Lake Jocassee Trout Fishing with Captain Steve Pietrykowski
It’s a matter of opinion (although a widely held one) to say that Lake Jocassee is the most scenic lake in South Carolina. It is also stating a personal preference to say that cold water trout are among the most beautiful, best-tasting fish this state has to offer. It is a fact, though, that there is no other fishery in South Carolina quite like the put and take deep water trout fishery on Lake Jocassee, and judging by daily catch rate it’s hard to dispute that Captain Steve Pietrykowski is one of the most successful trout fishermen on the lake. Launching with Captain Pat Bennett for a day of early fall bass fishing, I was impressed to see Steve bringing in a stringer of healthy trout as we were going out. And after slaying the striper and hybrids on Lake Hartwell with Steve last year, I knew I wanted to give that other side of his guide business a try. This summer I finally got my chance, and as I had suspected the early morning drive to Lake Jocassee from Columbia was well worth it.
Located in Pickens County along the South Carolina/ North Carolina border, Lake Jocassee is a deep, clear lake ringed by the Appalachian Mountains. Built by the state of South Carolina in partnership with Duke Power in 1973, Duke manages the lake to generate hydroelectric power. Jocassee has 7500 acres of water and 75 miles of shoreline, and it is fed to the west and north by four rivers – the Whitewater River, the Thompson River, the Horsepasture River and the Toxaway River. It is over 300 feet deep in places, and the cool, deep outflow from Lake Jocassee forms the headwaters of Lake Keowee.
A variety of freshwater fish inhabit Lake Jocassee, and the lake is known for trophy black bass. 10 pound plus largemouth are routinely caught on Lake Jocassee in the spring, and the state record smallmouth, spotted and redeye bass all came out of its waters. In addition to these four black bass species and multiple hybrids between them, brown and rainbow trout, catfish and bream are also caught in Lake Jocassee. To maintain the trout fishery, DNR does not stock striped or hybrid striped/white bass in Lake Jocassee, and there are at most insignificant numbers of crappie in Jocassee. A few walleye are also rumored to inhabit the lake. At the base of the food pyramid, Lake Jocassee has a healthy forage base of blueback herring, gizzard shad and threadfin shad which swim in its waters.
Trout are only present in Lake Jocassee because of continuous stocking from the Walhalla Fish Hatchery, but the fact that they cannot naturally reproduce in Lake Jocassee does not keep them from growing huge. The state record rainbow trout – an 11 pound, 5 ounce fish – was caught out of the lake in 1993, and the state record brown trout – a 17 pound, 9.5 ounce monster – was caught from Jocassee in 1987. State records of both species are likely swimming in Jocassee today. Steve has also caught a natural brook trout out of Lake Jocassee this year – a 16-inch, 1.78 pound beauty – but they are rare.
Seasonal Trout Patterns
After a fall slowdown, in late December, January and February the trout fishing on Lake Jocassee begins to improve, with much of the best action coming up the rivers in water from the surface to 50 feet down. Trout follow bait into the creeks and rivers, and at this time of year fishing with live bait is even more important than usual. A slow presentation is also a must, and Steve usually relies on the electric trolling motor to pull his lines. He usually fishes 6-10 rods during this period – including flat or free lined live bait on a very long line to get away from the sound of the trolling motor, planer board rigs which take the bait out and away from the boat, baits on a long line behind ¼ ounce sinkers, and baits behind 3/8 – ½ ounce weights on shorter lines. Lead core lines can also be part of the equation, and for depths below 20-25 feet he may also employ downriggers. Captain Steve also points out that fish can also be caught in the main lake even in the winter – there are resident fish that stay there the year round. During the winter there is also a decent night-time bite, and suspending nightcrawlers under a bobber or fishing shiners on the bottom in pockets or coves up the creeks will catch trout.
In March and April fish start to move out of the backs of creeks and towards the bigger water. March is a transition time when Steve begins to rely more on the gas engine and trolls faster, and by April he is mainly using the gas engine and trolling a mix of spoons and baits, but still fishing from roughly 0-50 feet down. By the end of April and through late in the summer 35-70 feet is the primary depth range, and Steve finds that trout will hold in the main river channels, and also relate to bends in the channel, points and underwater humps. Because they are suspending in open water there are no guarantees of where the fish will be, and good electronics are absolutely critical to locate the fish. While April to August is the peak time for trout fishing on Jocassee, May is the single best month. Note: from March until July most every fishing trip will start at the intakes in the morning, and then move into the main lake and rivers. More on that later.
As summer heats up in late May and June a thermocline forms in the lake, below which there is no oxygen and fish cannot live. 35-70 feet starts off as the primary depth range for fishing, but by the end of the summer fish will be forced to move deeper seeking cooler water. Although they tolerate much warmer water on Lake Jocassee, 55 degrees is an ideal temperature for trout. By last August Steve was fishing 65-80 feet down.
Last year from the beginning of September to December the fishing was generally pretty tough, although this picture of Steve’s biggest two fish from the day Pat and I ran into him shows it doesn’t get TOO bad. He had three more not much smaller in the cooler.
In October and November, once things really slow down, if Steve is going to fish he will probably be out in the big water fishing 35-70 feet deep.
In the fall brown trout try to make their way up the rivers to spawn, but waterfalls eventually block them and so they do not drop their eggs. It is not uncommon to catch trout that have last year’s eggs dissolving in them, and small new eggs forming. (Rainbows attempt to spawn in the spring, which Steve speculates is nature’s way of keeping the species from crossing.)
Last year in November DNR stocked trout into Lake Jocassee when the water temperature was around 65 degrees, and for a brief period it seemed to turn the fish on. Perhaps some of the big fish were eating little ones, and maybe the newly stocked trout got the other fish competitive, but for whatever reason it seemed to refresh the system. When the stocked fish are put into the lake, for a time people catch undersized fish in the backs of coves on inline spinners. After the effect of the stocking wears off the fishing gets pretty tough again, and picking up 1 or 2 fish here and there is about the norm. In late December the cycle restarts, and fishing starts to improve again.
Tackle and Equipment
One of the main techniques for catching trout deep is trolling with downriggers. Steve uses manual Cannon downriggers, but most any manual or electric downrigger can get the job done. Fishing with downriggers it is important to remember that much of Lake Jocassee is filled with standing timber, which can come 60 or more feet up off the bottom. Be careful to avoid letting the downrigger ball get caught in a tree, which can tear up your downrigger or hull – the least of your problems may be losing the wire and ball if you hang a tree.
One unique feature of fishing for trout with downriggers is the need for lighter rigging. The main line attaches to the wire downrigger line with a clip, and because trout generally take the lure or bait softly, Steve likes to use the lightest downrigger clips possible so that the line will easily pop out. Downrigger clips come in the color red for heavy, black for medium and white for light, and Steve tries to use white clips. Sometimes the trout bite will still not pull the line free from the white clip. He also uses stackers which allow two lines to come off of one downrigger.
In order to feel the bite, keep the hook from pulling out and get as much fight out of the fish as possible, Captain Steve likes a light, 8 foot fiberglass rod with a soft tip. Fiberglass rods make it easier to see bites than graphite rods do. You also want a reel with a line counter, and a reasonably priced, light weight option is to pair a Cabela’s Whuppin’ Stick rated for 6-10 pound line with one of their DepthMaster line counter reels. Steve says the combo can be purchased for about $54.00
For the main line Steve goes with 10 pound test, although anything in the 8-12 pound range is probably fine. Steve will not go with less than 8 pound test, because lighter line will be chafed by the downrigger clip. For beginning trout fishermen he recommends starting out with about a 15 foot leader of 8 pound test line double knotted to the main line, and he uses that length of 6 pound fluorocarbon to minimize visibility.
The most common lures fished on Lake Jocassee are 3-4 inch metal or plastic spoons, and a variety of spoons will catch fish. Apex, Sutton, Doctor and Stinger (a Michigan lure) are some brands of spoons that will work, and there are many others. Steve likes to give the trout a variety of hardware to choose from him, and so he fishes several different spoon colors at once. Sutton spoons have a plain silver, copper or brass finish, but most of the others are available in a variety of “louder” colors. Even on bright days it is pretty dark 60 feet down and a bright lure may help, but on dark days fire tiger with a glow finish is a particularly good bet. Blue and mother of pearl colors are also good all-purpose colors. One other note about spoon fishing – Steve runs a swivel about 4 feet above the spoon to prevent line twists.
Many guides refuse to mess with live bait, and they prefer to use spoons most of the year. While live bait is certainly a hassle, Steve believes that having something on the end of his line with a “heartbeat” makes a huge difference. As previously discussed in the winter he exclusively fishes live bait, and during the peak trolling season he will generally put out half of his rods with bait, and half with spoons.
In general shiners are Steve’s preferred live bait all year, in part because of their durability. As Steve points out, “You can drop shiners on the deck and step on them, and they’ll still swim.” With the next best bait option, blueback herring, Steve has to change the bait every 15 or 20 minutes, but shiners will swim and swim for hours. Additionally, shiners are smaller than herring, and so trout have an easier time swallowing them. It also doesn’t help that herring are more agitated in the water, and so trout often run and hit them instead of just inhaling. The problem for fishermen, though, is that shiners are a by-product of minnow production (the overgrown ones that didn’t get sold), and in the Upstate they are frequently more difficult to obtain than herring. The day Steve and I went out we had no choice but to fish with herring.
Rigging live bait for any style of fishing, Steve uses a #6 Owner live bait hook through the nose of the fish, and he always attaches a #12 stinger treble hook to the underside of the bait just in front of the tail. If you want to use cheaper Eagle Claw hooks, Steve advises sharpening them. He says that trout almost always bite short, and usually the treble is what gets them. Always attentive to every detail, Steve usually paints the back treble white to blend in with the fish’s body. A swivel about 4 feet above the bait also helps to prevent line twists with live bait.
Winding in a hooked trout it is worth remembering to pull the fish up as slowly as possible – if they come up too fast they are fired up and their heads are shaking, and there is a good chance that they will throw the hook.
The ideal trolling speed is between 1 and 2 miles per hour. With hardware alone Steve usually trolls at the higher end of the range, and with live bait alone toward the lower end. With a mix of spoons and live bait we spent most of our time trolling between 1.5 and 1.7 miles per hour. Steve says it’s easy to go too fast, and if you have a hard time getting your motor to run at low speeds, options include a Happy Troller (a plate in front of the propeller), a drift sock or towing two 10 gallon buckets with holes cut out behind the boat.
As you would imagine even at low speeds the boat generates a certain amount of noise and disturbance in the clear water, and Steve prefers fishing on breezy days because it helps to cover the noise and profile of the boat. Another general consideration for trolling is that it is better to have your baits too shallow than too deep, because trout would rather rise than go down to take a bait. Also, when Steve is fishing very deep (below 60 or 70 feet) he can only fish 4 rods without getting tangled, but at shallower depths he will fish with 6 or even 8 rods.
Fishing the Intakes
From March to July most every fishing trip starts out at the intake towers beside the dam. Beginning each night at midnight or 1:00 a.m., and continuing until sometime between daylight and 8:30 a.m., Duke pumps water up from Lake Keowee. Even though it costs money to bring water up from Keowee it is worth it for the power company, especially since once water passes onto Hartwell it is gone. Shad get sucked up and disoriented or even chopped up by turbines, and the whole food chain gets going. The bite generally shuts down when the water stops being pumped, which usually means there is about a two hour window after daylight.
Although water is pulled up from Lake Keowee year round, before March and after July the intakes are usually not part of Steve’s plan. The intake bite peaks between April 15 and June 1.
Early in the season Captain Steve will start out fishing from the surface to 50 feet down, while by July he is generally trolling 40-70 feet down at the intakes. Because it is a small area and there are usually other fishermen targeting it, Captain Steve only trolls four rods at a time by the dam. Reading the graph is usually futile at the intakes because there is so much turbulence and disturbance, and the day we fished the intakes we kept all of our lines in the key 40-70 foot range and fished essentially “blind.”
Also because of the turbulence, fishing live bait at the intakes is not really possible – it would get spun around too much and look unnatural. Because the intake fish are usually very aggressive, a quick moving spoon is perfect. At the intakes you are more likely to catch rainbow trout than brown trout, and when fish hit they are usually more aggressive than on other parts of the lake. They almost always pop the line out of the downrigger clip.
Since water is being pumped into Lake Jocassee all night, it also makes sense that there is a night time bite at the intakes. During the same months that the early morning intake bite is strong, fishermen tie up to the intakes and suspend nightcrawlers or shiners 35-60 feet down from midnight to dawn. Besides being a productive way to catch trout, if you don’t mind disrupting your sleep schedule, this is also a good way to beat the summer heat!
My Trip with Captain Steve
The day Steve and I fished at the intakes we didn’t catch any fish there, although we did watch another guide catch a carp on a spoon. We had one fish pop the line out of the clip, but it never got the hook. In fact, we raced to get on the water as early as possible, but didn’t end up getting a bite until the sun was well up. Steve says that’s not unusual for Jocassee, and it’s hard to know what time the fish will turn on first. On some days the best bite will be from 6:00-8:00 in the morning, while other days 10:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. will be the peak.
Between 8:30 and about 1:00 we landed five nice keeper fish, and while we were well short of his boat records – 17 fish in a day, a 9 plus pound big fish – I had a blast. After looking for fish at the intakes we went up a main river and fished in the channel over 220 feet of water where Steve was marking fish, and then fished over a shallower offshore hump/ point off to the side of a main channel that also showed fish on the graph. We caught 4 of our 5 fish between 48 and 52 feet down, and another keeper in 35 feet of water. One trout fell prey to a mother of pearl-colored Apex spoon, and the rest bit on herring. Despite rigging half of his rods with hardware and half with bait, Steve says that he seems to catch about 70% of his fish on live bait. The day we went out the proportion was obviously even higher.
Pulling deepwater trout out of beautiful Lake Jocassee was a thrill, but my real reward came after I got back home to Columbia. Trout fillets have the same taste, color and consistency as a piece of salmon, and your favorite salmon recipe will be delicious with trout. Captain Steve himself usually cooks them two different ways, the first being on cedar planks on the grill. Season them with lemon pepper, brown sugar, etc. – just like you would a fillet of salmon – and then discard the skin.
The second way he cooks trout is by making them into trout croquettes, like salmon croquettes, and this is what I tried. First, fillet and skin the trout, and don’t worry about the pin bones – they will cook off. Second, cube the fish with a sharp knife or meat scissors, and steam/boil the cubes for 10 minutes until the trout goes from orange to pinkish white. Drain the fluids, mash the trout and form it into patties with cornmeal, eggs, and stir fried chopped onions. Add seasoning and fry the trout patties in a pan with a little oil, flipping until both sides are golden brown. Allow the croquettes to cool and accompany them with a white butter sauce or ketchup.
For anyone looking to beat the July/ August heat and escape to the mountains, there is no better place in South Carolina to get away and wet a line than on Jocassee. The best part about fishing on Lake Jocassee is that it’s so beautiful up there that you really don’t need to catch fish to have fun, but if you follow Steve’s tips you have a good chance of catching trout and better know the regulations. 5 trout per person per day can be kept, and there is a 15 inch minimum size limit on both brown and rainbow trout. If you don’t yet have your boat set up to troll but want to try the technique out with a master, or just want to maximize your chances of getting to fight trout and then enjoy a delicious meal, give Captain Steve a call. He’s young, energetic and loves to teach, and he particularly enjoys sharing the joy of fishing with children and anyone else new to the sport. Much like a deep sea fishing trip, you don’t have to be a master angler to enjoy this type of fishing. All you need is a love of the outdoors, and perhaps a healthy appetite!
Captain Steve Pietrykowski developed his passion for fishing growing up in Northern Ohio and fishing for trout and salmon in Michigan with his father. For the better part of the last decade he has made a living doing what he loves. Captain Steve has guided from Alaska to the Florida Keys, and now that he makes his home in the Upstate of South Carolina his specialties are trout fishing on Lake Jocassee and striped bass and hybrid fishing on Lake Hartwell. To contact Captain Steve Pietrykowski call 864-353-3438, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or private message “Fishski” on here. Also be sure to check out his website,http://www.fishski.info.