The Palmetto State's Big Water For Stripers

Much of South Carolina's best striped bass fishing comes from the state's five largest reservoirs. (January 2006)

Lake Murray produces a lot of heavyweight stripers. Mark Davis of Columbia admires a big fish he caught while fishing from Capt. Rob Lee's boat.
Photo by Jeff Samsel

Looking for sizzling striped bass fishing? It's not hard to find. Just unfold a South Carolina map and look for the biggest blue spots (excluding the Atlantic Ocean) on the page. The big reservoirs aren't the only waters in the state that serve up good striper action; however, they clearly rank among the best and offer the most overall opportunity for fishermen in various parts of the state. With that opportunity in mind, let's take a closer look at the two biggest lakes in the Savannah River chain, plus Lake Murray and the Santee Cooper lakes.

SAVANNAH RIVER LAKES

The Savannah River lakes are big striper waters in more than one sense of the word. The lakes themselves are big, together covering more than 160,000 acres, and the fish grow to heavyweight proportions. South Carolina's last three state-record striped bass have come from the Savannah River lakes, with one apiece having come from Hartwell, Russell and Thurmond. The current record, a 59-pound, 8-ounce giant caught by Terry McConnell of Eastanollee, Georgia, came from Lake Hartwell in 2002.

Only two of the three lakes in the Savannah River chain are actually managed as striped bass waters. Lake Russell, the middle lake in the system and the smallest of the three at 26,650 acres, has never been stocked with stripers. Local anglers know, however, that the lake is home to some stripers, which apparently enter the lake either though Hartwell Dam or through Richard B. Russell Dam during pump-back operations. The fish are small in number but grow to large sizes. The fish that McConnell's record striper replaced in the books came from Russell in 2001 and weighed 56 pounds.

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) and Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which share management duties for the Savannah River lakes, are currently considering the idea of actively managing Lake Russell as a trophy striper fishery, according to SCDNR fisheries biologist Dan Rankin. Such a plan, if it were ever put into place, would likely include low-density striper stocking and a high minimum length requirement for keeping fish.

Presently, Lake Hartwell and Lake Thurmond are both stocked annually with stripers and hybrids, with the two states sharing stocking duties. Since 2001, the agencies have been stocking higher percentages of stripers in the striper/hybrid mix because of anglers' stated desire to have more of the larger-growing stripers in the mix. Last year, the two agencies stocked 608,671 stripers in Hartwell and 576,005 stripers in Lake Thurmond, according to Rankin.

"Higher stocking rates of stripers have resulted in stronger year-classes, based on our monitoring program," Rankin said. "Condition of stripers continues to be good even with increased numbers. Cooperative efforts of both DNRs toward maintaining higher and more consistent striped bass stocking rates, and the resulting strong year-classes, should bode well for striped bass fishing now and in the years to come."

No creel work has been completed on Hartwell or Thurmond in recent years; however, a five-year creel on Lake Russell, the Lake Russell tailwater and Lake Thurmond began a year ago. Casual reports from fishermen suggest that they enjoy very good fishing on Hartwell and Thurmond, with plenty of large stripers in the mix. The Georgia DNR, which puts together annual reservoir reports for anglers, forecasted good striper fishing for both lakes in their most recent report.

Striped bass feed mostly on threadfin shad and blueback herring in the Savannah River lakes. Herring, which are not native to the system, likely were introduced by fishermen or bait dealers. No surveys have been done to evaluate the specific structure of the baitfish population or to examine the extent to which stripers use the different species. Biologists do know that stripers make use of blueback herring, and they suspect the added forage has benefited stripers in the lakes.

Striper guides contend with certainly that striped bass prefer blueback herring to threadfin shad. Most guides use bluebacks exclusively for bait, having observed a very strong preference in the fish. In addition, Savannah River lakes anglers have witnessed a big decline in striper schooling activity over the past two decades. Herring tend to stay deep and are far less subject to being pushed to the surface than are threadfin shad, and the stripers often seem content to stay down among the herring instead of chasing shad all over the top.

In recent samples, SCDNR biologists also have found hickory shad in Lake Hartwell, which previously had not been documented to survive and reproduce in a land-locked reservoir habitat, Rankin said. This causes concern to biologists because the hickory shad they have captured have been large and they appear to be very predatory.

"One hundred percent of all hickory shad collected in last year's fall-winter net sampling contained threadfin shad in their guts," Rankin said.

Virtually all serious striper fishermen on the Savannah River lakes use live bait most of the time during the winter. A few fish are caught on jigging spoons, bucktails or other artificial offerings, but most anglers use live bait. Herring are the baitfish of choice; however, anglers who don't have the capacity to keep herring alive (which pretty much requires a large round tank with a good filtering and aeration system) will use bait shop shiners as a substitute.

Fishing locations vary enormously, based on wind direction, water temperature, power-generation patterns and a host of other variables that affect baitfish movements. Many stripers are caught near the dams in the lower main bodies of Hartwell and Thurmond during the winter. However, many others are caught well up creek arms, especially during strings of sunny days that draw schools of baitfish shallow. Bait dealers know the general areas the stripers have been using. Seagulls and other boats also offer good clues.

Stripers also will use a broad range of depths during late winter, so what an angler sees on his graph dictates much about specific setups. Generally speaking, however, the baitfish and stripers will be fairly high in the water column. Therefore, flat lines, float lines and planer board lines will account for the most stripers. Planers are commonly used both to run baits over very shallow water and to spread baits out and get them away from the boat in open water.

A reciprocal licensing agreement between South Carolina and Georgia allows anglers properly licensed by either state to fish anywhere on t

he Savannah River lakes. The lakes fall under statewide striped bass regulations. The combined striper/hybrid limit is 10 fish, with no minimum size. Access to Hartwell and Thurmond is outstanding, with dozens of state and county parks and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recreation areas providing access to all parts of the lakes.

LAKE MURRAY

Lake Murray fishermen were glad to get their whole lake back last year, after two years of the water having been drawn down for dam repairs. With the lake back at full pool, the SCDNR resumed full-scale striper stockings, after having reduced the stocking rate by one-third during the two years the lake was down.

Last year, the SCDNR stocked Lake Murray with slightly more than one million striped bass. Along with stocking the lake, biologists are studying stocking success and how it varies from site to site. The research, which will continue for at least five years, will track fish that have been stocked in various parts of the lake to identify areas that offer optimal habitat for maximum survival.

The SCDNR also resumed sampling last year, having stopped during the drawdown years because of logistical considerations and because the sample would not have been comparable to other years' samples and thus would not have been very useful.

The 2005 sample results were not fully compiled when this issue went to press; however, fisheries biologist Wade Bales could see that the stripers were in very good condition. He also noted that the 21-inch size limit still appears to be working very well on Lake Murray.

"We do not have a creel survey on Murray right now, but consultation with striper clubs indicates the catch of 20-pound-plus fish appears to be on the rise, and many 30-plus-pounders have been caught during the last 12 months," Bales said.

As is the case in the Savannah River lakes, Lake Murray stripers feed on shad and non-native blueback herring. Past surveys conducted by fisheries biologist Gene Hayes reveal that the herring have been in the lake since the mid-1980s. As on the Savannah River lakes, they probably were moved to Murray from other waters by fishermen or bait dealers.

"To date, we have not tried to evaluate what percentage of the total fish population is made up of bluebacks," Bales said. "However, it is apparent that there is a population present and the stripers have utilized bluebacks efficiently as a prey base. Bluebacks have probably helped sustain and grow the striper population in Murray over the years."

Bluebacks seemingly are less of a factor on Murray than on the Savannah River lakes in terms of how they affect striper behavior. While Lake Murray stripers don't school as readily as they did years ago, schools can come up at any time, and anglers always should have a topwater lure or a bucktail handy. Likewise, they commonly push shad to the banks of creeks and the backs of coves during late winter and early spring.

A lot of Lake Murray baitfish and stripers commonly congregate near "The Towers," beside Saluda Dam, during the winter, making the lake's open main body a good starting point for any angler who doesn't have other information about areas fish have been using. Once again, however, baitfish movements vary enormously from year to year, so fishermen who don't get out on the lake regularly really need to get fishing reports from bait shops or the Internet or plan to spend a lot of time searching.

The striper limit on Lake Murray is five fish, with a 21-inch minimum size. Access to Lake Murray is decent, with several ramps and marinas scattered around the lake. The best access to the lower lake is from a big public ramp beside the dam on the Irmo side. Dreher Island State Park offers access to the upper lake.

SANTEE COOPER LAKES

No discussion of big-water stripers in South Carolina would be complete without a look at the Santee Cooper lakes -- the home of our nation's first permanently inland striped bass population. Lakes Marion and Moultrie, which together with the canals that link and drain them and make up the Santee Cooper system, clearly are big waters, spreading over more than 170,000 acres.

While the two lakes are clearly distinct, their waters are linked and they share a single striped bass population, according to SCDNR fisheries biologist Scott Lamprecht. Various studies have shown that a fish that's in the lower end of Lake Moultrie any given day easily could show up in the Santee River, near the head of Lake Marion, a couple of weeks later.

In a couple of significant ways, the Santee Cooper lakes are different from any other lake in South Carolina, and both distinctions have some impact on late-winter striper fishing patterns. First, many of the stripers are homegrown -- the product of annual spawning runs up the Congaree and Wateree rivers. Second, the Santee Cooper lakes support significant populations of six different shad and herring species.

The urge to spawn triggers a general movement up the system late in the winter and into the spring. While not all fish make the run and the movements are widespread, anglers should be aware that concentrations of fish will begin working their way up the Santee River as winter gives way to spring.

Despite very good natural reproduction, the SCDNR stocks 2.5 million 1- to 2-inch fingerling stripers per year in the Santee Cooper lakes. During years when the spawn is highly successful, most fish recruited into the fishery come from natural reproduction. However, during poor years, the stocked fish fill the same niche and get recruited into the population, virtually eliminating "down years."

The abundance of baitfish and the diversity of baitfish species clearly help the overall quality of the striped bass population. In years when certain species are less abundant, others tend to be plentiful. In short, there is always food.

At the same time, the widely varied forage probably makes winter patterns a bit less defined than they otherwise might be. Each baitfish species is a little different from the rest in its behavior and habitat preferences, so the stripers find food in a lot of different types of areas. While that makes big concentrations of stripers a little less certain, it opens more possible patterns for fishermen.

During the coldest part of winter, the most significant baitfish concentrations, and consequently stripers, tend to be in the lower ends of the lakes, where the water is deepest, according to Lamprecht. Menhaden, which are exclusive to the Santee Cooper lakes in South Carolina, are the most temperature-sensitive of the baitfish species, followed by threadfin shad. Both species congregate near Santee Dam on Lake Marion and Pinopolis Dam on Lake Moultrie throughout the winter. While the other species are less temperature sensitive, they, too, tend to favor the same areas during the coldest parts of winter.

Anglers who fish around the dams typically use the same baitfish that attract the concentrations of stripers. However, when stripers push baitfish to the surface within casting range, a white bucktail cast into the melee is likely to get stopped i

n its tracks by a hungry striper.

The lower end of Lake Moultrie is significantly easier to fish than the lower end of Lake Marion because of all the standing timber and stumps in the Marion. Lamprecht believes that Marion's action holds more of the lakes' stripers most of the time; however, catch rates are always higher on Moultrie because navigation and fishing are easier for most fishermen.

The first warm days of late winter and early spring begin triggering changes in fishing patterns. Baitfish and stripers will begin moving to shallow areas that get warmed by the sun and toward any warm areas of rain run-off, and some fish begin migrating up Santee Cooper system, toward the spawning grounds.

Unlike the Savannah River lakes and Lake Murray, the Santee Cooper lakes do not produce many true heavyweights. Marion and Moultrie are far better known for fast action from 5- to 10-pound fish than for trophy stripers. The lakes do still contain a remnant from a fabulous 1998 year-class, which now weigh between 12 and 15 pounds, but those fish are becoming ever fewer in number, Lamprecht said.

Dozens of marinas and fish camps and a few public ramps provide access to all parts of the Santee Cooper system. Randolphs Landing offers good access to the lower end of Lake Marion. Blacks Camp offers good access to Lake Moultrie. For information about landings, guides, lodging and much more, call Santee Cooper Country at (800) 227-8510 or go online to

www.santeecoopercountry.com.

The striped bass limit on the Santee Cooper lakes is five fish, with a 21-inch minimum size.

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