Don’t Put Off Fun

Any dry fly that imitates natural foods found in South Carolina’s delayed-harvest streams in winter and that fish are feeding upon will work well.

My fishing partner slowly waded into the Chattooga River’s cold rushing water and pulled his knit cap down over his ears. He shook his head and flashed that “this-is-crazy” smile before taking another step deeper into the pool.

Sitting on the bank under a canopy of rhododendrons, I cupped both hands over my mouth and filtered warm breath over my numb fingers. The December air was cold and heavy, and a light breeze rustled the few remaining stubborn oak leaves that clung to the limbs of a nearby tree.

Before I could finish tying my fly onto the tippet, my partner had hooked a fish and was reaching for his net. Later, he cradled the stocky brown trout in his hand and let it slip back into the water.

For just a moment, it wasn’t so cold anymore.

More trout anglers than ever now find themselves looking forward to winter days such as these. If you’re someone who considers winter fishing merely a euphemism for acute hypothermia, the short days and frosty nights conjure visions of football, hunting season and roasting chestnuts over an open fire. But fishing for trout?

The popularity of delayed-harvest trout waters with fly and spin anglers in South Carolina suggests an emphatic “Yes.”

The first state in the southeast to implement delayed-harvest trout regulations was North Carolina in the early 1990s. The program was an immediate success with anglers, and promptly expanded to other bodies of water within the state and other states in the Southeast.

Delayed-harvest trout management regulations finally were introduced into South Carolina during 2002, and now apply from Nov. 1-May 14 of each year at selected waters. In South Carolina, those are sections of the Chattooga River and Cheohee Creek.

During that time, only single-hook flies or lures may be used, and all fish must be returned to the water unharmed. Thus, the harvest of fish is delayed until May 15, when general regulations once again apply.

The heavy stocking of these waters, combined with the practice of catch and release, creates a quality fishing experience during the late fall, winter and early spring. Catch rates are two or three times higher here than general-regulation trout water, and the average trout will be 9 to 14 inches with an occasional 20-plus-inch trophy fish in the mix. Rainbow, brown and brook trout are stocked in the delayed-harvest waters from November through March.

The Chattooga River delayed-harvest water boundary begins at the S.C. 28 Bridge in Oconee County. This is the only access point to this water. Parking is available on the South Carolina and Georgia sides of the bridge, but there is more parking space on the S.C. side.

The delayed-harvest water continues upstream for 2 1/2 miles to the confluence with Reed Creek, which constitutes the upstream boundary for these regulations.

The Chattooga River Trail follows the river closely throughout this section on the S.C. and Georgia side and makes for easy access to the river the entire way. The trail actually begins at the parking area at the S.C. side of the river and crosses the river at one point.

A reciprocal agreement between the states of S.C. and Georgia allows legal fishing with licenses from either state, no matter which bank one stands on to fish. Fishing at the Chattooga is open every day of the week.

Unlike many other sections of this large river, the water is relatively easy to wade when water levels are normal. The river has a subtle gradient, long slow pools, and gentle riffles. However, after heavy rains, it can be difficult and care must be taken before wading.

The U.S. Geological Survey publishes real-time water data at its website — — and it’s a good idea to consult before driving out there. The Chattooga is a large freestone river and flows depend solely upon the amount of rainfall received upstream at its headwaters and substantial tributary system.

Cheohee Creek in Oconee County is a smaller delayed-harvest stream and provides a more intimate fishing experience compared to the bigger Chattooga.

The 1-mile section is located completely within the Piedmont Forestry Center and is open for fishing Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays and by permit only. Permits are available at the Piedmont Forestry Center.

Popular flies used at the Chattooga River and Cheohee Creek during the colder months of the year are the beadhead pheasant tail, gold-ribbed hare’s ear, Tellico, and prince nymphs in sizes 14 and 16. These nymphs should be drifted slowly and deep. Using one or two small split shots and a strike indicator is a proven method for catching fish with nymphs during the delayed-harvest period.

Black- and olive-colored woolly buggers in size 8 or 10, stripped slowly or drifted deep through the bigger holes, also will produce fish with regularity. Other streamers such as the Zonker and Muddler Minnow can be dynamite, particularly after a fresh stocking of fish.

They should be cast toward the opposite bank, quartered downstream, and be allowed to swing across the current before being retrieved. The strike will often occur at the end of the fly’s swing and the beginning of the retrieval.

Any dry fly that imitates natural food that fish are feeding upon also will work well. Blue-winged olive May flies and midges can hatch at any time from November-March — usually during the warmest part of the day. If the hatch is heavy, you can find several fish methodically rising to these insects in the same pool.

Larger mayflies such as Quill Gordons, March Browns, and Hendricksons will begin appearing in March and April as well as many varieties of caddis flies and stoneflies.

A 9-foot, five- or six-weight rod is ideal for handling almost any of the fly fishing methods described above. A weight-forward fly line that matches the rod and a 9-foot tapered leader to 5X will complete an adequate fly fishing outfit for the delayed-harvest water.

Fly fishing at delayed-harvest streams could be best described as non-technical. Precise “match-the-hatch” techniques are simply not necessary.

The trout are opportunistic feeders and a well-presented fly that looks like food to a trout will usually get a hit.

The large riverbed of the Chattooga gives plenty of room for backcasts with a long rod. Cheohee presents a tougher challenge for the fly-caster with bushes and trees tight to the bank and the small nature of the stream. However, long casts usually aren’t necessary at the Chattooga or Cheohee.

Spin fishermen will find success with gold-bladed in-line spinners, spoons, crankbaits and plugs — the smaller, the better.

Cast to the opposite bank and retrieve slowly with a twitch of the rod tip from time to time to help induce strikes. An ultra-light rod and spinning reel combination with 4- or 6-pound test line is best for fishing these small lures.

Remember to replace the treble hooks attached to spinners or plugs with single hooks. Anglers also may just cut the treble hook down to a single hook by using wire cutters.

The possession of live bait or lures with treble hooks is illegal in these waters during the delayed-harvest regulation period, whether they’re being used or not.

Trout can reliably be found in different parts of the river at different times of year.

Even those fish that are newly deposited into the river from the stocking truck will have certain innate, but predictable tendencies. When the water temperature drops below fifty degrees, their metabolism slows and they economize energy. Fish will seek slower water currents and deeper holding lies.

Cast to the tail-outs of pools, back eddies, slack water behind natural current barriers such as rocks, and current seams. Slower lure and fly retrievals will catch more fish than faster ones during cold weather.

When the water temperature rises above 50 degrees, the trout will become more aggressive and feed more often.

They have the tendency to move farther from their chosen lie to feed, chase streamers or lures, and rise to the surface for insects. Those few improbable 65-degree winter afternoons can create magical, memorable days.

Delayed-harvest fishing is most satisfying because of the experience of catching fish — not how many fish an angler can take home.

Because there’s no keeping of trout during the delayed-harvest period, there is obviously no creel limit. You can fish all day and catch as many as your heart desires, as long as you put them back.

Fishing during the delayed-harvest period also presents an ideal way to introduce a beginner or a child to the sport.

Water with high fish density and non-technical fishing will quickly breed confidence. Young or novice anglers will be more inclined to take a long-term interest in fishing if their initial experience is a quality one.

During this winter, get out of the house, grab a rod, and go to a beautiful place to catch fish.

The delayed-harvest time is fishing purely for fun.

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