Deer season ended more than a month ago and it's just about that long before turkey season opens. So what do Lowcountry outdoorsmen do to fill the void?
For many, it's chasing after a fish called the poor man's tarpon — American shad. These anadromous fish are born in freshwater, spend most of their lives in saltwater and then return to freshwater to spawn and die. Instead of chasing them, anglers usually wait in a likely position as the fish make their annual spawning run up the Cooper, Santee and Edisto rivers.
Chad Holbrook, the Region IV Freshwater Fisheries Coordinator for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said he's been taking a lot of phone calls at the Dennis Wildlife Center in Bonneau from anglers wanting to know if the shad have started moving.
"It's just starting to get going," Holbrook said. "Shad have been around for a couple of weeks. Our creel clerks are starting to interview folks that are catching shad in the Cooper River, the Rediversion Canal and up at Wilson's Landing. It's definitely not the peak of the run. I think we're still a bit away from that but there are some shad to be caught."
Although shad can be caught trolling jigs and shad darts, the favorite method is to anchor in bottlenecks as the shad migrate up the rivers. The Tailrace Canal where the waters of Lake Moultrie dump into the Cooper River and the Rediversion Canal where the waters from the Santee Cooper lakes empty into the Santee River are prime shad spots.
The favored lures are tiny, curly-tail plastic jigs fished on 1/8- or 1/16-ounce jigheads. Chartreuse, white and yellow are all good color choices for the curly tails. Fished on light line, 2-, 4- or 6-pound test, anglers cast into the moving water, allowing the baits to sink as they begin slow retrieves. Hooked shad will often take to the air in an attempt to shake free. The prized catches are the roes shad — bigger females filled with eggs. Shad themselves are a boney fish, but the egg sacks are considered a delicacy.
There is a possession limit of 10 shad per day (20 in the Santee River) and anglers are required to have a recreational freshwater fishing license.
Heavy rains throughout South Carolina are having an effect on the fishery this year. Rain in the Upstate has to eventually make its way down to the coast, and Holbrook said the Santee Cooper lakes are at full pool so there's no storage room. He said three turbines at the St. Stephen Dam are releasing about 22,000 cubic feet per second into the Rediversion Canal.
"That makes fishing a little more challenging. You have to use a heavier jig head than you're accustomed to for fishing in the heavy current. I think the shad are there, but I think they're harder to catch because of the conditions, because the water's moving so swift," Holbrook said.
Holbrook said SCDNR looks at shad from two perspectives. They provide anglers, both recreational and commercial, a fishing opportunity. But they also serve an ecological purpose.
"They're food for about everything in the environment," Holbrook said, who compared the American shad to salmon in the Pacific Northwest.
"You start with what's going on right now, with adult shad coming into a river system. These shad have been out in the ocean and are about 4 to 5 years old. They were born in our rivers and they're returning to our rivers to spawn," Holbrook said. Some of the shad make it into the Santee Cooper lakes and travel as far as Columbia in the river system that feeds the lakes.
The juveniles that are spawned in the lakes and rivers spend about nine months to a year in freshwater before making their way back to the ocean. They are very temperature sensitive and are found as far north as the Bay of Fundy, between Maine and Nova Scotia.
Holbrook said shad are food for about everything in the environment, from birds such as eagles, to many species of sportfish.
"Shad are one of the building blocks of the freshwater ecology of a coastal river system," Holbrook said. "They bring all those ocean nutrients back in."