Thursday, June 14, 2018

Favorite Fishing Destinations Countdown: No. 5 - Santee Cooper Lakes, South Carolina

Time I've spent on the Santee Cooper Lakes spreads across three decades, going back to college days, and I've enjoyed dozens of memorable days fishing these two big South Carolina lakes. Favorite days, were I to attempt to pick a dozen or so, undoubtedly would include days catching flatheads, largemouths, stripers, blue catfish, crappie and bluegills (at least). Opportunities are diverse at Santee Cooper, and it seems that every kind of fish that lives in these lakes is plentiful and grows big.

For folks from other places, the Santee Cooper Lakes are Lake Marion and Moultrie (locally called the Upper Lake and Lower Lake), which are connected by a canal and impound the Santee and Cooper rivers through some complex engineering. The two lakes are distinctive, and each has its own character, but because they are connected and operated together, they tend to be viewed as a single massive (170,000 acres) fishery.  The lakes are fertile and offer highly diverse forage and extensive habitat, resulting in world-class fisheries for multiple species.

Santee Cooper first gained fame as the original home of landlocked striped bass when anadromous fish got trapped during the lakes' construction in the 1940s and ended up surviving and making spawning runs up the rivers. Big catfish are probably the lakes' current largest claim to fame. Folks travel from all over the country to sample Santee Coopers's legendary catfish, and many guides stay busy year-round with catfish trips. Blues and flatheads draw the headlines, but Santee Cooper holds claim to the world record channel cat, and channels still provide a fun opportunity for fast action at certain times. Santee Cooper is also famous for its giant shellcrackers and bluegills, highlighted by a former world-record shellcracker that came from the canal that connects lakes. And then there are the bass and the crappie, which are the main reasons why many anglers travel to these waters year after year.

Fishing is the main attraction for me, and I could go on and on about Santee Cooper angling opportunities. My fondness for the lakes extends far beyond its fisheries, though. I appreciate the variety of settings, from vast swamps at the upper end of Marion and around both lakes to the flooded forest in Marion's main body to the wide open water of Lake Marion. With that comes diverse wildlife, including gators, ospreys, wading birds and much more.

I also enjoy the atmosphere throughout Santee Cooper Country. These are fishing lakes first, and both are serviced by several true fish camps, where an angler can get a cabin or motel room, buy fresh bait and the tackle needed, hire a guide that goes out of the camp's docks, launch a boat and hang out in the restaurant to enjoy big servings of down-home cooking and hear plenty of fish stories.

I've spent many hours in the Black's Camp restaurant, enjoying catfish stew and a burger or a dinner buffet while gleaning wisdom from veteran guides.

Really, the biggest challenge about planning travel to Santee Cooper is figuring out when you would most like to go, which area you want to visit, and what species you want to target. Santee Cooper Country is a great resource to help with the planning. The website provides loads of great information, and if your plans allow you to travel through the town of Santee between 8:30 and 4:30, stop by their visitor center to look around and talk with someone in person.


Thursday, June 7, 2018

Jacksonville Jaunt

One more update is due before I get back to the favorite fishing destinations countdown because just a few days after returning from Maine, I pointed things in the opposite direction and blasted down to Jacksonville for a couple of fun days of inshore saltwater fishing with Chris Holleman and Nathan Johnson. It was a quick trip: Southbound on Thursday, and home late Saturday night. However, that was enough time to enjoy some fun action and get plenty of the photos that drive my travel plans.

I always have fun fishing the Jacksonville area with Chris and Nathan, and we always catch fish. Along with redfish and speckled trout (which are pretty much a given, any time), the species mix from the most recent trip included jack crevalle, flounder, sheepshead and kind of weakfish that's locally called a yellowmouth trout. We hit settings ranging from very urban stuff on the St. John's river in downtown to some pretty remote feeling marsh and fished quite a few different ways. Part of the plan also was to play with some not-yet-released Bomber Lures, which preformed exceptionally well!

My original plan had actually been to do some exploring on my own along the Georgia coast on the way home, possibly doing some pier or surf fishing at Jekyll Island, and to return home Sunday. Big storms brewed up Saturday afternoon, though, and they were forecast to continue until dark, so I decided to continue toward home and save that exploration for another trip.

Of course, Chris, Nathan and I have already started talking about "next time" for Jacksonville, and the working plan is to aim for the fall mullet run, when the fishing tends to be wide open for everything. I'm looking forward to that trip already!

Monday, June 4, 2018

Kayak's Partner

Two Old Town Vapor 10 Angler kayaks fit nicely atop my car and are easy to load, opening an huge number of waterways to fishing/photo outings.
Last fall I got I got a fishing kayak, an Old Town Vapor 10 Angler, and I've been delighted with everything about it. It's stable, comfortable and well set up for fishing, and I can easily load it atop my car. In fact, it's simple enough to tote that I'll toss it atop my Outback for trips to other areas, "just in case," even if I don't know of a specific kayak need on that trip. Owning one has left me longing for a second one, though, and I fixed that when I was in Maine a couple of weeks ago.

Several times since I got the first boat, I've pondered outings to mountain lakes, cypress-filled backwaters, tidal creeks or other waters, but ultimately have decided to stay home. A productive outing to me is one where I get a lot of good photos, so I just can't justify going fishing alone. Selfies and fish close-ups certainly provide some value, but that value is miniscule compared to what can be done with a couple of boats and with both anglers carrying a camera, and it would only frustrate me to hit a good fishing day in a beautiful spot and not be equipped to make the most of it photo-wise.

Cool view, behind the scenes, at Old Town Canoe!
Because I like my first Vapor so much, I couldn't think of anything I would like better than another boat of the same model, and since Old Town, Maine and the Old Town Canoe headquarters are only a few miles from where I would be fishing with Northridge Outfitters, it only made since to plan a visit and pick up the new boat while I was so close. I had explored the retail store at Old Town before. In fact, it was the first stop Asher and I made when we fished in the same area a couple of years ago. This time, though, I got to tour the facilities with Old Town brand manager David Hadden, and I cannot begin to convey how cool it was getting to see all those canoes and kayaks being formed and prepared for shipping. I was super impressed by all the processes used to ensure that every boat a customer buys is exactly what it should be in appearance and performance and that it will remain that way for many years.

The Old Town visit and pick-up took place on the final morning of my trip, and plans were to begin my 1,260-mile trek home when I left. However, I couldn't resist the opportunity to get the new boat wet and run both kayaks together, so Doug Teel and I went straight from Old Town to a spot along the Penobscot River that David Hadden had suggested and slid the boats in the river. We didn't fish long, but we did both catch fish, so the second Vapor had been rightly initiated before I got more than about 5 miles from where it had been built. After catching a few, we re-loaded the boats and secured them atop my car, where they road nicely all the way home.

I left for Florida a few days after returning from Maine and just got back from that trip, so I haven't gotten the two boats out together around here yet. You know it won't be long, though!
The first fish caught from my new Old Town Vapor 10 Angler, caught by Doug Teel of Northridge Outfitters, illustrates perfectly the kind of photo I'm excited to be able to get far more of now that I have two kayaks that I can take out together!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Marvelous Maine

Continuing with fishing travel updates before returning to "favorite destinations" posts, I drove directly from the Pennsylvania Crappie Camp to Maine to spend a few delightful days with Doug Teel of Northridge Outfitters. I also got to visit the home of Old Town Canoe and even picked up a new boat while I was in Maine, but that's another story for my next post.

Doug operates a modern lodge in rural Penobscot County and outfits adventurers year-round. He guides hunters for everything from rabbits to bears to moose, but from mid-May through the end of summer, he turns his attention to fish. Smallmouth bass are the main attraction, but Doug also fishes good waters for pike and largemouths and occasionally, he'll hit beautiful backwoods ponds and flowages for native brook trout or lead other types of fishing excursions. This was my fourth time fishing with Doug, so I admittedly arrived with high expectations.

I wasn't disappointed!

Doug and I squeezed in big variety for only 3 1/2 days, spending one full day running ATV trails and backroads for colorful brookies and splitting the rest of the time fishing two vey different sorts of lakes and the Penobscot River. The river, which is where Doug spends the most time during the summer, was the one "must do" part of the trip, and as a spoiler alert, you'll learn more about it if you continue to follow my list of favorite fishing destinations. Smallmouth fishing is crazily good and highly predictable, with lots of topwater action.

One lake we fished was new to me and about two hours away. Doug promised it would be worth it and was right. Of course, I never doubted that as I've learned to trust his judgement. We spent the whole day catching and releasing chunky smallmouth bass from ultra-clear water and only saw one other boat on the lake while we were there.

I guess my favorite outing was a short, early-morning river stop on the final day. I had plans to be at Old Town at 9:00, so we hit the river from about 5:30 till 8:00 and caught oodles of smallmouths in that short time, mostly on topwater, without ever running anywhere. Doug dropped the trolling motor as soon as we launched, and we just started fishing. If we even got out of sight of the boat ramp, it wasn't by much!

Of course, we ate well. You're supposed to do that in Maine. And if anyone ever asks, I can say without hesitation, that if you have haddock chowder to dinner, lunch the next day is not too soon for all-you-can east fried haddock, and the leftover chowder makes an excellent dinner that evening!

Monday, May 28, 2018

Western Pennsylvania Slabfest

My most recent blog post, which regrettably wasn't especially recent, was part of my countdown of 10 favorite fishing destinations. In that post. I mentioned being excited to soon be headed toward the destination that was featured, Lake Pymatuning, for a media fishing event. I've since made that trip and done some other productive fishing, so I figured it might be good to briefly stray from the countdown posts for a few updates.

The short version of the Western Pennsylvania report is that the crappie bite is sizzling right now, and fish can be caught many different ways. I fished three days on two lakes (Pymatuning and Shenango) and spent time in four different boats, using various techniques, with the only real common denominator being fast action from quality crappie. I spent time spider rigging with "Crappie Dan" Dannenmueller, drifting with Dale Black and Kenny Smith and casting with Darl Black. All produced good numbers and size, an we caught black and white crappie plus a mix of other species, including bluegills, pumpkinseeds, yellow perch, bass, catfish and more.

Of course, such a report is anything but surprising from these waters (which is part of why Pymatuning landed so high on my favorites list). When the spring bite gets going, the action tends to be fast, with plenty of good fish in the mix. We stayed in cabins in Pymatuning State Park, which offers fabulous lakeside access for boating and bank-fishing alike and spent a pretty good portion of our waking hours out on the water catching fish!

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Favorite Fishing Destinations Countdown: No. 6 - Lake Pymatuning, Pennsylvania

It's hard for me to not get excited about Lake Pymatuning as I write this because I'll be visiting there in a little more than a week, staying in a lakeside cabin in Pymatuning State Park and splitting fishing time between Pymatuning and a couple of other Western Pennsylvania lakes. Lake Pymatuning might be the most user-friendly major lake I've ever fished, and it a fabulous destination for family outings. It's fairly large, covering more than 17,000 acres, but it fishes small in the sense that good fishing is widespread and you don't need specialized knowledge or a fancy boat to tap into great fishing for multiple species. 

In truth, you don't need a boat at all. Multiple tracts of Pymatuning State Park offer extensive shoreline access to much of the lake, plus multiple piers, and the lake's shallow margins lend themselves to good wade-fishing in several areas. Seasonally (some winters, anyway), Pymatuning is also an excellent walk-on ice-fishing lake.
From a boating perspective, motors of more than 20 horsepower may not be operated on Pymatuning, so there's no threat of big boat wakes from pleasure boaters. Most boaters are fishermen or paddlers enjoying the lake, so Pymatuning is great to fish from a canoe, kayak or johnboat. I'm actually bringing my kayak along on my upcoming trip and am looking forward to putting it to work on Pymatuning.

Adding to its user friendly nature, Pymatuning is a fabulous multi-species lake, and because it has a lot good shallow cover and structure around it's edges, those fish tend to be in predictable places. Crappie (both black and white), walleyes and bass are the headline species, but Pymatuning also offers great opportunities for catching catfish and a host of panfish species. A couple of years ago, I spent a fun spring day on the lake with my good friend Darl Black, and we went out with a real multi-species mindset. If memory serves me correctly, we caught 10 species that day.

Beyond offering great fishing access, the state park lends itself nicely to overnight stays, with nice cabins at a reasonable cost and plenty of campsites in two different campgrounds.

Area information: Visit Crawford
Park Information: Pymatuning State Park

Friday, April 27, 2018

Favorite Fishing Destinations Countdown: No. 7 - Lake Jocassee, South Carolina

I'll just warn you up front that if someone who has visited Lake Jocassee tries to tell you about the lake, it's going to sound like hyperbole. You'll surely hear a few terms like "gem" or "crown jewel," and adjectives will likely include "beautiful" and "spectacular." It's tough to not sound trite with words that often get tossed around so freely, but in Jocassee's case, they all fit, and in all honesty, no words do the scenery justice.

Straddling the Blue Ridge Escarpment and fed by mountain rivers, 7,500-acre Lake Jocassee is steep sided and crazily clear. Maximum depth is 350 feet, and it's nothing on this lake to be within easy casting distance for the bank and sitting over triple-digit depths. Jocassee's rocky shores are mostly forested, with minimal development, and virtually all major tributaries enter the lake over waterfalls or big, crashing rapids.

Lake Jocassee isn't just a pretty face, though. Despite its relatively small size, this lake holds claim to more state record fish than any other South Carolina waterway. South Carolina's state record smallmouth bass, spotted bass, redeye bass, brown trout and rainbow trout all came from Lake Jocassee. Beyond the cool-water species it's most famous for, Jocassee holds a small number of big

I won't claim Lake Jocassee is easy. Because of its extreme depth and clarity, it can be a tough nut to crack, and some of the best fishing calls for specialized approaches like deep-water trolling and night-fishing. I've been fortunate to have gotten to spend time on this lake with some very good anglers, and I'd definitely suggest hiring a guide if you're able to do so.

That said, Lake Jocassee is one of those places that warrants a visit whether or not you can get the fish to cooperate. Of course, once you've seen it for yourself, you'll be stuck with the dilemma of trying to describe Lake Jocassee to friends without sounding cliché, and my guess is that you wont' find words to it justice!

Devil's Fork State Park offers good boating and shoreline access, lodging, camping and supplies. For guided fishing, check out Jocassee Charters. For area information, visit Upcountry South Carolina.