Have you ever paused for a moment and thought about what the rest of the world is doing at that precise time? This fleeting thought happened to me not long ago as the aluminum-reinforced jet-driven-jon boat scooted the currents, rocks, and rapids of the Saluda River, passing underneath two interstates near downtown Columbia, South Carolina.
Walking down the boat ramp at daylight in late spring, I could feel the chill that cold rivers give in early mornings. This tailwater is released below dams and is cold. Like mountain streams at sunlight, the air here in the Piedmont region had the same chilly feeling as I climbed into the boat. It could be a hint of excitement and anticipation coupled with a slight breeze that blew its breath of freshness downriver. Jackets are required at dawn.
As the sun’s first rays appeared, the automatic lights flickered off from the tall buildings which outlined this capital city’s backdrop. Above me were exhaust fumes, red taillights, horns, police sirens, and a traffic jam that permeated the morning solitude on the congested interstate. Looking below this mighty bridge, I noticed several deer fording the river and congregating on dry land at the base of a pilon holding I-126 steady, probably wondering what to do or where to go next. I decided rather quickly not to worry about what the rest of the world was doing because my day job was fly fishing for stripers. Despite all the noise from above, the only sound I could clearly distinguish was the voice of fish calling my name.
There is a unique striper fishery on the outskirts of Columbia and meandering downstream along the border of downtown. I was here to test the waters. Several sets of rapids, caused by hydroelectric generation of dams upstream, created challenges to navigate the boat. White water, dynamic currents, and boulders made the ride interesting. Careful not to spill my coffee, I sat back and for once, was glad I wasn’t driving the boat.
I was with Justin McGrady, a long-time resident, guide, and die-hard striper fisherman who intimately knew the river and its different moods. A lifetime spent on the river enabled him to maneuver the boat easily through the maze of boulders and rapids in search of fish. Local knowledge is always a good companion to have on any new adventure. On several occasions, while moving upstream through aerated rapids to new locations, we passed kayakers enjoying the foamy ride down.
Patches of fog not yet burned off by the sun hovered over pockets of flat eddies giving the Saluda a mysterious mood. Spanish moss lay draped across the arms of many trees fooling me into thinking I was closer to the coast than I actually was. Water lilies were still blooming. Their white blooms dotted the river corridor and added a classic touch of elegance to where the Broad and the Saluda Rivers converged to form the Congaree. This river empties into the Santee Reservoir lakes and eventually the ocean near Charleston.
In the spring, stripers run out of the lower lakes and head north to spawn, putting them into this river chain. I had never seen the entire Saluda from the confluence of these rivers back to Lake Murray Dam and was excited to meet these river nomads firsthand. I have always thought river fish were more powerful than their lake cousins and I wanted to test my theory. In tandem with the powerful fish surges when hooked, one must fight the strength of river currents, and fish know how to use them to their advantage.
Between Justin and I, we had an arsenal of 9- and 10-weight fly rods with sinking lines, sink tip lines, and a floating line. I never had enough confidence only to take ten shells to a dove shoot and feel the same way about flies. Preferring the philosophical approach of “more is better,” my fly box is stuffed full of 4- to 8-inch streamers, hooks sharpened and ready for action.
Large popping bugs were thrown early into pockets and eddies with no luck. Very little surface activity was seen. We switched over to sinking lines with long, white and chartreuse articulated streamers with large eyes. Casting into foam lines and drifting downstream initiated a flurry of activity.
The sinking lines allowed the large articulated flies to get down to the fish much quicker in the swift currents. Casting across and then mending upstream quickly allowed the fly to swing downstream. The fishing was slow early and with adrenaline flowing, the stripping action of the fly was probably too fast. We had several large fish Justin estimated to be 35- to 40-inches each follow the fly back to the boat only to have them spook when they saw us. Seeing these fish only enhanced the impatient “fish rush” of hooking one and made my knees want to buckle.
I could relax once the first striper was hooked, fought, and released. The striper was a nice 5 lb. fish that knew how to brutally grab the downstream currents and pull drag. Stripers don’t tail dance on the water’s surface like largemouth bass. Instead, they dive for rocks, boulders, crevices, and cover using their bulldog strength. This causes the fly rod to bend halfway down while my imagination fabricates images of unusually large fish on the end. After all these years, I have learned not to be disappointed if the fish doesn’t meet my imaginative size expectations after the fight.
I find it always interesting that most fish caught are compared to the first and this trip was no different. Comments like, “The first one was a lot bigger,” or “The first one fought harder.” “Look closely how fat this fish is; it didn’t swallow the fly like the first one. Maybe it just instinctively swiped?” Other comparisons include, “The fish are getting smaller! What are we doing wrong?” “I wish we had about 5 or 6 the size of that first one!” And finally, “This is twice the size of the first one, let’s keep casting!”
It’s never about the sheer number of fish caught but the experience of feeling the pressure placed against carbon fiber rolled like a pencil and bending. And the fly reel, buzzing and yielding fly line with every pull and surge. Then you finally get to see all the fuss as the fish nears the boat, only to be spooked, then run away for one more escape attempt. My fish adrenaline rush never left me all day.
On this overcast and humid day we caught and released 7 nice stripers. With the currents running south, each fish felt bigger as they darted downstream at the first sign of a hook set. Then it would cut across the river seams and head for the safety of large boulders tucked into the back eddies of each current.
As a prelude to any fishing trip, the night before yields little sleep but rather dreams of massive fish that succumb to my fly. I always seem to wake up before any are ever landed and can’t figure that part out. As it goes with most fishing trips, the biggest fish merely followed our flies back to the boat without tasting how delicious fur and feathers can be. But the ones we did catch were fun. I never hooked a fish I didn’t like.
During the trip back downriver and heading to the landing, I looked behind me and once again saw the snarled mess and traffic jam of a congested interstate filled with folks trying to get home. The evening lights of the big city could be seen lighting up against a darkening sky. Tomorrow I will again visit the rest of the world and all the craziness, but for now I go home fulfilled, tired and at peace.
Justin McGrady can be reached @ email@example.com