One of the most appealing aspects of living in Charleston is being able to quickly travel from a bustling urban area to a quiet, undisturbed tidal landscape.
Sitting at the Leed’s Avenue boat ramp and watching an unending parade of traffic cross the I-526 bridge between West Ashley and North Charleston, I was skeptical of how productive our day of fishing would be.
My partner for the day, Doug Roland, slid his Hell’s Bay skiff in the water and we began idling up the Ashley River. Upstream of the I-526 bridge, the river loses its attractive tidal flats, oyster mounds and other elements that most inshore anglers key in on to find fish in the winter.
Looking for a change of scenery and a new, aggressive gamefish to target, we left the Ashley’s saltier lower stretches and headed upstream in search of striped bass.
Although it seemed the Lowcountry’s glory days of striper fishing had passed, we had heard reports of people catching stripers in the Ashley. These fish, it turns out, were a direct result of the state Department of Natural Resources’ new stocking program. We wanted in on the action.
We followed the river as it wound toward Summerville and stopped around Magnolia Gardens plantation. We dropped anchor next to a row of exposed wooden pilings and started to cast crankbaits around the structure.
After a few exploratory casts, my fishing rod jumped from the steady buzz of a lipped crankbait to the yanking headshake of a juvenile striped bass.
After a short but scrappy fight, I pulled my first Ashley River striper into the skiff. It was as small a striper as I’d ever seen, but nonetheless, it was a true Lowcountry striper.
“I guess the stocking efforts are working,” I said as I slid the young fish back into the water.
We continued fishing similar structures all afternoon, catching a few better stripers with a handful of redfish mixed in. Not bad for an exploratory mission, and with more striper being stocked every year, the fishing should only get better.
Striped bass have a storied history in South Carolina. They’re our official state fish, and for good reason. When the Santee Cooper electric company dammed the Cooper and Santee rivers to form lakes Moultrie and Marion in 1939, they landlocked many of the rivers’ mature stripers that were upriver spawning. The fish weren’t expected to survive in the salt-free environment, but instead they flourished. Over the next few decades, the Santee-Cooper lakes produced nationally renowned striper fishing and provided a brood stock that biologists used to stock freshwater impoundments across the country.
Striped bass are anadromous, meaning they can live in both salt and fresh water. Stripers from the Outer Banks northward live in saltwater year-round, and only enter freshwater during spawning runs in the spring.
South Carolina’s native striper population is different. All stripers need cool water to survive, which restricts our fish to riverine environments that provide fresh, cool water during summer’s heat.
When water temperatures drop in the fall, they migrate downstream into brackish water to feed until the water warms again in the spring. The vast majority of the stripers in the Ashley, Cooper, and Wando rivers are stocked fish, but the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto rivers to the south still hold populations of native striped bass.
DNR biologists had planned to stock the rivers of the ACE Basin with stripers until they discovered the fish were of a unique genetic strain, unlike their northern or southern counterparts. The Combahee, in particular, has produced some huge stripers, including the 46-pound, 13-ounce current saltwater state record.
The Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto rivers flow past plantations and undeveloped farmland, while the Ashley flows through Summerville, North Charleston, and finally past downtown Charleston. The river has been subject to sewage and chemical spills in the past, which may have played a part in the demise of the river’s native stripers.
But with today’s stricter environmental regulations and the DNR’s stocking efforts, the Ashley could soon produce some trophy fish.
The Ashley River striped bass stocking program is in its early stages at this point, but they’re improving their science and techniques with every new year class of fish. Forrest Sessions is a DNR biologist who works with South Carolina’s stocking efforts, raising the future’s striped bass in a hatchery.
“We’ve been stocking stripers in the Ashley for about five years now,” says Sessions. Striped Bass procreate between the last week of March and the last week of April, about a month long spawning season. This is when DNR biologists strip eggs from roe-laden females. Each mature female striper is capable of producing a quarter of a million offspring.
Biologists place the eggs in a tank with three male bass that fertilize them; 48 hours later, the young stripers hatch. The fingerlings are moved from tanks to ponds as they age and are prepared to be released.
Karl Brenkert of the SCDNR releases hatchery-reared stripers in the Ashley at the Jessen Boat Landing off Dorchester Road in Summerville, as well as around the old railroad trestle just upriver from the I-526 bridge.
Brenkert releases one- to two-inch “phase 1” striper hatchlings as well as more mature 5- to 8-inch “phase 2” fingerlings.
“We release both phase 1 and phase 2 fingerlings at both stocking locations,” says Brenkert. “In 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2011 we released anywhere from 62,000 to 175,000 phase 1’s into the river. We’ve released phase 2 fingerlings every year since 2006, between 10,700 and 25,000 a year.” Phase 1 stripers are much easier for the DNR to produce, as they’re development costs less time and money, but the older fingerlings have a considerably better chance of survival.
With stocking efforts in existence for more than five years now, anglers should start seeing larger stripers being caught in the river in the next few years. According to Sessions, a 5-year-old striper should be somewhere between 8 and 10 pounds, which should be appealing to any inshore angler.
Perhaps all the Ashley needs to rebound its striper population is few years of heavy rain. A prevailing drought has provided less than ideal conditions for the river’s existing population of stripers to have a successful spawn.
“If you get a moderate flood year, you’ll have a good nutrient base in the water,” says Sessions. This in turn provides a healthy environment for juvenile striped bass to grow.
Tanya Darden works with Brenkert and Sessions on the Ashley River project, and has hope that river will once again have a naturally spawning population.
“The aim of our research within the Ashley River is to determine the feasibility of restoring a self-sustaining striped bass population within this system. We are hopeful as during three of the past four years we have seen nonstocked young of the year fish within the Ashley River, suggesting that reproduction is occurring.
“Additionally, last year we collected mature fish in spawning condition in the Ashley during the spawning season.”
With more fish reaching maturity in the river every year and possibly spawning, a sizeable expansion in the population could be evident in the near future.
How to fish for ’em
Striper fishing in South Carolina’s coastal rivers is a cold-weather affair. The best fishing months are between October and April, with January and February being prime time for big fish.
Winter stripers in the ACE Basin will be found from the U.S. Hwy. 17 bridges down to a few miles above St. Helena Sound.
Around Charleston, most fish will be a few miles above the I-526 bridges. Narrow, outside bends of rivers collect the most bait and the most fish. If you find structure like docks, downed trees, old rice gates or free-standing pilings in these bends, target those areas. The fish hide in the structure waiting to ambush passing bait, or a well-placed lure.
The most effective way to target stripers around structure is with a trolling motor. Slowly work around the structure, casting crankbaits and spinnerbaits in the upper water column, and work heavier swimbaits and jigs down deep. In the Ashley, most of the stripers will eat the shallower baits, while redfish will grab the bottom bumpers.
If you get multiple bites in the same area, drop anchor and fish it until the action tapers off.
Light- to medium-action spinning and casting rods with 20-pound leaders are all you need for these typically smaller fish. Fly tackle can be fun when the bite is hot. Eight-weight rods with sinking line, short leaders, and 1/0 white clousers are perfect.
If you want to exclusively target large stripers, trolling Stretch 25’s and heavy, curly-tail grub tipped bucktails in January and February should be your plan. Mature stripers are solitary fish, and you’ve got to cover a lot of ground to find them. Using electronics to mark fish in deep holes is another way to find large fish. Drop live baits down or vertical jig while drifting over these holes if you mark anything appealing on your sounder.
Striper fishing in the winter is mostly restricted to boat fishermen, but there are a few places where anglers can target them from shore. The Jessen Landing in Summerville, behind Dorchester Lanes, is probably the best. It has a pier that allows recreational fishing, and the DNR releases many of their striper fingerlings right next to the pier.
If you plan on targeting stripers this winter, make sure you’re familiar with the rules and regulations regarding possession of our state’s mascot gamefish. Striper season is closed June 1- Sept. 30. The remainder of the year, an angler can keep three stripers over 26 inches long.
These rules apply to all of South Carolina’s coastal rivers, excluding the lower stretch of the Savannah River, where possession of two fish over 27 inches is legal year-round.
Follow the rules, and be sure to handle these fish with care. Rebuilding the populations of this once prolific species will only be possible with the support of conservative angling practices.
Anglers can also take part in helping the DNR with the Ashley River striper stocking program by collecting fin clipping samples and reporting tagged fish. By turning in fin samples and tag numbers to the DNR, anglers can help biologists determine whether the fish is wild or stocked, and what year the fish was spawned.
Colt Harrison works at The Charleston Angler in West Ashley.