Overlooked are the aesthetics and the natural surroundings that go into making a fishing trip a fulfilling one. Sometimes you have to sacrifice quality fishing for aesthetics and vice versa. Then there are the places where you can have it all.
For the trout fisherman, the Eastatoe River is one of those places.
The Eastatoe River (also spelled Eastatoee and usually referred to as Eastatoe Creek at the upper section) is one of South Carolina's most beautiful and best-known trout streams. It has something for everyone - fly angling for wild rainbows in a spectacular wilderness setting, spin and bait fishing for hatchery-supported trout with easy and convenient access, and the opportunity to tangle with trophy-size brown trout.
But what visitors will walk away with from any trip to the Eastatoe is an unforgettable outdoor experience.
The river has three distinct sections, each offering a different fishing experience in a unique setting. The upper section flows through a rugged gorge; the Eastatoe Valley section offers quality fishing throughout but is mostly within private land; and the lower section offers easy access and the chance to catch the a fish of a lifetime.
At the river's upper section, Eastatoe Creek Heritage Preserve features a rugged 374 acres in northern Pickens County. The preserve is a part of a steep gorge with old-growth trees, rare native plants, and is home to a thriving population of wild, stream-bred rainbow trout.
"As is typical in freestone, southern Appalachian streams, the fish don't grow fast and they don't live long," said Dan Rankin, district fisheries biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. "The wild rainbows grow to a maximum of about 10 inches here."
"This section of the Eastatoe is my favorite part of the river," said Chuck Patterson of Greenville's Foothills Fly Fishing. "The area is beyond gorgeous, and the water is full of brightly-colored, wild rainbows that love to hit a dry fly."
"This water is ideal for the fly angler. Deep, slow water is rare, and the current is swift and restless as it rushes through narrow slots and over waterfalls and cascades.
"Casts should be kept short to insure good drifts through complex, braided currents. A long, 9-foot fly rod will help reach over rocks and other obstacles while keeping the minimum amount of fly line off the water."
Chest waders are certainly not needed. Hip waders will provide plenty of protection in keeping anglers dry if the water is cold and wet wading is always nice during the warm-weather months.
Fly selection is never a crucial decision at this type of water. Almost any size 14 or 16 dry fly that resembles food and floats high will catch fish. Some good bets are the Adams, Elk-Hair Caddis, and Light Cahill or any other light-colored mayfly during warmer summer months.
"Don't worry about fly selection as much as being stealthy and presenting the fly naturally to the fish," Patterson said.
"This entire upper section is classified as an Outstanding Resource Water by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control due to the high water quality and ecological and recreational resources found there," Rankin said.
The section that flows through the Eastatoe Creek Heritage Preserve has special regulations that restrict anglers to artificial flies and lures. Regulations also require a seven-fish daily creel and possession limit.
Some of the Eastatoe's tributaries also offer good fishing for adventurous anglers.
"Abner, Dogwood, and Rocky Bottom creeks all offer great back-country, small-stream fishing," Rankin said.
These are small, tight streams that also have a good populations of wild rainbow trout.
A word of caution: excursions to these remote streams shouldn't be done alone. Anglers should follow normal precautions for a back-country trip, including bringing a companion, water, a first-aid kit, and telling others of your whereabouts and when you plan to return.
The entire upper section of the Eastatoe can be accessed by foot via the Eastatoe Heritage Preserve Trail.
"It's a strenuous hike down to the bottom of the gorge where the best angling exists," Rankin said.
The return hike obviously is no walk in the park, but the experience and the superb fishing for wild trout is more than worth the effort.
After tumbling out of the gorge, the river traverses the scenic Eastatoe Valley. From the top of the valley downstream to the confluence with Big Laurel Creek, most of the land adjacent to the river is private with limited public access. Permission from land-owners must be obtained before fishing the river in the Eastatoe Valley.
This section of the river presents a good mixture of wild rainbows and holdover brown trout. The river's character slows down, featuring long, deep pools between bands of oxygenating riffles.
At the lower end of the valley, a problem of high water temperatures during summer make difficult sustaining a year-round population of wild trout. However, DNR, Partners in Trout and Trout Unlimited are making an effort to improve water conditions and angler access in this section and the river downstream.
"Right now, we're gearing up for a big project at Reedy Cove Creek, a major tributary of the Eastatoe," Rankin said. "Reedy Cove flows through Lake Chilly Waters at Camp McCall Royal Ambassador Camp. The lake has a bottom-water release, but it's so shallow it warms the water too much downstream of the lake."
By retrofitting the discharge mechanism at Lake Chilly Waters, significantly cooler water will be discharged, lowering the water temperature at Reedy Cove Creek and the Eastatoe.
"The DNR recently received a $100,000 donation through the Harry Hampton Memorial Wildlife Fund to help remedy the problem," Rankin said. "We've been working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other groups to help retrofit dams in trout waters to mitigate thermal pollution.
"Our water temperature studies indicate this should cool the outflow waters of Reedy Cove Creek significantly."
Rankin and the DNR hope cooler water from Lake Chilly Waters can improve trout fisheries downstream.
"We're hopeful this (project) will eventually upgrade lower Reedy Cove Creek from put-and-take hatchery status to a wild rainbow stream," Rankin said. "We're also hopeful this will help cool the Eastatoe River below the confluence with Reedy Cove Creek and improve its fishery as well."
The lower river is a larger, navigable flow of water with good access throughout this stretch. The river receives a heavy stocking of rainbow and brown trout each spring and summer.
"From Laurel Creek downstream to Lake Keowee, the Eastatoe is managed solely as hatchery-supported trout water," Rankin said. "This section holds mostly stocked rainbow and brown trout, but occasionally some rather large brown trout are caught here."
Fish are harvested from the river quickly after being stocked, but some of these trout escape the grasp of anglers, adapt to the river's natural food sources and can become large hold-over trout the following year.
"Downstream of the High Bridge at Roy Jones Road, there are some rather large hold-over fish, both browns and rainbows," said Patterson of Foothills Fly Fishing. "These could be stocked fish that weren't initially caught and made it another year or there could be a resident population in Lake Keowee that migrates into the river at certain times of the year."
The best fishing at the lower Eastatoe coincides with the spring and summer DNR stockings. Spin fishermen using small, flashy in-line spinners such as the Mepps No. 0 Thunderbug or a 1/16-ounce Roostertail can connect with a larger hold-over brown trout by waiting until after a substantial rain when the water level is higher and off-color.
Spin fisherman should cast their lures upstream and retrieve quickly. This can elicit an instinctive, predatory strike from a larger fish. Another tactic is casting downstream, 45 degrees to the far bank, and retrieving the lure slowly as it swings through the current. Often the strike will occur at the end of the swing when the lure is directly downstream.
Fly anglers can employ the same techniques using streamers, bucktails and black or olive Woolly Buggers. Cast downstream and across, throw an upstream mend to get the fly down deep, and swing the fly through the current before retrieving it.
Large brown trout are extremely wary and will sometimes feed only during these off-color water conditions or during low-light hours of dawn and dusk.
Some of the best access points at the lower Eastatoe are the Cleo Chapman Bridge, the Granny Gear Angler Access at Granny Gear Road, the Dug Mountain Angler Access at the High Bridge at Roy Jones Road, and the Hemlock Hollow Angler Access from S.C. 11.
The section of stream from the lower-most Duke Energy transmission line downstream to Lake Keowee is at Jocassee Gorges property and is public property.
Except for the special regulations at the Eastatoe Creek Heritage Preserve, general trout regulations apply at the Eastatoe. Creel and possession limit is 10 fish per day.
The Eastatoe River is a classic southern Appalachian trout stream and a South Carolina rarity.
Big trout can be caught and limits can be creeled, but a day spent exploring such a wild trout stream this far south also is a priceless experience.