The prospect of catching trout below Columbia seems far-fetched. They are native to the mountainous areas of Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina and even the extreme mountain reaches of Georgia and South Carolina. Columbia and points south suffer from some of the highest temperatures in the state, with humidity to boot — not exactly trout-fishing country.
Even with the break of summer’s grasp in October, it’s hard to imagine a cool, sleek salmonoid rising to an insect on the surface of a flowing river, but on the lower reaches of the Saluda River, that’s exactly what happens. The Lower Saluda has no native trout population; the fish survive thanks to water releases from the Lake Murray dam upstream that keep the water temperatures at tolerable levels, and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources keeps the population up with seasonal stockings of hatchery-reared fish.
Even so, few fish — mind you, I didn’t say none — manage to survive the onslaught of warm summer temperatures and marauding striped bass to grow to respectable sizes.
Access to the lower Saluda is limited; small, motorized boats can access the area but are cordoned by the numerous shoals that abound. This restricts a full-run fishing trip to paddling anglers, and that’s exactly the way Michael Cummins of Lexington prefers it.
A member of the Midlands Kayak Fishing Club, Cummins loves to float the lower Saluda on a seasonal basis for largemouth bass and stripers, but in the fall, he loves to float the river for trout.
“You can break the lower Saluda into two runs,” he said. “There’s an upper run, which is the shorter stretch, putting in at Metz Landing or Saluda Shoals Park. I prefer the latter. That way, you can take-out at Gardendale, about 3 to 4 miles downstream. It’s a kayak and canoe take-out only.”
Cummins said the longer stretch is putting in at Gardendale and going all the way down to the Gervais Street Bridge. You’ll come to Mill Race Rapids on that stretch, and you’ll have to portage them. Paddling anglers will also find some treacherous shelves on that run; it’s best to get out and walk your kayak down. He advises not to try to shoot a couple of those areas; you’ll end up dumping your kayak. The lower stretch is about 7 miles.
Cummins is an avid fly-tier and fly-fisherman, but he catches a lot of trout in the lower Saluda in both the spring and fall casting tiny crankbaits on light spinning tackle. The crankbaits signal food to the trout, and unlike the fly, there’s some added motion to draw strikes.
“I like using a Rebel Wee Craw, the shallow runner, and the deep-diving Craw for the deep pools after the runs,” he said. “I also like a Husky Jerk, the smaller size, the HJ08. Those are my two favorites, go-tos.
“Trout like the smaller cranks, but they have got to have some wobble to them,” said Cummins. “They like that wobble. Often times, you can just throw it and let it drift downstream and hold it in place. If it’s got that wobble, they’ll come and hit it.”
Reading water is the key to catching fish. SCDNR stocks them from late February through May and then again in November. Fish that have survived the summer have learned to hide in the rocks where they are safe from hungry largemouth and striped bass.
“Shoals in the river will create a shelf,” he said. “You want to start off fishing above a shelf — off of the main current. The fish will be on the edges waiting for the food come down that conveyor belt. Just fan-cast. Start out with short casts and work your way out.”
Boat positioning is critical both to not spooking wary trout and putting yourself in the right position to tempt them to bite.
“You do want to anchor down maybe 40 yards above the shelf and drift down 10 to 20 yards,” Cummins said. “Make sure you’re working your lures in front of the rocks. There is a hydraulic cushion in front of the rocks, and that’s where the trout will hold up. A lot of people fail to realize that trout love to sit out in front of the rocks like that, not just behind them. Some of your bigger fish are going to be around on the front, because they’ve got first choice.”
Anchoring out in the river is done with a good rock anchor that will grab and hold quickly and an anchor trolley system that will allow the angler to fish facing backwards when out in front of a shoal, then face forward when fishing behind the shoal.
“An anchor trolley will allow you to either face downstream or face upstream depending on which end of the kayak I want to fish,” he said. “Another trick is one that river anglers have been using for years. I use a Bruce anchor. You tie off at the bottom of the anchor and you zip-tie at the top. If your anchor gets stuck, a quick yank, and the zip-tie will break off, and you’ll be able to retrieve your anchor without losing it in the current.”