For some fishing and hunting opportunities, right now represents some of the best opportunities of the year — winter is not the “dead” of the year, but instead it represents prime time for select fishing and hunting trips.
We’ll take a look at several possibilities for South Carolina outdoorsmen around the state.
STRIPERS AT LAKE WATEREE
Good striper fishing can be found at several lakes around the state but one overlooked hotspot that’s producing a lot of striper limits in the past two years is Lake Wateree.
Justin Whiteside guides on several lakes, including Lake Wateree, and he says the striper fishing has become outstanding on this slightly out-of-the-way lake northeast of Columbia and south of Rock Hill.
“Last December and January we absolutely smoked the stripers on Lake Wateree, right through most of the winter,” Whiteside said. “While my ‘go-to’ tactic is using live bait, on some days we’ll enjoy some sensational topwater schooling action. The entire lake can be productive, but my target area is generally the middle portion of the lake from Dutchman Creek down past Colonel’s Creek. Using a variety of techniques is the key to success at this time of year.”
When setting up for live bait fishing, Whiteside ensures plenty of forage fish are in the area and he uses several different presentations, looking for the right one for that given day.
On a trip last winter with Whiteside, he started by setting up planer boards to get the bait away from the boat, because some days stripers are somewhat skittish and boat-shy. But on this cold morning, with a low temperature of 17 degees, he scarcely got the second planer board rig baited when the first one started skiing across the water with a hooked-up striper. In between more striper bites he also set out free lines — simply live bait with no weight — as well as down rods, which offered the stripers live bait on rigs fished straight under the boat with a sinker to target a specific depth.
It took him 30 mintues to get all his rigs out because every time he got a couple more rigs out one or both would hook up with stripers, forcing him to net fish, re-bait and start the set-up process again.
It was a situation the other two of us in the boat were fine with.
By the time Whiteside got all of his rigs set up the way he wanted them, we already had a dozen stripers in the boat. The current creel limit at Lake Wateree is similar to a few other lakes in the state: A 10-fish-per-person, no-minimum-size limit.
“I’m getting the feeling the cold weather isn’t hurting the striper bite today,” he said.
Whiteside said that on some days, one of the presentations will produce more consistently than the others, so he’ll rig more rods in that manner. But on some days, and this was one, it simply did not matter. The down rods with bait presented at 14 to 16 feet, the free lines with bait shallow, and the planer board rigs away from the boat, with small sinkers to keep the bait at mid-depths, all produced equally well and multiple fish hookups were common that morning. We fished one place that even had topwater schooling action.
It doesn’t take long to limit when the action is like that.
SKINNY WATER AND FAT BASS FISHING AT SANTEE COOPER
Largemouth bass are caught year-round on artificial lures, but when the weather gets cold their metabolic rate slows. Under these conditions, using live bait is a favorite tactic among anglers who are after the huge bass in the Santee Cooper lakes.
Anglers at Lake Marion target the upper end of that lake, while at Moultrie the focus is on the shallow water that rings the lake.
Black’s Camp owner and guide Kevin Davis has worked on the live bait technique in recent years because of the skinny water and fat bass cold-weather connection.
“Using live bait for big bass has been around for a long time, but it is especially effective during the cold months of January and February,” Davis said.
Davis (843-312-3080) said the key is rigs, the setup, then finding the right area to target big bass. He said he often anchors when fishing live bait.
“I don’t expect a lot of bites from bass in cold weather but it’s an excellent way to catch a trophy fish, take pictures and release that fish to spawn in the spring,” he said. “We do have some days when we hook numerous bass.”
His rig is simple but effective. He typically uses large, live shiners, and live herring if shiners are hard to find. He uses a 3/0 circle hook to hook the shiner in the tail so they swim better. He does not use any weight, allowing the bait to move more naturally. He spools 10-pound-test braid line on spinning reels.
“The spinning reels are easier to use when casting live bait,” he said. “Shiners are more durable than herring and that’s a plus for them. Herring are more delicate — harder to keep alive — but largemouth love them.”
Davis primarily targets three basic areas, with his favorite being depressions that drop from shallow water down to 5 to 7 feet deep on shallow flats. He typically uses an anchor in this setup. He’ll also fish 3- to 6-foot-deep humps, but targets only those humps near deeper water. The best humps are littered with stumps and woody cover. These cover combinations are also best fished from an anchored position.
In the third method he uses on winter bass, he does not anchor, but instead moves the boat slowly, working bait along grass lines that drop into deeper water. He’ll cast the shiner toward the grass and let the bait swim around small cuts and points in the grass where bass set up to ambush forage.
He says that unlike other times of the year, the time of day has little impact on success and often the best fishing is around mid-day.
FISHING FOR SEATROUT NEAR CHARLESTON
Speckled trout fishing can be fantastic throughout the fall but when the weather turns winterish some anglers look for other species. But Capt. Joe Dennis from Bonneau, a guide for both fresh and saltwater species, says December is excellent for trout fishing.
“As the water cools, bait selection and presentation is more relevant to success,” Dennis said. “In the fall trout are aggressive but during December and later, limits of trout are caught in excellent sizes, but it’s a kind of fishing that requires precision.”
Dennis says there are a number of ways to catch trout.
“My number one in December and January is live bait and I think the best baits are shrimp or mudminnows,” he said. “For artificial lures, the jig head and grub produces plenty of bites and a grub with a mudminnow trailer will often produce.”
Dennis (843-245-3762) said during December trout are usually found in the creeks, bays and rivers. Find forage and you’ll likely find trout.
“Trout ambush their forage and a point created by the junction of two creeks is potentially an excellent spot,” he said. “Also outside bends in the creek channel, especially where there’s a big oyster bed, is another favored place for these fish to congregate in December.
“One favorite rig is a 1/4-ounce red jighead and electric chicken grub pattern,” he said. “As the water gets colder, live bait also seems to produce excellent results and there are days when live bait is best. Mudminnows are available commercially if you can’t catch other bait and I recommend taking live bait on every trip. The deeper we get into winter the more reliable live bait will become.”
Dennis said a point of land or a junction of a creek mouth with another creek or river is a prime place to find trout.
“These features form eddies and water current changes that attract baitfish,” he said. “I’ll usually work them with artificial lures first. If that doesn’t work, I use live bait under a popping cork and I let the current move the bait along the grass or near the shore. Sometimes we’ll hit a bunch of fish in one place, but more often during colder weather it’s a pattern where we catch a few here and there — but it still doesn’t take long to stack up a bunch of trout.”
LATE SEASON DEER HUNTING
Where you deer hunt during December may vary depending on whether you have access to private property or must hunt on public lands. But in this last month of the deer season one key factor for hunters is overcoming the extended hunting pressure the deer have been under during the long South Carolina season. Among public lands the Sumter or Francis Marion national forests are excellent choices but because of pressure, these public lands typically require hunters to get far off the beaten path.
Of course, private land hunting can also be an excellent choice. How that land is managed is important. One lowcountry hotspot is Blackwater Hunting Services in Ulmer, South Carolina. This 8,000-acre deer hunting operation hosts hunters from mid-August until season’s end on January 1.
Terry Hiers owns and manages Blackwater and his goal is to have excellent hunting throughout the season. Hiers manages the hunting pressure on his stands to minimize negative long-term impacts.
“Hunting pressure on late-season deer is something we cope with,” Hiers said. “Pressure on deer creates dramatic behavioral differences and it’s not something a hunter can completely overcome, because deer have a natural survival instinct to adapt to hunting pressure. But hunters can adapt strategies to overcome these impacts.”
Hiers (803-671-4868) says the stands he selects reflect an effort to hunt deer in the right environment. He notes that one way he adapts is to change stands being hunted from where the deer were in pre-rut and rut to where they are apt to be once they adopt their late-season feeding and bedding patterns.
“As deer transition from rut to late-season patterns they’ll change areas,” he said. “Deer get used to permanent deer stand locations and we switch the stands we hunt to those not used until December hunting. These stands typically are remote and often deeper in the woods during late season.”
Hiers said he doesn’t use climbing stands at Blackwater but he would certainly recommend them for hunters with that capability. A perfect example would be to get in a climbing stand between two frequently used permanent stands.
Hiers notes that having a food source is always crucial for deer, and while pressured deer tend to feed at night, hunters have good chances to see deer early and late in the day around food sources.
Whether you hunt public or private land, big bucks can be killed in the last month of the season. Just be sure to hunt deer where they are now, not where they were during the rut.
A BUSHEL OF BUSHYTAILS
Michael Hooks, small game coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, said one small game species that’s flourishing statewide is the squirrel. Squirrel hunting can be good statewide, especially for the gray squirrel.
If you have access to private lands with good blocks of hardwoods, especially on creeks or river bottoms, go now. If not, Hooks said a number of WMAs across the state have abundant squirrel populations.
In the upstate, he cited the Sumter National Forest lands in the mountainous Game Zone 1 area as prime squirrel habitat. Because of the abundance of hardwoods, both on ridges and in the bottoms, this upstate area ranks high for quality squirrel hunting.
Hooks said the same is true for much of the piedmont, with various tracts of the Sumter National Forest in Game Zone 2 providing ideal habitat. A little leg work may be required to find exactly which blocks of lands have the hardwood habitat, but once you find it you’ll find squirrels by the bushel.
Another excellent Game Zone 2 WMA is Delta South. This WMA in Union County offers excellent squirrel hunting habitat.
“This WMA is now designated as a small-game-only WMA once small game seasons open,” he said. “Deer hunting will occur prior to small game seasons. Currently excellent squirrel habitat exists but we’re working on habitat improvement for both rabbit and quail populations. This is an area small game hunters can expect to develop into a very good resource.”
The Francis Marion National Forest in Game Zone 3 has excellent squirrel habitat and numbers interspersed throughout the areas. Some leg work is required because this WMA is about a quarter million acres with diverse habitat, but squirrels abound.
He said the Liberty Hill WMA in Kershaw and Lancaster counties shares land in both Game Zone 2 and 4. Liberty Hill is a relative new WMA that provides excellent squirrel and other small game hunting in the Lake Wateree area.