Brackish Bounty

If you follow my posts on social media you probably already know that I am a huge fan of our SC DNR, and I try to support them in any way I can.  Something I have wanted to do for a long time was go along on one of their fish sampling days.  So, I sent along a few messages and was able to get on their list of volunteers.  I was interested in going on a trip to the upper Cooper river – Bushy Park as we know it – as the brackish water has an amazing variety of fish to offer and its one of my favorite places to fish. 

As luck would have it I was able to go along with two people I admire very much.  Brock Renkas is an incredibly smart and really cool fisheries biologist who I got to know about 5 years ago when I organized an event called the “Cobia Flotilla” for Summerville Saltwater Anglers fishing club.  He joined us on one of our events and we have messaged back and forth occasionally since then when I have had questions about fish that only a scientist would know the answer.  The other was John Archambault, who if you have ever caught a fish with an orange tag you probably know his name.  I had never met John before, but he pretty much was exactly as I imagined him: a kind of patriarch figure, full of wisdom and knowledge of everything related to our fisheries.  I knew John’s name very well, as we have traded tagged fish over the past several years.  He is also the one who sends you a recapture report on fish that you tag.  John was really patient and had lots of information to offer on everything from the smallest silverside minnow to red drum.   Lastly, we had Helen, a college intern from Charlotte, NC along with us.  This was also her first sampling trip.

Launching the research vessel at Bushy Park
John (at the helm) and Helen on the way to our first sampling site
John and Helen watching for fish to float up. We had a couple “mushroom clouds” here.

I met them at Bushy Park landing and we loaded up the electro-fishing boat.  This thing is the perfect tool for the job – there seems to be a place for everything – but they assured me it wasn’t so great when the water is rough!  So, this boat has basically two long arms with cables hanging from them like chandeliers.  These stick down in the water and create an electric field between the arms and the front of the boat.  Any fish within the field gets temporarily stunned and floats up to the surface where they are netted.  You net everything, from the smallest minnow to the largest fish.  I want to ensure you that, although some of these images may look like dead fish, that ALL of the fish we sampled eventually recovered and swam away.

This is a working trip.  Volunteers are crew members and part of the data collection process.  The way it works is there are pre-determined spots located approximately every 1/4 mile, mostly along the main river, but a few located up the creeks.  Six sites are chosen at random prior to each sampling day.  At each site, the boat is idled along the shore for 15 minutes.  After the time limit you pause and process what you captured.  Whether or not you are able to hit all six sites depends on how many fish are collected at each site.  Its a time-consuming process especially if you have a lot of baitfish or a lot of redfish, for example.  Redfish are tedious as each one is carefully measured, inspected for lesions, fin-clipped, and an orange anchor-tag is inserted in the abdomen.  This requires making a small incision in the abdomen.  A couple of the stops we were pretty darn successful and it sometimes took an hour to process all the fish.  We also took measurements of salinity and water clarity during the day.  My job was managing the fin clips – I would take the piece of fin and place it in a small vial and make sure the number was recorded correctly.  These fin clips are used to check the DNA of the fish.

Brock carefully inserts an anchor tag into a redfish belly. Note that the red around the tag is antibiotic, not blood
John taking careful measurements of this large redfish
Brock recording information for each fish
My job was managing the fin-clips. Each fin clip goes in its own numbered vial.

Our first stop was along a random bank well upriver.  We collected a few minnows, a small eel, a catfish, and several largemouth bass.  The second stop was a lot more interesting, as it happened to be in a location that is one of my most productive fishing areas.  We started the troll and a couple largemouth came up, one was pretty large.  As we approached my usual spot I was waiting patiently to see what would happen, when suddenly a mushroom-cloud of redfish floated up!  We netted as fast as we could and by the end of the run we probably had over 50 reds in the holding tank.  Included in the catch was a couple yellow (recreational) tags which I think might have been mine.

Results of a “mushroom cloud” of schooled up redfish! These ones are mostly 1 year old.
Helen displaying a common occurrence in brackish water. A double of largemouth bass (typically fresh water) and red drum (typically salt water)

Our third stop was nothing short of stunning.  It was up a creek in another area I have fished many times.  Really, I still can’t believe what we found there.  We started the troll and approached an area that held a lot of fish in prior sampling runs.   Nothing.  We kept going and came to another piece of structure when all of the sudden carp estimated to be 20 to 35 lbs started floating up all around us.  I have never seen a carp in these areas and they were absolutely huge.  They were hard to lift into the boat.  We were laughing because once they started to wake up they were really hard to handle.  I think we all got a good soaking – that is a strong fish!  In this same area we also had catfish, redfish, striper, largemouth, and big bream.  By the time our sampling ended in this spot we had no more room in the holding tank!  We estimated that we had over 300 lbs of common carp.  We had to process these first so that the other fish had room to breathe.  It was crazy!  Needless to say this spot took a long time to process…  

Unreal! Look carefully at the diversity of fish in this pic.
Who knew?! Huge carp.

We had time for one more trial so we went up another creek and found an unusually large flounder (21″) for February in the creeks, and a couple decent trout.

One of the few trout we caught. Trout are an unusual catch on these trips. They think they sense the field and swim away before they get stunned.
John inserting a ring tag in this large flounder
A really large flounder for February. Usually smaller flounder overwinter in the creeks while the larger ones go offshore.

This was a really memorable trip and I’m so glad I did it.  We should all be very thankful for our SC DNR and the dedicated biologists that work there.  I know I am!  

Hope you enjoyed this description of our day of sampling fish in the Cooper river.  As John pointed out, our day did not represent a typical day.  It just so happened that our sampling spots that were chosen at random were productive ones.  Brackish water is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get!  That’s why I love fishing there so much.

Full grown shellcracker!



  1. BOSNRay says:

    Great trip Dave! I am so jealous. Our SC DNR folks are the best. It is truly amazing what lives below us. Still reminds me to practice responsible catch and release fishing in our fantastic fishery.

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