As numbers rise, anglers find Chattooga River and Upstate South Carolina delivers
Editor’s Note: An edited version of this story first appeared in the October 2019 issue of South Carolina Living magazine. The publication is read in more than 595,000 homes and businesses and published monthly except in December by The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina.
By Michael Banks
There is a dirt path leading through the mountain laurel and rhododendron with their clusters of colorful flowers. Hemlocks and pines shoot straight into the blue sky. With hands holding fly rods and feet wrapped in wading boots, we make our way single file through the mountainous Sumter National Forest in Upstate South Carolina.
For I have come to fish the fresh waters. To fly fish, more precisely. And I have come to the Chattooga River. It is, as one resident claims, “a little slice of heaven in South Carolina” and both it and the nearby Chauga River are known as the prime fly-fishing spots in this part of the state.
As I descend a muddied, rock-strewn hillside that’s camouflaged in leafy green undergrowth, I am suddenly thrust upon the main stage. It’s the Burrell’s Ford section of the Chattooga River and I stop, turning in an 180-degree arc, to take in what I’ve come upon.
Long the land of the Cherokee, the Chattooga serves as a boundary between South Carolina and Georgia. A fishing license from either state allows you on the river that stretches 57 miles from its headwaters in the Blue Ridge Mountains south of Cashiers, N.C., to where it meets the Tallulah River at Lake Tugalo.
Here at Burrell’s Ford, the river — clear and a dark navy blue — is bathed in bright sunlight that bounces off the ripples of the current and rapids that carve their way through a jumble of boulders. The coolness of the mountain-fed waters soothe my sweaty feet as I step into the river. The call of nearby songbirds form a chorus with the sound of the running water.
It is, at once, an onslaught to my senses, yet a feeling of inner peace and calmness that slowly ascends, along with the sweet cooling relief from my water-covered limbs to sweat-covered brow, chilled by the breeze that comes from upriver.
This is what this angler has come in search of.
* * *
Before there’s even a thought to casting the first line, fishing guide Karl Ekberg is off and slogging through the water, eyes intent upon the bottom of the clear riverbed, feverish as he lifts one brown rock after another. If you weren’t upon the Chattooga and had employed his services, Ekberg’s mad scramble would make you think of the frenzied rush of children at a community Easter egg hunt, bursting from the starting line, baskets in hand, scouring each possible hidden cove for treasure.
And that’s exactly what Karl’s doing. For his prize are bugs. And on this day, he is in search of nymphs that lie beneath the silt-covered rocks that line the river bottom. These nymphs will eventually grow to become mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies that will rise from the river’s surface, creating a perfect storm consisting of a tasty morsel, fly-starved fish and the anglers who seek them.
“Bug in the water catches fish,” Karl says.
In these parts, Karl is known as “the bug guy.” While there is no entomology degree in his fly pack, Karl has put in the homework. Able to quickly identify the often-microscopic creature that flits across the rock’s surface, his enthusiasm is great this day as we’ve found “a monster stonefly.”
“If you have stoneflies in your river, it means you have very clear water,” Karl says.
This aptitude wasn’t always the case. Growing up in northern New Hampshire, Karl, 55, had fished with his father, but, as with most teenagers, he craved speed and action, and he discovered it on the nearby ski slopes as he became a standout downhill racer, even competing on the Olympic course at Lake Placid, N.Y.
It wasn’t until he received fly fishing gear and a fly-tying packet from his parents, as a present for his gaining acceptance into a hallowed culinary school, that the then 21-year-old Ekberg started to get serious about the sport. Yet, it didn’t come easy. There were many hours spent casting on the Pemigewasset River to no avail.
“It was, pretty much, the school of hard knocks,” Ekberg recalls.
It wasn’t until he heard and learned from the words whispered by wise fishermen that his skills improved. And it wasn’t until about two years into it when he took notice of the many insects that flew above the waters, landing upon the surface to be greedily gathered by the trout and bass.
For he soon learned the secret: Know your bugs.
“I really studied bugs. Because if you didn’t know what was going on, you weren’t catching,” he said of his earlier days spent on rivers that were populated by only wild fish instead of the mostly “put and take” hatchery-supported waters in South Carolina.
For most of his adult life, Ekberg used his culinary education in resorts and hotels in the Northeast. It was the warmer southern temps and the presence of family in Central that drew him here in the late ‘90s. He would spend the next 13 years working for Aramark, which provides food service to colleges and universities, while also spending time on the Upstream waters, perfecting his angling skills.
It would be his talents or, more so, his bragging about his fishing expertise that would catch the attention of one of his employees at the dining hall at Southern Wesleyan University in Central in the summer of 2007.
Karen Maddox had grown up in Virginia Beach, Va., but had lived in several areas of the country as “a Navy brat” before settling in South Carolina in 1972.
“He came in bragging about all of these fish he was catching. And I was like, ‘Dude, if you’re not going to invite me, I don’t want to hear about them.’ It was game-on after that,” said Karen, who would start taking lessons from Ekberg and come to enjoy the sport. Her third fish was a 24-inch brook trout caught along the Canadian border.
“What captured me was the first time that I went out there I realized that the river just has a way of capturing your soul and reworking it and giving it back to you before you leave the river. It’s not an explainable thing. It becomes very obsessive and you don’t even know that it’s happening.”
The two, according to Karen, “co-habitate” and their home and business is served by the Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative. They’ve been operating the Chattooga River Fly Shop for the past seven years, including the past four years at its location on Highway 28 in Mountain Rest. While Maddox operates the shop, selling merchandise and setting up trips, Karl is “the bug and fly guy, rods and equipment guy” who is on the river guiding groups.
While he has caught brown trout measuring 27 inches in length, Karl’s favorite fishing memory is that of one day in 2014 spent with his father, fly fishing the Burrell’s Ford section of the Chattooga. It was the last fishing trip his father, who was battling hip and knee pain, would make. In January 2019, Bill Ekberg would suffer a stroke and his kidney and lungs began to fail. The U.S. Navy veteran, who served on the second USS Juneau, would pass away in February at age 84.
“We caught a few fish that day, but that wasn’t what it was about,” Karl says. “It was his last trip and I’m glad it was here.”
* * *
This ambitious angler readily admits to a romantic image taken from the 1992 film “A River Runs Through It” and actor Brad Pitt, deftly handling his fly rod, the line, long and graceful in the air, as he whips and coaxes the fish to rise from the Montana rapids, that first drew my interest to fly fishing.
I ask Karl if it’s possible that I might go down the Chattooga, a big 24-inch rainbow hooked to my line, trying to reel him in as I deftly dodge boulders and waterfalls.
On this day, on this angler’s first foray into the river, I stand in knee-deep waters and more likely resemble the scarecrow from the “Wizard of Oz” with arms askew and the rigidity of my pose mirroring the tin man.
Karl, wise and knowing, introduces me to a roll cast in which I handle a 9-foot pole with my right hand, whipping the line out 90 degrees across from my shoulder to the fast-moving water some six to eight feet away. His words are reassuring and welcomed as he teaches me to fish by using the drift of the current.
“Let the river do the work. Keep your tip up. Now, slowly, let it down. Watch as it moves down the river. Very nice. Good work.”
“Uh, what do I do with my left hand?”
With the briefest of pause, Karl offers with that hint of New England accent, “Keep it waahhmm in your pocket.”
And, so, this is what I do. Cast upon cast, I try to remember to pause at the top before flinging my line at the fast-moving foam nearby, watching the red stretch of line near the end where the weighted fly that was knotted by Karl bounces along the river bottom near the Highway 28 bridge.
I try, again and again, the simple, quick flick of my wrist to set the hook, yet on a couple occasions, I resort to my days of pulling bluegill from a Kentucky farm pond and my fly goes “Bill Dancing” across the waters behind me. I can’t tell if it’s a rock or a fish that tugs on the end of the line, but my eyes stay locked and I nearly taste blood from biting my lower lip. I need to catch fish.
Through it all, Karl remains encouraging and helpful. I almost feel like a third-grader whose gotten an A on his math quiz when Karl tells me, “Fantastic job, Michael. Fantastic cast.”
There are worse things I could be doing on a Tuesday afternoon in early July.
“This is the escape from reality,” Ekberg says. “You see the beauty of the river. Catching fish is a bonus because you’re standing in God’s creation out here. I’m not a very religious person, but when you’re standing out here, you’re not attached to anything. There’s no phone call coming in. It’s the game. Let’s try and catch fish. And all of a sudden you look around and say, ‘Wow. This is something.’”
* * *
Within the past five years, there has been a substantial increase in the number of people interested in fly fishing, according to Maddox and Ekberg. He says about 70 percent of those on their guided trips are brand new to the sport with the others made up of those “who have been catching 10- to 14-inch fish and they’re looking for bigger.”
While so-called industry experts say there is also a rise in women fly-fishing, both Maddox and Ekberg say they haven’t seen a great increase.
On the flip side, the number of younger people becoming interested in fly fishing is taking off. Ekberg points to groups such as the Clemson University Fly Fishing Club, which is the third-largest in the nation, for helping to promote the sport.
And Ekberg believes the completion of the nearby Palmetto Trail – a planned 425-mile foot and bike trail connecting the South Carolina mountains to the coast — will only bring more visitors.
As a businessman, he is in favor of more visitors. As an angler, he is hesitant to see more fishermen in his prime spots. And there’s also the question of whether the infrastructure (improved roads, parking areas) is there to handle the increased traffic. Yet, Ekberg believes it’s possible to find a balance and walk the fine line separating the two.
“Because there’s so much (of the) river that’s not fished on a regular basis, the river can withstand more fishermen,” Ekberg said. “The river’s plenty big enough to stand having double or triple the amount of people out there, but the problem is getting to those areas.”
Both Ekberg and Maddox say the free-flowing, dam-free Chattooga River is the greatest resource in their part of the state and they remain committed to looking after its well-being. They, as well as numerous nearby Trout Unlimited chapters, subscribe to the practice of “leave no trace” on their trips to eliminate litter and keep the scenic river pristine.
“We made a pact in the very beginning that if anything we did affected the well-being of the river corridor, in any way, then we would no longer be doing what we’re doing,” Maddox said. “That’s how much we care about that. The hard part is needing and wanting the revenue to come to us, but (the river) is still to remain pristine. That’s going to be tough.”
* * *
In the end, this angler did not land his first fish. But my confidence is buoyed by the fact that Karl was also unable to reel in a catch before a low rumble of thunder and darkening skies chased us from the river late afternoon.
The heat of the summer had the trout lurking below, along the cooler, deeper waters of the Chattooga. Ideally, trout prefer water temperatures in the range of 45 to 55 degrees. On this early July day, as the outside temps exceeded 80 degrees, the water temperature was near 70. Ekberg told me not to be disappointed.
“Listening to some of the old-timers when I first got here, they would say, ‘If you can catch a fish on the Chattooga, you can catch a fish anywhere in the country,’ because it can be that fickle, day-to-day.”
Ekberg says, “A lot of folks come back here. It’s the challenge of this river. Tomorrow, we might come out and catch 40 fish from here to the bridge. And that’s the tough part about the Chattooga.”
Arriving back at Karl’s fly shop, I was greeted by the hot, humid wrap that is known as summer in the South. Harsh white light bounced off the pavement and my cell phone began to rang as I reached inside the overheated cab of my truck for my sunglasses.
It was a welcome-back-to-reality moment.
The water-laden socks beneath my wading boots were heavy. I felt the scrape along my knee where I’d unsuccessfully hurdled a limb blocking our path and the sting of the horse fly had left a nasty welp.
I raised my eyes to the north, to the green forested mountain range and imagined myself back on the Chattooga River, which now seemed days, not minutes, past. Its cool, clear waters and the fish who lurk beneath are still there.
And I, along with many others alike and unlike me, shall return.
Bitten by the fly fishing bug?
There are several businesses that cater to those wanting to learn more about the sport. From beginners to seasoned anglers, there are a number of options available with price per person ranging from $140 to $300 for half-day sessions to full-day trips on the area rivers costing anywhere from $250 to $350.
Most outfitters provide equipment (including waders, boots, fly rods/reels and flies). Those 16 and older will be required to have a South Carolina fishing license, which can be purchased online at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources or at several vendors across the state, who are listed on the SCDNR site.
The cost for a freshwater license for a South Carolina resident ranges from $5 (14 days) to $10 (annual) to $30 (three years).
Among the South Carolina-based businesses offering guide services are:
6832A Highlands Highway
Mountain Rest, SC 29664
533 N. Highway 25
Travelers Rest, SC 29690
1398 Boiling Springs Road, Suite 1
Spartanburg, SC 29303
141 N. Little River Road
Salem, SC 29676