By Ronell Smith
The air temperature was a frigid 28 degrees, though the wind chill made it seem much, much lower. The skies were overcast and the winds largely calm. For Elberton resident Jimmy Warrick and his friend Ryan Faulkenberry of Star, N.C., it seemed like the perfect day for fishing northeast Georgia’s Clarks Hill Lake. If they only knew what they were in for!
With several large fish swirling in the shallows, apparently feeding on the abundant threadfin shad, the pair launched their boat and began drifting, setting out free lines and planer boards, each tipped with a very lively blueback herring.
Then, at about 9 a.m., it happened. A hook-up on one of the free lines had one of the reels screaming. Faulkenberry raced to grab the pole from the rod holder and from that point on there would be no doubt that this was a special day.
“It hit like a freight train coming through,” said Warrick, his voice still peppered with enthusiasm months later. “You know once he feels that hook, he heads for the high country.”
More than a half-hour later, the two wrestled in what would turn out to be a 41-pound, 4-ounce striped bass, a whale of a fish by just about anyone’s standards. But on this day, that fish would prove to be the smallest of three the pair boated! Before noon, in fact, the anglers had a 43-pound, 4-ounce fish and a 44-pound, 8-ounce striper.
Not bad for a morning of fishing. Not bad at all.
During the winter months, it’s hard to beat the Savannah River chain of lakes for chasing large, shad-engorged stripers. An angler, knowing the proper techniques to fish the respective lakes, can take some live blueback herring on stout tackle and, by the end of the day, have tangled with several fish of more than 20 pounds. In the lakes’ deep, clear waters are some of the biggest land-locked stripers in the Southeast, many of which, with their ability to tear tackle to shreds, are never even sighted by anglers battling them.
On many a winter morning, anglers can pull up to either lake, launch a boat and look out upon the watery expanse to see dozens of line-sides literally knocking shad and herring out of the water as the predators satiate their voracious appetites. Though the fish won’t be up in the shallows regularly for nearly two more months, a long day of sunshine heating the lakes is all the fish need to move up and take advantage of the veritable smorgasbord of feeding opportunities.
“No matter what the time of year is, you’re going to have some fish shallow and some fish deep, no matter where you are on the lake,” said Lance Carter, owner of The Dark Side guide service, which operates on Lake Hartwell. The same is true for the two downstream sister lakes as well.
Lakes Hartwell, Richard B. Russell and Clarks Hill (J. Strom Thurmond Reservoir, if you are a South Carolinian) run along the extreme northeastern edge of the state and are shared with South Carolina as the waters flow north and south. What’s more, each body of water not only offers excellent line-side action, but also is readily accessible from Atlanta and all of Northeast Georgia.
If there is a lake in the state that closely rivals Lake Lanier as the best striped bass fishery in the state, it might be Hartwell. The 56,000-acre lake is home to the state-record striper, a 59-pound, 8-ounce fish, and many anglers believe there are more fish where that one came from.
Hartwell is a large, deep body of water, having a well-defined river channel and lots of long clay points holding an abundance of cover, including standing timber, shallow grass beds and rock-lined shores. Additionally, a fact that is of utmost importance to producing striper, the lake has a very well defined thermocline, allowing the fish to access oxygenated water year-round.
But probably two of the biggest factors contributing to Hartwell’s stature as an excellent striper fishery are the aggressive stocking every year by the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, which helps keep the population stable, and a healthy population of blueback herring. These herring, which were illegally introduced several years ago, grow large and are open-water baitfish. Their presence amounts to a veritable spreading of the table for stripers, since they are roaming predators.
With abundant bait, cover, structure and water quality, it’s little wonder that Hartwell is tough to beat in the winter months for stripers.
Lance Carter, a Hartwell resident who has guided on the lake for several years, said the winter months provide one of the best opportunities for hooking a whopper – a fish over 20 pounds – on Hartwell. He should know – his largest is 30 pounds on Hartwell, though he’s hooked and lost several surpassing this fish.
During this time of the year, Carter looks for the fish in the tributaries. Here, the stripers are often found suspended, but are not far from schools of shad or herring.
“You might find them in water 60 feet deep,” Carter said, “but they’ll be suspended in 25 to 30 feet of water.”
This guide usually picks a large creek, such as Big Beaverdam, Little Beaverdam or Gum Log, then starts trolling through the area with his eyes on the graph depthfinder. Often the distinct arch of a large fish shows up on the screen. But in lieu of that, what he looks for is the tale-tale sign of baitfish, which often appear as a black haze suspended off the bottom. Once the forage is found, Carter then sets out about four rods, all featuring bluebacks impaled on 2/0 Kahle hooks.
A couple of his lines are usually attached to planer boards, an option allowing for him to fish the bait at a desired depth. But some of the bait is also free-lined so the shad can swim unimpeded. Once all baits are out, he starts to slowly troll the creek, hoping to find actively feeding fish.
“You want to go as slow as possible,” said Carter. “In winter, you don’t want to move that bait fast at all.”
A major advantage of fishing this way in winter is that it increases the likelihood that a concentration of fish will be found. When that happens, the tips of several rods can be pulled into the water at once. If you have trouble finding fish, Carter recommended looking for activity on top from s
chooling fish or look for fish near river channel bends or ledges. The key, he said, is to go slow.
“It’s really called fishing and not catching this time of the year,” Carter said. “Everything is slow and lethargic.”
Just below the dam at Hartwell is that reservoir’s little brother, Lake Richard B. Russell. At 26,500 acres, it pales in comparison to Hartwell, but this really is a case of size does not matter. This lake offers excellent striper fishing, a fact bolstered by the hundreds of striper anglers who visit the body of water each year.
Several factors play into Russell being a great spot to catch stripers. First, though not stocked by Georgia WRD, Russell does receive fish each year that escape through Hartwell Dam. Then, once in Russell, these fish can grow large fast due to the plentiful blueback herring and threadfin shad and lack of competition for the forage. Equally important, the lake has excellent water quality and a distinct thermocline – ingredients creating a first-rate striper lake, according to Alfred Mauldin, senior fisheries biologist for the Georgia WRD.
Like Hartwell, Russell has several large creek arms, any one of which could be a hotspot for stripers in the winter months.
When setting out to fish this lake in January, consider putting in on the lower end of the lake, where there are several major creek arms present. These creeks, such as Beaverdam, are where the shad are likely to congregate, taking advantage of the warmer water. It is also in these creeks that the stripers look for baitfish as well.
Start at the mouth of one of these creeks, then look for surface activity while headed upstream. Despite the water temperature being in the 40s, stripers still feed on top in these areas. That being the case, it’s prudent to have a topwater bait or small in-line spinner tied on at least one rod. This is also the time to have one of the 1/4-ounce jigheads tipped with a small plastic shad body. Actively foraging stripers absolutely annihilate this bait.
If there is no surface activity, continue heading up the creek until a channel bend is encountered. These bends are swept by current heading downstream and are the frequent depositories of wood debris. Shad congregate around this cover, and can often be seen on a depthfinder suspending above the obstruction.
Trolling live herring on a planer board or free-lined on a 2/0 hook are great ways to catch the stripers. Another option is to troll deep-diving jerkbaits or down-lined herring until there is a hook-up. Just as is the case on Hartwell, the key is to move slowly – but keep moving. There is likely to be some activity on the lake. It’s just a matter of finding it.
Another can’t-miss technique for catching large stripers on Russell is to present a 3/8- or 1/2-ounce jig lure in the pockets near the mouths of creeks entering the main lake. Russell, which has no shoreline development, has hundreds of these pockets. These are often lined with grass and get progressively shallower as they near the shore, making them ideal locations for stripers to corral shad.
Position the boat several yards from shore, then go down the bank casting the lure, allowing it to hit the bottom, then rip it up with a violent jerk of the rod. The action imitates that of an injured shad, which striper find simply irresistible. Where the pocket narrows at the back, stay well off the shore, then make long casts, attempting to reach the shallowest water possible. The ends of these pockets or ditches are where warmer water enters the lake after rains.
Often, shad can be seen flicking in these pockets, even in winter. The stripers can be found below these schools, ambushing any shad that stray too far from the main body.
The last in the chain of Savannah River lakes is Clarks Hill. At 71,535 acres, it is the largest lake in the state and one that is producing scads of large linesides each year. But unlike Russell, the brutes have been stocked here for nearly three decades, and, due to the lakes fertility and abundant baitfish population, have thrived.
During the fall and winter months, even on the coldest of days, it’s not uncommon to see several center console boats anchored near points or off main-lake river channels, the angler’s baits below surface waiting on the big stripers they know are here. There are, indeed, plenty of them to be had. Other anglers, again, travel up the creek arms, locate baitfish, then present live bait.
But judging from the day Warrick and Faulkenberry had last year, one could surmise that there’s no need to travel very far when targeting the large fish.
The pair was fishing an area not far from Russell Dam. Warrick said that after seeing what looked to be several large stripers swirling in the shallows, they decided to set their sights on fishing that skinny water. The area they were targeting had grass along the shore, and it was apparent the stripers were cruising this cover.
Staying in areas where there was no more than 10 to 14 feet of water beneath their boat, the pair began trolling the planer boards and the free lines. They were using baitcasting rods and reels and their line was a stout 20-pound-test.
Before the day had begun, Warrick said he had a simple goal of getting one for the wall. At 10 a.m., when he had two 40-plus-pounders in the boat, his goal was fulfilled. Still, he knew enough to not stop fishing. One of the things that gave the pair confidence on this day was the conditions. The overcast skies, they believed, were ideal for a big catch.
“Anytime you’ve got overcast skies, the fish are a lot harder to spook,” Warrick noted. “All the conditions were just ideal.”
If there was ever any doubt about that, it was dispelled by 11 a.m. That’s when the largest fish of the trio, a 44-pound, 8-ounce behemoth, struck. The fish took longer than the others to boat and required both men to help in bringing it aboard.
“We were overwhelmed,” Warrick assured.
Clarks Hill is, without question, an excellent striper fishery. But one of the things making this catch special is the fact that all three fish came from an area about 200 feet in diameter. Not even the anglers can explain that oddity.
It’s likely that the bigger fish had moved shallow to gorge on shad, and the anglers were the beneficiaries of great timing. Whatever it was, it amounted to a great day. Even so, Warrick can’t help but think about what could have been.
He said that at about noon, they hooked another large striper. While fighting the fish, they looked around the boat and discovered they had no place to fit another fish of comparable size. The fish wouldn’t be around long anyway. It broke the line – and their hearts.
“I know fishermen are always talking about the one that got
away,” Warrick said. “But there is no doubt that fish was in the 50s.”
For some dynamite striped bass action this month, head to any or all three of these Savannah River lakes. Start out shallow near points and flats with topwater or soft plastic shad bodies on a jighead, then, as the day progresses, move around the lake and search for fish active at the surface. If all else fails, start at the mouth of one of the large creeks and troll live herring on planer boards or free lines.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Georgia Sportsman