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Up and 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.

Is 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.

First 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 intended quarry.

     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 largemouth/mudfish/jack fishing.

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 buzzbait again.

Not 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.

     I 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.

Got 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.

Oh yeah, be careful what you eat out of the Combahee.


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