February 22, 2012
By Jeff Samsel
Sorry. You really can't be in two places at one time. The bad part about that is that it forces you to make tough decisions. The good part is that if you're talking about South Carolina fishing, there are plenty of good options and you can have some fun choosing any of them. We can't make decisions for you, but we can make recommendations. So here's a month-by-month look at some of the best fishing each month in South Carolina.
A few years of increased stockings have Hartwell's striper and hybrid populations in great shape, with plenty of quality fish in the mix. Stripers and hybrids chase the same herring and shad, so schools tend to be mixed, and targeting one is sort of the same as targeting the other.
Stripers serve up some of winter's hottest action and bite well when cold water makes other kinds of fish can be tough customers. The key to finding the stripers is finding the big baitfish schools, which are normally over the deep water in the lower end of the lake and toward the mouths of major creek and river arms during January.
Most anglers agree that live blueback herring make the best striper bait at Lake Hartwell, but shad and shiners can also produce good catches. Down-lines normally perform best during January, but during sunny snaps, when the fish move shallower, flat-lines may draw more strikes.
Often overshadowed by bigger impoundments, Lake Greenwood remains a regular producer of quality largemouths, and every February this lake's fertile waters kick out some seriously big bass. Depending on conditions, the lake's biggest bass might remain in a winter mode or may be staging to spawn.
If the water is relatively clear, work a suspending jerkbait with long pauses to imitate winter-chilled shad. If hard fronts have brought heavy rain and added stain to the lake, flip a dark-colored jig matched with a big trailer or slow roll a large spinnerbait.
The best areas for most February fishing provide a big range of depths in a close proximity, ideally with rock or brush available. When the weather turns really cold, bass will suspend over deep water. During sunny snaps that warm the water, they'll begin moving up points toward shallower water.
March is prime time for crappie catching in South Carolina, and Lake Russell consistently ranks among the state's top crappie destinations. The second of three big impoundments along the Savannah River, Russell produces mostly black crappie. Fish average 1/2 to 3/4 pound, but Russell also yields more than a few slabs, especially during the spring.
Early in March, Russell's crappie normally concentrate near the mouths of major creeks, usually around flooded timber or sunken brush. As the month progresses and brings more spring-like weather, the fish will begin moving shallower and farther up the creeks.
Jigs and minnows both work well for Russell crappie, and each has its advocates. Put out a mix and let the fish decide or tip your jigs with minnows. Troll slowly to find the schools and figure out depths, but switch to casting or a vertical presentation once you've found the fish.
Although big blue catfish and resurgent striper populations have drawn the most attention at Moultrie in recent years, the lower lake in the Santee Cooper system remains one of the Palmetto State's elite big-bass destinations. Moultrie produces big numbers of bass, and diverse and abundant forage keeps the fish fat and happy.
Lake Moultrie is 60,000-acre bowl, with endless seeming open-water humps and ditches. During the spring, the bulk of the lake's bass will stray to shallow backwater areas and flooded swamps around the lake's perimeter. April fish relate to grass, cypress knees, tupelo trees and other visible cover, making them easier to find and catch than during other times of year.
Moultrie's best bass habitat lends itself nicely to working Texas-rigged plastic worms. The weedlessness of a worm lets you work it through the heart of the thick stuff. For reaction strikes, pitch or cast a squared-billed crankbait around woody cover and bounce it off as much stuff as possible.
Check out more great South Carolina fishing options for May, June, July and August on page two!
May is a best-of-all-worlds month at the Chattooga River. The "delayed harvest" section, which includes three miles of river, goes through a mid-month regulation change, providing great opportunities for two totally different user groups. Through May 15 it's all catch-and-release, with only single-hook artificial lures permitted. Beginning May 16, the same heavily stocked section reverts to general regulations, so bait can be used and trout can be taken home.
Throughout May, several upstream miles offer plentiful wild and semi-wild brown trout, and a couple of stretches get regular stockings of catchable-size rainbow trout. May also tends to bring heavy hatches and the good conditions for active fish.
The best approaches vary a lot by stream section, time of the month and how you like to fish. As you devise strategies, though, remember that brown trout dominate much of the river, and browns favor low light, deep eddies and thick cover, with bigger fish feeding heavily on crayfish and sculpins — not just bugs.
Many anglers don't even know South Carolina has walleyes, and those who do and who actually fish for walleyes typically only do so during the spring run. Lake Tugalo supports an excellent walleye population, with some big fish in the mix, and one of the best times to catch these great-tasting fish is during the summer.
Walleyes like to hold over points — sometimes just off the bottom and sometimes suspended. Early in June they'll be over mid-lake points at the mouths of creeks and coves. As the season progresses they'll work their way deeper and farther down the lake.
For daytime fishing, string a minnow or a night crawler onto a roundhead jig and either drag it across the bottom or suspend it at the depth where fish show up on the graph. Early and late in the day, when the fish move a bit shallower to feed, fish the same baits under slip corks near tree tops or troll over the tops of points with crankbaits.
Lake Monticello may not be big, but its catfish offerings are enormous. Diverse and plentiful forage, excellent open-water habitat and a lack of competition from other large predators allows blue catfish to grow big this Midlands impoundment. Monticello catfish aren't the secret they once were, and they do get fishing pressure; however, there is growing release ethic for large fish, and the lake still produces big numbers of heavyweight fish.
Monticello catfishermen typically use one of two approaches. One is to locate fish, drop an anchor and put out a spread of bottom rigs baited with cut fish. An alternative is to let the baits search out the catfish, so to speak, by drifting with baits either dragging along the bottom or suspended.
A blue cat likes a chunk of fish for dinner, and big blues tend to prefer big pieces of bait. Whole threadfin shad or chunks of gizzard shad work well as blue cat bait. Using circle hooks makes it easier to release catfish in good condition.
Wrecks & Reefs
Brutal battles and screaming runs are the hallmarks of greater amberjack, which show up off the South Carolina coast during late summer and spend
a couple of months ambushing any baitfish that stray too close. Once they arrive, AJs are apt to be found over virtually any reef or wreck in about 50 to 100 feet of water.
The most dependable way to connect with an amberjack, once a school has been found, is to drop live bait among them. However, these voracious predators will also nab artificial lures, including flies, especially if you can draw them near the surface with chum.
Most amberjack weigh 10 to 20 pounds, but 30- and 40-pound fish are quite common and substantially larger fish aren't unusual. The South Carolina state record amberjack, which was caught in September 2010, weighed 123 pounds. Of course, after a fighting a couple of 30-pounders, you might not be convinced you want to hook up with a giant!
More great South Carolina fishing hot spots for September, October, November, and December on page three!
The Wateree River has something for every catman. Flatheads, channels and blues all abound in this river as it twists and turns from Wateree Dam to the headwaters of Santee Cooper. Channels and smaller blues serve up fast action for anglers who bait up with livers, shad guts or commercial dip baits. Meanwhile, both flatheads and blues grow to super sizes and offer serious trophy potential.
September brings the first hints of fall, and fast action from smaller cats can occur by day or night. If you want to target trophy cats, though, plan your outing for after the sun goes down. Veteran anglers scout holes by day and then fish at night.
The most dependably productive and easily recognizable big-cat locations are hard river bends, which scour out deep holes and are usually littered fallen trees. Anchor at the head of such a hole and cast bottom rigs just downstream. Use big chunks of cut fish for blue catfish or live fish if you want to catch flatheads.
October crappie fishing is a lot like spring crappie fishing, except without crowds. The fish don't move quite as shallow, and they move up to feed, not to spawn, but they pile up around brush and other cover in middle depths and provide predictably fast autumn action.
The "fall run" can be good at various South Carolina lakes, but nowhere is finer than Lake Marion, where big numbers of crappie reach slab proportions every year and where other species get more attention than the crappie during October.
The crappie move into big creeks and backwater areas during October and congregate around sunken cover, whether natural or in the form of planted brush. If the fish are more than about 10 feet deep, the easiest approach is to position the boat directly over the cover and use vertical presentations. For shallow spots, cast jigs or minnows rigged with floats.
Late fall brings big fun to the salt marsh as redfish begin to school up and feed feverishly prior to winter. It's the best time of the year to draw big blow-ups by walking a Zara Spook. The entire network of tidal creeks and marshes along the South Carolina coast serves up exciting action many November days.
Good fishing can be found at all stages of the tide. The trick is to consider the effects of tidal fluctuations and to pick spots accordingly. As the tide first starts to fall, for example, the fish will hold just outside all the little drains and ditches that deliver easy meals from the top of the marsh.
Of course, when the fish school up, that means there won't be fish in as many places, and the schools stay on the move. Therefore you too need to stay on the move too, covering a lot of water until you spot a school or get hit. When a fish does attack, work that area thoroughly. More reds are probably nearby.
A mountain gem with spectacular scenery, Lake Jocassee supports a great population of rainbow and brown trout, with both species growing to large sizes. Trout-catching can occur year-round, but the best opportunities for most anglers surround the coldest time of the year because the fish find the cool temperatures they favor high in the water column and become easier to find and catch.
The most popular approach at Lake Jocassee is to troll spoons or minnow-imitating plugs, and during the winter you often can troll with just the lures. If the fish are deep, down-riggers or lead-core line become necessary. Most of Jocassee is extremely deep, and fish are normally suspended. When you mark fish 30 feet down in 150 feet of water, what you are marking are usually trout.
An alternative approach (albeit not for everyone) is to go out at night, put down lights and fish with live bait. Lake Jocassee is a cold place to be on a December night, but the trout move closer to the top to feed, and the fishing action can help warm the night.