S.C. smallmouths

About: Smallmouth bass are not native to South Carolina but have been successfully stocked into Lake Jocassee and the Broad River. Known for their strong fighting ability, they generally prefer cooler water than their relative, the largemouth bass.

World record: 11 pounds, 15 ounces, Tennessee

State record: 9 pounds, 7 ounces, Lake Jocassee

braswell@postandcourier.com

Mike McSwain is hooked.

How else can you explain driving two hours along an interstate highway still littered with debris from the recent ice storm and spending hours in an icy canoe while the air temperature is a brisk 39 degrees in hopes of catching a fish?

But not just any fish. McSwain is hooked on smallmouth bass, a pugnacious species that fights with a chip on its shoulder and can only be found in two bodies of water in South Carolina. McSwain, a West Ashley resident who guides broadriversmallmouth.com for smallmouth bass on the Broad River north of Columbia, considered it a successful trip even though he caught only one chunky three-pound smallmouth as well as a nice largemouth bass. As the temperatures climb, fishing will continue to improve.

South Carolina has plenty of world-class freshwater fisheries, but the smallmouth bass is seemingly a closely guarded secret among Palmetto anglers. It isn't a native species but was introduced into the Broad River and Lake Jocassee by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources beginning in the early 1980s, according to Jason Bettinger, a DNR fisheries biologist.

"Smallmouth bass are typically a small to large river fish. They like flowing water and need some rocks for spawning. They also do fairly well in reservoirs like Jocassee that have cold temperatures and nice, clear water," Bettinger said.

DNR began stocking smallmouth bass fingerling (2-inch fish in the spring and 6-inch fish later in the year) in the Broad River in 1984, and the result has been better than expected.

"We have a strong population. Three- to four-pound fish are pretty commonly caught and there are some bigger six-pound fish as well," Bettinger said. "People who are interested in smallmouth bass can access a trophy fishery."

Discovering smallmouth

McSwain, better known in the Charleston area for his small band "Mike and the Mixers" that plays corporate and wedding events, said he didn't fish much as a youngster. Instead, he became a good golfer who played for USC-Aiken before transferring to the University of South Carolina where he graduated with a journalism degree and eventually started a family.

During a family vacation in the Atlanta area, a friend took him bass fishing for the first time, and he said he still remembers the feeling from that day when he set the hook on a four-pound largemouth bass. Back in Charleston, McSwain began looking for places to fish without a bass boat, something that wasn't in the budget. He fished neighborhood ponds and small bodies of water in the Francis Marion National Forest and eventually acquired a canoe.

"That type of close fishing was so much more appealing to me. I think about Indian kids in a canoe trying to catch fish, that's how childish it makes me feel," he said.

A few years ago, he and friend Cyndy Thompson of Isle of Palms traveled to the New River in North Carolina where they rented a canoe and anchored in the middle of the river. Thompson hooked a four-pound smallmouth bass that took more than 20 minutes to land, McSwain said.

"We thought it was a 20-pound fish. It was the strongest thing I'd ever seen. In two days of fishing, I caught eight or 10 smallies, and Cyndy caught eight or 10 smallies," he recalled. "I called my friend Scott (Lamprecht, a DNR fisheries biologist stationed in Bonneau) and was telling him about it and he said 'You know there are smallmouth in the Broad River.' The first chance I got I was on the Broad River."

The river is wide, season is long

The Broad River originates in the mountains of North Carolina where it is dammed to form Lake Lure. It eventually makes its way to South Carolina, east of Gaffney, and roughly parallels Interstate 26 all the way to Columbia where it eventually joins the Saluda River to form the Congaree.

McSwain said the Broad River is broken into three sections, and he's landed smallmouth in all three regions. The biggest smallmouth, he said, are found in the lower Broad, from Parr Reservoir Dam to Columbia where even wading anglers can target smallmouth. The area from the North Carolina border to Carlisle is referred to as the upper Broad and the middle Broad runs from Carlisle to Parr Reservoir.

Accessibility is a big issue for Broad River fishermen. McSwain said there are only about 17 public access points on the entire South Carolina portion of the river, and it's not suited to anything larger than a small johnboat, while canoes or kayaks are better. Fishermen often have to get out of their boats and drag them across obstructions.

When professional bass fisherman and television host Hank Parker, who lives in Union, did a show on the Broad River using kayaks, some feared that the secret would be revealed and the river overrun by anglers. But McSwain said even with Parker's vast television audience, only a few made the effort.

"If they're smart, they're going to hire a guide - and there are less than a handful of Broad River smallmouth guides to be found through an Internet search - and go see the river," McSwain said. "The banks are very high and steep and 99.9 percent is privately bounded property. The land being so deep and privacy laws, access is the reason more people don't fish the river and I can guide on it."

McSwain has been taking clients smallmouth fishing for six years and now fishes out of an 18-foot Old Town canoe. When McSwain first began fishing the Broad, he shared the experience with friends who encouraged him to begin guiding. He gradually built up a clientele, many of whom book him for more than one trip per season, and in good years will do more than 100 trips. And he said he continues to be amazed that he and his clients fish in virtual solitude on beautiful spring and summer days.

The season begins in March with smallmouth scouting a place to spawn, peaks during the summer months and continues into December. In addition to smallmouth, fishermen may tangle with largemouth bass, redbreasts, shellcrackers and monster catfish.

McSwain has equipped his canoe with a trolling motor so he can fish both upstream and downstream from his launch point. Because he understands the importance of the river flow, he often doesn't decide where to meet clients until the night before. Once you book him, though, he said he's glad to share information if a client wants to try things on his own.

"The smallmouth to me, without a doubt, is the strongest freshwater fish you'll ever feel bite," he said. "They're very aggressive. They don't live long in this river, but they grow really fast. They eat, eat, eat. Obviously, no guide guarantees anything, but you can have some really good, 40-50 fish days.

"We catch a lot of fish, and I've never seen a small one."