The Middle Saluda River in Greenville County is one of the best wild trout streams in the Palmetto State and certainly one of the most beautiful.
From the high country of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness to the lower piedmont, this river offers several different trout fishing options along the way.
The Middle Saluda River became the first river in South Carolina protected by the Scenic Rivers Program in 1978. Its headwaters flow through the 10,000-acre Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area and two state parks - Jones Gap and Caesars Head.
The Middle Saluda River can be grouped into three separate parts:
- The upper river, which is wholly contained within Jones Gap and Caesars Head State Parks;
- The catch-and-release section of river, which is immediately downstream from Jones Gap and extends to Hugh Smith Road;
- The lower section of river, immediately downstream from catch-and-release waters, which continues until it meets the South Saluda River.
From the entrance of Jones Gap State Park to the headwaters, the Middle Saluda is an intimate mountain stream, featuring fast-moving, tumbling pocket water with large boulders and a heavy canopy of large trees and rhododendron.
As an angler, it is the type of water that just invites you to ignore it. But that would be a mistake.
The feisty, wild rainbow trout that inhabit this section of the stream are measured in inches, not pounds. But what they may lack in size, they more than compensate for in sheer beauty.
These native specimens are a case study in perfect streamlined engineering with a mossy green backs, scarlet-colored lateral stripes, and peppered with jet-black spots. In the hand, the spectrum and hue of their colors are borderline obscene. Yet returned to the stream and viewed through the filter of their native water, they become perfectly camouflaged once again.
Mike Bridges is a past president of the Mountain Bridge Chapter of Trout Unlimited in Greenville and the Middle Saluda River has been the home water for his chapter.
"I normally catch all rainbow trout when I hike in to the upper section and the fish tend to be small - 4 to 6 inches on average," he said.
The water is gin clear and relatively infertile. The trout are conditioned to eat any food that becomes available to them, making them extremely opportunistic feeders. Any fly or small lure presented properly has a good chance of being smacked.
The key - as with fishing any small stream - is being stealthy, keeping a low profile, and wading as little as possible.
For the fly angler, the tight confines of this small stream present several difficulties with fly casting. An inappropriately-placed tree limb or rhododendron thicket always seems in the way of backcasts. But long casts are simply not necessary.
More often than not, "dappling" the fly on the water with a long fly rod or making a short roll cast will get the job done. It's no place for "hero" casts.
Access is relatively easy in this upper section, assuming anglers are in good shape and enjoy hiking.
The Jones Gap Trail closely follows the stream for 5.3 miles into some of the most spectacular mountain wilderness in South Carolina. Anglers will be glad if they bring a camera.
The daily creel in this section of the river is 10 trout per day and artificial lures may only be used in any area of the river upstream of the entrance to Jones Gap State Park.
A $2 daily fee is needed for entrance to Jones Gap State Park.
The catch-and-release section of the river is rather short, but because of the special regulations put in place here, it merits special consideration. This section of river stretches from Hugh Smith Road upstream to the lower foot bridge at the entrance of Jones Gap State Park and is open for fishing Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Regulations require single-hook, artificial lures. All fish caught must be returned to the river, unharmed, throughout the year.
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Mountain Bridge Chapter of Trout Unlimited in Greenville jointly sponsor and fund a feeding program at this section of the stream. The program became a reality when Dan Rankin, SCDNR fisheries biologist, wanted to create a trophy trout fishery for the public.
The state leases this section of river from private landowners and manages it as a "Quality Fishing Zone." It's been extremely popular experiment, particularly with fly anglers.
"Some folks, like fly fishermen, want to go and have a quality experience," Rankin said. "So we're just trying to offer some diversity for people."
"This is my favorite section of water on the Middle Saluda," Bridges said. "Access is easy and trout are noticeably larger."
These regulations are similar to those of the delayed-harvest except that this section of the Middle Saluda is catch and release year round and there's no harvest season. This area was designed for those anglers who place a premium on the experience of catching fish as opposed to taking fish home to eat.
To access this section, anglers must leave vehicles at the parking lot immediately below Jones Gap State Park and walk downstream. Fishing the catch-and-release water is free but a parking at the Jones Gap State Park parking lot costs $2.
The lower section of river flows from Hugh Smith Road downstream to the confluence with the South Saluda River. The surroundings include a mixture of forest and farm land, and much of the river runs through private property, making access to the river a problem.
One popular area of the lower river is where the Middle Saluda flows under the U.S. 276 Bridge near the small town of Cleveland. Plenty of access to the river can be gained there and along the adjacent North River Road, which parallels the river for a few hundred feet.
The river is much wider here with deeper pools and slower-moving water. Larger, holdover stocked trout are caught in this section every year - some in the 4- to 5-pound range. The river is stocked regularly and general S.C. trout regulations apply, with a creel of 10 trout per day, no restrictions on bait or lures.
Unfortunately, water temperatures in the lower portions of the Middle Saluda can reach levels that are fatal to trout during summer months. The Stone Pond Project, a water improvement retrofit to the water release at a pond near the river's headwaters, should help water temperatures during the summer.
Spearheaded by Partners for Trout, Trout Unlimited, and the SCDNR, this project converted a surface-discharge at the pond to a bottom-draw release. This should drop the water temperature by two or three degrees in the upper sections of the river as well as help marginally in the lower section.
For fly anglers, fly selection should never be an agonizing ordeal at any section of the Middle Saluda River.
Dry flies such as the Adams, Elk-Hair Caddis, or any attractor pattern like the Royal Wulff in sizes 14 to 18 will catch fish regularly. Of course, if a hatch of a particular aquatic insect happens, odds of catching more fish will increase if angler's can match the natural bug with an imitation of similar size, shape and color.
Nymph patterns should also be simple and non-technical. Pheasant-Tail, Gold-Ribbed Hares Ear, and the Tellico nymph is sizes 14 to 18 will yield success. Fish these weighted and dead-drifted near the stream bottom.
Adding a nymph as a dropper to a dry fly is an excellent technique for covering water and searching for fish. Simply tie a short section - 12 to 18 inches - of tippet material to the bend in the hook of the dry fly and attach your nymph to the other end. The dry fly doubles as both an attractor pattern and a strike indicator if the trout decides to take the nymph.
The technique works particularly well at pocket water found at Jones Gap State Park.
Woolly Buggers sizes 8 or 10 in black or purple or any other small streamer will take fish either dead-drifted near the bottom or twitched as the fly passes through a likely-looking trout lie.
Streamers may be cast downstream and across the river then be allowed to swing through the current before retrieving.
For the proper length of fly rod, the upper river really offers two different choices and preferences. Some anglers prefer a short, light rod for small, tight streams such as the Middle Saluda in Jones Gap. Others like using a long, 9-foot rod that can be used to reach into and over pockets of water and thus leaving less fly line on the water.
Bridges prefers a longer rod at waters such as the upper Middle Saluda.
"If there's any room at all, I prefer the advantage of a longer rod at these small streams," he said. "I like having that ability to reach out over boulders and rapids and get the fly right to the water I want to fish."
Each theory has its merits for small-stream fishing, but most fly fishers agree short leaders are a real advantage. A 7 1/2 -foot leader tapered down to 5X or 6X is about right.
The spin angler should make short casts with a small gold-bladed spinner through some of the bigger pockets of water or pools and retrieve quickly. The fast retrieve will entice a trout with opportunistic feeding habits to strike purely out of impulse.
A light spin outfit is ideal with 4 to 6-pound test line being optimal.
When fishing any small or medium-sized stream such as the Middle Saluda, stay downstream of suspecting trout lies, make short accurate casts and keep a low profile. Wear drab-colored clothing to help blend in with the surroundings and wade in the water as little as possible.
Thinking more like a predator than an angler often serves the small-stream fisher the best.
The Middle Saluda River offers something for every trout angler - native trout at a wilderness setting, a catch and release stretch of river managed for size and a quality fishing experience, and a put-and-take fishery.
It's a great place to experience and closer than anyone would expect trout fishing of this quality to exist.