October 12, 2020
By Terry Madewell
Battling a trophy striped bass is a goal of many fishermen, and that’s a very realistic possibility at Richard B. Russell Lake, a 26,650-acre Savannah River impoundment on the Georgia-South Carolina border.
Dan Rankin, fisheries biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) says Lake Russell’s striper fishery offers anglers the opportunity to catch 30- to 40-pound linesiders. “This fishery developed on its own for years, likely originally fed from striper influx from upstream Lake Hartwell and downstream Clarks Hill Lake via pumpback,” Rankin says. “Now, a low-density stocking program, closely coordinated with Georgia fishery biologists, is in place to ensure consistent recruitment to the fishery that allows ample room for stripers to grow to maximum size.”
Just how big is “maximum size,” you ask? According to SCDNR records, the lake record striper is a 63-pound monster caught in 2009. Here’s how to find your own super-sized Lake Russell striper this fall.
The Game Plan
Wendell Wilson and Jerry Kotal are full-time, multi-species guides on Lake Russell, and both are striped bass experts. The striper pattern during September is a continuation of the dependable summer pattern of live-bait fishing.
“By fall, the stripers are fat from summer foraging, and the best action for fall stripers is during September and into early October,” Wilson says. “Two distinct patterns emerge at this time, and they’re on opposite ends of the lake. The lower end of the lake, below the Highway 72 bridge to the dam, is one prime area to target. The other is in the very upper end of the lake in the moving current below the Lake Hartwell Dam.”
Kotal says the September striper and baitfish connection is strong in the lower end of the lake, and he graphs for big pods of forage surrounded by large individual marks. When he spots this combination, he’s ready to fish.
“I’ll lower live bait, typically herring, to the depth fish are marked on the graph,” he says. “The stripers may suspend in 25 to 50 feet of water, but the bottom depth may be as much as 80 feet deep. The fish are seeking the cooler, deep water near the dam. It’s important to keep the bait at or just above the depth where fish are marked. They’ll come up in a heartbeat to eat but are less likely to go deeper.”
Work the Ledge
At the very upper end of the lake, Wilson says he drifts large live bait along the old river channel ledge in the tailwater below Lake Hartwell Dam.
“I simply drift with the current and place live bait, such as herring or commercially purchased rainbow trout, behind the boat on multiple rods,” he says. “Trout are stocked here and are part of the food chain for big stripers, so it’s a reliable bait.”
Wilson says some of his rigs are freelines without weight, while some have small weights to get them slightly deeper. Presentation is the key to success; using an electric motor to stay close to the old Savannah River channel ledge is essential. In low-light conditions the fish may be close to the top of the ledge, but they’re often deeper on bright, sunny days.
He says either side of the river can produce; it’s a matter of searching until you hit the right spot. The first few miles below the dam is by far the best for this specific type of fishing, according to Wilson.
Follow the Forage
The second phase for huge Lake Russell stripers, and the most consistent for trophy fish, occurs in late fall and winter. After a slowdown in action from mid-October through mid-November, while stripers transition to changing forage patterns, the late-season fishing explodes.
“I’ve found later in the season is better for consistent big-striper action,” Wilson says. “Also, multiple techniques are effective then, including both live bait and artificial lures.” Both guides employ live bait and artificial lures depending on the prevailing fish pattern and the preference of their clients.
Unlike the summer and early-fall pattern, the best late-fall and winter fishing is in the middle part of the lake. The guides agree that the Beaver Dam Creek and Rocky River areas of the lake, and toward the lower end of the lake, are prime areas for late-season fishing. Kotal says stripers are travelers, constantly in search of forage, and both guides use graphs to isolate big clusters of food fish and to pinpoint the location and depth of stripers.
“I’ll target points, humps and ledges as broad targets and then specifically search for stripers suspended around well-defined areas of forage,” Kotal says. “I want to see a consistent bait line when looking for big stripers. When I find this and also mark big fish, I’m thinking huge stripers are here.”
Wilson says stripers move frequently, so he’s prepared to hunt them down on every trip.
“These fish follow forage, so searching is simply part of the process,” he says. “Once I’ve located them, I may use the wind or my electric motor to slowly move the boat over a specific target. I’ll pull live baits out of the back of the boat, weighted to get down to the depths where stripers are marked on the graph.”
Play the Weather
Wilson says that cold, rainy, windy days are sometimes best for big stripers. He recommends preparing for the elements and fishing when you can. On inclement days, Kotal often employs artificial lures to target the depths where stripers are holding, which can range from fairly shallow to 30 to 40 feet deep.
“I’ll use a variety of lures, such as bucktails, swim baits and jigging spoons,” he says. “I also have excellent results using the umbrella rig; it’s a consistent big-striper lure. I’ll experiment with a variety of lures and speeds until I figure the daily pattern.
“The best speed in cold water is ‘slow’,” he says. “I may have to work the lure just over the tops of submerged trees, but I prefer finding stripers over open water because we’ll have a better chance of landing big fish. When hunting large stripers, you deal with the situation and fish where you find them.”
Kotal says stripers occasionally feed on the surface this time of year, and seeing gull activity over feeding fish is another way to get on big bass. “I get super-charged when I see gull activity in cold weather,” he says. “When stripers school on the shad in reasonably shallow water, I expect to get bit by quality fish. To target the biggest ones, I’ll cast past the surface activity and let the lure sink a bit before retrieving.
“The schooling can occur anytime, but cloudy days are prime time. It doesn’t happen enough to dedicate the day to it as the primary pattern, but I am always watching because it’s a game-changer when it occurs.”
Downsize the Bait
Wilson says when the water temperature starts to dip, he’ll move to smaller live bait.
“I’ve found herring to be better when the water is warmer, but when the surface water temperature dips below 50 degrees I’ll use small shiners, too,” he says. “Shiners are hardy and will live and move better in very cold water, and lively bait is crucial for hooking these big stripers. We catch some huge fish on tiny baits.”
Rods and reels vary with the technique, and Kotal says heavy baitcasting bass tackle with 20-pound-test line is a good selection for artificial lures. Wilson says when fishing live bait, he’ll use 14-pound-test monofilament line with a 2/0 Eagle Claw style 084 hook on a 7-foot medium-light-action baitcasting rod. Sinker weight varies with the depth and technique fished.
Guides, Accommoations & Regulations: Where to stay and who to fish with while at Russell.
Guides Wendell Wilson (706-283-3336; wilsonsguideservice.com) and Jerry Kotal (706-988-0860; jerrykotalsfishingguideservice.com), both from Elberton, Georgia, fish the lake year-round. Both are seasoned veterans, capable of putting clients on quality fish.
Accommodations are available near the lake in both Georgia and South Carolina. Richard B. Russell State Park (gastateparks.org/RichardBRussell) near Elberton has a campground, fully equipped cottages and boat ramp access.
For additional accommodation information, contact the Elbert County Chamber of Commerce (706-283-5651; elbertchamber.com) or the Abbeville Chamber of Commerce (864-366-4600; abbevillechamber.org).
Creel limits for Lake Russell are two striped bass per day, only one of which can exceed 34 inches. Thanks to a reciprocal license agreement between the two states, you can fish Lake Russell with a license from either Georgia or South Carolina.