James Couch was 13 when Duke Energy began filling the rugged and remote land that would become Lake Jocassee, a pristine 7,500-acre reservoir tucked deep in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
"My father took me camping and told me to take it all in because I was never going to see it like that again," Couch recalled. "When I look at Lake Jocassee today, I don't see the water. I see the valleys, mountains and trees that were here before there was a lake."
Couch, who has hunted, hiked and fished all over the Jocassee Gorges area, knows the lake as good as anyone. He can tell you the best fishing spots for rainbow trout, the location of every waterfall and every cove and where you'll find the tallest trees still standing in the 300-foot deep reservoir.
For more than 25 years, Couch has been sharing the secrets and stories of Lake Jocassee as a tour boat operator and charter fishing guide. Jocassee James, his custom guide service, offers scenic tours of the lake and nighttime fishing for trout.
Last weekend, the Pickens County native took me out on his 32-foot pontoon boat for an all-day tour of this beautiful mountain lake.
We pulled out from the dock at Devils Fork State Park - the only public access to the lake - and made our way past a dozen of only 37 private homes fronting the lake. Because most of the property around the reservoir is owned by Duke Energy and the state of South Carolina, it remains a lush landscape of pines and hardwoods.
Couch took us along the 1,750-foot long hydroelectric dam that formed the lake in the early 1970s. He showed us five waterfalls that spill into Lake Jocassee and several hidden pools where you can soak in the cold Appalachian Mountain water.
We beached the boat where the Thompson River flows into the lake and hiked through the woods about 200 feet to a rock spillway he described as a "cold water Jacuzzi." A ways up the trail is a sliding rock and pool that's a favorite summer destination for locals.
As a light rain began to fall, a billowing mist came creeping down the mountains, creating a Monet-like landscape. In a few weeks, this panorama of dark green foliage will turn into a painter's palate of golds, oranges and reds.
If you're looking to do something different this fall on your trip to the mountains, book a tour with Jocassee James. This insider really knows his stuff.
You can reach Couch at (864) 982-1016. Cost for a four-hour tour is $295 for up to 12 people.