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Loosing Flies to Spanish Moss at the Saluda River

leah kirk

The lower Saluda, replete with Spanish moss and wading birds, once was a slower-moving, warm-water river like those found in central South Carolina. Today though, trout are reproducing in the lower Saluda River, another reason river advocates want sewage discharges removed from the waterway. Trout fishing is nothing new along the lower Saluda, but evidence suggests the river is in better shape today for hooking a trout than ever before.

Introduced to the lower Saluda 50 years ago, trout are living longer, growing bigger and, for the first time, reproducing in a river far away from the cold mountain streams where they thrive, say South Carolina fisheries state biologists.  Until recent years, many of the trout stocked in the Saluda each winter were either caught or died by late summer as oxygen levels dropped and water temperatures rose in central South Carolina’s oppressive heat. By fall, trout were sluggish, if they could be found at all.  

Now, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources has documented scores of cases in which trout survived from one year to the next. In 2013 and 2014, agency research found that 167 trout lived past one year. When trout live multiple years, they get bigger, growing to the size of the whopper Howard caught last week in a rocky area near West Columbia. Trout in a dam’s tailwaters such as the Saluda tend to grow faster and bigger than in small mountain streams, according to DNR documents and Trout Unlimited.

Some of the trout studied by the DNR from 2012 to 2014 verify that. The largest brown trout researchers caught in 2013 weighed nearly 7 pounds and was 24 inches long, the agency said. The largest rainbow weighed 5 pounds and was 22 inches long. The average trout is often a fraction of that size. DNR officials acknowledge that trout also appear to be spawning in the Saluda River – a phenomenon few people expected. The issue came up at a recent public hearing attended by hundreds of people opposed to a planned sewage discharge permit for Carolina Water Service.

Prodded by the threat of a lawsuit from environmentalists more than 10 years ago and the need to obtain a new federal license to run the dam, the power company began pumping more oxygen into the water and releasing higher volumes of water in the summer. The installed devices called “hub baffles” that improve air levels in water below the Lake Murray dam. The company also routinely discharges more than twice the flow of water than it used to. The river once suffered from low oxygen levels for up to 40 days each year, last year had four days with low oxygen readings.

                The increased water flow through the dam also has created more habitat for trout, and it helps prevent the river from getting too warm in spots.  Water temperatures ranged from 59 to 68 degrees during the last few days of August and the first few days of September. Those temperatures are suitable for rainbow and brown trout.

In the mid-1960s, South Carolina’s wildlife agency decided to stock trout in the 10-mile-long stretch of river, figuring the water was generally cold enough for rainbows and browns. Virtually every year since then, they’ve dropped rainbow and brown trout from a helicopter to replenish those fish that were caught by anglers or died from natural conditions. The winter-time stocking releases about 28,000 trout, ranging in size from three-inch brown trout to 10-inch rainbows. The fish come from the Walhalla State Fish Hatchery in the mountains of Oconee County.

Stocking trout in the lower Saluda has created an interesting contrast found almost nowhere else. Trees that drip with Spanish moss, a signature plant of the coastal plain, line a river filled with trout similar to those that thrive in the Blue Ridge of Oconee, Pickens and Greenville counties.