If you look at the calendar, it may be difficult to pinpoint the best months of the year for either hunting and fishing. But, when it comes to opportunities for both hunting and fishing, it's hard to beat the winter months of December and January. The weather has cooled off and the outdoors are generally void of "tourists," granting the winter outdoorsman his choice of woods or water. Here's a look at a few of the available winter options to get you out of the house this month.
STRIPED BASS/HYBRIDS — LAKE HARTWELL
Striped bass and their half-brothers make for some dynamic winter fishing. While most fish shut down from the cold, stripers love cold water and roam freely in pursuit of forage, from the very backs of the creeks to deep water flats on Lake Hartwell. Hartwell guide Steve Crenshaw (864-608-2763) finds most of his fish hanging around the mid- to upper-lake areas of Hartwell.
"I let the fish and my graph dictate how I'm going to catch them on any given day during the winter," said Crenshaw. "My preference is to find them in 30 to 50 feet of water feeding on flats and humps. That way I can get over the top of them and fish live herring straight down on a weighted Carolina rig."
Though not his favorite tactic, Crenshaw claims a lot of anglers free line live herring at Hartwell during December.
"If my graph shows fish suspended or schooling from 25 feet up to the surface, then I'll free line, especially if there are birds in the area working bait," he said. "If the majority of the fish show at 25 and below, that's when I stick to down rodding."
Other corresponding factors include weather conditions. Crenshaw claims stripers and hybrids are more likely to stay near the surface on cloudy, overcast, and rainy days and hold closer to the bottom on clear days.
He recommends trying the areas around Fairplay Creek on the Tugaloo River, the area known as Cherry Crossing near Clemson on the Seneca River and 6 & 20 Creek all the way to the back.
CRAPPIE — LAKE MURRAY
On Lake Murray, Brad Taylor of Taylor Outdoors Guide Service (803-331-1354) claims there are two options for catching slab crappie from Murray when the mercury drops. One involves the use of multiple rods to spider rig troll around the mouths of mid-lake creeks, while the other is a single rod tactic of jigging around deep water boat docks.
"You'll find crappie suspended on the edges of the creek channels at the mouths of major creeks," he said. "To troll for them, the best baits are small tuffy minnows. I'll hook some of them on a No. 2 hook minnow rig and some on a bare 1/16-ounce jighead. Then it's just a matter of trolling the mouths of the creeks, watching the graph for fish, and watching all your rods for bites."
Suggested trolling areas include Cloud Creek, Bush River, and mouths and pockets that intersect with the upper basin of Little River.
Taylor concentrates his jigging outings on main lake boat docks from Dreher Island up to the fork of the Saluda and Little Saluda Rivers. Many of these deep water docks have either planted brush or natural stumps under and around them. Taylor's favorite bait is a Fish Stalker slabtail jig on a 1/64-ounce head. He drops the jig to the bottom and slowly works it vertically until finds the depth crappie are holding at that day.
"On a sunny day, those docks will have a greenhouse effect and crappie will pull right up underneath them," he said. "Other days they may be right in the tops of the brush, down in the brush, or holding to the side. Once you figure that out, you can usually catch a limit pretty quickly."
RABBITS — MIDLANDS AND LOW COUNTRY
On the hunting side of things, many hunters have revived the old tradition of rabbit hunting during the Thanksgiving holidays, an activity that can continue much of the winter. Jay Gambrell of Calhoun Falls looks forward to the holiday season to get in some rabbit hunting with friends, family, and a feisty pack of dogs.
"In the old days, rabbit hunters would fan out on a field and wait for the rabbit to circle back around behind the dogs where he started" said Gambrell "They still do that to a certain extent but I don't think rabbits range out as far as they used to, which is why I like to hunt close. I'm usually watching a small patch with the dogs in there rather than waiting for them to run one over the next hill."
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Gambrell indicates that some of the changes he has seen that require him to hunt close is the number of predators that call his land home. Back in the old days, coyotes were unheard of and foxes were rare. Nowadays he hears packs of coyotes, which prey heavily on rabbits, all through the year on his property and has seen plenty of foxes as well.
"Our hawk population has tripled" he claims "Nowadays a rabbit has learned that staying out in the open will get him killed, which is why I think they'd rather jump from one spot to another to escape rather than run in a great big circle."
"Knowing your field of fire and being safe is number one" advises Gambrell "everyone wears orange so each hunter can clearly see the next. We hunt each area thoroughly and then move on. It's sort of a run and gun approach."
Open season for rabbits typically comes in at Thanksgiving and runs through the end of February with a limit of 5 rabbits per hunter per day. For hunters who do not have access to private lands, a listing of available WMAs that allow small game hunting for rabbits is available on the SCDNR website at www.dnr.sc.gov.
LARGEMOUTH BASS — LAKE WYLIE
Cold water bass fishing is becoming a well-known "secret" among bass fans who fish Lake Wylie. One of these fans is BASS and FLW professional Todd Auten. Two of his favorite baits when the water is cold are a crawdad-imitating crankbait and a double willow leaf spinnerbait.
"In addition to the crankbait, I'll also slow roll a spinnerbait along secondary points" said Auten. "I especially want to pay attention to any rocky points that I find. Not only does that water warm a little better but I feel like bass prefer a rocky point to hold on because they can find crawfish and other foods hiding around the rocks."
One of Auten's favorite starting points on the South Carolina side of Lake Wylie is Mill Creek. Mill Creek is the northern most tributary on the South Carolina side and only a couple of miles from Buster Boyd Bridge, one of the most popular and convenient boating access ramps on the lake. There are a number of long points that lead all the way out to the old Mill Creek channel and these are good locations for holding fish. Auten will also work his way down the lake towards the dam. His next stop is Crowders Creek, a mile or so south of the Hwy 49 crossing at Buster Boyd Bridge.
"Crowders has plenty of long secondary points, drop-offs and creek channels" he said. "It's also got a ton of boat docks and that's generally what I'm going to target if I suspect bass have moved up close to the bank if the weather has been warmer than normal. The big key is finding boat docks that have some sort of rocks around them — whether it's natural rock, concrete, or rip rap used to line the shoreline."
HOGS — STATEWIDE
South Carolina's fastest growing big game population is the feral pig or wild hog. Love them or hate them, hogs are here to stay and many hunters are embracing hogs as a way to extend their big game seasons. One of these is hog man Scott Emery of Greer. Emery starts his hunts at daylight and indicates the best places to start tracking are the areas the hogs were last seen or where there's the freshest sign.
"A hog wallow- a big mud hole near a trail or in a creek bottom is a good sign," said the hunter. "Fresh mud rubbed a couple of feet up on a tree is another good sign but the most reliable sign is rooting marks in the ground, especially if it's fresh. They'll root up food, and like any kind of hunting or fishing, finding their food source is a good jump on finding a hog."
Although still hunting is another popular option when hunting hogs, Emery does all of his hunting with dogs, Rather than just turning the dogs loose and hoping for the best, Emery will normally keep his dogs on a 6 foot lead and follow them through the woods until they strike a scent trail. Because he prefers baying dogs with the silent approach, he uses a tracking system to keep track of the dogs and follows them once they're off the lead.
"Once they get on a hog, you have to be quick to get in there to take care of him or you might end up either getting a dog hurt or the pig may get loose," he said
BLUE CATFISH — SANTEE COOPER LAKES
Fishing guide Spencer Edmonds (803-516-1772) has been fishing the waters of the Santee-Cooper Lakes for longer than he can remember. This month, the guide reports that the colder the water and weather gets at Santee, the hotter the bite for trophy blue catfish gets.
"When the water temperature starts to get down into the 40's, we start getting baitfish kills," he said. "Big schools of threadfin shad get too cold and a lot of them die off. Blue cats will follow those big schools of baitfish and pick them off as they get weak and die."
How Edmonds approaches his winter catfishing depends on if he's fishing the upper or lower lake. On the upper lake, Marion, his favorite tactic is to go out on the main lake basin between Rocks Pond and Potato Creek and do what he calls stump jumping.
" I tie up to a standing tree that's located next to a good creek channel or ditch and fan cast cut baits out around the boat," he said. "If I'm fishing the lower lake, then I'd rather start on the upwind side of the lake and let the wind push me across the middle of the lake while I drift cut baits across the bottom. The bait and fish are hanging around deep drop offs, so I might start drifting in 50 feet of water and let the wind push me up on a 30 foot ledge.
Edmonds suggests that anglers use heavy bait casting rods matched with high capacity bait casting reels. He baits these with 2 or 3 fresh threadfin shad or one large butterflied shad. For drifting, he uses a drift rig that has a 1 1/4-ounce home-made slinky weight so it will pull across the bottom without hanging up.
Regardless of which lake he fishes or how he fishes it, Edmonds makes sure he has plenty of baitfish in the area. An easy way to tell this right away is by the number of birds, mostly loons, diving down into the fish.
"If there's loons, there's baitfish, and that means there will be catfish nearby," he said.
GEESE — UPSTATE AND MIDLANDS
Canada geese were released into the state by the SCDNR nearly 30 years ago and today are an everyday sight, especially around the state's major reservoirs, lakes, and ponds. Most hunters find success in goose hunting by targeting two separate and distinct areas: open grain fields and bodies of water. The prospective goose hunter may have to wear out a lot of back roads and/or burn a lot of boat gas looking for concentrations of geese to hunt, but once he finds the geese, he is typically rewarded with some excellent hunting opportunities.
Geese are creatures of habit — where they leave from at dark is almost always where they'll come to the next morning. Also, farmers and residents are not as reluctant about granting hunters permission to hunt geese as they are many other game species, because some goose populations within the state have become a nuisance to landowners.
Since many larger water bodies across the state are considered public property, hunting geese on these waters doesn't require prior permission. It's best to check local regulations before hunting.
Once you've decided on an area to goose hunt, whether land or water, concealment and decoys play major roles in successful hunting. Concealment can be as simple as sitting under a small tree or shrub, turkey-hunting style, or using more intricate layout blinds, which offer concealment in the middle of a barren pasture or field. A dozen or so goose decoys completes the spread.
For a list of updated season dates as well as public lands that offer late season goose hunting, visit the SCDNR website.