Down the Combahee
The Combahee is absolutely full of sloughs
like this one just off the main river
One of the things I absolutely love about topwater bass fishing is the sound
of the strike. Much of the time, I am enjoying the scenery or scoping out my
next target when a topwater strike occurs, and only get to see the strike
peripherally. Many times, I miss it altogether visually and have to set the
hook after hearing anything from a gentle sip to a violent slap. In all my
years of fishing however, I had never used my ears to tell me when a strike
was imminent. Until today...
The Combahee River
(pronounced Cumby by the locals) is a coastal blackwater river in
southwestern South Carolina formed at the junction of the Salkehatchie and
Little Salkehatchie rivers. I'd never really heard anything about the
fishing in the Combahee but there are lots of fine rivers with very little
written about them. Come to think of it, that's one reason I enjoy river
fishing. Not too many people know much about it, adding a little sense of
mystery and adventure to the outing. Anyway, my dart landed on the Combahee,
so that's where I went.
Every time I fish rivers on
the coastal plain I am immediately struck by the primitive beauty of these
places. The black water, lily pads, swaying river grasses, spanish moss,
cypress trees, and scads of wildlife always make me feel like I've wandered
onto the set of a Tarzan movie. Part of me can understand why some people
just like to paddle these places without bothering to fish. There's no
telling how much stuff I miss between casting and reeling.
this bassy enough for you?
However, I came to fish. The
Combahee just looks fishy. Pick out your favorite type of structure (other
than rocks) and the Combahee has it: fallen timber, grassbeds, backwater
sloughs, and lily pads. I began the day paddling upstream and casting a
white buzzbait. Fish in the main channel ignored my offerings so I headed
back into one of the numerous sloughs and pretty soon had caught a small
largemouth. These sloughs were everywhere, maybe even moreso than usual as
2009 had been a pretty wet year and the river was probably about as full as
it ever gets in June.
bass of the day. He was huge. I'm only three feet tall.
The bass bite was definitely
off, but there are other things swimming in the Combahee that kept me
occupied. I never landed one, but probably got a dozen strikes from jackfish
(chain pickerel) that I'd fight for a second or two before my hooks failed
at fully penetrating their bony mouths. I also had plenty of action from the
mudfish (bowfin), which seemed to be at the top of the food chain in the
backs of the sloughs. Early on, there was plenty of action, just not from my
In addition to the bass, jacks, and mudfish there is an even larger fish to
be caught in the Combahee: striped bass (aka rockfish). The stripers in the
Combahee aren't really pursued as far upstream as I was fishing, but the
Combahee is a pretty well-known striper haven as you get closer to the salt
water. I have heard that people occasionally tie into stripers all the way
up to the Salkehatchie during the summer months, but most of the striper
fishing occurs farther downstream. Still, I decided to keep a big
minnow-looking lure tied on just in case.
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It was getting close to 11 AM
when I finally took a respectable-sized bass on a really big jointed Rebel
Minnow. This fish (and most of the bass landed on the day) came in a slough,
but very close to the main current. My theory is that with the high water,
bass that normally hang out in the main river channel escaped the current by
entering the sloughs, but didn't travel too far back into them so as not to
get too far away from their normal low-water hangouts and food sources.
Check out the structure behind me. Not sure what it used to be, but I don't
think it made the river any cleaner.
Anyway, I continued to pick
my way upstream and catch a bass every now and then, primarily on the big
Rebel Minnow but occasionally on a Texas-rigged lizard or worm. The jacks
and mudfish pretty much left the bottom-bumping soft plastics alone but they
were tough to fish because the current had become much quicker as I
progressed upstream. By the time my lure had sunk to the bottom and hopped
slowly a couple times, the current was carrying me towards England. The
river was also narrowing a good deal, even though there were nice-looking
sloughs every hundred yards or so. In places it was only thirty feet wide
and there were a few tight squeezes around and under logs as I continued to
work my way upstream.
There were a few of these hunting stands back in the sloughs. I guess folks
hunt deer and hogs from them. I saw plenty of both.
After about an hour with no
bass, I decided to give the bream a try. Luckily, I had smuggled along my
kid's small push-button rod and reel and soon was having a blast with
bluegill and redbreast on a small black beetlespin. The redbreast seemed to
dominate the fast water while I caught more bluegill near the slough mouths.
I was prepared to spend the rest of this scorching June day catching bream
when an especially large redbreast snapped my kid's rod at the second guide.
With no rod left to cast the tiny lures, it was back to
Terrible picture of a beautiful fish. This redbreast killed my kid's rod.
I finally reached a logjam in
a narrow part of the river about 1 1/2 miles upstream that I couldn't paddle
through and decided to head back downstream. Casting mainly the Rebel
Minnow, I probably averaged a solid strike every 15 minutes or so. Most of
these were jackfish but every once in a while it would be a one pound bass
or a 3-4 pound mudfish. About 3 PM, I had reached the boat ramp and headed
downstream. The river was much wider here and the current slower. It looked
like classic big bass cover but the fishing didn't really change much. After
a particularly scary episode of "Unhooking a Mudfish", featuring a big angry
bowfin, a kayak, and three sets of treble hooks I decided to try the
fun to unhook
By this time I was getting pretty tired and was staring off into space,
possibly hypnotized by the clattering drone of the buzzbait. That's when I
heard it: the sound of rushing water. It all happened in about a second, but
I hadn't heard the sound of water rushing over anything in the last three
hours back upstream. Nothing was rushing down here, yet I heard the
unmistakable sound that water makes when it is being poured.
I had made a cast to the bank
on my left and was looking in that general direction when I heard the
misplaced water pouring. Then, out of the corner of my right eye, I saw the
source of the pouring water. It was an alligator. About five feet long.
Swimming full throttle. Head completely out of the water. Water pouring off
its back. And not headed toward my buzzbait. It was headed towards my
buzzbait's destination. Me.
realize that a five foot alligator isn't a significant threat to a grown
man, but the geometry of the situation was pretty scary. My lure was still
ten or so feet away, but perpendicular to my lures direction, and only five
feet away from me, was a charging gator. I slapped my rod on the water and
yelled at the gator (something very manly I'm sure). The gator changed
directions so fast it was mind-boggling. The last flick of his tail as he
high-tailed it the other way left me soaked in Combahee River water. I think
he was as scared as me.
anything tasty in that tacklebox?
I took off the buzzbait. I
had seen a few alligators throughout the day, but most were typically shy
and slipped beneath the water before I could get a good look. I even
surprised a large one rounding a corner that crashed over and through a huge
lily pad field when he saw me. They were a little less shy now that the sun
was going down.
Heading back upstream after another hour or so of uneventful fishing, I
decided to throw the buzzbait in the vicinity of another small gator just to
see if the earlier encounter was a fluke. It wasn't. The alligator pursued
the lure and wasn't too worried about the dude in the boat until I yelled
and slapped the water. I didn't let this one get close, and it wasn't scary
since I saw the whole thing play out in front of me.
All told, I ended up catching about eight bass (with none over two pounds),
the same number of mudfish, and a dozen or so bream. I felt a tad
disappointed at not catching any big bass, but it was a fun day and I did
catch good numbers of fish. I can say definitively that the Combahee is a
great place to catch bream, jacks, and mudfish and feel certain that there
are some big bass in the river. That's one thing about low country rivers.
Every place you cast looks like there should be a huge bass so expectations
might get a little inflated.
On the way back in, I ran into a couple of guys who had been bream fishing
upstream and they pointed out the "pet" gator that hung around the boat
ramp. This small alligator had probably been fed by people at the boat ramp,
but he let me paddle right next to him as I beached my kayak. Ten years from
now, he might not be so nice.
yeah, be careful what you eat out of the Combahee.