Overlooking the obvious signs that drought has stricken the water levels, even 28 feet below full pond is a drop in the bucket when you consider that Jocassee's depths reach nearly 300 feet.
The landscape is a vertical one from the water up, with towering trees that stretch upward from rocky slopes and sheer cliffs.
With development along less than five percent of the shoreline - and that only near the public access area - the surrounding Jocassee Gorges property embodies the Appalachian chain. High clouds hanging over the mountains and low fog hanging over the water - it's often hard to tell where the ground ends and the sky begins.
Below the surface is an equally, if not oppositely, other-worldly view. Scuba divers who frequent the clear waters describe sheer rock faces the size of buildings and boulders the size of dump trucks scattered along its floor. Even deeper within Jocassee's pools are standing forests of trees that reach into depths unseen.
According to biologists, despite the abundant life above and below the water, Jocassee is classified as a relatively infertile reservoir. The deep, cold water gives little purchase to the kind of decomposing matter on the lake floor that bolsters nutrient loads in other lakes. The lake's tributaries also provide cold, clear water that flows pristine but lacks fertility.
But to scores of rainbow and brown trout, Jocassee is home. Technically, the lake is managed by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources as a put-grow-and-take fishery, with emphasis on growing the trout out before they can be legally harvest. There is a 15-inch size limit on any trout caught from its waters and a 5-fish daily creel limit.
Guide Sam Jones of Jocassee Charters is intimately familiar with the lake's most famous residents. He's guided and fished on the 7,500-acre lake for over 25 years, and he grew up trout fishing for trout in the local rivers and streams before the lake was impounded in 1974. Jones fishes Jocassee year-round but suggests that February is one of the better times to be on the lake.
"The state usually does their annual stockings in November, and it takes a little while for those fish to get acclimated," Jones said. "By now, we'll catch a bunch of stockers in the 10-to 12-inch range, as well as a number of good fish. It's a great time to learn the lake and the use of the equipment, because those yearlings haven't gotten finicky yet."
Even during the coldest part of the year -when trout are likely to be found at the upper levels of the water column - Jones and almost all of the veteran Jocassee fishermen still choose to chase them by trolling baits on downriggers. He uses four of the devices mounted along the stern of his 22-foot pontoon boat.
"Trolling with downriggers is my specialty," Jones said. "There are some folks who will straight-line troll or pull live baits for trout on Jocassee, but to consistently catch good fish year-round on this lake, the downrigger is a must-have piece of equipment."
Jones looks for trout moving back into Jocassee's tributaries. From the point known as "Three Rivers," he can access the Toxaway, Horsepasture, and Laurel Fork rivers. Depending on the prevailing winds that are typical in February, he can also usually find a favorite spot that's somewhat protected. He is quick to point out that the intake area around the Jocassee Dam consistently produces fish on a year-round basis, but at this time of year, the bite at the dam is right at daylight or just before dark.
"They run lights at night on those water intake towers, and there's always an accumulation of bait there," Jones said. "Typically, we'll pull the dam area first thing in the morning until the sun gets up, and then head back towards the Three Rivers area to fish during the day. I'll start about halfway back into one of those rivers and work my way out. Even with the drought, you'll still find 80 to 100 feet of water back in the rivers."
With his downrigger balls staggered anywhere from 40 feet deep up to within 15 feet of the surface, Jones uses his outboard - a 60-hp, 4-stroke Mercury - to troll the edges of the river channel. He keeps the motor at idle speed, which he measures at between 1.5 to 1.9 mph on his GPS. His typical spread is a 7-rod setup: two lines stacked on the outside balls, one line from each of the inside balls and a flatline straight out the back.
His arsenal of baits is a mixture of trolling spoons and shallow-diving crankbaits. The most popular spoons are Sutton Spoons, Doctor Spoons and the locally-made Badcreek Spoons. All are light, flutter-type spoons in the 2- to 3-inch range, with an occasional 4-incher deployed in hopes of a trophy fish.
The crankbaits are small-lipped, shallow-diving baits such as Rebels, Rapalas, and Yozuris, all in 3-inch lengths.
"While anything in a minnow-imitating color gets the nod for the crankbaits, a silver spoon, either with a hammered or smooth finish, is one of my best producers," Jones said. "The exception is the Badcreek spoon in fire tiger, which also accounts for a lot of fish."
Jones runs his baits from 20 to 60 feet behind the downrigger balls. On the doubled-up rigs, which require a stacker release, the bottom line may extend out 60 feet, while the stacked line, 15 feet higher in the water column, may only be let out 40 feet in an attempt to keep the lines from tangling when a fish is hooked. He has two trade secrets that he has discovered: one is the old saltwater trick of running one bait short and shallow just outside the prop wash, and the other is a long flat-line 100 feet back, usually with a shallow-running crankbait tied to it.
"There's not always a lot of rhyme or reason to a trolling run," Jones said. "We all have our favorite spots where we catch fish. Running a straight line down those creek channels is a great tactic. The channels make lots of 'S' bends, and cutting off the corners puts you over the tops of the standing timber and trigger a lot of strikes."
Time of day isn't nearly as important in February as it is during the summer when the bite is typically a 2-hour affair starting at daybreak. "Now, we're just as likely to catch fish around lunchtime as any other time of day out here in the creeks," he said.
Jones said that while he catches keeper-sized trout of both species during the colder months, most of the better fish will be browns. That trend reverses as the water warms through the spring, with rainbows making up the majority of the fish creeled.