The Swamp Never Disappoints

By far one of my all-time favorite locations to paddle, explore, and fish is Sparkleberry Swamp just outside of Sumter, South Carolina. With Sparkleberry only being about 2 hours form the upstate of SC, it makes for an easy day trip or a killer weekend camping trip destination. Over the last six years, I have been to the swamp countless times and every time I feel as if I am stepping back into time. With the old Cypress and Tupelo trees in the water, it creates a mysterious and relaxing environment to navigate whether you are just out for a relaxing paddle or chasing down the huge fish that live just below the surface.

Every time I have been to Sparkleberry I have been on the hunt for the big Shell Cracker Bream, the huge Largemouth Bass, and the prehistoric Bowfin that patrol the dark mysterious waters. Back in October, Kris, August, Mark, Andy, and I decide we wanted to do a three-night camping trip down in the swamp for my birthday.

On Thursday, we drove down and set-up our camp in a beautiful section of Mill Creek Park, just inside of Manchester State Forest. Thursday would also be our prep day for two hard days of chasing down slabs, Largemouth Bass, and Bowfin throughout the swamp. After setting up our camp and getting the smoker going with six dozen wings, we started getting our kayaks and rods ready for our battle that would start at the break of dawn on Friday. As we were getting all of our gear ready, you could feel the excitement in the air as we were all thinking about wetting our line and stalking down our target species.

Friday morning came very early as we awoke hours before dawn broke, so we could be on the water at first light. At our put-in we had to paddle down a picturesque canal to get out into the first main channel to fish. The channel is one of the more open areas of the Sparkleberry and is lined with Cypress and Tupelo trees. I immediately made my way over to a small group of Cypress trees and made a perfect cast right at the base of one of the old trees. I had VMC Shaky head tied on, matched up with a Green Pumpkin Zman Finesse Wormz, a great combo for the swamp. As soon as the Shaky Head hit the base of the tree, my line tightened up and I set the hook on the first fish of the day. After a little fight, I landed a dark colored LMB, I grabbed a quick photo and released the little guy back into the blackish orange water.

Not long behind me, both Kris and Andy landed a LARGEMOUTH BASS and I was thinking to myself, “wow this is shaping up to be killer day of fishing.” At that time, little did I know how good it really was going to be. The quick action slowed down a bit and you could see our group starting to make adjustments and change out their baits. I reached back into my YakAttack BlackPak and grabbed another rod that had a Zman Chatterbait already tied on.

I always have a Chatterbait tied on, as it is one of favorite lures in my arsenal because you can use or work the bait in various ways. I also knew form previous trips to the swamp that I would be fishing a few stump fields where I have seen a lot of fish caught at. Luckily, I was the first one to come into the stump field out of our group of friends.

After making a few casts searching different areas, I made a long cast out to my left. Right away I hit two stumps with my bait, and I knew I was in the right area. After another cast in the same direction, booooooom, I was hooked into a ferrous fight! I started laughing with excitement because I knew I had a nice size Bowfin, and these guys fight Iike no other. Bowfins are prehistoric, pissed off strong fish with a mouthful of razor sharp teeth. After battling this creature for a few minutes I was able to get him along side of my Bonafide SS127. As I stuck him with my Boga Grips, I was amazed at how big he was as I pulled him out of the water. The beast was shaking like he was trying to tear my arm off as Kris took my picture with it. This monster was 28 inches and weighted in at 12lbs. I was on “cloud 9” since this was a new personal best Bowfin for me!

We made our way through the maze of trials that run all over the swamp, and the action never slowed down with the Bowfin for me. I was definitely on a pattern and I was ready to sit back and enjoy hammering on these beasts. All-in-all, I landed about 15 Bowfin on Friday and all of them were on the same Z-Man Chatterbait with a Diezel Minnow tied on as my trailer. The ancient critters ranged from 8lbs to the big 12lbs that was caught early in the day.

Friday night was full of talk and laughter about our first day of fishing in Sparkleberry. Andy had never been there before, so he was lively and had a lot to talk about with all that he saw and experienced. One of the best things from the first day of fishing was seeing Andy land his first Bowfin, especially as it soaked him at the boat as he was pulling it in.

We stayed up late into the night hanging around the camp fire and planning for the next day of adventure. I really enjoy the fellowship and bonding that happens around a camp fire. You can learn about folk’s passions and souls. You can also learn about what makes them tick or you could see them act a fool, it just all depends.

On the following morning dawn came super early and we all dragged ourselves out of tents to get ready for our last day of fishing in the swamp. Just like the first day, we were at the launch before the sun broke over the horizon. We started out fishing the exact same channel as we did the previous day, but I started out with my Chatterbait instead of the Shaky Head set-up.

Once again the action was on fire in the stump field and this time just about everyone got in on the action. It was fun watching everyone catch these mean fish, no matter what size they are, they always fight hard. For most of the guys they have never landed a Bowfin. After multiple catches from almost everyone, we decide to move locations. We wanted to move deeper into the swamp and try and few new areas.

I was all for this simply because I love the sense of adventure and exploring. It reminds me of being a kid and trying to anticipate what lies ahead. Andy and I were out front of the group and we were both working down opposite sides of this long finger channel. The fishing was kind of slow, but the bird life was insane. There were Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, and some amazingly eye catching pink birds fishing in the Tupelos. I thought to myself, “this is like stepping back into time,” and I had to just take a few minutes, okay, a couple of long minutes to soak in all of the sights and sounds.

As I came back to reality I saw a group of four Cypress trees a good ways out in front of me. I asked Andy to not push ahead as I wanted to try and make a few cast at this group of trees. I told Andy, “I do not know if I can hit those trees because it is a long cast, but I do think there will be fish there.” Andy paused and said, “you got it brother, get on them.”

I made a very accurate and long cast towards the group of trees and to my surprise my Chatterbait smacked the tree. As soon as the lure hit the water there was an explosion. At first I thought I spooked an alligator, but my line was burning off of my reel and the primeval monster showed itself. Dancing numerous times across the water, the huge Bowfin jerked my SS127 violently 90 degrees. As the water splashed up from my bow the beast jumped again, and this time it spit the lure right out.

I quickly gathered myself and casted right back at the tree and bammmmmmm, it hit again and the fight was on. I could not believe how strong and big this creature was. We battled for a few shorts minutes and he spit the bait out again, I could not believe it. Andy moved on up the channel and he hooked into a decent size Bowfin, and I could not help myself but to throw one last time at that group of trees. As I had the Chatterrbait about a foot or so under the water and half way back to the boat, the ancient creature slammed it again for a 3rd time. I set the hook like there was no tomorrow and we fought for a solid 5 mins, but to my disappointment the mighty fish spit my lure again.

I have to admit, I was disappointed. The Bowfin won that fight, and I now know where an incredible spot is to find them. I have gone back since then and I have had luck, just not on the same caliber of this day. After we landed a few more Bowfin and some slab Shell Crackers, we decide we should probably start making our way back towards the launch. We had a beautiful 4 mile paddle out, but I told Kris, “hey brother we have to hit that stump field on the way back to the landing.” Kris laughed and said, “I knew you were going to say that.”

As we rounded the corner from being deep in the swamp, the stump field was just out in front of us. I quickly sped up and went to the same location where I landed the 12lbs Bowfin from Friday morning. As I approached the area I slowed way down as if I was stalking an elusive predator. By that time the rest of our crew had just about caught up to me, with Andy and August fishing fairly close to my location. No worries, there is plenty of water here for all of us.

I stood up in my Bonafide and made a few more cast, but didn’t have any luck. I thought to myself, “no big deal, you have already landed about 25 big Bowfin and a handful of slab Shell Crackers,” but the fight inside of me just did not want to give up just quite yet. I stood up, stretched, and took a deep breath as I looked around at my surroundings. It was epic, a killer group of friends, a breath taking swamp, and more wildlife than you could shake a stick at.

I made a nice long cast off to left side of the channel, and when reeling in a quarter of the way to the boat there was a violent eruption and my reel started singing a tune to the drag screaming. I knew right away this was an enormous Bowfin that I have been after for a long time. The sleigh ride ensued and the fight was toe-to-toe. Neither the old giant nor I were ready to back down. I would gain a little line and the Bowfin would take it right back, all the while my friend August was right there for all the action, thank goodness. After a long fight, I finally had the brute beside my kayak. As I brought it to the surface, I grabbed my Boga’s and knew I had only one shot at landing this huge fish.

As the toothy monster looked up at me I tried to lip him with my Boga Grips, but they did not lock in place and the fish was full of rage. He thrashed, jumped, ripped off drag, and completely soaked me with water. I thought right then, I am about to lose this thing and I need to hurry up and get it back to my kayak. Like I mentioned above, August was right there watching the action take place and capturing the moment with his camera. Thankfully he tossed me his Boga Grips and I had the enormous Bowfin at the boat again.

The awesome fish came up, showed me all of his teeth, and I grabbed him with August’s Bogas. Instantly the beast tried its best to shake my arm off, but I was not having it. I immediately stood up and pulled the beautiful creature from the depths of the swamp. I could not believe how huge, how heavy, and how amazing the colors were on this Bowfin. All my brothers were shouting and congratulating me, and all I could do was just stand there in awe. We took a few photos, measured the fish, weighted it, and released him to fight another day. This was my new personal best Bowfin measuring a whopping 34 inches and weighted in right at 15lbs!

This will be a trip that I will probably never forget for various reasons. But the fact that I was able to share this adventure, a lot of fish, incredible memories, and a new personal best with some of my closest friend, that is what will always make this trip stand out. I am forever grateful that August had his Boga Grips right there with him and for the images he captured. There is one thing for sure, I will always be on the hunt for Bowfins whenever I am in the Low Country or anywhere I know they live. The one that I lost at the group of Cypress trees was bigger than this one and I will return another day for my redemption.

JD Desrosiers
Bonafide Kayaks, YakAttack, Yeti, Werner Paddles, Z-Man, Astral, Smith Optics, Power-Pole, and Raymarine Pro Staffs
YakAttack Southeast Regional Team Director