Save the Stripers

Striped bass in the Congaree River will hold against tree lines and readily take live herring early in the day.

The Congaree River had the first land-locked striped bass in the U.S., but now a variety of factors threaten their survival.

History doesn’t record the name of the first angler to catch a striped bass from the Santee-Cooper system.

The time frame most likely would have the event taking place sometime around 1942 while the country was in the midst of World War II, a time when having something for dinner was far more important than keeping records.

Still, perhaps the angler who caught the first striper paused somewhere between the water and the frying pan to show off a bold silvery fish with dark lines down its sides.

Maybe he told the story of how it took the bait he was offering and not only refused to give it back but tried its best to take his rod and reel with it. Surely, the fish was no stranger and was easily identified as a striped bass, a fish with an already rich history among saltwater anglers of the Northeast.

The striped bass was such an impressive commercial species, it’d been shipped across the country by rail to establish a thriving population in the San Joaquin Bay area of California. The question was what was this fish doing in the middle of a South Carolina swamp?

Those who would say a striped bass is a striped bass is a striped bass are only partially correct. While it’s true Morone saxatilis is the scientific name given to the the ocean and landlocked versions, there’s considerable evidence striped bass actually come in different “strains” of fish.

Saying a fish is of a different strain is similar to talking about blondes, brunettes, and redheads. All three have the same physiology but can behave entirely different.

In the case of stripers (called “rockfish” in North Carolina and simply “bass” by Maine to New Jersey anglers ), the oceanic version is a saltwater fish that spends the majority of its life in an offshore saltwater environment and migrates up freshwater rivers to spawn. After spawning, saltwater stripers return to the ocean. Landlocked, or freshwater striper, live their entire lives in freshwater.

Like its saltwater kin, it roams open water and often responds to spring spawning urges by migrating into the headwaters of impoundments, even moving from reservoir to riverine habitats.

Another strain of striped bass is more of a mystery. While coastal and riverine in nature, this fish doesn’t travel to the open ocean following the spawn but remains within a particular river system and stays there. It has adapted to life in a freshwater system.

The purpose of this discussion isn’t to determine if that WW II era angler caught a blonde, brunette, or redhead. Its more important and historical value is the land-locked sister went undiscovered until the completion of the Santee dam on the Santee River.

The more amazing discovery was this adaptable fish was capable of reproducing and living out its life entirely in freshwater, a feat accomplished with conditions available courtesy of the the rivers flowing into the Santee system.

The longest of these, the one with enough flow distance to allow striped bass eggs to fertilize and hatch, is the Congaree River. That discovery was the key to creating freshwater striped bass fisheries in almost every state in the country and six foreign countries.

Fishing the Congaree

Each spring as water temperatures begin to rise, striped bass in the Santee system make their way up the Santee River and into the Congaree where the topography changes from swamp-lined waterway to shoal-studded flowing river.

Sometimes within sight of the Columbia skyline, striped bass accumulate in response to nature’s call.

And they’re hungry.

“I’ve been addicted to striper fishing on the Congaree River for 20 years,” said veteran striped bass guide Bill Armfield of Newberry. “It provides a great alternative to the lake and the scenery is absolutely beautiful.”

He said the striped bass spawn at the Congaree affords an approximate six-week window to fish the upper river. Fishing the Congaree is a matter of learning the river and paying your dues — in bent props. Annual rainfall, water flow from upstream reservoirs, and bank erosion each has an effect on the bottom terrain of the river. Changes not only occur from year to year but sometimes from day to day.

Starting with water temps in the lower 50s, Armfield favors drifting free lines against the tree line along the riverbank to catch striped bass. He said the free-line bite is best first thing in the morning but quickly drops off near mid morning, then curiously turns on again near lunch.

“Much of the pattern has to do with current and water flow,” he said. “Current will dictate how fish relate to structure in the river.”

Wood is good

When it comes to targeting structures that hold striped bass, Armfield said it’s all about wood.

Fish will hold at logjams that have fallen or washed into the river as floating debris, snags, or blow down trees from the bank.

“The wood provides a current break and the stripers will either be in the wood or on the backside,” he said.

Armfield is quick to admit that free lining live blueback herring is his favorite tactic and accounts for a lot of fish but wastes a lot of bait as he and his clients must continually recast and readjust lines during a drift downstream. Passing a fishy-looking spot warrants casting a fresh bait to the structure to elicit a strike.

Usually by midmorning Armfield is looking for a place to anchor and fish live or cut baits on the bottom.

The best anchor spots are deep holes in an outside bend in the river or a scour hole near the main channel where wood structure causes the current to wash out.

Armfield said he picks a spot to fish then positions his boat a cast length above the hole and secures one anchor from the bow of his Deep V Sea Pro 220cc. He deploys a 1 1/2- to 2-ounce Carolina rig to position baits near any structure in the hole.

Richard Hall of Columbia is the owner of Lake World, a popular striped bass-oriented bait shop at Lake Murray. Like Armfield, Hall is a veteran striper angler who also guides at the Congaree.

While Hall, who has owned Lake World for 24 years, admitted free lining and anchoring are popular tactics, he’s a fan of casting artificial lures at river stripers.

“Through the years the bait favorites seemed to change,” he said. “People used to fish with shad guts, then when bluebacks became available they used those for cut bait. Now there are just as many anglers trolling free lines and planer boards.

“I still prefer to cast plugs for them. It worked back then, and it still works today.”

When asked about specific structure for casting artificial baits for Congaree stripers, Hall is quick to indicate sand bars are his number one choice.

“Some sand bars are more prominent than others,” he said. “Some will be submerged and some come up out of the water, but about all of them are good places to find fish moving up to feed.”

Casting Lures

Hall’s favorite casting lures are Rebel J-30s, Striper Delights, and a host of topwater baits in the 5 1/2-inch range. He also will use some of the bigger Bomber lures for targeting big fish.

He said a slow, steady retrieve is all that’s required to get a hungry striper to take the lure. His tackle of choice is a 7 1/2-foot Shakespeare Striper Ugly Stik matched with an Abu-Garcia 6500 C3 bait-casting reel. Line choices average 17-pound-test monofilament.

“A river fish fights twice as hard as a lake fish,” Hall said. “Anything less than 17-pound-test line usually won’t hold up long.”

Hall takes a simplistic approach to casting at the river. After launching his boat, he motors as far up river as the prevailing water levels will allow then drifts back downstream, letting the river do most of the guiding while he occasionally bumps the boat in position with a trolling motor.

If there’s enough water to navigate around the rocks, Hall will start his drift at a location known as “the Locks,” a coffer dam about 2 miles above the Cayce Landing. He also said most of the productive sand bars are located downstream between the Cayce Landing and the I-277 bridge crossing.

Access to the Congaree River — which is the boundary between Richland and Lexington counties— is good with public ramps at both shorelines. At the Lexington County side, the Thomas H Newman ramp is southeast of Cayce off County Road 66, just before the water treatment plant. On the Richland side, there’s the Bates Bridge ramp, south of Wateree at the end of County Road 2300 off U.S. 601 and underneath the bridge. The Barney Jordan ramp is also on the Richland side, southwest of Columbia at the end of Rosewood Extension near the S.C. State Fairgrounds.

Water use is crucial

Armfield and Hall concur that recent years have seen some drastic changes in the Congaree striper fishery. Most noticeable last season and during 2005 was a lack of water. Drought conditions in the Upstate and Midlands took a toll on the water flowing into and through the Congaree.

Low water results in warmer water downstream and warmer water is detrimental to spawning conditions for striped bass. Another factor has been a growing increase in fishing pressure at the river.

A decline of the fishery has been the result of these two factors, which has not gone unnoticed by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. Committed to saving the future of the fishery, DNR has published a set of possible harvest regulation options.

DNR also hosted a series of community meetings to discuss ways to preserve the fishery and obtain feedback from the public.

It may be a difficult road ahead, protecting a fishery that has played such an instrumental part in establishing freshwater striped bass fisheries across the United States and beyond.

But most anglers would agree it’s more than worth the effort.

About Phillip Gentry 823 Articles
Phillip Gentry of Waterloo, S.C., is an avid outdoorsman and said if it swims, flies, hops or crawls, he's usually not too far behind.

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