Photo by Tom Evans
Striper fishing and South Carolina simply go hand in hand. We are indeed fortunate to have several premier lakes in our state for striper fishing. In fact, during the cold-weather months of winter, the biggest problem is not finding a good place to fish; it’s deciding which of the good waters will be the best place to fish.
But we’ve chosen three of the top lakes in the state for striper fishing during the cold winter months, with January being the target month for our focus: Murray, Clarks Hill (a.k.a. Lake Thurmond) and the Santee-Cooper lakes.
At all of these lakes you have the opportunity to take limits of fish in short order if you time your trip right and are at the right place at the right time. But even on days when the fishing isn’t red-hot, you can still make excellent catches, provided you have a good game plan and are willing to put in some effort.
For example, sometime about the middle of last January, I set out on a striper trip to one of the best striper lakes in the Palmetto State: Lake Murray. The striper reports from Lake Murray had been sensational. Lots of legal-sized fish were being caught and anglers were catching them using all three of the most common striper techniques: casting to stripers schooling on the surface, drifting live bait, and trolling.
But as luck would have it, the precise timing of my trip was at the tail end of a prolonged cold snap, during which the morning lows were in the mid-teens and the daytime highs scarcely pushed above the freezing point. The water temperature had dropped dramatically in the three or four days before I arrived and the red-hot fishing had shut down. While it made the fishing a bit more uncomfortable and the fish a bit more difficult to figure out, it also illustrated why this lake is so good in terms of striper fishing. Despite the “you-should-have-been-here-yesterday” situation, we still caught fish. Even in the most severe weather conditions, if you know what you’re doing and have a good game plan, you can catch stripers at this lake.
Fortunately, I was fishing with some anglers who knew precisely what they were doing. Todd Huntley and Rick Rhyne, veteran anglers on this lake, and another good buddy, Travis Jackson, were not backing off because of the cold weather. In fact, based on the success Huntley and Rhyne had been having in their guide business, we were really pumped about the trip and we figured there would simply be less competition on the lake.
However, the first few hours of fishing were rather slow. In fact, the action did turn out to be as cold as the weather at the outset. There were a few other boats around, but no one was catching any fish. The seagulls were traveling all over the lake in what seemed a vain search for food, and we were traveling with them, looking for the fish that would be pushing the shad to the surface.
But the knowledge and persistence of these two guides finally paid off. They kept working drops, ledges, humps and points, all of which are potentially excellent structures on this lake. Rhyne noted, “It’s almost like a process of elimination. The lake is full of stripers and stripers are eating machines. We just have to stay focused and keep working the places they like to eat and we’ll eventually hook up with them.”
As the morning progressed into midday, we did notice more and more baitfish activity. The gulls were also growing more active. Because we kept moving up and down the lake, checking one potentially good structure after another, we were in the right place at the right time when the fish finally became active. Within a few minutes in the middle of the day, we caught several stripers and a couple of bonus largemouth bass while jigging spoons along a channel drop.
That particular drop had drawn our attention because it had a huge gob of shad on it. That much forage can’t help but attract game fish eventually. By the way, the largemouth bass were excellent size, with Jackson landing one largemouth in the 6- to 7-pound class. That’s a real bonus to any striper-fishing trip.
Huntley noted that there are several keys to consistently catching fish at this lake during the winter and anglers will score better catches if they focus on these points.
“First, stripers are going to eat and you’ve got to focus your fishing effort in the area of the lake where there are plenty of shad on which the stripers can forage,” Huntley said. “Right now (January), the cold weather has pushed most of the shad up the lake and most of the striper fishing success is in the upper third of the lake. This is fairly typical for this time of the year. But a few weeks ago, the shad were massed in the lower part of the lake. By fishing as much as we do, we were able to follow the transition as it occurred and could stay on the fish. But if a fisherman gets out and doesn’t mark a lot of baitfish on his graph, I’d suggest moving up or down the lake until shad are found.”
Rhyne also noted that shad are greatly influenced by weather trends. They move a great deal, and fairly often as weather changes dictate.
“Later in the winter as the water begins to warm, the shad will migrate down to the middle or lower part of the lake and you can be sure the stripers will follow throughout the winter,” Rhyne added.
Both anglers stress how important it is for anglers to focus their search on the right structures, including points, humps, ledges, creek channel bends and even creek or river channel ledges.
“The key,” Rhyne notes, “is to stay on the move and use your graph recorder to help you interpret what’s going on under the water, especially on days when the fish are not surface schooling much.”
You will know for sure if you’re in the right area if you see surface schooling activity. While there are days when you have to resort to fishing underwater structures, as we did on our trip, there are many other days where the gulls will lead you directly to the schooling fish. On those days, you need to merely get in the right part of the lake and follow the gulls.
On other days, or during periods when the gull activity is subdued, you need to let your graph be your guide. The fish will hold at varying depths, according to water color and the part of the lake you’re fishing, Huntley notes. The farther up the lake you fish, the shallower you are likely to find the stripers.
We finally found fish in three or four different places, ranging in depth from 10 feet down to about 25 feet. According to Rhyne and Huntley, this is pretty typical for winter fishing.
However, at any time, there’s the possibility that the stripers will begin to feed on the surface near you, so be prepared to cast topwater lures at a moment’s notice, even if your primary technique involves trolling or live bait. Large bucktail jigs in the 1/2- to 3/4-ounce size, teardrop-type spoons and minnow-imitating crankbaits are all productive lures for surfacing fish. Another excellent lure is a soft bait called a “Big J” made by Hawg Caller. Huntley and Rhyne work this around weedbeds and when fish are shallow for some explosive action. They also troll Blakemore Roadrunners on an umbrella rig and catch plenty of stripers with that method.
In addition, Huntley and Rhyne will quickly resort to live bait and pull herring along ledges and over humps. “Some big fish are caught in this manner,” Rhyne said.
The average fish taken will be in the 4- to 7-pound class. Anglers are apt to catch a number of fish that must be released because of the size limit restriction. But a typical day will consist of plenty of keeper-sized fish, too, and there will be an occasional striper that breaks the 10-pound size. They caught stripers up to 30 pounds last year, which is plenty of fish for anyone.
You can contact Rhyne and Huntley for more information or to book a trip by calling (846) 472-2006, or perhaps catch them on the lake for a live fishing report at (864) 316-4357. You can also visit their Web site at http://www. firstname.lastname@example.org/.
One angler who has figured the striper fishing out is Jim Ware of Plum Branch. Ware has been guiding at this lake for many years and he says the lake has such a wide diversity of structures for stripers that learning the how-to here will prepare anglers for most any lake with a good striper fishery.
“Winter striper fishing is one of my favorite activities, and as a professional guide, I need consistent action throughout the season,” Ware said. “One positive aspect is that during the cold months, the fish get on long-term patterns that are much easier to keep up with than during other times of the year. The fall and spring season can bring excellent fishing, but the rapidly changing weather and water conditions make keeping up with these very mobile fish more difficult.”
Not only are stripers slow to change what they’re doing this time of year on this lake, the patterns the fish choose are usually relatively predictable, he adds. And there are some good fish around to be caught, too.
“As the season progresses into late January and February, more big female stripers will begin to show up and some of the biggest fish of the year can be taken then,” Ware said. “And good numbers of fish are the rule, not the exception.”
Two things are required of anglers who want to be successful here. First, fishermen need to be able to efficiently seek out stripers on a number of specific types of structure. Second, the angler must be patient.
Many local anglers prefer to key on underwater creek and river channels. Along these areas they also like to find a second distinctive piece of habitat – cover or secondary structure – where the fish are more likely to stop and congregate.
Ware fishes a variety of lures, including surface lures, crankbaits, and bottom-bumping jigs and jigging spoons. But his bread-and-butter producer during this time of the year is live bait.
“During January when the water temperature really begins to dip down and gets into the upper and mid-40s, sometimes lower or higher depending on recent weather trends, I’ve found that using live bait is a prime way to target stripers,” he said.
As at Lake Murray, the two primary components for success at Clarks Hill are plenty of natural forage combined with good underwater structure. Once you find this combination, the next step is to make a proper presentation of the bait or lure.
The best structures on this lake are comparable to those found on Lake Murray. The humps, ledges, outside bends and points are all excellent. In addition, the junctions of major tributaries and the main river channel are likely spots for both bait and stripers. When tributary intersections occur, a long sloping point nearby usually becomes the focal point of the junction. Work along the point as well as along the creek ledges in both the main river and the tributary.
As the winter progresses toward early spring, you’ll likely begin to find the fish migrating farther up the tributary arm, because the fish will want to move with the bait and the bait will want to move toward the incoming tributary water that has been warmed by early-season rains. A good example of this type of place is the junction of Little River (on the South Carolina side of the lake) with the Savannah River.
Another prime structure type at Clarks Hill occurs in several places along the lake: the underwater islands where the feeder creeks actually split and encircle high spots. The most productive of these are close to the river channel; in a couple of cases, right at the mouth of the creek and river channel junction. These underwater “islands” are found in numerous areas along the lake, but a couple of good ones exist near Catfish Creek and Dry Fork Creek.
Stripers on Clarks Hill are very depth-specific and the productive depth will vary from day to day, even place to place during a day’s fishing. Ware suggests having the bait right at, or slightly above, the level of the fish. Stripers will come up to take a bait, but more often they will go deeper, especially when the water temperature is low.
These lakes are historically noted as among the premier striper lakes in the state (and nation, for that matter), and the striper fishing continues to be excellent. Most local fishermen and guides note that the winter striper fishing can include both good topwater schooling action and live bait fishing.
The water here is not as clear or as deep as the other two lakes we’ve discussed, and the tackle used may need to be a bit heavier, especially in Lake Marion. In the open-water portion of this lake, where most of the stripers are taken during this time of the year, the water is full of standing timber and underwater snags where trees have fallen through the years. You need stout gear to keep the fish out of the snags.
Chasing the gulls is one very popular method of fishing here, but beware of the stumps and logs when doing this on Lake Marion. Lake Moultrie co
ntains fewer snags and stumps and therefore is more conducive to chasing schooling fish. Flathead bucktails in the 3/4- and 1-ounce size are excellent baits as are Striper Delights for surface-feeding fish.
When the fish are not active on the surface, use shad or shiners as a live-bait offering, and wind drift the offering over areas where plenty of forage fish have been marked on the graph. Often you can get into some outstanding striper fishing without ever chasing a gull or seeing a fish break the surface until the one on the end of your line comes to the boat.
Many anglers simply sit and wait when the gulls are inactive. On this body of water, however, you can really be missing some outstanding fishing if you’re not using your graph to help you find the fish, especially at midday. On cloudy days, you can often enjoy good “gull chasing” all day, but on clear days, the fish work on the shad in deeper water. The stripers are still feeding; the shad are just too deep for the gulls.
Some local anglers have actually patterned this well enough that they sleep in on those cold mornings, then get out about the time the “gull watchers” are leaving. But they often return home with a limit of fish before the afternoon shift of gull watchers get out.
Regardless of where you live in South Carolina, you can get to at least one of the lakes within a reasonable amount of time. A real plus is that despite the cold weather, the striper fishing action can be really hot. It’s quite common on any of these lakes to have multiple fish hooked at once.
As Todd Huntley pointed out, “When you get on a school of wintertime stripers, the action can be all two or three fishermen can handle . . . and sometimes more. If that is something a fisherman thinks he would enjoy, then now’s the time to get out and do it.”
And he is most certainly right.
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