Though good largemouth fishing can be found throughout South Carolina, these three lakes are proven wintertime winners for big bass.
Lipless crankbaits are handy to have in the tackle box when you're searching for bass that might be holding in fairly deep water. Photo by John Felsher.
Cold weather may not the best time of the year to catch a huge number of quality largemouth bass in South Carolina. However, midwinter fishing on the right lakes in South Carolina can give knowledgeable anglers the chance to catch several quality fish on any given day. That is exactly what occurred to a buddy and me on a trip to Lake Hartwell on a cold mid-January day. The keys to success this day were having patience in our approach to locating fish and to focus on the right depth and lure patterns. The fish action was not fast-paced, but by day's end, it had been a very good day.
It had been a couple of years since I'd fished for largemouths at Lake Hartwell during the cold months of the year. But I did have my map and knew I could find the places where I'd been successful before during this same time of the year.
With all the attention Lake Hartwell has been getting from the black bass tournament fishing world, I was ready to try it again.
What I did not count on was the lake level being significantly lower than what I had experienced previously. In fact, the level was low enough that some of the places I had caught a couple of fish on the previous trip were now literally high and dry. But I did see the cover that was holding the fish that day. I marked that on my map for a future high-water-level fishing trip.
On this day it was as if I was learning the lake again, but I did have a couple of things going for me. I did remember the types of places and depths where we'd caught fish previously. Plus, I remembered the tactics. Put those two things together and it should spell fish success.
And to a reasonable extent it did.
Figuring the right depth and type of structure is the key for largemouth fishing on almost any lake. At Lake Hartwell, sometimes you do have to factor in the lake level -- at Hartwell, the need to do this can be more pronounced than at most other bass lakes. With the drought we've experienced, the lake can fluctuate a great deal. But by looking for moderately sloped mud and rock banks near deep water, we were able to catch a number of quality largemouths on one of my all-time favorite cold-weather baits, the jig-and-pig combo.
Points and offshore humps were other productive patterns we fished on the previous trip. Points were not too hard to figure out and we did finally find a couple that produced some largemouths. While motoring around keeping one eye on the graph, we spotted a couple of humps that turned out to be productive. On both of these humps, we vertically jigged spoons and caught a few hybrids along with the largemouths.
The bottom line is that there's some very good fishing to be enjoyed at Lake Hartwell during this cold weather (and coldwater) time of the year.
Hartwell anglers are not alone in this: Both lakes Greenwood and Murray will produce quality fishing during January as well.
The fish-catching action will typically not be the fast-paced springtime shallow-water fishing we all enjoy. You can, however, catch quality fish at each of these lakes during January if you have a game plan with basic information about how, when and where to fish each lake.
We'll continue our look at Lake Hartwell first.
During the cold months on this typically clear lake, the majority of productive fishing will occur in deeper water. According to several local fishermen, it's common to expect to find fish holding in 20 feet or deeper water. This depth, along with low water temperature and slow metabolic rate of the largemouth, usually requires that anglers fish slowly. Fish the area thoroughly and if you get a few bites in a certain spot, work it again. While the largemouths will usually bite well in January, the end-of-the-day catch is usually the result of a scattered bite over the course of hours. But by day's end, you can make a good catch.
One of the keys to success is to give a specific pattern a reasonable opportunity to produce, and then move to something else. Knowing how long to work a specific tactic or location is part art, part scientific method.
Some local anglers advise trying several patterns during a day of fishing. Examples include the above tactics or, if you like plastic worms, fish them deep around the points and ledges. If that doesn't work, switch to a jig-and-pig combo and fish around some standing trees. There are many bluffs and deep pockets that will hold fish at this time of the year. Don't overlook those areas as potential hotspots. You can effectively fish these areas with 1/4-ounce jigs with plastic bodies or a small jig-and-pig combo.
Fishing the bluffs is always a favored cold-weather tactic of mine and is one of my fallback options when other tactics just don't work. Also, fishing the deep riprap areas around the lake, where bridges cross the lake, can be extremely effective. These can be really good after a couple of days of warmer than normal weather because the sun will warm up the shallows near rocks, and bait and bass will respond to the relative warmth.
There is a lot of diversity in the habitat at Lake Greenwood, from the larger, more open lower end through the more river-like and cover-oriented upper portion.
Local anglers at Lake Hartwell agree with the normal lure color selection process. Generally on dark days, darker colors seem to be favored for bottom-bumper baits. On bright days, the lighter colors, such as chartreuse, will be favored by many anglers. If the water is dingy because of rain, the bright colors are preferred.
On any of these three lakes, but certainly at Lake Hartwell, a warm rain can be a key to some excellent fishing. "Warm" rain as used here is, of course, relative. If the rainfall is warmer than the overall lake temperature, it can have a positive effect on fishing around runoff sites, such as in the back of creeks.
This is one situation in which the fish may bite really well in shallower water during the cold months. The combination of dingy and warmer water can create a good bite for a short period of time. If you take advantage of this situation, you can catch quality fish at each of these lakes from January on through the winter.
If the stained water is the result of a warm rain, then the surface and shallow-water temperature will a
lso make a quick jump upward. This situation may be short-lived, and the fish may retreat again to deeper water once the water chills again, which typically happens after a storm that is followed by a cold front blasting through the area. But it can be a great way to catch some big fish in shallow water if your timing is right.
Typically, there are a good number of largemouths caught in the 4- to 6-pound class at Lake Hartwell. Plus, this is the optimum time of the year to hook into a 9- or 10-pound largemouth as well.
Granted those huge fish are not commonplace, but they aren't common at any time of the year. For whatever reason, even though winter is not prime time to catch large numbers of bass, it is prime time to hook a huge largemouth.
Later on in the spring, as the water does begin to warm steadily, there are other tactics you can successfully use. One is throwing deep-diving crankbaits early and late in the day around points and over humps. A consistent spinnerbait bite will typically begin in February and continues to improve through March.
A final technique that can be employed is the use of live bait. Some of the lake's striper-fishing guides will catch some hawg largemouths using live blueback herring over humps and points during this time of the year. It isn't a widely used tactic for largemouth fishermen, but if using live bait is an option for your style of fishing, it can be very effective. Focus on areas where largemouths congregate, away from the striper and hybrids if possible, and the odds of scoring on a big bass are pretty good.
If the water is clear -- as it usually is during winter -- most local anglers suggest using light line and light lures. A favorite lure of some, in addition to the jig-and-pig combo, is the slider rig. The swimming head jig with a 4-inch grub will entice even big largemouths during this time of the year. This rig will keep the bait close to the bottom and moving slow enough to trigger a reaction by otherwise lethargic largemouths.
There is a lot of diversity in the habitat at Lake Greenwood, from the larger, more open lower end through the more river-like and cover-oriented upper portion. The two major arms of the lake, the Reedy and Saluda river arms, both offer exceptional cold-weather fishing potential as well.
One favored pattern of local largemouth anglers occurs when the water color is slightly turbid. Specifically, they like to work the docks, brush, logs and tree cover in the upper third of the lake. The water depths in this part of the lake are moderate and can be effectively and comfortably fished with a wide variety of angling styles, another positive aspect. While the largemouths are often holding in 10 to 20 feet of water on the humps and points in the lower end of the lake, anglers on the upper end of the lake are more likely to find fish around the many docks and piers there. Since Lake Greenwood is very highly touted as a crappie fishing lake, the potential for finding brush and other woody cover around many of the docks is very high.
A dock with brush submerged around it, in water 4 feet and deeper, offers plenty of potential to hold good largemouths during January and right through February.
Typically, the best lures for this will be jigs, jig-and-pig combos and plastic worms. You can present the lure by flipping, pitching or casting, depending on your fishing style, preference and skill level. Often getting the lure back under the dock and working it right though the heavy cover will be a key to success.
Another major pattern involves using jigging spoons. There are some wintertime largemouth anglers who use little else at Lake Greenwood. The process can require considerable patience, but can reward the angler with a big bass bite. It will be a hunt-and-peck type of fishing until you get on a productive spot. However, the potential to catch several good fish in a short time is excellent. Plus, stripers and some big crappie are also bonus catches when jigging spoons.
There are plenty of offshore humps as targets throughout the lake. Some of the humps will rise to 10 feet of water, but on cloudy days when the forage fish are over them, you'll find largemouths. On bright, clear days, especially in the lower half of the lake, the humps and points that produce fish are considerably deeper. The key is to find the forage fish and the bass will be somewhere in the same depth range.
If there is a warming rain, most locals note the upper portion of the lake can really turn on. However, even under favorable conditions it's still important to work the lure slow in and around deep holes, points and inundated stumprows along channel ledges.
Plenty of big largemouths are caught from around the bridges and the nearby riprap areas during January and February. Shad are the primary forage, and when the water begins to warm up, the shad get more active and so do the largemouths.
And, just as at Lake Hartwell, there are a few anglers who will use live bait during the cold months of the year to hook a hawg largemouth. Live shiners are popular live baits as are gizzard shad. Most of the live-bait fishing is in the upper end of the lake where depths are shallow enough that such bait can be fished effectively. A typical pattern is to anchor on or near a hump, point, bridge, riprap or piling and wait patiently. It's not a numbers game, but it can produce huge fish.
Lake Murray is another lake that provides an excellent opportunity to find your winter bass bonanza in South Carolina.
Lake Murray is another lake that provides an excellent opportunity to find your winter bass bonanza in South Carolina.
A number of largemouth experts say that at Murray, the best tactic and patterns are a matter of fishing style for individual anglers. The entire lake is productive; however, because of more accessible water temperatures, and an abundance of shad, many anglers favor the upper third of the lake.
The lower end is fished very similar to Lake Hartwell with the jig, jig-and-pig, spoons and deep-running crankbaits, all of which produce good action.
Certainly an important fishing structure for wintertime largemouth anglers on Lake Murray is points. The long, sloping points that drop into the deep water are prime places to find fish throughout the winter. On a trip to Lake Murray last winter, we fished about a dozen points with jigs and spoons before we found fish. Once we did find the right depth and location combination, though, we hit pay dirt. That day it was a depth of 18 feet and on a point near the mouth of a tributary creek with the main river channel.
We quickly hit other points with a similar profile -- and they also held fish. That is a reasonable expectation for fishing for largemouths during January. Work out a productive pattern, and then repeat it as quickly as you can in similar situations until the bite slows. Of course, we all hope to get it right much quicker then we did that day.
Other excellent plac
es include the junction of two creeks or a creek and the river channels. In addition, mid-lake humps and the areas where the channels bump into the shoreline and then turn away are prime spots as well. These are identifiable places where you can focus your efforts.
Other areas that are very predictable and productive are the underwater bends of the tributary creeks throughout the lake. Locate an area where many shad are marked on the graph. Fish these ledges with spoons, jigs or deep-diving crankbaits. Keep the retrieve on the crankbaits fairly slow to provoke a bite from a big fish. You may only be working an underwater point that's 8 to 10 feet deep, so keep that in mind when fishing.
Water temperature and color are also two very important points to ponder. Of course, the location of forage such as shad is another key. You cannot overstate the importance of the relationship of winter largemouths to forage. The bass will follow the forage. They may go reasonably long periods between actively feeding, but that's where you will usually find the larger concentrations of fish that are feeding.
These lakes are proven largemouth wintertime hotspots in South Carolina. A variety of techniques will certainly work on any of these lakes, but the above information should be plenty to get you started on the right track.
One common denominator noted by fishermen on all three lakes is the effectiveness of both jigs and jigging spoons during the winter. Regardless of which lake you fish, have those lures rigged and ready.