The Chamber of Commerce describes the climate in the Columbia area as "subtropical," and Spanish moss hangs in palmetto trees within sight of the river, which flows 10 miles from Lake Murray Dam to the confluence with the Broad River near downtown Columbia, forming the Congaree River.
Completed in 1930, the dam and powerhouse pull water from the depths of Lake Murray, creating an downstream oasis of cold, trout water.
The lower Saluda was designated a State Scenic River by the South Carolina legislature in 1991. It is 100 to 200 feet wide in most places and is characterized by long, deep pools and rocky shoals. The shorelines are flanked by mature groves of sycamores, oaks, and pines that are decorously draped with Spanish moss - an odd sight along any trout stream.
The water level and number of turbines generating electricity determines the real character of the river. Like most tailwaters, the lower Saluda can change dramatically from one instant to the next as South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G), the owners of the dam and hydroelectric plant, vary the number of turbines in use. Water levels can vary from 2 to 10 feet.
Because of the lack of spawning habitat and low dissolved-oxygen levels during the late summer, natural reproduction of trout is virtually non-existent in the lower Saluda. It is classified as put-grow-and-take trout water and depends on an aggressive stocking program by the S.C. Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) for sustainability.
"The river receives annual stockings from December through April of both rainbow and brown trout," says Hal Beard, SCDNR fisheries biologist. "Totals number between 30,000 and 35,000 fish per year, and they are provided by the state fish hatchery in Walhalla."
"The newly-stocked rainbow and brown trout range in size from 6 to 12 inches, but (they) grow rapidly once acclimated to the water," said Beard. "If allowed to remain in the river unmolested, these trout will grow an inch per month."
Abundant aquatic insects such as mayflies, caddis flies, stoneflies and midges as well as terrestrial insects, scuds, and aquatic worms and abundant baitfish -become staple food sources for the trout. After the grow to 12 inches or more in length, most trout turn to small fish for the majority of their diet.
"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," Beard explained. "The average-sized catch in the lower Saluda, however, is more like 8 to 14 inches."
Most trout do not survive either harvesting by anglers, predation from migratory striped bass, or reduced dissolved-oxygen levels experienced during the late summer months, to make it a full year in the river.
"Trout that do hold over until next season become trophies," said Beard. "But these are the exception to the rule."
Exceptions, of course, are what interest anglers the most.
Trout in the 3- to 5-pound class are not uncommon, and a few 6- or 7-pound bruisers are landed every year.
When the water level is less than 3 feet, wading is possible along most of the river. Fly anglers will appreciate the longer, 9-foot rods in 5 to 6-weight variety, with 9- to 12-foot leaders. The longer rod will help with longer casts and line control on this big water. There is more than ample room for fly casting.
Spring and summer are the best times for dry-fly action in this river. Several varieties of both mayflies and caddis flies can hatch at anytime from March through October.
"You will find more insect activity and hatches in the lower section of the river, away from the dam," said Woody Ford, an active member of the Saluda River Trout Unlimited chapter. "The surge of water from the dam scars the river bottom, making it all but impossible for any decent insect life within a mile or so from the dam."
Newly stocked fish will not show much discrimination when it comes to fly selection. Trout that have been in the river for a few months or more will acquire the habits of wild fish, and your imitations will need to approximate the natural insects found on the water. During the summer months, look for the best dry-fly action to occur on cloudy days or at dusk.
Nymphs will produce fish consistently throughout the year. Bead-head nymphs in most patterns work very well, as long as they are fished near the bottom. Adding something flashy to any standard nyRmph pattern will result in more strikes. A brace of nymphs fished through some of the deeper pools can be deadly during the winter and spring, but the same fish will move into the shoals and broken pocket water where there is more dissolved oxygen in the water during the late summer and fall.
Casting streamers is a consistent method for taking fish at any time of the year. A rich forage base of threadfin shad and blueback herring exists in the river, and trout key in on these baitfish when they become acclimated after stocking.
"As much as I enjoy fishing dry flies, I nearly always start my day on this river with an assortment of streamers before trying anything else," said Ford.
"I'll wade in above a deep hole and cast down and across, letting the streamer swing into the deeper current," Ford said. "The deeper the water in that hole, the more of an upstream mend I give the line to get the fly deeper."
Woolly buggers in a variety of sizes and colors work exceptionally well when stripped though the deeper holes. Black and olive-colored woolly buggers in sizes 8 and 10 are considered the most effective. Streamers that imitate shad, such as the white or pearl-colored Zonker in sizes 6 and 8, are also very effective throughout the year.
When stripping these steamers through some of the deeper holes, there is always the chance of catching one of the river's many striped bass. The lower Saluda is one of the few places in the entire Southeast where an angler can catch a rainbow trout and a striper on alternating casts.
A considerable population of landlocked striped bass migrates from Lakes Marion and Moultrie up the Congaree River system to spawn. The cooler water of the lower Saluda is an attractive thermal refuge for the stripers when the Congaree warms up in the summer.
"When the Marion and Moultrie impoundments were created, a population of andromodous striped bass became trapped there," said SCDNR's Beard. "Biologists believed the fish were doomed, but several years later they realized the fish where adapting to freshwater and utilizing the Congaree and Wateree river systems for spawning areas."
"While in the Congaree River, many stripers are lured into the Saluda because of the colder water temperatures coming from the depths of Lake Murray," Beard said. "This keeps many striped bass in the river for extended periods of time."
Most of the Saluda stripers weigh 4 to 6 pounds, with an occasional fish reaching double digits.
Spin fisherman are very successful with small plugs and lures that imitate baitfish. Rapalas and shallow-diving crankbaits 2 or 4 inches long consistently take trout and stripers throughout the year.
A medium-action spinning rod and reel with 6 to 8-pound test line is recommended. The lighter line is a necessity in the very clear water.
A small boat will allow you to cast to more spots and cover more of the river than you could from the bank or by wading. Most sections of the river upstream of the I-26 Bridge are accessible by small boat and outboard motor. Fishing from a canoe is also a great way to see and access more sections of the river.
It is recommended that the Ocean Boulevard Rapids, just downstream from I-26, be portaged, and the Mill Race Rapids near the Riverbanks Zoo is a mandatory portage.
There are several safety factors that must be considered when fishing the lower Saluda, whether wading or from a boat. People have drowned, lost boats, and required emergency rescue when they did not take the required precautions.
The sudden rise in the water level is the biggest hazard to wading anglers and boaters alike. Water discharge from the dam's turbines can range from 400 to 20,000 cubic feet per second.
"Water levels can and do change suddenly so anglers and boaters should always use extra caution," warns Beard.
This fluctuation occurs with little or no warning and wading anglers must sometimes flee the water quickly.
Wading fishermen should listen for the sound of rising water, as it often changes in tone and pitch.
Look for plant material and sticks in the water from inundated shorelines upriver. An escape plan should also be considered while fishing in the event of rising water.
Water-flow information for the lower Saluda is available by calling 800-830-5253. A recorded message gives the number of generators SCE&G intends to use on any given day.
Four public access points are located along the lower Saluda River. Aside from them, the river is difficult to access because of private property.
Saluda Shoals Park is on the north bank, and it provides public access for boaters, full public facilities, a decked overlook to the river, a picnic area, and a fish-cleaning station. It is also one of the most popular access points for wading anglers. A trail can take you downstream to Corley Island, which is some of the best water for wading anywhere on the river.
Hope Ferry Landing, on the south bank of the river, provides public access for boats on trailers. Nearby trails can take you up or downstream for wading opportunities as well.
Gardendale is an access point for carry-in crafts such as canoes or kayaks, but it is not suitable for larger boats.
The Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Gardens also offers limited access to the river through nature trails, plus a carry-in boat launch. During low water, this area offers access for bank or wade anglers.
There are no bait or tackle restrictions on the lower Saluda River. The daily creel limit is five trout and five striped bass. The minimum size limit for striped bass is 21 inches from Lake Murray Dam to the confluence with the Broad River.
With 10 miles of water in a very accessible part of the state, the lower Saluda River provides the excitement of catching both trout and striped bass form the same water at the same time - not to mention trout, over one hundred miles from the mountains. Fishing the lower Saluda River is certainly a unique experience.