist are optimistic that rains will come to the area and keep the rivers healthy.

According to Turner, late April and early May is the peak of the fishing for giant redbreast. Noting that his state-record caught in May of 1975.

"That's a day I will remember as long as I live." Turner said. "Every time I go to the spot I caught that fish, I wonder if another one will be there waiting for me."

The fact that his record has stood for 38 years is a testament to the size of his fish. While some redbreasts weighing a pound or better are caught, they are few and far between. A fish approaching 2 pounds is a rare feat indeed.

While some would argue that the fishery is down a little compared to years past, no one can argue that fishing the Little Pee Dee and Lumber rivers is one of the most enjoyable trips available in South Carolina. For those who love fishing for panfish, there is little that compares to a day spent along the Little Pee Dee or Lumber rivers floating silently along and fishing for redbreast.



WHERE TO GO/HOW TO GET THERE - The Lumber River flows from North Carolina and crosses the South Carolina state line between US 76 and SC 9 near Nichols. It joins the Little Pee Dee River east of Mullins and forms the border between Marion and Horry counties, flowing on to its confluence with the Pee Dee River north of Georgetown. A major access is Little Pee Dee State Park near Dillon, but there are plenty of public access areas along both rivers. Visit https://www.dnr.sc.gov/mlands/boatramp/.

TACKLE/TECHNIQUES - Fish on the bottom; that's where the redbreasts hang out. Use light spinning or spincast tackle. A 5- to 5 ½-foot Abu Garcia spinning or spincast rod mated with a Pfleuger Patriarch spinning reel or Zebco 33 spincast reel is all you need. Spool up with 4-pound mono. For lures, small, in-line spinners (Beetle Spins, Mepps, Blue Fox, Road Runners) are the ticket in smaller sizes, 1/32- to 1/8-ounce. For live bait, a 10-foot Bream Buster with a sliding cork and a split shot pinched on 6 inches or so above a small hook is all you need to reach areas along the bank under overhanging limbs or around cypress trees.

FISHING INFO/GUIDES - Lane's Bait & Tackle, Dillon, 843-774-4477; Fishing Hole, Mullins, 843-464-2446; Rick's Bait & Tackle, Conway, 843-488-2715; Little Pee Dee State Park, Dillon, 843-774-8872. See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS - Little Pee Dee State Park, 1298 State Park Rd., Dillon, 29536, 843-774-8872 has 32 campsites with full hook-ups and 18 tent campsites with water but no electricity; Pee Dee Tourism, 843-669-0950 or www.peedeetourism.com.

MAPS - Delorme South Carolina Atlas & Gazetteer, 800-561-5105 www.delorme.com.