Linesides On The Savannah
October 04, 2010
Whether you're targeting striped bass or hybrids, the reservoirs along the Savannah River can accommodate you -- and now's an excellent time to find out just how good this fishing really is! (April 2007)
Photo by Tom Evans
The Savannah River is a silver necklace of water separating Georgia from South Carolina. On this strand there are three pearls -- lakes Hartwell, Russell and Clarks Hill. In these pearls are some silver-sided fish that make anglers forget about all other kinds of silver.
Managers of both Georgia and South Carolina fisheries stock hybrid and striped bass in all three lakes. Those are some of our hardest-pulling freshwater fish, and once you hook one, you get hooked on fishing for them. Tie into a 20-pound striper and you'll have a fight you won't forget.
All together, Hartwell, Russell and Clarks Hill (whose official name is Strom Thurmond Reservoir) contain more than 150,000 acres of water for linesider anglers. That is a tremendous area to fish and can get confusing. These lakes share some similar characteristics, but differ in several ways, too.
Hartwell lies on the very upper end of the Savannah River and is formed where the Tugaloo and Seneca rivers join. Russell is stuck in middle, with its waters backing up to the Hartwell dam, which dam releases water directly into Clarks Hill -- the last lake of the chain and the largest of the three.
Georgia and South Carolina share responsibility and authority for the fish in all three lakes, while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages the water. Both the states and the Corps maintain boat ramps that offer fishermen easy access to all parts of each lake. Hartwell and Clarks Hill both have some shoreline development, concentrated in limited areas. But Russell remains completely undeveloped, and there are no private shoreline homes and docks.
Reciprocal agreements between Georgia and South Carolina cover the size and creel limits, as well as fishing licenses. On any of the three lakes, anglers may take a combined total of 10 stripers and hybrids, and there is no size limit. Fishing licenses from either state are honored on all the waters of all three lakes.
Blueback herring, found in all three lakes, are a favorite food of stripers and hybrids. The proliferation of this baitfish species has changed the thinking about management and stocking rates on these impoundments: About six years ago, both Georgia and South Carolina agreed to make some changes that will affect your fishing this year.
The differences among these lakes might help you decide which one to fish -- or help you catch fish on the one you like best.
Uppermost and second oldest on the chain, Hartwell has 55,950 acres of water to fish. Its main lake stays fairly clear and has many deep points and areas of underwater standing timber. Herring have inhabited it for many years and are an established forage fish.
In 2001, Georgia and South Carolina agreed to raise the numbers of hybrids and stripers stocked in Hartwell to 15 per acre, almost doubling the numbers of linesiders previously put into the lake. The stocking rate is about half stripers and half hybrids. Those fish are showing a good growth rate and will have reached a good size this year.
Both stripers and hybrids grow to about one pound during the first year after they're stocked, then put on about two pounds each year after that. Thus, a two-year-old hybrid or striper weighs around 3 pounds, and a six-year-old will push 12 pounds. In Hartwell, there are a lot of fish in between those sizes from the past six years of increased stocking rates.
Hybrids do not grow as big as stripers because they do not live as long. A five-year-old hybrid weighing 10 pounds is very old -- and rare. But a five-year-old striper is just getting started, and some live to be more than 20 years old and weigh over 40 pounds.
Anthony Rabern is the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division fisheries biologist who works with hybrids and stripers on Hartwell. He said there is an excellent year-class from 2005 stocking, so this year there are a lot of 2- and 3-pound hybrids to catch.
At Hartwell, several factors help hybrids and stripers to survive. A few years ago, biologists changed the way linesides were stocked. Up until then, a hatchery truck would pull up to a bridge or ramp and dump its whole load of fry. That might mean 300,000 little fish in one area. That depleted the food supply for the fingerlings, while concentrating them where predators could gang up on them.
Now those fish are spread out during the stocking, which aims for releasing no more then 35,000 in one area. That should increase the survival of the fry and mean more fish to catch as that year-class grows.
Each summer, water temperatures do put a squeeze on hybrids and stripers at Hartwell. As the water gets warmer, there's a small band of water that is ideal for the linesiders to live in. This layer of water is the right temperature and has enough oxygen for them.
As the water gets hotter, this layer of water narrows. That is not good for the fish. During a drought like the one we had last year, you'd think the layer of good water would get thinner. It does on other lakes in the chain. But fortunately, Rabern said, that does not happen at Hartwell.
Less rain means less runoff into the lake, which lowers the amount of nutrients running into the lake. That produces less algae, leaving more oxygen at the depths the hybrids and stripers need.
Last year, Rabern found a 40-pound striper and an 8-pound hybrid in the surveys, so there are some good-sized fish to catch.
Those shocking and netting surveys have also given the biologist an idea of where the fish live and where you should fish to catch them. He's come up with six tips for finding them --and these should work on any lake you fish.
The first tip has to do with the time of day. Stripers and hybrids are more active in the early mornings and late afternoons.
Next, consider the topography of the lake floor. These fish hold on points and nearby flats.
Now you need to consider the water temperature. Find water from 55 to 65 degrees in which to fish.
The water's turbidity is also a concern. Stripers and hybrids feed better in water that's not muddy, so find clear water to fish.
Locating forage is next on Rabern's
list. Find the blueback herring or shad, and the stripers and hybrids will be nearby.
Finally, consider the wind. In this case, wind is your friend. You want to be casting toward banks and points that have wind blowing onto -- or across -- them.
Armed with these tips, be on the lake at dawn and fish points near flats, at a depth where the water is between 55 to 65 degrees and clear. Make sure baitfish are in the area and, if the wind is blowing, get on the windy side of the lake. That should put you right in the middle of the linesider action!
The smallest of the three reservoirs in the chain, at 26,650 acres, Russell is also the newest of the three -- and in some ways, the most unusual. Not only is it affected by the water running into its upper end from Hartwell Dam, it has a pump-back facility at its own powerhouse. After water is released through Russell Dam's generators, it is then pumped out of Clarks Hill and back into Russell for reuse. Thus the water level in Russell doesn't change much.
Georgia and South Carolina have agreed to try to make Russell a trophy striper lake. To do that, they stock no hybrids, and only one to two striped bass per acre are added each year. This should allow the stripers to grow faster and offer fishermen bigger fish.
But there are still a few hybrids in the lake. They can come downstream through the turbines and the overflow at the Hartwell Dam. A few might even survive coming through the pump-back from Clarks Hill. But in any case, these hybrids do not offer a significant fishery on Russell.
Lake Russell is a deep, clear impoundment that provides good habitat for stripers. Growth rates of a little better than two pounds per year have been documented, and already present in the reservoir are some stripers in the 20-pound range. These should continue to grow at a fast rate and produce some trophy fish.
Fisheries biologist Ed Bettros urges fishermen who catch a tagged striper to return the tag. Bigger fish are hard to sample, so tagging is the best way they can monitor the growth rate of the fish and the success of the program. Help the state keep up with the stripers by returning any tags in the fish you catch.
Habitat was a concern at Russell due to the cold, low oxygen content of water coming in from the bottom of Lake Hartwell and the cold, low oxygen content of the water being pumped back from Clarks Hill. Oxygen injectors have been added to some of the turbines at Hartwell, and others are planned. Oxygen is being added to the water at the Russell dam, too.
With that injected oxygen, the layer of water that is suitable for stripers should stay wider, allowing them to grow better even during the summer when growth rates normally slow. The survival rate should also increase.
Both states are looking at a change in the numbers of stripers you can keep at Russell. By lowering the limits that fishermen can keep, they hope to increase the number of bigger stripers. That change has not been made yet, but watch your regulations. Any change will affect anglers from both states.
Stripers are harder to catch than hybrids. And the bigger they get, the harder they are to hook. You will have to change your tactics to catch stripers on Russell. Use the tips from Rabern's studies at Hartwell to locate the best areas and times to catch them. Then use big artificial or live bait. Live blueback herring seven inches or longer will usually catch more stripers than other baits.
Concentrate on the lower lake below the railroad trestle and drift live herring at the depth where the water temperature is best for stripers. Make sure you find baitfish schools near flats and points before dropping your bait down. Use stout tackle! Big stripers will head for one of the many patches of underwater timber and wrap you up if you cannot turn them.
Clarks Hill is the oldest lake, on the lower end of the chain. At 71,535 acres, it is also the biggest, and has had stripers and hybrids stocked in it for many years. The lake varies a lot, from the upper ends of tributaries where water is more stained and gets warmer, to the lower half of the lake where the water usually stays clear.
As on Hartwell, blueback herring abound in Clarks Hill and are a favorite food of the linesiders. The increase in bluebacks over the past 10 years has led Georgia and South Carolina to increase the stocking here to 15 per acre, as at Hartwell. The states coordinate their stocking so that each year about eight hybrids and seven stripers are put into the lake.
That's up from the 10 fish per acre stocked up until 2001. Those stocking levels put into the lake three stripers and seven hybrids per acre. There were a lot more hybrids than stripers.
Some of those stripers are still in the lake, but most of the hybrids have been caught or died. A few of those pre-2001 stripers are big, with a 50-pound striper possible.
This year, there should be good numbers of 10-pound stripers in the lake, according to Ed Bettros, fisheries biologist. "Good," that is, relative to the numbers in the past, he reminds fishermen. The stripers will be easier to catch, but not as easy as a 3-pound hybrid.
There is a concern about the colder, less-oxygenated water from Russell coming into the upper Savannah River. An oxygen system has been put in at the Russell dam to increase oxygen content, but that improvement does not extend for very many miles downstream. There is hope of another oxygen system being put into the Savannah River several miles downstream of the Russell dam to help the main lake.
Droughts hurt both Russell and Clarks Hill lakes. With less water filling each lake, the band of water ideal for linesiders is squeezed thinner. Growth rates as well as survival are impacted. Last year, we got through the summer without major problems, but if the drought extends through this summer, there may be problems.
Growth rates in Clarks Hill are similar to Hartwell, with both stripers and hybrids adding about two pounds per year to their weight. Stocking is spread out on this lake, too, to help survival rates.
Anthony Rabern's tips for Hartwell will help you on Clarks Hill too. Stripers and hybrids can be caught from above Raysville Bridge in the Georgia Little River to the dam, and up the Savannah to the Russell dam. Clarks Hill has big flats where baitfish and hybrids congregate, and you can catch them there.
Always watch for gulls diving on the water, too. This is true on all three lakes. When the schools of stripers and hybrids start hitting the blueback herring, the gulls join in the feast, picking off injured herring that float to the surface and grabbing live ones that try to escape and swim too close to the top.
Dave Willard guides on Clarks Hill for both stripers and hybrids. He says you'll be surprised at how shallow big stripers will get at some times of the year. He'll use
a planer board to take his bait up into three feet of water on points. The planer board lets him keep his boat out and away from the shallows so he doesn't spook the fish.
Drifting live blueback herring on the main lake's points and flats will produce stripers and hybrids. Always look for baitfish. Drop several bluebacks down on Carolina rigs with a 1-ounce sinker above a swivel. Have a 36-inch leader tied from the swivel to a 3/0 hook, and put the herring on it.
As you ease around the flats and points, try to keep your bait down just above the level where you're seeing bigger fish on your depthfinder, but just below the schools of baitfish. Make it look like a baitfish that got separated from the school and should be an easy meal.
Also drift a couple of live herring on flat lines behind the boat. Tie a hook directly to your line with no weight and let the herring swim freely. That will often attract a roaming striper.
If you want numbers of hybrids and stripers, go to either Hartwell or Clarks Hill. For fewer bites but bigger stripers, try Russell. Each of these lakes will continue to get better over the next few years as the increased stocking numbers grow and become more plentiful. The future of linesiders fishing on our eastern border looks bright as polished silver!