From deep mountain reservoirs to black-water coastal rivers, South Carolina bass anglers have an incredible range of choices when they pursue largemouth bass. (March 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
From bass moving to the beds to bass moving under schooling baitfish, prime time for largemouth bass is coming up in South Carolina.
As a bass fisherman it was a situation you would always hope to come across. Once experiencing it, you wish it would last forever. The problem is it rarely does.
One November over a decade ago, a friend and I were out on Lake Moultrie scouting ducks for the upcoming waterfowl season. It was a gorgeous fall day with moderate temperatures, high blue skies and light winds. Given the conditions, we decided to make a combo trip out of the day and carry the fishing rods.
That was a good decision.
Slowly cruising the Russellville Flats area, we spotted scattered flocks of ducks, but what really caught our attention was the largemouth bass activity. The water was erupting with baitfish being blown to the top by schooling bass. Expecting we might find schooling stripers on the trip, we were prepared with some topwater baits.
As soon as a bait hit the water, it was engulfed by a largemouth. I am not talking about a rambunctious bass weighing 1 pound. These were quality fish. The majority weighed 3 and 4 pounds, while a few kicked close to 6 pounds.
Although the action moved about the area, it stayed constant all afternoon. It was a thrill and, literally, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The next year, things had changed. The holes in the grassbeds that we'd been casting into were gone. The flats had become a large sandbox pocked with the occasional cypress stump. In a year, conditions were drastically different.
It is rare that such radical changes take place on the bass waters of the state. But reservoirs and rivers do evolve. Sometimes what changes is the habitat; at other times, it is the composition of the fish population; and of course, sometimes both change. That's why it is important to take an annual snapshot of some of the bass-fishing holes around the state.
It's hard to talk about fishing in this part of the state without starting the conversation with Lake Jocassee. After all, it is home to four species of black bass (largemouth, smallmouth, redeye or Coosa and spotted) and the lake is a record setter. The state-record spotted (8-2, 1996) smallmouth (9-7, 2001) and redeye (5-2 1/2, 2001) bass were all caught in Lake Jocassee.
"Lake Jocassee is a deep, clear reservoir," said Dan Rankin, Region 1 fisheries biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR). "It is a very infertile lake with a low number of bass. However, the forage base is what makes the lake for bass."
Rankin explained that although the lake is not very productive, there is very little competition for the ideal food base.
"The forage base on Jocassee consists of threadfin shad and blueback herring," Rankin said. "The bluebacks are the more cold tolerant of the two species and as a result are usually the most dominant. We do see an abundance of threadfins on occasion, but they're more prone to winter kills.
"There is an abundance of 7- to 8-inch class bluebacks, which is perfect for bass. With a low number of largemouths, there are plenty of groceries to go around."
Rankin said anglers could expect to find decent numbers of both smallmouths and redeye bass. He describes the fish of both species as "very chunky," and that it is not uncommon to catch 2- to 3-pound fish of either species.
"Unlike other lakes in the area, the number of spotted bass is low," Rankin said. "These fish are probably a result of being pumped back from Lake Keowee during hydro operations. The numbers aren't great, but the fish are really big."
Because the lake is located high in the mountains, Rankin explained the timing of biological events with the fish lags behind lakes at lower elevations.
"Anglers seem to do the best from late spring into early summer," he said. "April is good, but because the spawn is behind other areas, May and June can be great as well. Once the heat of the summer sets in, a lot of angling effort moves to after dark. Many of the night tournaments held during the summer are very successful," Rankin added.
Stepping down in elevation from Jocassee is Lake Keowee, a lake that is similar in some ways to Jocassee but has been through a transformation.
"Keowee is nutrient deficient as well, but you have a warmwater discharge from the nuclear station," Rankin said. "This allows more threadfin to survive the winter. You could describe the fishery on the lake as a "numbers" fishery as opposed to a trophy lake."
Rankin said fish populations in Keowee have gone through a drastic shift in composition.
"We have 18 years of creek survey data that have revealed some major changes," Rankin said. "Spotted bass were introduced into the lake by anglers in the mid- to late 1980s. In 1990, largemouth bass comprised over 75 percent of total fish harvest. That same year, the first year spotted bass showed up in the creel survey, they comprised less than 1 percent."
Now fast forward to 2005.
"Last year, largemouth bass were 11 percent, whereas spotted bass had ballooned to over 68 percent. It is a real change in the fish population, not that anglers are just catching more spotted bass than largemouths. We have seen a good harvest of spotted bass that hasn't changed much since 1996, but largemouth bass harvest is going down," Rankin noted.
Rankin said early on the spotted bass grew very fast, as fast as the largemouth bass that were already in the lake. However, this is not the case now.
"The spotted bass have become super abundant, which has slowed their growth and overall size," Rankin said. "During the population expansion, 3- to 5-pound spotted bass were common, but now a 3-pound fish is a really nice one and the common spotted bass is only 1 1/2 pounds.
"The notion of anglers taking fisheries management into their own hands by introducing non-native fish into reservoirs has repercussions. You are going to lose some things
with non-native introductions.
"A lot of anglers believe that the small spotted bass have resulted from anglers keeping all of the big ones, which is entirely untrue. In fact, it is the opposite. The small size is directly related to too many fish in the lake competing against each other. It would do the lake a world of good if anglers harvested more spotted bass, but this goes against the grain of bass ethics today."
Even with the problems the introduction of spotted bass have caused on Lake Keowee, Rankin said anglers could still find a big largemouth bass but not so for spotted bass. Data showed that 14 percent of the largemouth bass harvest consists of fish greater than 18 inches long, whereas less than 2 percent of spotted bass were that size.
Redeye bass also occurred in Lake Keowee, but Rankin stated that these fish have essentially been "hybridized" out of the population by cross-breeding from spotted bass.
The last lake in the chain for this region is Lake Hartwell, a nearly 56,000-acre lake west of Clemson and Anderson. Rankin does not have recent angling data but stated the lake is still predominately a largemouth bass lake with decent fishing.
"From our electrofishing efforts and talking with anglers, the largemouth bass population seems really stable," Rankin said. "The lake is not known as a big-bass lake but there are good numbers of 1 1/2- to 3-pound fish with a few trophies.
"Much to our dismay, spotted bass and hickory shad have also been introduced into the lake. Most of the spotted bass seem to be in the Tugaloo arm.
"Threadfin shad are the dominant forage for bass, but blueback herring and gizzard shad are also present. We don't know what kind of impact the hickory shad will have on the system. They are reproducing and we have seen threadfins in the stomachs of hickories. Only time will tell what the outcome will be," Rankin said.
Redeye bass are also present in Lake Hartwell, mostly being found in the tributaries into the main lake. Where the populations of redeye and spotted bass have overlapped, a DNA study by Clemson University indicated that the spotted bass has hybridized the redeyes. Rankin explained that fortunately, the redeyes might not disappear entirely from the system because there appears to be natural shoal areas in the tributary arms that have prevented spotted bass from encroaching into the entire redeye habitat.
Rankin also mentioned that the fishing on some sleeper lakes might surprise anglers who are willing to seek out smaller, more urban impoundments.
"There are seven state lakes in this region and several water system impoundments," he said. "Some of the ones over in the Greenville/Spartanburg area are particularly good.
"Lake Johnson is a 40-acre lake that has an abundance of 2- to 3-pound largemouth bass, with some over 5 pounds. Lakes Robinson, Cooley, Bowen and Blalock are some others I would check out, too. Most are moderately fertile lakes that produce chunky bass."
Be cautioned that many of these lakes have horsepower restrictions and a fee is usually required to fish.
"Lake Russell is the Keowee of the early 1990s," said Gene Hayes, a SCDNR fisheries biologist, referring to the recent introduction of spotted bass into the lake. "The spotted bass have really come on strong in the lake. Over 50 percent of what we see now is spotted bass."
Hayes said there are numerous spotted bass in the 1- to 2-pound range, but they haven't seen the big fish yet. This may be because the spotted bass in Lake Russell are the northern strain, which has a slow growth rate, whereas the fish in Keowee are the southern strain, characterized by a high growth rate.
"We have found spotted bass in four of the five regions of the lake," Hayes said. "The only place we didn't find them was the tailrace below Hartwell. Despite their abundance, creel surveys have indicated that less than 1 percent of the fishing effort targets spotted bass."
In contrast, 65 percent of the fishing effort on the lake was for largemouth bass. Hayes described Russell as a fisherman's lake and more of a "numbers" lake for bass.
"Russell is characterized by low productivity and it has a lower prey base than lakes such as Greenwood and Murray," Hayes said. "However, the Army Corps of Engineers left a lot of timber standing in Russell, so there's a lot of structure for fishermen. It's not a skiing lake."
To date, the occurrence of spotted bass has not affected the largemouth bass fishing. The catch per unit effort has remained stable between surveys conducted in 1998 and 2005. Most largemouths caught are between 12 and 16 inches long, with 10 percent larger than 16 inches. By contrast, only 5 percent of spotted bass were over 16 inches, alluding to what Hayes said about the abundance of small spotted bass.
Moving from the low-productivity lakes of the Savannah River drainage, bass anglers will find very productive lakes in other parts of the Piedmont.
"Lake Greenwood is right up there with some of the best bass lakes in the state," Hayes said. "It is a very productive lake that features a big prey base for largemouth bass.
"It is, however, considered a hard lake to fish, according to anglers. You won't see the turnout for a tournament on Greenwood like you would for some other lakes.
"The bass get fat and sassy because of all the forage, which is mainly wall-to-wall gizzard and threadfin shad. A bass is not going to run and chase down a Rapala when all it has to do is easily smash through a school of threadfins and get its belly full."
Another lake that Hayes likens to Greenwood is Lake Secession.
"Secession reminds me of a smaller Lake Greenwood. The lake receives a lot of nutrient inflow from the Anderson area, which makes it very productive. The largemouth fishing on the lake is good."
Lake Secession is 1,460 acres and Lake Greenwood covers 10,500 acres.
Lake Rabon stands out to Hayes as well. He said the lake is owned by Laurens County, which requires a permit to fish the lake and imposes a horsepower restriction.
"Lake Rabon has a low-density bass population, but the prey base is sufficient," Hayes said. "Some of the fish are enormous, with many in the large-size classes, up to 10-pound fish."
The heart of bass fishing in South Carolina is the Santee Cooper lakes. These two reservoirs, lakes Moultrie and Marion, which comprise Santee Cooper, support the fastest growing, oldest and largest largemouth bass in the state. On top of that, the average fishing pressure, relative to other
reservoirs in the state, is low, although it can be high seasonally.
"From creel surveys conducted a few years ago, most of the fishing effort is from February to May, and tails off as the season progresses," said Scott Lamprecht, a SCDNR fisheries biologist in Bonneau. "These anglers are targeting spawning bass."
Located in the Coastal Plain of South Carolina, Santee Cooper affords bass a long growing season. The lakes, although less fertile than some lakes in the state, feature a diverse forage base. The genetics of the Santee Cooper bass population closely resemble the Florida subspecies, which is known for its large size potential. The fishing pressure is low as well, allowing bass to become old. Approximately 25 percent of the bass population consists of fish greater than 5 years old.
"When you examine the factors that come together on Santee Cooper, it is easy to see why Santee Cooper produces lots of big bass," Lamprecht said.
Santee Cooper bass grow fast, but that was not always the case. Hydrilla, an exotic grass, appeared in the lakes in 1980, and eventually covered 25 percent of the lakes' surfaces. Bass fishing success (as defined by number of fish caught per hour) and angler participation increased with the grass, and although bass became numerous, they grew slower, so the average fish was smaller than in fish habitats with healthy native plant communities.
"We're beginning to see more vegetation in the system," Lamprecht said. "There are more native species, such as wild celery and lemon bacopa, which ought to benefit the bass population in general.
"The cover helps bream populations, which help bass. Bass are made to eat bluegills, and their recruitment is good when they have a steady supply of little fish to eat."
Lamprecht also mentioned that there has been considerable growth of water willow, which is grass carp resistant. Additional work has demonstrated that areas barricaded from carp have responded well with vegetation. So much so that if they're opened to carp they can handle the grazing at the current carp-population level.
Below Santee Cooper, Lamprecht said the Cooper River is equally as good as the lakes.
"I want to call the Cooper River a bass factory," Lamprecht said. "There are good year-classes there each season. The first year's growth is slow, which is the river's only strike, but after that they really take off, mirroring Santee Cooper lakes' growth rates. The fish will get to a good size overall but not necessarily maximum size, but it still has big bass."
Lamprecht said anglers will find the big bass positioned near woody structure, natural or manmade, just off the main-river channel. He said anglers that pitch unusual presentations to these areas will be successful.
"To have success on the river, have a good technique in pitching soft plastics," he said. "It's more pitching and dropping baits in these spots than it is casting."
A diet study revealed that Cooper River bass prey on a bottom-dwelling fish called a fat sleeper. Lamprecht said tubes fished on the bottom will mimic this forage species.
South Carolina has a load of bass-fishing opportunity. You might have your old favorites, but chances are there's another hotspot only a short distance away. l
Find more about South Carolina fishing and hunting at: SCgameandfish.com.