For bass-fishing fans across the state of South Carolina, 2009 was both a curse and a blessing. For three years, the majority of the state was held tight in the grip of yet another drought and anglers saw not only record low water levels but also the closure of many boat ramps and increased hazards on the water. Fortunately, the spring rains returned much-needed water, but rapidly rising water levels left bassers scrambling to pattern spawn-ready fish as they scattered back into new areas.
The hope of most fisheries biologists across the state is that 2010 will see a return to “normal,” though many are left scratching their heads to define exactly what “normal” means these days. To assist those bass fans as the cold temperatures of February begin to give way to March, South Carolina Game & Fish picked the brains of fisheries experts across the state to let anglers know what they can expect on the water this year.
Heading up the Piedmont Region from his office in Clemson, Regional Fisheries Coordinator Dan Rankin supervises a large number of great bass-fishing waters. The Savannah chain lakes of Hartwell, Russell and Thurmond, the mountain lakes of Keowee and Jocassee, Lake Greenwood on the Saluda, and a number of high-usage water district lakes in Greenville and Spartanburg are all under his leadership. The question Rankin gets the most is which one of these great fisheries is the best.
“In terms of overall numbers and sizes, I’d have to go with Lake Thurmond,” said Rankin. “Thurmond is a very fertile lake with faster growth rates than the other lakes on the Savannah. Combine that with the fact that it’s a huge lake that’s more in line now with normal water levels and that it’s not that close to a major population area, so it gets less pressure than say Lake Greenwood or Hartwell, and it pretty well tops the list.”
Tournament angler Mike Delvisco from Greer agrees with Rankin’s pick of Thurmond as a top destination.
“With Thurmond back up, it will scatter the fish for awhile but it won’t take long for them to get back to their pre-drought patterns,” said the Texas Roadhouse pro. “In fact, the dry shoreline that grew up with grass and is now under water will add a future dynamic to this year’s spawn and provide a great nursery to support bass fry for the future.”
As a fisheries coordinator, Rankin is charged with collecting both scientific data about the bass fisheries on his lakes and angler surveys to get an idea of what kind of experience anglers are having there. Sometimes those two factors don’t always add up.
“Lake Russell is a good example,” said Rankin. “All we ever hear from anglers is how good a bass fishery it is, and then we go down there to do electro-sampling surveys and we have trouble justifying what the anglers are telling us. Greenwood is just the opposite, our sampling shows Greenwood should be a great bass fishery with numbers of healthy fish, but our angler surveys say otherwise.”
One area where the Savannah chain and the mountain lakes stand apart from most others in the state is the presence of spotted bass.
“Right now, we estimate 30 percent of the black bass population in Russell are spotted bass,” submits Rankin. “Compare that to Keowee where 70 percent of the bass population is spots and there are some concerns. In the past, we have seen largemouth numbers decrease in correlation to a rise in the number of spotted bass. We were hoping to see largemouth numbers improve on Keowee, but our surveys from 2007 showed the numbers were still down.”
When asked which lake he would point to as having the potential for producing a trophy bass, something in the 8-pound-plus range or even larger, Rankin was also steadfast in his answer.
“Several years ago, I would have suggested one of the water district lakes above Greenville and Spartanburg which were producing numbers of 10-pound fish,” he said. “But now, I’d have to say Jocassee. That lake is somewhat of an anomaly. It’s a deep, clear and very infertile lake and the bass in it grow slower than anywhere else. But those fish really gorge themselves on blueback herring which are established in the lake, and they grow to old ages and pretty big sizes.”
“Another great thing about Jocassee is it’s one of the only places to catch largemouths, smallmouths and spots, all in the same lake,” said pro Mike Delvisco who regularly fishes smaller lakes around his home in Greer, but relishes the chance to fish the deep mountain lake. “Plus it has the potential to produce a trophy fish for all three species.”
Speaking of the “Greer Chain” of lakes, these water district lakes, which are owned and operated by various water companies in Greenville and Spartanburg counties, offer some pretty convenient bass fishing and the size and numbers are more than respectable.
“All of these lakes are more fertile than the Savannah chain,” said Rankin. “They also get more pressure than any of the big lakes when you look at their relative size to the number of anglers who use them.
“Blalock, one of the Spartanburg water reservoirs, is making a great comeback after the lake was lowered to raise the level of the dam,” said Rankin. “Although most of the bigger trees along the bank were cleared, a lot of smaller growth plants were left. We’ve shocked up there since the lake level rose, and our surveys show the bass numbers are really coming up.”
Region 2 includes such lakes as Wylie, Wateree, Fishing Creek, Monticello and a number of smaller impoundments throughout the Pee Dee area. Based in Florence, Elizabeth Osier is the Regional Coordinator for this area and shared some of her region’s findings from surveys conducted recently.
“We did age analysis surveys on Wylie, Monticello and Fishing Creek two years ago and just completed Cedar Creek in the spring of 2009,” she said. “Fishing Creek had the highest densities of largemouth bass of any of those lakes we sampled. Our catch rate, using electroshocking, was 95.33 fish per hour. That doesn’t convert well to anglers using hook and line, but it does show the relative abundance of bass in Fishing Creek. This lake also gets the nod for the best potential in the future based on the large numbers of fish we saw in the 14- to 16-inch range.”