Who doesn't love the prolific hatches and metabolically-charged trout rising to dry flies delivered with the grace of a stylish cast? Who doesn't enjoy fishing in short sleeves and wading wet through a refreshingly cool trout stream? What's not to love about this brand of fishing?
Let's face it. It takes little inner strength or fortitude to drag yourself out of the house on a warm Saturday morning in spring to hit the river with a fly rod and reel. But when the trees are bare, the sky is gloomy, and the thermometer outdoors reads forty-one degrees, the couch and that big football game on television sound much more appealing.
But that doesn't mean fish can't be caught during these conditions. Actually, our relatively mild winters produce some great fly fishing for trout.
Winter fly fishing can be some of the best of the year for trout in the Southeast, if anglers can find the motivation to get out, fish during the warmest time of the day, and work their flies slow and deep.
Trout become sluggish when water temperatures fall below 50 degrees and will hold near river bottoms at slower, deeper pools. Their metabolic rate slows and consequently, so does their food intake.
"Basically, water temperatures below 50 degrees really slow the trout's feeding down," said Dan Rankin, a Clemson-based district fisheries biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. "If you're a fly flinger, the one word that would best describe your approach this time of year is 'dredge.' "
Dredging would refer to the angler's proper fly presentation during this time of year - slow and deep.
Nymphs, artificial flies that imitate the immature stage of many aquatic insects, should be "dredged" slow and deep in the water column where the majority of the trout will be holding.
Trout will not expend any extra energy or move far from their holding positions to chase down food. A long leader and plenty of split shot will get the fly down deep near the river bottom and increase an angler's chances of catching fish.
The best times of the day to fish just happen to coincide with those most comfortable - noon until 4 p.m. The sun warming the water by just a few degrees can provide a small window of opportunity for trout to feed more actively.
Then there is the rare spring-like day when Mother Nature seems to play the cruelest of jokes. This usually happens during late January when it's sunny, the temperature climbs into the high 60s, and trout are sipping midges or small mayflies from the surface of the water.
Anglers should look for sections of a stream that receive plenty of direct sunlight. Fish will move into these brighter areas where there water is slow and shallow and feed upon emerging insects or adult mayflies. This usually lasts only a day or two before we realize the joke was on us and it suddenly feels like January again.
But catching trout in the middle of the winter is no joke. It's fun, effective, and anglers are likely to have the entire river without interruption from anyone else.
The following three locations are good bets for connecting with winter trout in South Carolina:
The Chattooga River is South Carolina's best and most famous trout stream.
Considered one of the top 100 trout streams in the United States by Trout Unlimited, it has a well-deserved reputation, regardless of the season.
In addition to mile after mile of wilderness fishing for wild trout, two miles of the Chattooga River are managed as delayed harvest during the winter season.
Delayed-harvest regulations allow single-hook, artificial lures and flies only and any trout caught must be returned to the water from Nov. 1-May 14. During this period, no trout may be harvested or in an angler's possession. After May 14, general trout regulations once again apply and trout may be harvested by any legal means.
"Delayed harvest for trout was first initiated on the Chattooga River on a trial basis," Rankin said. "It has gone on to be a huge success with anglers ever since."
It also provides quality fly fishing for trout during the winter months. During November and December, the stocked fish are naïve and relatively easy to catch. By the time late winter arrives and the trout have become more stream wise, these same fish can present a challenge as daunting as any stream-born native.
These special regulations apply to the two-mile section upstream of the S.C. 28 Bridge to the confluence with Reed Creek. There are trails that closely follow the water and access is easy.
Any variety of small or medium-sized nymphs drifted near the river bottom will catch fish. It's important nymph presentations are dead-drifted.
That means the fly should move through the water at the same rate as the current - no slower and certainly no faster. A strike indicator attached to the leader will help show the rate at which the underwater flies are moving.
A weighted streamer or Woolly Bugger dead-drifted through deep runs and pools with the occasional twitch can surprise with a large brown trout from this section. The winter months are notorious for good rivers giving up their largest trout to unsuspecting anglers.
South Carolina and Georgia have a reciprocal fishing license agreement so the holder of either state's fishing license can fish from any side of the river and be legal.
Middle Saluda River
The Middle Saluda River is a rollicking mountain stream that originates high in Jones Gap State Park in northern Greenville County. Most of the upper section in the Park is small, tight pocket water with a healthy population of small, but wild, rainbow trout.
A special-regulations section exists from the lower footbridge in Jones Gap State Park downstream to Hugh Smith Road. Only single-hook lures or flies may be used here and catch-and-release regulations apply year-round. All fish caught must be returned to the river, unharmed, throughout the entire year.
The DNR and Mountain Bridge Chapter of Trout Unlimited of Greenville jointly sponsor and fund a feeding program in this section of the stream.
The program became a reality when Dan Rankin decided to create a trophy trout fishery for the public.
"Some folks such as fly fishermen want to go and have a quality experience," Rankin said. "So we're just trying to offer some diversity for people."
South Carolina 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.
The feeding program and special regulations have appeared to make a difference. The average trout size in this section is several inches larger than those in the river upstream in the park.
The river is heavily shaded and receives little sun during the winter. Small Mayfly nymphs and Woolly Buggers slowly dead-drifted through the many deep runs and pools will catch fish throughout the winter.
Fishing is permitted only Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with a special daily permit available on site.
Saluda River Tailwater
The lower Saluda River is certainly the most improbable of S.C. trout streams.
The Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce describes the climate as "subtropical" because the river flows 10 miles from the Lake Murray Dam to the confluence with the Broad River near downtown Columbia, where the Congaree is formed.
"The river receives annual stockings from December through April of both rainbow and brown trout," said Hal Beard, SCDNR fisheries biologist. "Totals number between 30,000 and 35,000 fish per year and they come from the Walhalla State fish hatchery.
The newly-stocked rainbow and brown trout range in size from 6 to 12 inches but grow rapidly once acclimated to the water. If allowed to remain in the river, these trout will grow an inch per month. Abundant aquatic insects such as Mayflies, caddis flies, stone flies and midges become staple food sources for trout, as well as terrestrial insects, scuds and aquatic worms.
After reaching a size of 12 inches or more, many of these trout become more piscivorous (they eat other fish). Threadfin shad make up most of the forage base in the river and when trout learn to key on this food source, they can get big in a real hurry. The average-size catch in the lower Saluda, however, is 8 to 14 inches.
Most trout don't survive harvesting by anglers, predation from migratory striped bass or reduced dissolved oxygen levels experienced during the late summer months and live a full year in the river. Trout that do hold over until next season become trophies. These "hold-over" fish are the exceptions to the rule. These exceptions, of course, are what interests anglers the most.
Winter afternoons at downtown Columbia can sometimes be downright balmy. Trout can be caught with dry flies almost any given day of the year.
Midges in sizes 20 to 24 and blue-winged olive Mayflies in size 18 are what these winter sippers are usually eating.
However, the most reliable fly for taking trout in the lower Saluda during winter is the old reliable Woolly Bugger. Local fly anglers keep a dedicated fly box stocked with woolly buggers in every possible size and color. Dead-drifted near the bottom, twitched, or retrieved, this is the definite go-to fly.
As in any tailwater, care must be taken to avoid being caught in rapidly rising water.
"Water levels can and do change suddenly so anglers and boaters should always use extra caution when fishing here," Beard said.
Fluctuations occur with little or no warning and wading anglers must sometimes flee the water quickly.
There are no bait or tackle restrictions for the lower Saluda River. The daily creel limit is five fish.
New light-weight, high-tech warm clothing and products geared for the cold weather now makes winter fly fishing much more comfortable. Nevertheless, anglers should dress in layers.
Three layers of clothing are ideal for winter fishing: a wicking layer polypropylene to move and keep perspiration away from your skin, an insulating layer such as fleece, and an outer layer such as waterproof or breathable Gore-Tex.
A hat and gloves are must-have items. Gloves with the fingertips removed are perfect for fly fishermen who need to continually change flies and attach tippet material to leaders.
Fishing alone during cold winter weather is a bad idea. A fishing partner could be a lifesaver if someone gets falls into the water, gets injured or sick.
Snacks and hot liquids such as coffee, tea or hot chocolate are often-overlooked items during winter fishing outings but can certainly make the experience much more comfortable. Anglers who aren't comfortable catch fewer fish than anglers who are dry and warm.
And while winter fly fishing and comfort may seem to be mutually-exclusive concepts to some, nothing relieves cold fingers, ears and toes like the feel of a solid brown trout putting a good bend in your fly rod after taking a deep-drifted nymph in a heavy water.