To see them in the air, it’s best to be on the water. The annual migration of purple martins to Bomb Island on Lake Murray is described as a phenomenon by local tourism advocates, but perhaps the biggest phenomenon is the number of people who come to see them.
“I probably took 75 trips this past year just for those birds,” says Rick Crout, a tour boat captain on the lake. “I will have a waiting list for people to come do this. I’ve had people come down from up north and stay for two or three days primarily to see the birds.”
The island becomes so thick with martins — estimates run as high as a million — that they form a black cloud when they take flight, big enough and dense enough to be seen on weather radar. The lake becomes equally thick with birdwatchers. Rick says 200 boats of viewers at a time may witness the phenomenon during the midsummer peak.
South Carolinians love the water, from tubing down the Saluda near Riverbanks Zoo to casting a line from a backyard dock in one of the Midlands’ numerous lakeside communities or going to work each day at a local manufacturer making the boats that cruise the Intracoastal Waterway. Others are serving up shrimp and grits to a diner as they watch the sun set on the salt marsh or filling a boat to go see the purple martins on Lake Murray.
The state’s thousands of ponds and lakes; 11,000 miles of rivers and streams; and 2,876 miles of coastal shoreline love South Carolinians right back, providing entertainment, creating jobs, and attracting tourists and future residents. The number of ways boating and fishing alone touch the Palmetto State economy is so vast that determining a single, specific dollar figure is difficult, but a cross section of statistics makes a compelling case.
“A long time ago, a lot of people turned their passions into businesses,” says R. Gettys Brannon, III, president and chief executive of the S.C. Boating and Fishing Alliance. The organization is an industry advocate comprised of boating and fishing manufacturers, dealers, retailers, boaters, and anglers. It estimates its sector supports 23,000 jobs and has $5.1 billion in economic power in the state.
Starting with boat manufacturing, Gettys says of the top 10 saltwater boat manufacturers in the country, six are based in South Carolina. According to data from Chmura Economics & Analytics, shipbuilding and boatbuilding accounts for 3,125 jobs earning an average of $56,074 per year, with $200 million created in annual gross domestic product for the Palmetto State.
The work is varied, ranging from fiberglass laminators to electricians, plumbers, welders, and the folks answering the phone and crunching numbers in the company office. Breaking the jobs down by county, Lexington ranks fourth in the state, with Newberry seventh, Richland eighth, and Fairfield ninth.
“I always get asked, ‘What’s the best boat company in South Carolina?’” Gettys says. “If you walk into any of them, you’ll walk out impressed. You have a lot of craftsmanship and appreciation for each boat that gets put out. They’re all meticulous and pay attention to detail.”
Once the boats hit the water, the impact continues to ripple. The National Marine Manufacturers Association estimates recreational boating has a $3.9 billion annual economic impact in South Carolina and supports 15,064 jobs.
A total of 567,443 boats are registered in the Palmetto State, which ranks in the top 10 nationally. More than 725,000 fishing licenses are sold each year, contributing $6.7 million to the state’s economy.
“South Carolina is an outdoor recreation state,” says Dave Bulthuis, president of North America for Columbia-based Pure Fishing, Inc. “We’re blessed with great inshore fishing, great offshore fishing, great freshwater fishing — it’s a sportsman’s paradise. I think that’s one of the reasons people come to South Carolina to live.”
Pure Fishing is the largest manufacturer of fishing tackle in the world. It produces tackle, line, rods, and reels under 20 brands, including Abu Garcia, Stren, PENN, and Ugly Stick. South Carolina is also home to major operations for two of its top competitors — Shimano, Inc., and Rather Outdoors, LLC. Dave says that’s unique since South Carolina’s not a large state.
“That’s a lot of job creation, a lot of taxes paid, a lot of economic impact from which South Carolina benefits,” he says. “As a company, we appreciate the support of the state and the city of Columbia. It’s a big factor. It’s important to us that South Carolina shows its support for outdoor recreation, and it starts at the top.”
More than $14 million is collected annually in property taxes from the 45,000 registered boats in Lexington, Richland, Newberry, and Saluda counties, according to the Capital City/Lake Murray Country Regional Tourism Board. Dreher Island State Park, which is on Lake Murray, had more than 149,000 visitors by automobile in 2019. That doesn’t count visitors by boat.
From the Edisto to the Wateree, the Midlands is crisscrossed by rivers. The Broad and Saluda join to form the Congaree, giving Columbia a river fit for recreational use right outside its front door. A few miles up the Saluda sits the 1.6-mile-long hydroelectric dam that created Lake Murray.
While the Midlands is home to numerous farm ponds and community lakes, as well as 13,250-acre Lake Wateree, Murray is the magnet for tourism. Miriam Atria, president and chief executive of Capital City/Lake Murray Country, says the message has gotten out about the diverse opportunities for recreation on the 50,000-acre reservoir.
“Lake Murray is perfect for outdoor water enthusiasts. Visitors can not only fish, but also water ski, enjoy the pontoon boat lifestyle, or go sailing,” Miriam says. Events such as the Fourth of July fireworks display over the lake also draw visitors from near and far. “We’re easy to get to with three major interstates coming right through the region. During the summer, a lot of families that come here continue to come back.”
Some come for good. Miriam says her organization has hosted travel writers who became so smitten with Lake Murray that they moved here. Rick says the lake is a focal point for people moving to the Midlands.
“I think Columbia is uniquely geographically located with a really beautiful lake,” he says. “The weather is great year round. We’re 100 miles from the coast, give or take, which is not that far.”
The coast is a draw in itself. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources estimates coastal tourism makes up nearly two-thirds of all South Carolina tourism revenues, has an economic impact of $8.96 billion, and is responsible for approximately 100,000 jobs. Saltwater fishing alone has a direct impact of $195 million.
Apparently, more Americans fish than play golf and tennis combined. According to the American Sportfishing Association, anglers spend $752 million annually on fishing licenses. Recreational fishing has a $129 billion economic impact nationally and supports 826,000 jobs. In South Carolina, those numbers are $1 billion and 8,410 jobs.
“South Carolina has a good mix of recreational boaters and recreational fishermen,” says Anthony Gagliardi. Anthony, who lives in Prosperity, won the FLW Tour Angler of the Year title in 2006.
Professional tournaments are frequent visitors to the Palmetto State. Sports Destination Management magazine named two 2022 Anderson County fishing tournaments Champions of Economic Impact in Sports Tourism. The Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic drew attendance of 154,932 and had an estimated $24 million impact. The Abu Garcia Bassmaster High School Fishing National Championship drew participants, sponsors, and spectators from 39 states and accounted for a $1.5 million impact.
“So much can positively impact a host community when a Bassmaster event comes to town,” says Bassmaster spokeswoman Emily Harley. “The most obvious element of the $1 million to $2 million in economic impact generated is from room nights — thousands of nights for hotels, campgrounds, and rental houses are needed. For the Elite Series, for example, not only do the 100-plus anglers and their families need accommodations for seven to eight nights, which includes practice and tournament days, but also approximately 155 BASS staff, photographers, marshals, content producers, tournament staff, TV crew, sponsors, and service crew members travel with the series for the full week.”
In April, the Bassmaster Elite Series will visit Lake Murray before heading down to the Santee Cooper Lakes in Clarendon County. The National Professional Fishing League will visit Santee Cooper in May.
“As a whole, South Carolina is considered a good state to come to,” Anthony says. “Hartwell probably has more fish, but Lake Murray has bigger fish and, if you ask me, is the best tournament lake right now. It’s a diverse lake and allows you to really spread out.”
Anthony won the Forrest Wood Cup on Lake Murray in 2014. When he competes in a tournament, his spending on travel, lodging, gas, and other expenses can run $2,000. Along with any tournament winnings, he supports that outlay through promotional sponsorships for everything from boats and motors to rods and sunglasses.
Competitors also purchase local fishing licenses and pay ramp/launch fees. Emily points out that tournament organizers, competitors, and their families are also eating, shopping, and visiting local attractions, which generates sales tax revenue.
Capital City/Lake Murray Country reports it has hosted more than 43 large-scale fishing events, generating an economic impact of more than $185 million for the four-county region. Since 1999, $12.5 million in cash has been paid out to tournament winners on Lake Murray.
The Oakley Bass Tour visits the lake each year, bringing $1.8 million into the local economy. In 2022, Murray hosted more than 1,500 competitors via the Black Bass World Championship, Big Bass Tour, Carolina Bass Challenge, Major League Fishing, and 19 other regional or local tournaments. More than 7,400 hotel room nights were booked.
“We could have a tournament out here every weekend if we wanted to,” Miriam says. They don’t, however, because they don’t want the lake to become overfished, even though most pro tours release the fish back into the lake once they’re weighed. “Some tours have also donated to the Department of Natural Resources to help restock the lakes.”
A method is behind their selectivity. Miriam says when they go after a fishing event, “We make sure there’s an advertising tieback to it.” A publicity value is attached to these events from television ads to social media ads for Capital City/Lake Murray Country broadcast through nationally televised shows. Some recent fishing-oriented television shows using Lake Murray as a setting provided more than $28,560,000 in advertising value.
More than fishing tournaments are happening on Lake Murray. Sailing regattas are numerous. Dreher Island State Park reported 28,466 camping/cabin nights that generated more than $2.1 million in revenue. Also, day trippers and lakeside homeowners swim, ski, boat, and fish on their own, and Rick cruises his pontoon with guests onboard.
“A lot of people spend the week on the lake and don’t have access to a boat,” Rick says. Vacationers make up 30 to 40 percent of his Captain Hook’s Tours customers, with locals comprising a similar share. “But I’ve had people drive 80 to 90 miles just to get on the boat.”
Rick recently teamed with longtime lake denizen Norman Agnew to acquire the Spirit of Lake Murray. The 80-foot yacht can hold up to 135 people. Most tour boats are only approved to carry six guests. Rick says it’s undergoing an extensive renovation and will be available for corporate outings, wedding related events, and other occasions by April or May.
“It’s going to have a very high-end galley so food can be prepared on board,” Rick says. “We’re very fortunate that Norman has his own marina and facilities to store the boat.”
Boat storage is another business kept afloat by South Carolina’s waters, as is commercial fishing. If one wanted to make a truly deep dive, the Port of Charleston serves as an oceanic gateway for the state’s bustling import-export trade. From purple martins to ship-to-shore cranes, the ways the Palmetto State turns water into money seem to be endless.