A River Runs Through It

Fly-fishing for hidden trophies

This large brown trout was caught in the Saluda River. Photography by Jake Howard

There is something uniquely appealing about water, from the sound of its gurgling to the aquatic life it offers and the enjoyable sports it provides. Fly-fishing perfectly coalesces all of these enticing qualities by offering a relaxing retreat in which man can fully engage with the natural serenity of the river. 

The earliest origins of fly-fishing are unknown, but it was first conclusively referenced in 1496, interestingly by a woman — Dame Juliana Berners, author of The Treatyse on Fysshynge with an Angle. She offers instructions on rod, line and hook making as well as dressings for different flies to use at different times of the year. It is estimated that by the 15th century, the British used rods of approximately 14 feet with a twisted horsehair line attached at its tips. 


Said to have been a fishing companion of Shakespeare’s, John Dennys wrote the earliest English poetical work on angling in 1613, The Secrets of Angling. Dennys’ editor, William Lawson, coined the phrase to “cast a fly” in the footnotes, explaining, “The trout gives the most gentlemanly and readiest sport of all, if you fish with an artificial fly, a line twice your rod’s length of three hairs thickness ... and if you have learnt the cast of the fly.” In the 1650s, fly-fishing took a great leap in popularity following the English Civil War, where the many books and treatises written on the subject evidence a newly found interest in the activity. Izaak Walton, the English author of The Compleat Angler (1653), is quoted as having called fly-fishing “The Contemplative Man’s Recreation.” Today, anglers in the Midlands will not argue with the epithet. 

Tom Ryan claims not to have remembered a time when he wasn’t excited about fishing as he learned early from his father. “I fell in love with the allure of fly-fishing at a very young age. The stories of far-off fly-fishing adventures in Field & Stream were my favorite. In fifth and sixth grade, I started hanging out in the local fly shop. Then a professor at school took me under his wing. He actually took the time to teach a couple of us how to tie flies and even took us to a local trout stream. I was hooked!” Tom went on to make a career of the sport as a professional fly-fishing guide and instructor who has written many articles and been a featured presenter at sport shows.

According to Tom, fly-fishing has a magic all of its own — primarily consisting of the art and mystery of casting, the beautiful venues of trout streams and the sporting challenge of having everything perfect to fool the fish. It is also more difficult to land a fish on a fly. More technically speaking, in conventional fishing, it is the weight of the lure that carries a thin diameter monofilament line out to the target. In fly-fishing, however, the small weightless flies made of fur and feather do not create enough momentum; instead, the heavy fly line carries and sends the fly, tethered to a tapered mono leader, to the target. 

“Fly-fishing is a delivery system for small artificial lures to be fished in relatively shallow water,” says Tom. “One can catch trout all the way up to tarpon on fly gear as long as the fish are not too deep. Once you catch a fish on the fly you are addicted for life — I hate sitting still and watching a bobber, so I love the casting. I love the artistry of tying flies and the satisfaction of catching a fish on my own creations; I love reading the water and figuring out where the fish are and what they want to eat each day.”

Jake Howard, one of the top performers on the Team Stonefly Competitive Fly-Fishing Roster and a local fly-fishing guide, says he too started fishing with his father before his earliest memory. While they mainly pursued bass and bream on Lake Murray, a friend first introduced him to fly-fishing when he was in sixth grade. “It was over for me after that — I wanted to learn everything about fly-fishing,” he remembers. “What makes it different than other forms of fishing is the tradition and art of it. All you have to do is watch a skilled caster double-haul 80 feet of line or watch someone tie a fly.”

Jake explains that fly-fishing is not limited to trout as most people think; on the contrary, it’s a very multifaceted sport where no day is quite the same … or any river. Fly-fishing is also versatile in that it can either be a solitary sport, allowing the angler to escape the hustle and bustle of life, or it can be a social event with friends enjoying the water together. “One of my favorite quotes that sums this up pretty well is from Heraclitus: ‘No man steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he is not the same man,’” says Jake. 

Jake mainly fishes the Saluda River for trout and striped bass and the Broad and Congaree Rivers for smallmouth bass. He recommends fishing the Saluda fall, winter and spring for trout and then all three rivers in the warmer months to catch smallmouth and stripers. “The Saluda is a Southern gem,” says Jake. “Being at a low altitude and latitude, it’s somewhat of an anomaly. Because it is tail water coming from the bottom of Lake Murray, the temperature of the water stays in the 50s and lower 60s most of the year, allowing the trout to thrive. In the summer, it has one of the largest congregations of striped bass on the east coast.”

He explains that the lower Broad River and upper Congaree have both become trophy smallmouth bass fisheries. “They are a warm water loving and fast growing fish –– they are by far my favorite fresh water fish,” he says. 


Mike McSwain, also a fly-fishing guide in the Midlands, first became interested in the sport by watching bream hit bugs on the surface of the water. He equates the challenges — and rewards — of angling to turkey hunting with a bow and arrow. 

“The biggest difference for me is the difficulty in making adjustments, as opposed to spin fishing,” says Mike. “Fly-fishing calls for more dedication to throwing what you’re throwing, and more skill in making adjustments, like in changing from floating line to sinking line. Obviously, the most basic difference is that catching the fish becomes more of a challenge.”

Local fishing guide Jason Bennett admits he also enjoys fishing all three rivers in the area in addition to Lake Murray. “The rivers are my favorite because of the peace and serenity, and we primarily target smallmouth and striped bass,” he says. 

Tom also enjoys the variety of fly-fishing opportunities available locally, but says the truly exceptional fighters are the striped bass in the Congaree and Saluda as well as the smallmouth bass in the Broad, especially when fishing with a fly. Knowing what to put on the line based on the type of fish and the time of year is what he has found stumps the most people. 

“People forget that fish are fish,” he says. “What I mean is, no matter what type of tackle you use, the fish are going to be in a certain type of water and cover based on time of year, water and weather conditions. They will be keying on specific potential food items based on those same conditions. Here are some extreme examples — crayfish don’t swim on the surface. Dragonflies don’t hatch in March. When I was guiding, one of my mottos was, ‘Let the river tell you what to fish.’”

Known as primarily insect eaters, trout have many more options for potential food throughout the year. Tom recommends one way of finding out what the fish are eating on a given day is to use a fine mesh seine to collect samples of the aquatic insects washed into the net from under the rocks and vegetation. It comes down to a matter of matching the size, color and shape of the most abundant insects with an artificial fly and then presenting them to the fish based on where the live samples were collected. 

One basic rule to keep in mind is that trout are primarily insect eaters and tend to feed in the faster water riffles; therefore the flies used on the Saluda will be much smaller imitating the local aquatic insects. Smallmouth and striped bass, on the other hand, are meat eaters and will be more likely to hit larger baitfish flies, which in turn require stouter tackle. The bass will be in deeper water but still with some current.

For Mike, depth and weight are everything. He says that if the water levels are low, it’s easier to find flies that will touch the bottom. “I also enjoy fishing a small nymph about 2 or 3 feet below a popping bug fly. You can sometimes catch a big bass on the top-water bug, and I catch a lot of sunfish with this technique,” Mike says. 

Often anglers arrive at the river and rush in to start pounding the water before observing their surroundings. “Slow down. Be observant. Take river samples and identify flies. Make the first cast count,” Tom says. “I would rather make one good cast than 50 sloppy ones. Remember that a heron is fishing even when he isn’t moving!”

Tom says that his go-to rig when all else fails is a size #14 dry fly, such as an Elk Hair Caddis or Parachute Adams, on 5x tippet. He then ties on a small weighted dropper nymph to the bend of the dry fly, adjusting the length of the dropper based on the water depth. This allows him to fish high and low. “This is a great searching rig for me to locate fish, and then I can adapt from there,” says Tom.

Learning how to control the drift in moving water is another crucial element to fly-fishing the rivers. It takes a lot of practice and patience, but more fish are caught close to the angler with good drifts than long casts with poor floats, and that all comes down to casting. “Learn how to perfect the Tuck Cast and Reach Cast to start,” suggests Tom.

Mike compares fly-fishing to golf in that there are certain fundamentals that must be honed to really develop skill at the sport. “Casting accuracy and gear management are the two most basic fundamentals, yet many serious fishermen have no idea how to handle their gear and how to cast accurately. Spend time knowing the mechanics of the gear and becoming accurate with casting ability,” says Mike. 

Now is a great time to venture into this sport, as according to Jake the fishing is the best he has ever seen in his lifetime of fishing these rivers. “The fish are big and they are plentiful. But they will only get better if we take care of the resource we have. I’ve caught the same fish more than once and each time it had grown. Conservation is the only way to keep these fish healthy and their numbers up. Stream reconstruction would help not only the fishing but also other tourism based industries in the area,” he says.

Mike agrees. “Take the kids fishing and teach them. They will be the conservationists of these amazing waters when we’re gone,” he says. 

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