From tidal rivers to mountain lakes, South Carolina largemouth bass anglers have a huge variety of options. Here's a close look at the prospects for the upcoming season. (March 2006)
A light fog rests on the calm, black waters of a cutoff on the Combahee River. Barely flooded trees bound the small backwater, but a single big tupelo sits a little farther out and appears to have a couple feet of water around its trunk. A lone angler in a canoe casts a jointed minnow bait past the tupelo's base and begins cranking steadily so the little plug wobbles past the cover. A 2 1/2-pound largemouth stops the lure in its tracks and a moment later shatters the morning calm when it breaks the surface and shakes its head. The hooks hold true, and a few minutes later the angler is able to lip-land his prize, which he'll then slip back into the water. Then he'll make another cast past the same tree -- just in case that fish had a buddy.
Throughout the Palmetto State, bass fishermen venture out daily during March when largemouth fishing action really begins to heat up. Weekends bring the biggest crowds, but many anglers gladly use vacation days to fish this time of year. Many spend their days on big reservoirs in traditional bass boats and are armed with arsenals of rods, reels and lures. Others fish from the banks of state-managed lakes, paddle johnboats in private ponds or drift moving waters in canoes.
From Lake Jocassee, which is mountainous and clear and supports four different black bass species, to the famous waters of the Santee Cooper lakes, South Carolina offers a tremendous amount of opportunities to bass fishermen, with great variety in the offerings. Let's explore some of the waters that promise to serve up the best bass fishing in the year ahead.
South Carolina's only true mountain lake offers two unique benefits to South Carolina bass fishermen. First, all four black bass species that can be caught in South Carolina inhabit Lake Jocassee. Second, the bass tend to grow to large sizes. While most anglers don't think of Jocassee as a largemouth lake, it yields double-digit-weight largemouths virtually every year.
Several factors contribute to Jocassee's big-bass production, according to Dan Rankin, an upstate fisheries biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. First, densities are low, which allows for fast growth rates. Second, disease-related problems are rare in Jocassee's pristine waters. Third, blueback herring, which grow larger than threadfin shad, dominate the forage base. Finally, targeted largemouth pressure is light, allowing some bass to grow quite old.
Actually, all four black bass species grow to big sizes in Lake Jocassee, partly evidenced by the fact that the state-record smallmouth, redeye and spotted bass all came from the same 6,500-acre body of water. Jocassee regulars pursue "Jocassee Slams" and know that they have the legitimate opportunity to catch quality fish of all four species in a day.
While all four black bass species reproduce naturally, the DNR does supplemental stockings of smallmouth bass. Having noticed that smallmouth catch rates were dwindling, with mostly older fish in the catch, the DNR began stocking smallmouths five years ago, according to Rankin.
Currently, the DNR is stocking fingerlings in the spring and smaller numbers of sub-adults in the fall and are marking all stocked fish so they can track stocking success and see which method is more efficient. While more sub-adults certainly survive, the DRN can produce three fingerlings for every sub-adult. (Continued)
Jocassee's biggest largemouths are often caught during midsummer, either in the morning, evening or during the middle of the night. Anglers focus on the upper ends of tributary arms, where a bit more largemouth habitat exists and where cool inflows create midsummer sanctuaries for all species. Some really big bass also fall to live bait throughout the year by anglers fishing for trout or for "anything that bites."
While Lake Jocassee is best known for its big bass, Lake Hartwell stands out as a lake that produces steady action. Most fish are neither "footballs" nor skinny. Their condition is average, and they are available in all sizes. While Hartwell certainly coughs up a few very large bass, it's not known as a trophy-bass destination, according to Rankin.
Lake Hartwell is a very consistent lake in terms of its largemouth population. Recruitment is generally good, and population swings never seem to be significant. Anglers can expect to find good numbers of fish and a variety of sizes year in and year out. This consistency makes Hartwell a favorite lake for many bass fishermen.
Many bass anglers prefer the upper half of Lake Hartwell, upstream of where the two main arms join forces to form the Savannah. The upper lake has better largemouth habitat, with slopes that aren't as steep and more cover dotting the banks.
Lake Hartwell, which is the first of three major impoundments along the Savannah River, is mostly a largemouth lake as far as black bass are concerned. However, native redeye bass abound along steep, rocky banks in the lower end of the lake, and non-native spotted bass have begun showing up in Hartwell in recent years.
One concern biologists have about Lake Hartwell (along with lakes Jocassee, Keowee and Russell) is the occurrence of hybridization between redeyes and spots. The mixing jeopardizes the genetic integrity of a native species while at the same time hurting sport-fishing for spots by creating smaller fish. The SCDNR is doing extensive research in cooperation with the University of South Carolina to look at the genetic make-up of more than 1,000 fish from all four lakes in order to gain a better understanding of this situation and determine how to address it.
Lake Greenwood doesn't tend to produce fast action. However, what this highly fertile lake lacks in numbers it makes up in the sizes some bass reach. Gene Hayes, a SCDNR fisheries biologist, mentioned Greenwood as a destination for anglers hoping to catch big bass.
Overall, electrofishing catch rates actually have been equal to or above other Upstate lakes over the past couple of years. Anglers' catch rates remain only modest, however, which Hayes said might be attributable to the tremendous amount of forage, including shad and bluegills, in the lake.
"It is believed that with the abundant natural prey base in Lake Greenwood, bass may be less inclined to take angler-presented artificial baits," Hayes said.
Anglers who know the lake's moods enjoy very good success at Lake Greenwood, and they know that they enjoy a better than average chance of landing a really big bass by investing angling da
ys at Lake Greenwood.
Because Greenwood produces big fish and because its fertile waters aren't overly clear, anglers are wise to upsize their offerings and to go after "reaction" strikes. An alternative approach for getting a Greenwood "hawg" to take a bait is to go out under the stars, either with a big dark-colored worm or with a nighttime spinnerbait, complete with a single, oversized Colorado blade.
The final reservoir in the Savannah River chain, Lake Thurmond is also the largest at 70,535 acres. It's a little more fertile than its upstream neighbors and probably offers the best largemouth fishing year in and year out.
This spring should offer very fast action on Lake Thurmond. However, many fish will be small. While Lake Thurmond is an old lake, it is going though a mini new-lake boom of sorts. During several years of consistently low water through the late 1990s and early 2000s, extensive woody and herbaceous vegetation grew along the edge of the lake. Lake Thurmond has been back to normal pool for the past two years, with a tremendous amount of high-quality spawning and nursery habitat in its shallow water, according to Hayes.
"Though we have no current data, it would be safe to assume that over the past couple of years very strong year-classes of shoreline spawning species, such as largemouth bass, should have developed," Hayes said. "Many of these fish should now be 2 years of age and average 11 to 12 inches."
Biologists with the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, which shares Savannah lakes management duties with the SCDNR, believe Lake Thurmond actually has too many small bass in it right now and that high numbers may be limiting growth potential. A creel survey conducted in 2001 revealed that more than 60 percent of all bass caught from Lake Thurmond are released, and biologists would like to see anglers take home more fish in the 12- to 15-inch range.
In Georgia, bass must be at least 12 inches long for anglers to keep them. In South Carolina, there is no minimum size. Anglers keeping bass must be aware of both states' laws and of where they are fishing and running because it is illegal to possess any bass that are less than 12 inches long on the Georgia side of the lake, no matter where they were caught. The lakewide limit is 10 fish, and a reciprocal licensing agreement allows anglers licensed by either state to fish anywhere on the lake.
Lake Thurmond fishes a little different from the rest of the Savannah River chain, partly because of hydrilla, which became less abundant for a few years but has made a significant comeback. Vegetation surveys conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers show plenty of hydrilla on both sides of the lake downstream of U.S. Highway 378.
Many local anglers consider May the best time of the year to fish Lake Thurmond. Topwater fishing can be thrilling at that time. Many bass are in a post-spawn mode and looking up for food, and the herring move higher than normal in the water column at that time. The best topwater fishing often is over the hydrilla beds, which will not have topped out yet in May.
Midlands anglers are enjoying a boon of their own in the aftermath of the Lake Murray drawdown. Two years of drawdown for dam repairs allowed vegetation to grow up similar to what occurred around the edges of Lake Thurmond, except more extreme because the lake was down several feet. Along with inundating fresh cover, re-flooding of the lake caused an influx of fresh nutrients, which benefited all fish species.
The shallow cover will be a short-lived phenomenon, as most vegetation is terrestrial and will not last long when permanently flooded. However, Lake Murray's already fine bass population should be enhanced by a couple of very good spawning/recruitment years and an abundance of shallow forage. This year, the outlook for bass promises that they will be plentiful and in good condition.
Murray can be a feast-or-famine lake for fishermen, with much depending on the season and an angler's understanding of the lake. During spring, when the bass move shallow, bass fishing often is easy, with good sight-fishing for large spawning fish and fast action on floating worms throughout the season.
During midsummer and into fall, it sometimes seems like there isn't a bass in the lake. Many fish move to offshore structure and become fairly tough customers. Anglers who enjoy consistent summer success typically excel at identifying sweet spots on structure and fishing those key spots effectively. Anglers also do well at times by running well up tributaries during the dog days.
"There are a lot of big bass in the system," said fisheries biologist Scott Lamprecht about the Santee Cooper system, which includes lakes Marion and Moultrie. The Santee Cooper lakes, which cover a combined 170,000 acres, are South Carolina's most storied bass waters, and many anglers consider Santee Cooper lakes the best largemouth waters in the Palmetto State.
Although not as fertile as some other South Carolina waters, the Santee Cooper lakes offer diverse and abundant forage, including six different shad and herring species, plus a great variety of bass habitat. Santee Cooper also has a longer growing season than does any other South Carolina reservoir, and the bass in the lakes are genetically distinct, more closely resembling Florida-strain largemouth bass than northern bass.
Santee Cooper bass are the fastest growing of populations in all the state's major reservoirs, and they tend to reach old ages. Sampling efforts reveal that more than 25 percent of the bass in the lake are more than 5 years old. Based on aging work done in 2004 and 2005, a 5-year-old Santee Cooper bass averages 3.7 pounds.
Lake Marion still lays claim to the largest bass ever caught from a major reservoir in South Carolina, with a fish caught more than half a century ago while the Santee Cooper system was still young. The 16-pound, 2-ounce giant, which was caught in 1949 by Paul Flanagan, shares the state record with a fish caught from an Aiken County pond in 1993.
While the Santee Cooper lakes attract an enormous amount of fishing pressure, many anglers travel to these lakes with species other than bass in mind. Other popularly targeted fish include catfish, crappie, striped bass and bream. Bass fishermen make up less than a quarter of the total crowd, and acre per acre, the fabled waters of Santee Cooper are among the least pressured reservoir waters in South Carolina for largemouths.
The blackwater rivers that drain the swamps of South Carolina's Coastal Plain don't vary much from year to year -- except that high river levels sometimes make them difficult to fish effectively.
Assuming modest water levels, rivers like the Little Pee Dee, Black, Edisto and Combahee offer consistently good but rarely spectacular fishing. The bass are generally healthy but not huge, and anglers who learn to read the water and play the current generally enjoy good success. River fishermen also enjoy relative solitude, especially in the uppe
r portions of these rivers, which are best suited for drifting in johnboats or even canoes.
Early in the season, when the rivers are cool and tend to run a bit high, most fish will be in backwaters -- away from the current. As the season progresses, more will move to the main river, but they still will relate mostly to the banks, holding in eddies formed by root wads, flooded trees and cypress knees and tight to various forms of vegetation. They feed heavily on sunfish and crawfish.
The lower reaches of the same river systems turn tidal, with marshy edges and channels that split into many shallow fingers. The fisheries are similar to those found upstream, but patterns differ because the forage base becomes more diverse, the water tends to become murkier, the shoreline structure changes and the currents push in both directions.
The Cooper River is the exception among coastal flows. This broad river, which flows from Lake Moultrie and feeds Charleston Harbor, is highly fertile through its short run and its fresh and brackish waters produce jumbo-sized bass.
MIX AND MATCH
That's a taste of South Carolina's bass fishing -- but just a taste. From blackwater rivers to clear mountain lakes, bass anglers here have many choices. This year, hit your old favorites, but also consider trying something new. You won't have to travel far to get there.