From largemouths to smallmouths to spots, here's how South Carolina's bass fishing stacks up for the upcoming season. (March 2010)
For bass-fishing fans across the state of South Carolina, 2009 was both a curse and a blessing. For three years, the majority of the state was held tight in the grip of yet another drought and anglers saw not only record low water levels but also the closure of many boat ramps and increased hazards on the water. Fortunately, the spring rains returned much-needed water, but rapidly rising water levels left bassers scrambling to pattern spawn-ready fish as they scattered back into new areas.
The hope of most fisheries biologists across the state is that 2010 will see a return to "normal," though many are left scratching their heads to define exactly what "normal" means these days. To assist those bass fans as the cold temperatures of February begin to give way to March, South Carolina Game & Fish picked the brains of fisheries experts across the state to let anglers know what they can expect on the water this year.
Heading up the Piedmont Region from his office in Clemson, Regional Fisheries Coordinator Dan Rankin supervises a large number of great bass-fishing waters. The Savannah chain lakes of Hartwell, Russell and Thurmond, the mountain lakes of Keowee and Jocassee, Lake Greenwood on the Saluda, and a number of high-usage water district lakes in Greenville and Spartanburg are all under his leadership. The question Rankin gets the most is which one of these great fisheries is the best.
"In terms of overall numbers and sizes, I'd have to go with Lake Thurmond," said Rankin. "Thurmond is a very fertile lake with faster growth rates than the other lakes on the Savannah. Combine that with the fact that it's a huge lake that's more in line now with normal water levels and that it's not that close to a major population area, so it gets less pressure than say Lake Greenwood or Hartwell, and it pretty well tops the list."
Tournament angler Mike Delvisco from Greer agrees with Rankin's pick of Thurmond as a top destination.
"With Thurmond back up, it will scatter the fish for awhile but it won't take long for them to get back to their pre-drought patterns," said the Texas Roadhouse pro. "In fact, the dry shoreline that grew up with grass and is now under water will add a future dynamic to this year's spawn and provide a great nursery to support bass fry for the future."
As a fisheries coordinator, Rankin is charged with collecting both scientific data about the bass fisheries on his lakes and angler surveys to get an idea of what kind of experience anglers are having there. Sometimes those two factors don't always add up.
"Lake Russell is a good example," said Rankin. "All we ever hear from anglers is how good a bass fishery it is, and then we go down there to do electro-sampling surveys and we have trouble justifying what the anglers are telling us. Greenwood is just the opposite, our sampling shows Greenwood should be a great bass fishery with numbers of healthy fish, but our angler surveys say otherwise."
One area where the Savannah chain and the mountain lakes stand apart from most others in the state is the presence of spotted bass.
"Right now, we estimate 30 percent of the black bass population in Russell are spotted bass," submits Rankin. "Compare that to Keowee where 70 percent of the bass population is spots and there are some concerns. In the past, we have seen largemouth numbers decrease in correlation to a rise in the number of spotted bass. We were hoping to see largemouth numbers improve on Keowee, but our surveys from 2007 showed the numbers were still down."
When asked which lake he would point to as having the potential for producing a trophy bass, something in the 8-pound-plus range or even larger, Rankin was also steadfast in his answer.
"Several years ago, I would have suggested one of the water district lakes above Greenville and Spartanburg which were producing numbers of 10-pound fish," he said. "But now, I'd have to say Jocassee. That lake is somewhat of an anomaly. It's a deep, clear and very infertile lake and the bass in it grow slower than anywhere else. But those fish really gorge themselves on blueback herring which are established in the lake, and they grow to old ages and pretty big sizes."
"Another great thing about Jocassee is it's one of the only places to catch largemouths, smallmouths and spots, all in the same lake," said pro Mike Delvisco who regularly fishes smaller lakes around his home in Greer, but relishes the chance to fish the deep mountain lake. "Plus it has the potential to produce a trophy fish for all three species."
Speaking of the "Greer Chain" of lakes, these water district lakes, which are owned and operated by various water companies in Greenville and Spartanburg counties, offer some pretty convenient bass fishing and the size and numbers are more than respectable.
"All of these lakes are more fertile than the Savannah chain," said Rankin. "They also get more pressure than any of the big lakes when you look at their relative size to the number of anglers who use them.
"Blalock, one of the Spartanburg water reservoirs, is making a great comeback after the lake was lowered to raise the level of the dam," said Rankin. "Although most of the bigger trees along the bank were cleared, a lot of smaller growth plants were left. We've shocked up there since the lake level rose, and our surveys show the bass numbers are really coming up."
Region 2 includes such lakes as Wylie, Wateree, Fishing Creek, Monticello and a number of smaller impoundments throughout the Pee Dee area. Based in Florence, Elizabeth Osier is the Regional Coordinator for this area and shared some of her region's findings from surveys conducted recently.
"We did age analysis surveys on Wylie, Monticello and Fishing Creek two years ago and just completed Cedar Creek in the spring of 2009," she said. "Fishing Creek had the highest densities of largemouth bass of any of those lakes we sampled. Our catch rate, using electroshocking, was 95.33 fish per hour. That doesn't convert well to anglers using hook and line, but it does show the relative abundance of bass in Fishing Creek. This lake also gets the nod for the best potential in the future based on the large numbers of fish we saw in the 14- to 16-inch range."
Osier was also impressed with the findings from Lake Wylie, where the largest segment of fish captured during their surveys there were 16-inch or larger fish.
"We saw some pretty plump fish in the 14- to 16-inch range that would weigh in the 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-pound range, so th
ere's some good future potential there," she said. "The discouraging factor was that the juvenile fish we captured were not as heavy as what we would like to see."
Surveys conducted in 2008 on Monticello showed that the majority of largemouths were found in the northern section of the lake. In contrast to Wylie, Osier said the juveniles in Monticello Lake looked pretty good.
"Ninety percent of the fish at Monticello were greater than 13 inches, and the health of those fish was pretty good, even the bigger ones, those over 14 inches, were at least in average shape," she said.
Lake Wateree's popularity as a bass lake seems to be on the rise compared with Lake Wylie, which has historically been a favorite among bass anglers. Lake Wylie bass pro Todd Auten indicates he often fishes Wateree when time permits in his tournament schedule.
"I've caught a lot more numbers at Wateree and it seems like it gets less pressure than Wylie," said Auten. "We saw bigger tournament weights on Wylie a few years back, but now it seems the water has gotten a lot clearer and that pushes fish deeper and makes them harder to catch. But I still look for Wylie to pick up like it normally does from March until June each year."
One observation Auten had about both Wylie and Wateree was that the white perch populations in both lakes have had a definite impact on bass fishing.
"Both of these lakes are infested with white perch," he said. "Pull up on any hump out in the lake and you have to weed through a bunch of white perch to catch a few largemouths. I think the largemouths are still there, but the perch are just so much more aggressive, you wind up catching them instead."
Hal Beard oversees fisheries management in Region 3, which is home to only one major reservoir: Lake Murray. Beard indicated they had sampled Murray in the spring of 2009 and were still processing the data to see what the shape of the bass fishery was.
"Our early indications from the survey appear to show that the weights of the fish over 16 inches may be slightly lower than expected," he said. "We sampled in April, so these early findings may have more to do with the time of year we did our surveys than any definitive findings."
Like most of the state's reservoirs, the last few years have been eventful for 50,000-acre Lake Murray. Hydrilla control began in early 2000 and concluded after three years. This was later followed by a series of drawdowns for dam remediation. Beard suggested that all these factors could have long-lasting effects on a fishery.
The Coastal Region includes two very famous bass fisheries and one locally famous fishery. Regional Coordinator Scott Lamprecht provided the details on lakes Marion, Moultrie and the Cooper River from his office in Bonneau.
"Three years ago in 2007 was the big drawdown in both lakes due to drought," he said. "Then the lakes filled back up in the spring of 2008. This created great conditions for recruitment and spawning. We surveyed Marion in 2009 and the 1-year-old fish were above average in abundance. For this year, those fish should be in the 11- to 14-inch range and represent a large and healthy fishery for bass anglers. We did not sample the lower lake, but all indications are that Moultrie seems to be in even better shape than the upper lake."
Several factors give encouragement to local anglers to go along with Lamprecht's assessment of the bass population. Santee Cooper Country Bass Fishing guide Inky Davis shared what he sees as good news for this year.
"Last spring was the largest crawfish hatch I have ever seen on these lakes," said Davis. "They were everywhere. You could look down in the water at Pack's Landing and see them crawling all over the bottom. People carried them out of here by the bucketful and didn't put a dent in them. The bad thing is the bass didn't have to move to get all they wanted to eat, so we had a hard time catching bass this time last year. It got so bad, I was worm fishing with a client and got a bite and pulled in a crawfish the size of my hand. I know our largemouths ate lobster all summer long last year, and I look to see some chunky largemouths come over the side of my boat this year."
The other good news for Santee bassers has been the return of eelgrass and other native aquatic vegetation to the open-water areas. Following a long struggle with hydrilla, a popular aquarium plant that has plagued Florida for years, Santee Cooper mangers have managed to mostly eradicate the overwhelming plant so that native species, which don't completely obliterate waterways like hydrilla, can flourish.
"I believe bass will re-establish back in the stalks of eelgrass out in deep water like they did back in the '60s and '70s when we still had dead willows out in the lake," said Davis. "Those fish stayed out there year 'round and it was a great nursery. I've heard that once that kind of grass gets established it can increase your numbers of cover-loving fish by up to 20 times the rate without grass."
The other hotspot on Lamprecht's list is the Cooper River. Though far from a secret, the river continues to produce great bass fishing for those who understand how to fish big rivers.
"The Cooper River gets a lot of pressure and it is often difficult to fish. Anglers have to understand how tidal influences and ambush points and current breaks affect bass movements," said Lamprecht. "But it continues to be the highest catch rate bass fishery in the area and possibly even in the state."