Fishing the Palmetto State
Not long before he died, my father made a comment to me seemingly out of the blue. “Son,” he said, “you have lived a marvelously misspent life.” He then explained the thinking underlying his statement, noting that I had been privileged to wet a line from Saskatchewan to South Africa, from Nova Scotia to New Zealand, and a whole bunch of locations in between. Yet all that angling travel was the reason for his remark. “When you cool your heels,” Dad noted, “you have world-class fishing right in your own backyard.”
That set me to thinking, especially since Dad enjoyed 101 years of a life which was not only well lived but in which fishing always loomed large. If variety is the spice of life, then South Carolina offers the fisherman a tasty dish indeed. That’s what he had in mind, and as he talked realization gradually dawned of just how accurate his thinking was. From the mountains to the sea, to borrow the title of a book written by the Palmetto State’s grand sporting scribe from yesteryear, Archibald Rutledge, there’s angling adventure aplenty.
Musing in the sort of mental meandering that comments like my father’s are likely to engender, I thought about camping trips along the Foothills Trail in the Up Country where the splendor of solitude and the awe of majestic waterfalls combined with evenings around a campfire watching trout dressed in cornbread dinner jackets cook to golden brown perfection to stir the soul. It was sensory overload of the sort that reminds us of the sheer joys to be derived from the fishing experience.
Along with backcountry adventures, all across South Carolina state parks (www.southcarolinaparks.com) beckon fishing families with a siren’s allure. Virtually every major S. C. reservoir features a state park, and they’ve provided me with adventures aplenty over the years. How fondly I remember watching my daughter snatch one bream after another from the waters of Lake Wylie, and the thought of the manner in which meaningful connection with a hefty catfish added excitement to the moment—“It’s a big one Daddy; I don’t know if I can get it out”—still brings a smile to my face (she did get it out). Most offer fisherman-friendly amenities such as launch areas, fishing piers, bait-and-tackle shops, options for bank fishing, and more. Waiting for a bobber to bounce while relaxing on a shady shoreline or drifting in a canoe provided great fun, but so has casting to cover in anticipation of hooking a lunker bass; fishing from an ocean pier in hopes of a seafood supper; and probing the depths of sprawling Santee-Cooper for Mr. Whiskers.
Indeed, as a pointed reminder that catching is only part of it, it seems like only yesterday I grabbed a rod equipped with 60-pound test line and reared back to set the hook on a Santee-Cooper catfish. The only problem was that the rod went down, not up, and until we eventually had a parting of the ways with a broken line, it was a matter of real debate as to whether the monster catfish was in control or I was. Options and opportunities of this sort —a sort of delightful dilemma–face the S. C. angler. In the state’s freshwater streams and lakes there are brown, brook, and rainbow trout; largemouth, smallmouth, and striped bass; channel and blue catfish; black and white crappie; and a whole array of panfish including bluegills, shellcrackers, and perch. Something for most everyone, and Dad was reminding me that over the full four decades I’ve lived in the state, never mind “side” trips all over the world, I’ve sampled and savored truly fine fishing in my own backyard.
I’ve always had mixed emotions about the hustle and bustle of big lakes, with powerful bass boats, vast expanses of water, and too much to remind me of life’s rat race moved from main street to the marina. Fortunately a system of 19 public fishing lakes scattered all across the state and managed by the S. C. Department of Natural Resources (www.dnr.sc.gov/fishing) has provided an answer. These small lakes are decidedly fisherman friendly in that all are intensively managed and fertilized, most have handicapped accessible piers, and boat launches “quiet is right” approach seems to be the standard.
For the most part, only electric motors are allowed on watercraft and fishing while using a trolling motor or paddling a canoe is the way to go on these smaller waters. They were the ideal sort of venue first for my daughter, and more recently my granddaughter, to wait for a bobber to bounce, chase grasshoppers along the shoreline, marvel at a bellowing bullfrog, or just be a kid.
Nor should the underutilized rivers of the state be overlooked. In the lower piedmont and coastal portions of the state there are streams, most of them blackwater rivers, where one can weave peacefully along waterways of wonder, paddling and fishing while surrounded by the sights and sounds of nature. It’s a sort of angler’s passage into a world we have largely lost and a grand contrast to travel along avenues of asphalt while participating in the hurly burly of everyday life. For years I joined three other fellows in canoeing/camping/fishing trips down waterways cloaked in Spanish moss and mystery, with catches ranging from lunker catfish in the Great Pee Dee to redbreast in swamp backwaters. The simple joys these trips provided–a bent rod, a disappearing bobber, a hawk’s scream overhead, a stringer bulging with bream, or an evening meal of fish fillets and hush puppies with all the trimmings—are keeper memories.
So are coastal sojourns fishing the Inland Waterway for flounder, watching a friend throw a shrimp net with perfect ease and a mastery which has always eluded me, or lifting crab pots after a day on the water to find part of the makings of a Low Country boil.
South Carolina is a great place to introduce youngsters to fishing, and a family outing with a catfish guide on Santee-Cooper bears ample promise of a lifetime of shared memories along with a cooler full of tasty fillets. A camping trip with fishing in the forefront can fit even the tightest of budgets. Similarly, a week at a state park tucked close by a lake means reasonable prices, a priceless time of togetherness, and the opportunity to shed worldly cares in the unmatched fashion fishing can afford.
From wading the icy waters of a pristine mountain trout stream somewhere back of beyond in South Carolina’s part of the Appalachian chain, casting to bass on the impoundments dotting major waterways, hoping for a bite from Santee-Cooper’s giant catfish, fishing backwaters or the surf with the tang of salt in the air, or especially watching with quiet pride as the love of fishing which runs as a sparkling thread through my very existence was passed on to my daughter and granddaughter, I now realize that from one end to the other the Palmetto State holds the pleasant promise of tight lines and fine times. My father realized as much and went right to the heart of the matter as he so often did—I have had a marvelously misspent life in Palmetto waters.