Clarks Hill Striper Tactics

Clarks Hill Striper Tactics

Interested in tangling with a 20-pound fish this month? Then you need to read these striped bass tips for winter fishing on this east Georgia reservoir. (January 2009)

Talk with serious striped bass anglers in Georgia about the best locations for catching both numbers of striped bass as well as a trophy, and Clarks Hill will always make the short list. The third impoundment of the Savannah River, Clarks Hill is Georgia's largest reservoir at 71,535 acres. The lake has been stocked with stripers for better than 30 years, enough time for some true monsters to take up residence.

Mark Crawford of Team Save One More Guide Service shows off a big cold-weather striper from Clarks Hill.
Photo courtesy of Mark Crawford.

Clarks Hill's fertile waters also support a load of forage that sustains larger numbers of striped bass. With details like these, it is no wonder the "Hill" is a hot spot for wintertime.

!Water temperature plays a big part in where and how striped bass guide Mike Maddalena fishes Clarks Hill in the winter. "Mike Madd" (as he's known on the water) is a partner in Big Fish On! Guide Service and is the seven-time Angler of the Year for the North Georgia Striper Club. His most productive wintertime big striped bass tactic is to slow-troll or freeline big live baits.

"I'll pull something big like a gizzard shad or a rainbow trout that's 12 inches long or bigger," said the guide. "Especially if there's been a warming trend at some point, or if we have a mild winter."

When looking for striped bass, Maddalena slow-trolls as many as eight baits behind his 24-foot Carolina Skiff guide boat. Using a powerful trolling motor, he systematically arranges baits behind his boat using planer boards to pull the baited lines out to the sides of his boat and keep them from tangling. Using trout that many anglers would consider big enough to take home on a stringer, he rigs the rainbows on 7/0 or 8/0 Gamakatsu octopus hooks. Just be aware that you must purchase the trout from a bait shop and have a receipt to be legal.

For large gizzard shad, he uses a slightly smaller 6/0 hook, but adds a "stinger" treble hook attached to an 8-inch piece of 40-pound-test monofilament line hooked into the bait's tail section.

"The trout are pretty slimy," Maddalena explained, "and stripers don't have much trouble swallowing them, but they will mouth a gizzard for a while and that's where the stinger helps hook the fish. Of course, a trophy fish that's better than 20 pounds can swallow either one without batting an eye. The first warning you get of that is a rod screaming with line peeling off the reel."

Maddalena looks for January striped bass on Clarks Hill to move back into one of the many tributary creeks that feed the lake. His favorite spots for trophy stripers include Fishing Creek and Soap Creek, both midlake locations near Lincolnton, and Buffalo Creek, off of Little River on the South Carolina side. One of the first places he checks is from midway in Soap Creek all the way back to where the water necks down to less than 10 feet wide. Stripers move up along the banks of Soap Creek and look for places to ambush prey. This tributary draws a lot of shad and blueback herring in the winter; stripers follow them in.

"I'll look for bait first," said "Mike Madd," "both on my graph and on the surface of the water. Bait will hold out in the creek, but some times the gizzards will be too shallow to mark. If I see the tell tale signs of bait flipping up in a small cut or right up on the bank, I know there's likely to be stripers in there."

One of the reasons he favors Fishing Creek is its multitude of cuts and coves that drain off into the creek and these secondary points make great striper structure. Stripers typically don't hold still on structure, but are instead shadowing schools of bait, looking for an opportunity to trap a pod against a point or bank.

Maddalena likes to cover some ground with his trolling, using the GPS function on his electronics to monitor his speed. He prefers trolling speeds from 1 to 1.2 miles per hour. He trolls as far back into Fishing Creek as the State Route 79 bridge.

Augusta-based guide Mark Crawford operates Team Save One More Guide Service; he's also president of the Clarks Hill Striper Club. He's been fishing the impoundment since he was a boy.

Crawford's favorite January striper tactic is freelining live bait. His top locations are the area near the pumping station in the Raysville area of Georgia's Little River. He indicated that the areas west of the Raysville Bridge SR 43 are great for finding a number of shallow feeder creeks dumping into the main tributary. These sites offer warmer water during the winter. Just a couple of degrees' worth of extra comfort are all it takes to draw in baitfish, which in turn draw striped bass.

If he can find water in the upper 50s, Crawford's going to work that area hard. The only place to find water that warm in January is on extremely shallow sun-soaked flats in the heat of the day. The Little River splits just west of the bridge, and the northern banks of the river soak up a lot of wintertime sun, particularly if the water has some stain to it. The ideal situation is to target shallow flats that have ditches, holes or slight depressions on them. Striped bass use the deeper water to infiltrate the shallows to ambush bait on the flats.

"I've found that I do better during the middle of the day than early in the morning or late in the evening," Crawford said. "Stripers get up in the very backs of the feeder creeks and will be so shallow you can see them waking the surface -- it looks like flats fishing you'd find down at the coast."

Crawford likes to use large baits for big stripers, but has found that as the weather gets colder, it's better to "match the hatch" and fish with smaller baits. During winter, threadfin shad bunch up into tight schools on Clarks Hill and stripers gorge themselves on the 2- to 3-inch baits.

"I'll downsize my rigs from what I normally use during the spring and pull 4- to 6-inch herring," he offered. "I prefer the Waterbugz planer boards because they are great for pulling smaller baits. And they pull way out to the side of the boat into the smaller water that's hard to access."

Crawford doesn't write off the possibility of catching a trophy fish just because he isn't using filleting-sized bait. In fact, his best striped bass from Clarks Hill -- a monster that tipped the scales at over 42 pounds -- came on a 6-inch herring. The large baits cause a reaction strike from striped bass, but most of the stripers, including the big ones, are gorging

on threadfins and smaller baits.

"One of the best ways to locate a striper feeding frenzy," he explained, "is to watch the sky for birds: gulls, loons or herons. These birds move inland during the winter to feed on baitfish and can be seen from long distances diving on schools of bait pushed up by schooling stripers."

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