As I pulled up to the ramp, I was already grumbling. I’m still getting used to seeing a lot of people while I’m fishing in Columbia, SC. Today would be no exception, as there were a half dozen trailers already at the ramp. As I pushed my raft off of the trailer, I could feel eyes on me from up and down the bank. It always amuses me at how curious people are about a raft and oars. I looked up river, and saw the jon boats staggered up and down the tailrace. I smiled quietly as I pushed off into the current and pulled on the oars. I was going where all those boats couldn’t, and swinging flies to fish no one else could get to. I’d have about two miles of shallow, rocky shoals all to myself. That’s the advantage of a raft. Shoutout to those who put up with me and mentored me through the process of learning to pilot a drift boat, because of you, I’ve learned enough to be dangerous.
As I made my way through the top of the shoals , I kept seeing large pushes of water as I passed over the shallow gravel bars. I thought maybe I was spooking larger stripers. I anchored just below a small ledge , stripped some line off of the reel, and began hucking a bulkhead deciever. I worked it behind the ledge, across the current seams, and swung it through the soft water at the tail of the run. As I was fishing , I noticed movement about 15 feet away. A large carp crawled on top of a boulder pile and began digging in the rocks. This must be what I was spooking. The copper tail wagging just below the surface reminded me so much of a big redfish. I cursed myself for not having any carp flies in my box, and vowed to correct that on my next trip. I made a mental note of where I’d seen the fish and moved on. I was after something else on this trip.
I guided the raft to an eddy below another ledge and dropped the anchor. The water was slower here, as the ledge was much larger and spanned a 100 yards or so. There were large boulders randomly placed throughout the pool, every one breaking the current and providing a potential lair for a striper. I cast up and across, and let the current take the fly into the boulders. I stripped the fly hard, making it dart, and then just let it hang as it slowly and seductively walked across the face of a big rock. Just as it was sucked around the side of the rock, I saw a large flash and the fly disappeared. I stripped hard and set the hook, and the fish took off downstream rapping my knuckles badly with the reel handle. This is what I came for. The pure power of these fish in a river is unmatched in fresh water. My rod was nearly doubled as I pulled hard trying to stop him from going further downstream, praying nothing in my leader would fail. With the sinking line, I like a short leader in moving water, because it pulls the fly down more quickly. I was confident the 30# flouro was enough, my knots on the other hand, well, you never know. I finally subdued the fish, and it came to the net. Note to self, a 22” fish didn’t fit in my landing net very well. Sleek, thick, and glowing with silver, the fins were accented in purples and blues. The fish was built for power and speed. I was careful to take my time and fully revive this fish. As I was watching the water pulse through its gills I heard the sound of an outboard close by. I looked up to see a large jon boat approaching the next ledge directly below me. I finally released the fish and stood up in my raft, just in time to see this guy pull 60 yards below me, at my 12o’clock, and throw out an anchor. “Are you serious??!!!”, I screamed in my head. This was followed by a stream of anger driven thoughts that I have to say, in retrospect, I’m not very proud of. This low holing scum had, to say the least, unsettled me.
I pulled the anchor and set the raft in motion. Ole shoal bandit was busy casting and working the shoal, and didn't notice me until I slid up close to him. He flashed a big smile, threw his hand up and greeted me. I dropped anchor and grudgingly returned the greeting. He was a tanned, grizzly gray, older fella, with faded tattoos randomly scattered on both arms. He sat down, reached into a sack and pulled out a double cheeseburger. “You leave any down there?” I asked. “I got a few, but once the sun came out, I can’t seem to find them,” he replied, taking a big bite of his cheeseburger. There was a litany of older rods, outfitted with abu garcia style bait casters, and rigged with a variety of large plugs stacked in his boat. I also noticed that what I had thought was an propped tiller outboard, was actually a jet drive. “Do you fish here often?” I said. “Nearly thirty years now,” he replied showing that big smile again. I could feel my anger receding. I pressed on and revealed that this was only my second time here, and asked if the water level had much to do with whether or not the fish were turned on and feeding. He explained what he felt like the optimum level was, and went on to reveal that the fish moved a lot, and while there were spots that always held a few fish, you had to move around and find them. He gestured to my raft and said, “I bet you really get your exercise in that thing!” I laughed and agreed. “Well, enjoy your day, hope you find a big one,” I said, pulling on the anchor rope. “You too young man,” he replied, “Make sure you fish that creek mouth down on the left.”
I drifted on down the river with a smile on my face, and my eyes peeled for that creek mouth. The anger in my heart had vanished. It was now replaced with a warmth, and mutual a respect you can only find by interacting with someone who fully understands why you’re out there. While I had been competitive and territorial, the old man had openly shared with me his knowledge of the river. I was more than a bit ashamed of the way I had I had acted. He had caught enough fish in his time, and knew that there was enough river, for both of us. I work hard to reach places others can’t or won’t go, and when I see someone, I always tend to get my feathers ruffled a bit. What if instead, we gave that quiet nod and warmly greeted each other in the field and on the water. What if we shared our knowledge, in hopes that the other guy, who had obviously worked hard to get here too, might have success as well. I spotted the small creek mouth and made my way over to it’s confluence with the main river. There was a large fallen tree just upstream that had a created a huge swirling eddy. My fly landed at the edge of the creek mouth, and I let it start to sink before giving it a quick, hard strip. The striped bass rocketed up from the bottom of the pool and crushed the fly. It was by far my biggest from this river, and my biggest on fly to date. It was a gift from ole shoal bandit, a member of the “Tribe”.