In search of striper: The game is ever changing
By Lawrence Jordan
This year’s striper migration got off to a rough start. Ryan Stephens and I started in March on the Congaree River and were beaten 2-7 by a 7-year-old girl on another boat. Andrew Hughes, Duncan McLaurin and I lost our propeller blades in a rock collision on the Wateree River rapids during the next attempt. In April, Lauren Eskridge, Ryan Stephens, Shannon Jordan and I pulled our canoes up-river through rapids on the Broad River to where we were guaranteed to catch striper, only to catch smallmouth bass and get beaten by Lauren, who caught four catfish. In May, I returned to the same place on foot and hooked a striper too big to control. The striper charged down current and wrapped around a rock in the rapids where only a kayaker was able to reach. The fish was huge, and the kayaker passed my lure over the rock for me to retrieve but kept the fish. Several failed trips and a broken fishing rod later, Dawson Jordan saw first victory when he landed a 28-pound, 40-inch striper using a pearl-colored fluke lure on the Saluda River. Despite previous failures, I always leave for any of these trips with full confidence that this will be the day … and that our efforts will pay off. I left Dillon early in the morning bound for Columbia and met John Psomas at 5:30 am. John recently moved to Columbia and was excited to learn about the fishing opportunities in his own town. I was going to wear my pith helmet but found a paper Fourth of July top hat which I wore instead for the Fourth of July weekend. We carried the canoe over rocks and hills until we finally reached the banks of the Saluda River at 6 am. The moon was a crescent, and the fog blanketed the river. We slid the canoe into the river and paddled into the current. We had one rapid to cross in the dark, then we dropped anchor once we were through the waves. I stood up to make my first cast before the anchor line came tight. The strike zone is where the slow water meets the fast current, and the most effective strategy is to cast into the calm water and reel into the fast water. The stripers are waiting in the slow water and watching for prey drifting by in the current, likely disoriented from the rapid. By fishing the seam where the different currents meet, I hooked a striper on the first cast. John hurried to make his first cast while I landed our first fish of the day which I quickly released as these fish are protected from June through September. Casting did not produce any more bites over the next few minutes, and we spent most of our time trying to recover lures that we hung on the rocks. The next strategy was to let out lines to troll while we paddled downstream. Trolling covers lots of ground and is effective for locating fish. Paddling by canoe is minimally invasive to the wildlife scene and we encountered an undisturbed beaver hard at work and a great horned owl drinking water on the riverbank. We could also overhear the roar of lions through the trees as they awoke at the Riverbanks Zoo. John was casting to shore and I was paddling when my rod bowed over. I thought my line was hung on a rock, but when I picked up my rod, I realized it had life on the other end. I raised the rod and kept pressure on the fish. The line steadily semi-circled the boat, seeming like the fish was unfazed by being hooked. I worried about rocks and limbs underwater that could break him off, so I tightened the drag. With a flick of his tail, the line snapped, and I knew that this striper, which I never saw, would keep me up at night. We fished our way down to the Shandon Rapids and dropped the anchor before the water was too fast to paddle against the rapids. Shad can often be found gathered around the rocks above a rapid and I have seen striper schooling here eating the shad. A striper slammed my bait as I cast at rock formations and the fish was quickly brought aboard and released. Striper travel in schools and where there is one, there are more. John and I made more casts and had no luck, so we continued upriver. We located the perfect ambush point and approached very quietly. A shallow sandbar separated the fast water from a deep slough with tree branches and boulders underwater. I knew that this place would be a hard place to fish without snagging a branch, so we had to hold our rod tips up and keep our lures at surface level. I hooked a striper, but the hook came out, then another striper came up to eat it but I set the hook too early. John fixed his bait to make a cast and I pulled my 8-weight fly rod from its case, last used on Alaskan Steelhead, and pieced it together. I had a white feathered fly on the end of my line and made my cast into the slough. The fly sank and I started to strip line to retrieve it when John hooked his first striper. His striper was shaking its head under water and another striper followed to see if it would throw up any food. John fought his striper past my fly and the striper who was following changed course and swallowed my fly. I set the hook and the striper took off, the fly reel screaming as the fish pulled off more line. The striper’s head shaking sent ripples up my fly line and my rod bounced uncontrollably. The fish dove for structure multiple times and I used my hand to hard-stop the reel from giving more line. I finally had the striper in deep water, and we managed to bring both stripers into the boat. At this point, the stripers knew that something was happening, and they stopped biting. At this point, John and I had both had wins in our own way. John caught his first striper, and I caught my first striper on a fly. We returned to trolling with our lines dragging behind the boat and John caught another striper as we approached the Shandon Rapids. John and I decided to paddle back upriver, having caught enough fish for the day, but we left our lines out so that we were trolling while we paddled back upriver. John’s rod bowed over twice while we were paddling upriver, and he landed both fish. Each time a fish hit, John would take the rod and start fighting and I would clear my line and turn the canoe to give him the angle. John landed both stripers ending our day with seven stripers in all. After battling the currents and pulling the canoe around rapids, John and I landed at the base of Mill’s Race Rapids where our trip began. Tubers were in line to float the river and their looks reminded me that I was wearing my Fourth of July hat. When we reached the car, I gave John a striper flag to commemorate his first catching of the S.C. State Fish. My favorite part about our day was catching the striper on a fly rod. The same fish can be more easily caught using conventional gear but fly fishing relies on less advanced technology and more on physics to place the fly in front of a fish. The presentation of the fly relies on your hands rather than a reel and the twitch of the rod tip. A great day of fishing can teach us what kind of spots to look for and what techniques work, but it is easy to be trapped by past experiences. The game is ever changing as we fish in different conditions and times which means that we as the fishermen need to approach the river with current observations, supported by past experiences.