Capt. Ronnie Faircloth throttled back the twin 225-hp Yamahas and eased Playin Hookey, his big 31-foot Grady White, into one of Lake Murray’s hundreds of coves. Swinging into the light southwest wind, he moved forward and dropped the bow-mounted Minn Kota electric motor into the water. The sun had warmed the air into the 60’s and the water temperature to 52 degrees.
Mary Gayle and i had come to Columbia, S.C. to attend the Professional Outdoor Media of America (POMA) yearly conference. No trip to this area would be complete without fishing for fresh water stripers on this famous lake. Capt. Faircloth was generous enough to take us out for an afternoon.
With practiced ease he rigged the 7’6” Ugly Stick medium-light action rods with some very lively blueback herring which are found in the lake. Using Abu Garcia 6500 LC reels with 10-lb. test line, he had about 2 1/2 ft. leaders attached to the running line with a barrel swivel. Just ahead of the swivel he used a small sliding egg sinker to get the line down on four of the six rigs.
On the other two he used a bright orange egg float to work the surface. In a matter of minutes we had six rigs trolling out behind, moving very slowly up wind. On one line he put a planer board to put it some twenty feet out to the side of the boat. Although we were using herring for bait, many folks also use the threadfin shad.
“March is a tough time to fish this lake,” Ronnie told me. “The stripers are in a pre-spawning time where they do not congregate. They can be almost anywhere. As the spring progresses, we can usually find huge schools of fish especially in the bays with feeder streams.”
The action was slow at first. We watched the Garmin GPSmap 4212 for any signs of fish in the water. Although the bottom lit up, we saw very few fish. It stayed like that until we crossed over a steep rise in the bottom. When the ledge rode up from 50 feet to 24 feet, we could see the fish gathered along the structure.
“Fish on!”, hollered Hovey Smith, a fellow outdoor writer.
He reached down and removed the rod from the holder. The Ugly Stick bent to the task as Hovey worked the fish toward the boat. Because there was only light line on the rod, he let the drag do it’s job. At first the fish wanted to go sideways a bit, but he gave up pretty quickly and soon came to the boat. Our first fish of the day was a really fatb 22-inch beauty.
Lake Murray is a mecca for folks in this part of the South. It is a huge reservoir that impounded the Saluda River to provide electricity to the area. When completed in 1930, at 1.5 mile long and 220 ft. high, it was the largest earthen dam in the world creating the world’s largest man-made reservoir. It backs up the Saluda River about 41 miles and is 14 miles wide at it’s widest point. It created over 500 miles of shoreline and covers about 50,000 acres. It’s big!
The Saluda River joins the Broad River miles below the dam to create the Congaree river. This river joins downstream with the Wateree river to feed the beautiful Lake Marion. The outlet river from Lake Marion is the Santee river which drains into the Atlantic seaboard. A diversion canal from Lake Marion also feeds Lake Maultrie, whose outlet stream is called the Cooper River that also feeds down to the Atlantic. All of these rivers in this huge drainage system that crosses almost all of South Carolina play host to the striper.
Back in the 1960’s Bob Stevens pioneered stalking stripers in fresh water. Based on his work in the Santee-Cooper system, stripers can now be found all over the country in a variety of fresh water dams and lakes.
The main biomass that stripers feed on in the lakes in South Carolina are the threadfin shad followed by the gizzard shad. However, most of the guides seem to prefer fishing with the blueback herring. These herring were not natural to Lake Murray.
“They were introduced to the lake around 1985,” said Hal Beard, a biologist for the South Carolina DNR. “The DNR did not stock them. They most probably were used as bait fish brought in by fishermen. However they are now a staple in the diet of the gamefish in the lake.”
“We now stock about 1 million 1 inch long stripers every year,” Beard continued. “At the request of fishermen we have increased the size limit to 21 inches. That seems to be working well.”
“Summer die off,” was how he responded to my question about what is the biggest challenge they face. “The fish need oxygen at the thermocline in which they feel comfortable. Unfortunately they congregate around the dam and there is not enough oxygen to support them. Some summers we can get a large die off.”
The lake also has a tremendous largemouth bass population. All of the big tours run tournaments here.
So, if you find yourself in South Carolina and are looking for a place to fish, Lake Murray is a hotspot. It is well worth going out of your way to fish. While you are in the area, the zoo, aquarium, and flower gardens named the River Banks Zoo and Garden in Columbia is spectacular.
For more information on fishing the lake, contact Ronnie Faircloth (803-600-4999).