With its headwaters in Colleton County and ending at St. Helena Sound, the Combahee River — the “C” in ACE Basin — is a relatively short river, but the lack of length isn’t a negative for anglers. Fish are thick in its waters, from the freshwater sections around Yemassee all the way to the salty waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
A blackwater river, the Combahee is a panfish angler’s dream. It is home to every species of bream that swims in South Carolina waters, including the coveted redbreast, a thick, brightly colored bream that thrives on the tannin-rich waters of this Lowcountry river. Pursued with ultralight gear, these fish are as formidable an opponent as any in the river.
Mac Willis of Walterboro fishes the Combahee regularly, and he said the redbreast fishing is good throughout the summer. He catches them and a mixture of other bream like shellcrackers, bluegill and the lesser-known flier, a small bream that is often misidentified as a crappie-bream hybrid.
Willis fishes with both live bait and artificials and said he has success with both methods.
“I use ultralight rods and reels and throw mostly Beetle Spins when it comes to artificials,” he said. “For live bait, I’ll use crickets, nightcrawlers, and red wigglers. I usually have all three with me. Some days they will hit all three equally, but other days they are picky, so you just have to change up baits until you figure out what the hot bite is.”
Willis usually launches his johnboat from Public Landing, just off of US 21. “There is one landing (off US 21 near Yemassee) just upriver, but it’s real narrow up there. Public Landing is convenient because it’s just off of (US 21), and it puts anglers where the river is wide enough to maneuver and the fishing is good. Further downriver, you’ll get into some brackish water around Steel Bridge Landing,” he said.
When using live bait, some anglers fish on the bottom with night crawlers or red wigglers. They use No. 6 hooks with enough weight to keep the bait on the bottom. While this method is great for shellcrackers in lakes and ponds, it nets shellcrackers as well as other species in this river, too.
Victor Doctor of Hampton fishes from the bank, and he fishes on the bottom almost exclusively. Ironically, he gets hung up less on the bottom than when using a cork.
“I will use a cork when the water is real calm, but when the current is running, it just washes the cork quickly back to the bank,” said Doctor, who hoisted a stringer that revealed bluegill, redbreasts, shellcrackers and fliers, all caught off the bottom. “Sometimes that’s good, and you’ll get a bite while it’s moving, but it can also hang you up a lot on roots and stuff along the bank.”
Most fishermen who launch boats on the Combahee use their trolling motors more than their outboards, pointing the bow into the current and easing from one fishy-looking spot to the next while probing the cypress knees, downed trees and edges of lily pads for a bite. When they get on a fish, they’ll set the trolling motor to keep the boat idle or drop anchor.
“I concentrate on areas like that,” Willis said, pointing to a bank lined with overhanging limbs and littered with half-submerged trees, “and just bypass areas like that,” pointing to a gently sloping mud bank with no debris.
The entire 40-mile length of the Combahee is influenced by the tide, so even anglers fishing as far upriver as the US 21 landing need to keep that in mind. They won’t catch any saltwater fish up there, but they can still get stranded high and dry.
Willis prefers fishing during low periods of the tide cycle and as the tide rises.
“Some guys like it better at high tide, but I like low tide when the fish are more concentrated, and I like to fish through the rising tide. At low tide, I can see fishy-looking spots, then focus on them as the water rises,” he said.
Anglers wanting a shot at freshwater and saltwater fish in the same locale need look no further than Steel Bridge Landing, at US 17. Bob Sanders, inventor of the soft-plastic Trout Trick, said redfish especially find their way upriver, and that flounder also can be caught there.
“Speckled trout stay closer to true saltwater, but there’s a pile of them in this river down close to the end where it meets St. Helena Sound,” Sanders said.
Fields Point Landing is the closest public landing to St. Helena Sound, and anglers have success both upriver and downriver of the ramp.
“This is a great launching spot for trout,” Sanders said, “and it’s covered up with redfish and flounder too,” he said.
Sanders mainly focuses on trout and flounder, but picks up bycatches of redfish while going after both of those.
“A lot of folks use live bait and have plenty of success for redfish, trout and flounder, but soft-plastic baits work just as well, and it saves time,” he said. “You don’t have to constantly worry about your bait coming off, and when the bite is hot, you don’t have to waste time digging out and putting another live bait on your hook.”
Sanders said anglers shouldn’t waste a lot of time looking for specks.
“This river is slam full of trout, so if you aren’t getting a bite after a few minutes, then you need to move,” he said. “Trout move around a lot, and you need to look along current breaks, oyster shells, deep holes and flats. That sounds like a lot, but if you spend five minutes in an area with one of those features and you’re not getting bit, then move to the next type of feature. It won’t take long to figure out what is working on that given day.”
“Another mistake a lot of anglers make is they find a school of small trout, and they stick with them as long as the fish are biting,” Sanders said. “Similar-sized trout travel together. If you catch a couple of small trout, leave that spot. If you catch a couple of big ones, set up camp and bust their tails.”
When targeting flounder, Sanders uses a white Zoom Fluke in narrow pockets that hold water through low tide. He said anglers should let the lure sink, then lift the rod tip enough to slowly move the lure, then reel in the slack while dropping their rod tip. A couple of bounces mixed in before reeling also does the trick. He likes to start flounder fishing three hours before low tide with white plastic Zoom Flukes on a 3/16-ounce jighead.
“I’ll make 20 casts in a narrow cut, and if I haven’t gotten a bite, then I find another cut. More will appear as the tide drops, and the flounder will be in these narrow cuts that are slightly deeper than surrounding water.”
Sanders said these narrow cuts are more common in this section of the Combahee than in a lot of tidal rivers, making it a great spot for flounder.
HOW TO GET THERE — From points north, access I-95 and head south, taking the US 21 exit and turning left to the Yemassee Landing or turning left onto US 21, then onto Public Landing Road, or left onto US 17A to Sugar Hill Landing. From Charleston, take US 17 south to Steel Bridge Landing. From Hilton Head, take I-95 north and exit right to SC 68, then left onto US 17-A and US 17 to Steel Bridge Landing.
TACKLE/TECHNIQUES — Ultralight tackle with Beetle Spins and Beetle Spins tipped with pieces of night crawlers or live crickets. Fish tight to downed timber, weedlines and sunken debris. Downriver in the saltwater sections, move to medium to medium-heavy rods and use live shrimp, mud minnows and menhaden re great in the saltwater sections for redfish, trout, and flounder. Artificial baits like Trout Tricks, Z-Man soft plastics, Flukes, Gulp! Vudu Shrimp, and DOA Shrimp are also good bets. Topwater plugs and buzzbaits are good in the brackish portion of the river where largemouth bass, speckled trout, and redfish might be caught in the same waters.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO — Harold’s Country Club, Yemassee, 843-589-4360; Tedder’s Outfitters, Walterboro, 843-782-4781; Westbury Ace Hardware, Walterboro, 843-539-3343; B&B Seafood, Green Pond, 843-844-2322; Edisto Marina and Watersports, Edisto Island, 843-869-3504. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Hampton Inn Walterboro, 843-538-2300; Super 8, Yemassee, 843-589-2177; Best Western Point South, Yemassee, 800-780-7234. Camping is available at Edisto Beach State Park, Edisto Island, 843-869-2156.