The Clam Hatch

Santee River, South Carolina – June, 2011

David is tinkering with his boat when I pull into the gravel parking lot at Hills Landing. But we aren’t launching here, just making a stop at the bait shop and restaurant overlooking the canal connecting lakes Marion and Moultrie. We go inside and I can’t help but gawk at the grotesquely obese Blue Catfish mounts adorning the walls, some of which represent fish approaching the 100-pound mark. We buy drinks, snacks, and a bag of shad before jumping back in our vehicles. I follow David a few miles to another landing, on the Santee River just downstream from Lake Marion, where we are greeted by a volt of vultures. Some of the huge black birds are hopping around, picking through litter. Others roost in the branches overhead, silently watching. On the bank near the boat launch a couple anglers are fishing from lawn chairs. I chat with them while David backs the small aluminum boat into the river. They say they’ve caught a few brim.

The river here runs fairly straight through a consistently waist-deep channel. The areas we intend to fish today are actually accessible by wading but the boat is convenient—it’s quicker and serves as a mobile station for storing our equipment so we don’t have to carry everything. We float downriver between banks covered densely in towering, leafy trees. I scan the clear water and see lots of little sunfish dart for cover but nothing big. A few hundred yards downstream from the landing we toss out the anchor and I hop out into the warm water, which wraps around my body in a swirling wake. It feels refreshing in this South Carolina heat. Sand, gravel and tiny clam shells quickly work into my flooded tennis shoes, but I don’t really care. I grab my 6 ½’ spinning combo, spooled with 6 pound monofilament, and tie on a small hook about 24 inches beneath a slip bobber and splitshot. Then I pull out a small-meshed net…and wait for the bait.

I look upstream and watch for little white spots on the water’s surface—almond-sized clam bodies that float down the Santee River in the thousands for a few weeks each summer. Here comes one now. I ready my net to collect the clam meat but a Redbreast Sunfish rises swiftly to pick off the morsel before I can reach it. No worries. I net the next one, and the next, until David and I each have about a dozen pieces. Then we fish.

My first Striped Bass (species #85) caught on a drifted clam meat in 2010 during my first trip to the Santee River.

Fish are rising all over, keyed in on this ephemeral supply of easy protein. This is not my first time fishing the Santee River “clam hatch.” David introduced me to this spot the previous summer, and I caught a mix of Striped Bass, Blue Catfish, and several species of sunfish. On his own, David has even landed giant Grass Carp on clams during this unique phenomenon. He has also caught dozens of Striped Mullet—a catadromous species that is notoriously difficult to catch on hook and line because of its normal diet of microscopic zooplankton, algae and detritus. I failed to catch a mullet last time and I have come here today specifically to catch my lifer Striped Mullet.

With a shirt pocket full of clam meat, I wade into the middle of the stream and drift baited hooks over water where fish are rising. I get a hit quickly, and connect with a feisty Redbreast Sunfish. I attach another clam and cast again. Nothing. I repeat, and hook another sunfish. A mullet rockets three feet out of the water and splashes down near the opposite streambank. I cast in its vicinity and get a strong hit. I yank the rod back, but there is too much slack line to get a solid hookset and I reel in a baitless hook.

David, fishing a hundred feet downstream, lands a mullet. The proof I need. They are here, now, and willing to bite. I just need to put in the time. I cast and cast and cast. Sunfish pick my baits, so I collect another handful of clams and give it another go. An hour goes by and neither of have seen signs of a mullet for a while. Perhaps they’ve moved out of the area. Did I miss my chance?

David suggests switching to gar and catfish. Chagrined, I hop back in the boat and change out my rigs while David pulls up the anchor and we float down to the big hole—a spot where the river widens significantly into a deep, sluggish eddy. In the early spring, this place runs thick with American Shad and Blueback Herring. Now, Longnose Gar surface all around us, gulping air into their lung-like swim bladders. In the unseen depths lurk at least three species of catfish, some monstrously big turtles, and who knows what else. Possibly alligators.

We pull out the bag of dead shad. I hook a whole one to a bottom rig and toss it out. On my other rod, spooled with braided line, I hook a chunk of shad a foot below a bobber and lob it toward a surfacing gar. David employs a similar setup with his rods. Within minutes my orange and yellow bobber starts gliding across the surface of the water and I watch it go under. Instead of setting the hook right away I open the bail and let the fish take line for half a minute. Then, after giving the fish time to move the bait from its long bony jaws into its slightly fleshier mouth, I reel in to collect the slack line and set the hook hard. Fish on!

It rises to the surface, head protruding and shaking its toothy beak like a marlin in slow motion. Then it dives, tugging hard as I slowly work it in to the side of the boat. It takes line on a couple good runs before David grasps the gar in his gloved hand and lifts it into the boat. The gar thrashes from side to side. The braided line has wrapped around the gar’s snout, so it takes a minute to free the hook. I measure it—38 inches—and snap a photo. Not my personal best, but a good-sized Santee River Longnose Gar. I let it swim away. David sets the hook into another gar and I take a break to watch, and chug a bottle of Gatorade.

Longnose Gar – 38″ fish caught on cut shad in the Santee River

The midday sun is intense and I regret not applying sunscreen to my now solar-toasted ears. David and I agree that it’s too hot to sit exposed in the aluminum boat in this sweltering heat. We use the trolling motor to move back upstream, where I’ll get one last shot at a mullet. Probably my last chance this year.

I fully submerge myself in the river to cool off. Clam meat is floating down the river faster than ever now, and the fish are frenzied. I collect another handful of fresh bait and begin drifting it along a big log, running parallel to the shoreline, where I keep seeing fish rise. I get a strong hit, but whiff on the hookset. On the next cast, the fish hits again at the same spot. Again, I miss the fish. A couple more casts, and nothing. A couple more casts and then a hit strong enough to pull the bobber completely under and I hook into a heavy fish. It runs upstream fast, than turns and peels off some drag as it races downstream, using the current to its advantage. I can think of two species this could be—Striped Bass or Striped Mullet. I battle the fish close and see that it is a Striped Mullet. I reach for the net slung over my back and raise the rod to maneuver the fish within reach. But the current is fighting me, and it pushes the fish away. The mullet is rolling at the surface now. I can see the hook in the skin of its lip. Please, oh please don’t pull free. I slide the net under the fish and lift, but the fish flops and rolls off the rim of the net and into the river. The hook holds, for now. My heart is racing and my knees are shaking. I carefully pull the fish close again, slip the net underneath…and capture the flipping, flopping fish!

I take a precautionary photo of the fish curled in the bottom of the net, proof that I caught one in case it escapes. Then I wade the fish back to the boat and unhook it. I take a picture of my first mullet laying in the boat, then in my hand with the river scenery in the background. Finally, I hold the fish underwater with one hand and submerge my waterproof camera with the other. I let go of the fish and immediately snap a photo. David congratulates me on the lifer. Species number 120, check!

My first Striped Mullet! Species #120, caught June 23, 2011 at the Santee River on a drifted piece of clam meat.

Despite my struggles to land mullet number one, the pressure is off now and I manage to catch two more in the next hour before we call it a day. The first one is always the toughest. After David and I part ways I stop for a celebratory (and in an old Toyota with no air-conditioning, practically necessary) ice cream cone on the way through the quaint southern town of Eutawville. When I get to I-26 I crank up the radio, windows rolled down, and enjoy the drive back to Columbia.