Hit the Rivers for Carolina's Summer Bass

Change your thinking, and maybe you'll change your bass-fishing luck. This summer, try bassin' these topnotch rivers.

By Terry Madewell

It was early July and, as a bass fisherman should be, I was on the water well before dawn. In fact, I had traveled several miles up the winding waterway of the Congaree River by dawn, and was at just the place I'd hoped to be when the eastern sky first showed a hint of gray.

I quietly lowered the trolling motor into the water and sneaked up to the place I planned to begin fishing. The only early-morning disturbance I was interested in was the sound a bass makes when it engulfs a buzzbait - my buzzbait.

There wasn't a long wait for that sound to occur, either. I had covered less than 20 yards when my buzzbait was engulfed in a swirl from a largemouth obviously intent on going the other way. I didn't have time to set the hook; the fish did that for me. For a few seconds I simply held on until the fish dove for the deep water, and at that point I managed to gain a little line. It also enabled me to keep the fish out of the maze of woody cover along the shoreline. I'll take that kind of luck anytime. Soon I slipped the net under 5 pounds of wild river bass.

Five minutes later, I had the second good fish on a pattern that continued most of the early morning. Every few minutes as I worked along the shoreline, a largemouth bass would boil at, or take, my lure. With some bass that didn't take the buzzbait, but did show me where they were, I used a trickworm with a very small split shot as weight. Several of these bass took the worm on a dead run.

By the time the summer sun got high enough to begin to beat on me, I'd caught enough fish to call it a very good day. Plus, I'd taken two bonus stripers that were slashing through shad minnows within casting range of my baitcasting rig, which was loaded with a lipless crankbait.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Despite the high quality of fishing available on the river, no other boats passed by me that morning while I fished, and on my return trip to the landing, I saw only one johnboat. The rig was anchored over a deep hole in the river and it appeared he was fishing for stripers and catfish.

While the fishing isn't this good every day, once you learn the ways of river fishing, you can consistently take black bass here in South Carolina. Moreover, you can do it in fairly shallow water when other anglers on the big lakes have to work long hours probing the depths to catch their fish - when they catch them at all. By July and on through the summer and early fall, fishing activity just seems to stay consistent on the rivers, even for bass. But few anglers take advantage of it.

What this means to you is that the rivers, less pressured by bass fishermen anyway, are almost abandoned this time of year. In a sense, it is ironic, as some of the best bass fishing is happening on these rivers during the summer and fall months.

The Congaree is certainly not the only river where you can get strikes from bass during the summer. Other very productive rivers include the Pee Dee system (a long stretch of very good water); the Broad River, where both smallmouth bass (yes, we said smallmouth) and largemouths can be taken on the same trip; and, finally, the Cooper River, where many lunker bass have been caught.

Let's take a look at each of these extremely productive rivers and highlight some keys to success for each.

We'll return to the Congaree first. You can't simply motor up to just any shoreline and begin catching bass on this river.

However, there are ways to tell which sections of the river have the most potential to be productive. After you begin working on places with good potential, you'll need to work out specific patterns to catch the bass, just as you would to pattern bass anywhere.

If you're motoring up the river in a big rig from the upper end of Lake Marion, which is not a bad option, the point created by the confluence of the Congaree and Wateree rivers is an excellent place to find fish schooling during the summer.

As with river bass in general, fish in the Congaree are heavily influenced by current. When there's some current in the river, the fish seem to be more aggressive and more likely to be in the shallower water, surface feeding on shad, and sometimes even bream.

A hooked bream was my ticket to a really nice bass a couple of years ago here. I was live-bait fishing for bream and hooked a decent-sized fish. Before I could lift it out of the water, a big bass inhaled my bream, snatched the tip of my pole deep into the water and quickly broke the line on my fiberglass bream pole. Even when bream fishing the river, I keep a baitcasting rig with a minnow-imitating lure on it at hand. On that day, I immediately started casting and on the second retrieve, I hooked what I believe was the same bass that took my bream. That largemouth pulled the scale well past the 6-pound mark.

In the upper stretches of the river, the best fishing seems to be near deep holes. The bass hold near these areas during low-water conditions, but even then they will make short forays out to attack shad or other forage. This surface schooling can be an excellent way to locate bass in the Congaree River, and even during the summer you can expect to run into some striper action as well.

Even on the lower end of the Congaree River, I focus on the deeper holes of water. I think doing so may give me a slight edge in finding large fish, but there is generally enough overall water depth in the river that you'll find plenty of bass scattered around - you don't always have to fish the deep holes.

The place I fished on the morning described above was a few miles upstream from the public landing at the Highway 601 bridge. The spot was at the upper end of a deep hole where the shoreline was very steep on that side of the river, and then began to taper off to a more gradual slope as the deep portion of the river began to turn back to the other side. This moderately sloped shoreline was littered with woody debris, making it an ideal place to run buzzbaits or fish plastic worms. Many times a Tiny or Baby Torpedo will work very well here also, especially if the fish are striking the buzzer short. If the bass are short-striking your buzzbait, try making a switch to those lures before giving up on topwater fishing. Midday action (after the topwater bite slows) can be had with plastic worms and mid-depth crankbaits.

The Pee Dee River is really an underutilized resource. There's a lot of river available and not a lot of folks f

ishing it during the summer months.

The Pee Dee suffered, as did all of our rivers, during the recent long-term drought. Access was difficult and fishing was tougher, at least in the more traditional areas. However, anglers who managed to discover new patterns the bass developed in response to lower water conditions were able to have some good days. But traditionally - during non-drought periods - the river produces good fishing throughout the year and the summertime can be very productive.

Any time of year, anglers will increase their catch rates on the Pee Dee system if they understand what the fish do under different water conditions. If the water is low, for example, then you'll need to focus most of your efforts on the main river, especially the deeper holes where there is ample depth and still some current flow.

However, at normal water levels, you can frequently find some excellent bass fishing back in the coves and feeder creeks. Often, the largest fish won't be far from the mouths of the creeks or coves, especially if there is some abundant woody cover they can use as a hideout for ambushing prey. After localized thundershowers that muddy creeks in a particular area of the river, an angler who hits the river as the back third of the creeks are clearing will often find some aggressive fish feeding at or above the mudline. Once the water stabilizes again, the fish seem to migrate back toward the deeper water near the mouths of the coves.

Live bait is usually thought of as a winter/coldwater bass-getter on this river. However, in the summer, dunking some large minnows around the stumps, snags and logs will often produce some quality bass. Of course, the more traditional plastic worm, rigged Texas style, will work very well, too, as do blue, white and chartreuse spinnerbaits.

This is a long river system and there are potentially several different types of water situations you could encounter as you travel up and down the river. Don't hesitate to put your rig on a trailer and motor to another area of the river if you don't like what you see on your first stop.

While there are areas where larger bass boats will work fine on the Pee Dee, my preference would be a flat-bottom boat that can get me into small, shallow areas - spots where, at times, the fishing is best. In some cases, fairly large coves with good water depths have entrances that are very shallow. You need a boat that can get through the entrance: These places can be a real hotspot. Being able, and willing, to put forth a bit of extra effort to get into coves like that can pay real dividends on this river system.

The next river we'll consider is the Broad River. The (almost) unique aspect of this South Carolina river is that you can double your bass-fishing pleasure. According to Val Nash, Chief of Fisheries for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), there is very good fishing for both largemouth and smallmouth bass on this river.

There are few places in South Carolina where you can enjoy quality smallmouth bass fishing, but the upper portion of the Broad River is certainly one. And according to Todd Huntley, a professional guide on the river, the summertime can be the absolute best time of the year to catch smallmouths.

The closer to Columbia you get on this river, the better the largemouth fishing becomes. So by working different stretches of the river and changing your fishing style, you can focus on either species. In fact, you can catch both in the upper sector of the river by simply changing your style of fishing as you work down the river.

I say work down the river because that's the way I've done it. This works best if you have two vehicles. Leave one at a pre-designated take-out point and then take the other vehicle and watercraft upriver to the spot you want to begin fishing. Usually, a small flat-bottom boat or perhaps better yet, a canoe, will afford the best fishing platform. The canoe is very maneuverable, but not as stable, so there are advantages to either.

But in either case, do not hesitate to tie the craft up to the shoreline and wade the river for a while. Wade-fishing carefully a good area is a top method of really getting into the fish. The beginning and ending areas of larger, slow-moving pools of water are prime places to find the smalljaws. Many fish that are actively feeding will also station themselves behind anything that breaks up the current in faster moving riffles.

In addition, it is the deeper water in these large pools where the largemouths tend to hold. Huntley notes they've caught largemouths up to 7 pounds in the river, and hooking smallmouths over 4 pounds is fairly common.

"Landing the big smallmouths can be another issue altogether, but the fish are here in excellent sizes and numbers," he said.

Access to the lower portion of the Broad River is available at numerous launching ramps; however, take care to watch for shallow water and shoals anywhere on this river.

Farther upstream, above the Parr Reservoir on the Broad River, you can access at different locations and even farther above; in Chester County there is a launching ramp. However, many anglers use the public lands around bridges to put in and take out. The key here is to make sure you are on public land before you use these areas.

If you wish to focus on smallmouth bass, the fishing will be a current-oriented game. A big boulder in a riffle where a bass can hide to ambush prey is an ideal spot. As noted, the heads and tails of pools where faster moving water begins and ends are also prime spots.

The best lures seem to be brightly colored, with spinners being a big favorite. Shad are prominent forage on the Broad River during the summer, according to Huntley, and the use of any silver or bright shad-imitating crankbaits can be very productive. However, other favored lures are the in-line spinners, as well as the safety pin-type spinners.

If you're focusing on largemouths - either in the upper portion of the river, between smallmouth hotspots, or in the lower sector of the river - the best bet is usually to stick with bottom-bumpers such as Texas- or Carolina-rigged plastic worms. Sometimes a small finesse worm will do the trick when nothing else will produce. Remember, in a river environment, you sometimes have to scale down the size of your offerings and keep the presentation simple if you want to catch the most fish.

Keep your eyes open for quick drops from shallow to deep water - and these can occur anywhere in the river - even near the shoreline. Check the middle of the river closely because you may find yourself in shallow water where you can wade in water below the knees, but a couple steps away may be an 8-foot-deep hole. Trust me, I found one the hard way.

These quick drops into several feet of water are easy for anglers to miss. That's good if you are able to spot them, because these sudden holes provide excellent holding areas for fish. Work any you find thoroughly before moving on. Bass will hold along

these drops just as they would in a lake environment. A change in bottom depth is a key to bass fishing in a river, just as it can be in a lake.

According to Ric Rhyne, another guide on the river, topwater lures can provide explosive action, especially during the early and late portions of the day. However, I know that if I see some overhanging limbs shading a log lying in the water, I'm casting a topwater to it any time of day. You've got to give them the opportunity to be aggressive, as Rhyne says they often are during the summer.

Rhyne notes that schooling action is a frequent occurrence. Sometimes the "school" will be a single fish; sometimes, however, a small group of bass will frenzy as they work a school of shad. Rhyne says that it's critical to be able to cast a spinner-type lure a long distance very quickly when schooling occurs. Plan to keep one rig ready for such an occurrence anytime you are fishing the Broad River.

The Cooper River can be a hawg producer and rates well on the numbers of bass caught also. While the river gets fairly heavy pressure during the spring and early summer, by this time of the year, the pressure has slacked off a bit. But the bass are still there and are quite willing to cooperate.

There are several access points along the river as it flows through Berkeley County; the first one just below the Pinopolis Dam. If there is little flow and the water's low, then I'd suggest you focus your efforts on the mainstream portion of the river where you can get the lure into the middepth range.

If there is plenty of current and the water level is up, you'll often find some excellent fishing up some of the major feeders such as the East Branch of the Cooper River.

The Cooper River does have a good bit of non-fishing recreational boating traffic, especially on the weekends. If you can plan a trip during the week, you can relieve some of this pressure. I've noticed this to be particularly true when the water is down and the best fishing is on the main river. You just can't hide from the other boats in this situation and you'll be fishing in boat wakes all day.

The best lures here are similar to lures that work in any of the rivers we've profiled, except I'd suggest using a larger plastic worm if you're really after a big Cooper River bass. These river bass can be quite aggressive, so you're likely to hook smallish fish even on big worms. Another big-bass lure here is the buzzbait, with blue and white being a very good color combination.

This summer try something different if you haven't enjoyed the bass fishing opportunities on our rivers. In addition to the good fishing, you can pull up on a sandbar, eat lunch and cool off in water usually considerably cooler than that found at your favorite lake.

That must be what is meant by "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

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