By Jeff Samsel
Sometimes you just have to hang on.
When a chunky striped bass realizes it’s hooked at the end of your line and takes off running, trying to reel against it or steer the fish hard with your rod is futile. You just have to keep a decent load in the rod against the fish and hope the striper runs out of steam or turns on its own before you run out of line.
Adding to the thrills – and confusion – is the fact that stripers often travel in schools. That means that about the time you set the hook into one fish, a couple more rods may be about to dart down. Get a few big stripers on multiple lines at one time, with all of the fish running in different directions, and things can get pretty exciting.
Striped bass serve up very good fishing through late summer in South Carolina. Dog days conditions cause the fish to concentrate in certain areas of lakes, creating predictable patterns and sometimes sizzling action that continues into early fall. Fishing can be good by day or by night on various lakes throughout the state for anglers who know how to target stripers.
Anglers in the Piedmont have numerous options for midsummer striped bass. Among the best are two of the three lakes that impound the Savannah River and Lake Greenwood and its tailwater. Let’s take a closer look at each of these destinations.
A large lake with abundant deep water, Thurmond offers very good habitat for stripers and hybrids throughout the year. It’s also loaded with forage, including blueback herring, threadfin shad and gizzard shad, and it is heavily stocked with stripers and hybrids by the South Carolina and Georgia departments of natural resources. The two departments share management duties for the lake, which runs right along the border of the two states.
Lake Thurmond, also more commonly known as Clarks Hill, gets stocked annually with 15 fingerling stripers and hybrids per acre. The stocking proportion is seven stripers to eight hybrids. The yearly total, which comes to just over a million fish, has remained the same for many years. However, two years ago, the number of stripers in the mix was more than doubled in response to a high angler interest in catching more stripers and especially more big stripers.
Lake Thurmond produces plenty of heavyweight stripers, according to Wade Bales, fisheries biologist over the lake for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR). It yields some 40-pound-plus fish every year and, in fact, coughed up some trophies early this spring.
A fishing forecast published annually by the Georgia DNR described striper and hybrid fishing as phenomenal on Lake Thurmond. The report said that stripers average 8 pounds and noted that they currently are shaped like “footballs” because of easier access to forage during drought years. The report mentioned several “monsters” having been caught last year and predicted more of the same this year.
Traditionally, the best midsummer fishing on Lake Thurmond has been in the upper third or so of the lake, along the main-river channel, because of the cooling influence of the Richard B. Russell Dam tailwater. Because of commercial pump-back operations through Russell Dam, however, the water in the tailwater will not stay as cool this summer, and that refuge area will probably be lost.
For boating anglers, that means that they will likely want to look for fish farther down the river than they traditionally have through the dog days. Bank-fishermen will probably lose much of the popular tailwater fishery through the summer. Bank-fishing access is outstanding on both sides of the tailwater, but this section may not provide suitable striper habitat through the heart of summer because of pump-back operations, Bales said.
Because pump-back operations did not begin until late last summer, striper fishermen have not yet learned how a complete summer of full-scale operations will affect dog days fishing. Bales suspected that larger numbers of fish will use the lake’s lower main body, instead of the upper main body, but that most fish will still be along the old Savannah River channel.
Lake Thurmond is an extremely popular night-fishing destination during late summer, and that should remain unchanged. Anglers look for baitfish and stripers on the graph in the late afternoon or evening in order to identify a general area, and then they anchor over a point in that area that stretches out to the main channel. Most anglers put out several live herring, either on the bottom or suspended on down-lines directly below the boat, and then wait on fish.
Stripers use the main channel as a travel route and move from point to point in search of food. Fishing action commonly occurs in flurries, with extended dead spells broken by periods of furious action.
As summer begins to give way to fall, Lake Thurmond also produces some very good school fishing. The fish will school some during mornings and afternoons during late summer, but surface activity will pick up throughout the fall. Again, the lake’s main body and the lower ends of major creeks are the key areas for looking for fish. Squawking and diving gulls, boats racing to an area, and fish breaking the surface will give the schools away.
For schooling stripers, most fishermen will start out throwing topwater plugs. Often, however, schooling stripers will hit a bucktail, grub or shallow-diving plug much better than a topwater lure, and subsurface offerings will sometimes yield larger fish. Of course, the best thing to throw into a school of frenzied stripers is a fresh herring on a free-line – if you have time to get the bait there.
More than 35 ramps provide access to all parts of Lake Thurmond. Clarks Hill Park offers good public access to the lower main body on the South Carolina side. Calhoun Falls Park is the closest access point to Richard B. Russell Dam.
The combined striper/hybrid limit on Lake Thurmond is 10 fish, with no minimum size. A reciprocal licensing agreement allows anglers properly licensed in Georgia or South Carolina to fish anywhere on the lake.
Interestingly, McConnell’s fish replaced a fish caught from Lake Russell in the record books, and that one replaced a fish caught from Lake Thurmond. The last three state-record stripers, therefore, have come from the Savannah River lakes, with each of the three lakes having taken a turn on top.
Similar to Lake Thurmond, Lake Hartwell is a large reservoir that offers abundant striper habitat through most of the year. Habitat does get somewhat squeezed through late summer, but Bales has only been aware of one small summer kill of stripers since he took over as biologist in charge of the Savannah River lakes in 1992.
The fishing forecast published by the Georgia DNR suggested that average striper sizes are smaller on Lake Hartwell than on Thurmond, but that it also offers outstanding trophy-fish potential. Like Thurmond, Hartwell gets stocked with 16 fish per acre, but in Hartwell’s case, six of every 16 are stripers. Like on Thurmond, the percentage of stripers in Hartwell’s stocking mix was doubled a couple of years ago.
Abundant herring and shad keep Lake Hartwell’s stripers very well fed at all times, and all three species (or bait shop shiners) can be used as bait. Most veteran anglers agree, however, that a live blueback herring makes the best bait. McConnell caught his record fish on a live herring while drifting in the lower end of the lake.
Because of the habitat crunch that takes place on Lake Hartwell every summer, most striper fishing occurs in the lower third of the lake, typically downstream of the confluence of the Tugaloo and Seneca rivers. Anglers focus on the lake’s main body and the mouths of lower-lake creeks and fish close to the thermocline. Like on Lake Thurmond, a lot of anglers do the bulk of their fishing at night, when stripers will become more active and will move a bit shallower to feed.
Most anglers set up on points or humps that are along the Savannah River channel, like they do on Lake Thurmond, and wait for the fish to come to them. During the day, most anglers drift or use trolling motors to move about slowly in search of the fish, which roam less when the summer sun is high in the sky.
On Lake Hartwell, virtually all serious summer striper fishing is done with live bait, and most anglers favor blueback herring. Scattered topwater flurries provide fun fishing when they happen, but the surface action isn’t predictable and usually isn’t large-scale.
One major difference between Lake Hartwell and Lake Thurmond is that substantial stands of timber were topped off but not cleared when Hartwell was impounded in 1952. Stripers hang in the tops of those trees and will come up just far enough to grab baits. Big fish head straight back toward the timber when they are hooked, and many giants end up escaping that way. McConnell, in fact, had to keep his record fish from a stand of sunken trees that has accounted for a lot of big fish lost over the years.
Access to Lake Hartwell is outstanding, with more than 75 boat ramps spread around the lake. Ten different ramps on the South Carolina side provide access to the lower main body.
Striper/hybrid regulations are the same on Hartwell as on Lake Thurmond, and the same reciprocal agreement applies. Because of PCB contamination, anglers are advised to not eat any stripers or hybrids from Lake Hartwell.
Lake Greenwood, which is only about 60 feet deep near its dam and is quite fertile, suffers from a severe habitat crunch during the summer. Water temperatures soar and dissolved oxygen levels plummet through the dog days after the lake stratifies. A narrow band of barely suitable habitat remains in the deepest waters near the dam, right around the thermocline.
Last summer, with drought conditions, the band got too narrow, resulting in a significant fish kill. Most years, the fish limp through. However, this annual tough spell limits Greenwood’s capacity to produce big stripers, which require better habitat than do smaller fish. During the ’90s, it also caused biologists to cut striper stockings from annual to biannual. Currently, Lake Greenwood gets stocked every other year with 25 fish per acre, which comes to about 270,000 fish.
While Lake Greenwood doesn’t produce many big stripers, it does generally yield good fishing action during late summer and fall. Through late summer the fish get stacked up, making the fish-finding process much easier. During the fall, fish will begin pushing shad to the surface, creating fun school-fishing in the same general part of the lake.
During August, most fishermen use live threadfin shad and fish the open main body of Lake Greenwood, staying within a mile or two of the dam. Some begin by doing a lot of searching with their electronics. Others put their lines down and drift. If no wind is blowing, they will use their trolling motors to “create a drift.”
Whether drifting or slowly trolling, most anglers keep a marker buoy within reach at all times. If something really interesting shows up on the graph or if a couple of rods surge down at one time, fishermen want to be able to circle back and hit that spot again.
Unless they mark several stripers or big schools of baitfish at a different depth, the majority of fishermen will keep most baits pretty close to the thermocline, which will show up as a gray band on most graphs. Anglers rig up with Carolina rigs, count baits down to the desired depth with measured strips against the rod and then put all rods in holders.
Some anglers also do their fishing at night, anchoring over humps that rise close to the deepest water and shining lights down in the water. They still use live bait, but they may spread them over a bigger range of depths, as stripers will feed shallower at night. A third effective approach is controlled-depth trolling, but this requires either downriggers or lead-core lines and is quite specialized.
Below Buzzards Roost, the fishing scenario is completely different. “The tailwater area probably offers the best and most popular striper fishing in this area,” said Gene Hayes, a regional fisheries biologist for the SCDNR.
The Buzzards Roost tailwater is best known for its spring striper run, when fish run
upstream from Lake Murray in a spawning attempt. However, research done with marked fish has shown that a separate striper population stays in the river year ’round. Through late summer, many of those fish seek thermal refuge in the cooler waters that flow from the dam.
Below the dam, most anglers fish from riprap banks, going as close to the dam as regulations allow. Bank-fishing access is very good on both sides of the river, with developed parking areas and room to fish. As part of the dam re-licensing process a few years ago, Duke Energy did significant work improving access to the tailwater. There is no boat ramp, but anglers can hand-launch boats to drift the river.
Shoreline fishermen often use surf-casting gear to make long casts into the swift water, usually with artificial lures. A lot of anglers use bucktails or grubs on leadheads, according to Hayes. Others use spoons, big minnow-imitating lures or topwater plugs.
The best fishing, most anglers agree, occurs when one or two turbines are turning. “They catch stripers on all water levels, though,” Hayes said.
While the bulk of the fishing is done from the banks, anglers also can hand-launch canoes or small johnboats below the dam and drift downstream to the Highway 39 bridge at Chappells. Stripers are apt to be scattered throughout that stretch feeding over shoals and gravel bars, especially when a couple of turbines are turning. The same shoals make it difficult to reach these waters in motorized boats from downstream access points.
If striper fishing isn’t on your schedule this summer, maybe it’s time to change your agenda. These waters offer a variety of opportunities for some of the biggest freshwater fish in the state. Give it a try this summer.
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