It may be the coldest month of the year in South Carolina, but the January striper fishing can be as hot as it gets! (January 2007)
Photo by Mike Marsh
Fishing patterns change throughout the seasons on the various lakes in South Carolina, regardless of the species being sought. That certainly seems to be the case with striped bass in several lakes in the state.
And not only do patterns change with the seasons, they exhibit changes over the course of several years. However, change doesn't mean the fishing is suffering. Actually, the striper fishing on a number of lakes in South Carolina continues to be as good or better than ever with the catch rate remaining very high.
This is true even in the dead of winter, which for some anglers is actually a prime time to make big catches of large stripers. There are three lakes that stand out for great striper (or striper and hybrid) fishing opportunities as the new year of 2007 begins. Specifically, lakes Hartwell, Thurmond and Moultrie all offer excellent fishing, if you know the how and where of each lake. And what we're going to do here is give you advice from the experts on the how and where.
Certainly one of the best striper fishing trips I've ever enjoyed in the Palmetto State occurred a few years ago at Lake Hartwell. Not only did three friends and I catch a passel of stripers, but we had a good mixture of hybrids as well. It was a bitter cold morning, but we scarcely noticed the cold air and chilling wind.
The stripers were bunched up on an underwater creek bend and we managed to get the boat right on top of them. Fishing with blueback herring, we had limits for everyone in the boat within three hours. For those anglers who know the routine, this type of fishing certainly occurs at this lake during the winter.
Granted, it's not always that easy, but anglers with the right strategy find that good days happen more often. One such angler is longtime striper fishing guide Chip Hamilton. Hamilton has been guiding for 12 years on Lake Hartwell and recognizes the wintertime pattern as one that's typically very reliable and very productive.
"The first thing to consider is that there are some major water temperature transitions going on at this time of the year," Hamilton began. "As the water begins to cool down, the fish begin their migration up the creeks and rivers on Lake Hartwell. This will typically begin to occur in December. Looking for fish in the tributaries and not the main lake is one of the keys to success in terms of where to find the fish. They will typically be leaving the main lake where they often orient to the underwater trees. During this time of the year, the favored structures are underwater features that are relatively clean and void of trees and brush.
"One of my favorite areas is simply the clean humps that rise up from the deep water in the larger creeks and rivers. Another excellent place I focus on is the end of long, sloping points. Both are typically great places for stripers and hybrids to congregate," Hamilton added.
Hamilton noted that, in general, the preferred depth to scan for fish at this time of the year will be in the 35- to 50-foot range. Since the basic feeding pattern stripers engage in during wintertime is to prey on roaming baitfish, Hamilton prefers to use live bait to catch the fish.
"I use 20-pound-test line this time of the year. I'll put a 1 1/2-ounce egg sinker about 24 to 30 inches above the hook as my basic rig. I'll bait with live blueback herring," Hamilton said. "Typically, when fishing this pattern, I'll anchor the boat where I've marked fish. Sometimes the boat will spook the fish, but they'll usually get used to it pretty quick. One of the keys I look for, in addition to baitfish on the graph, is the presence of the big arches indicative of stripers and hybrids near the bottom. I'll often mark a lot of fish several feet off the bottom, but if there are some big fish lying near the bottom that's the key. These are the fish that normally are feeding.
"For that reason, I'll usually lower my bait so it's about 3 feet off the bottom. However, on occasion, you'll find days where all the fish are suspended well off the bottom and you'll have to work that depth. In that case, if you don't mark fish on the bottom or don't get any bites there, put your bait just above the depth where the mass of fish are marked on the graph. It's better to have the bait just above a striper," Hamilton added.
Another pattern that works well for Hamilton during the winter is to drift-fish in the main channel of the creek or tributary river. When fish can't be found on the humps, points, ledges and similar structures, it often means they have suspended in the 30- to 40-foot range in the middle of the channel.
"When (drift-fishing) and slowly motoring over the channel, you may see only a few big fish marks in a given area, but that usually means there are plenty of fish around. When I see that, I'll set up and work that area.
"In addition to down rods, I'll use free-line rigs in this situation. I'll put a small split shot to get the herring down a bit, but basically let the bait free-line behind the boat. This will often work very well during the winter," Hamilton noted.
Hamilton said that the mid-lake portion of Hartwell is his favorite territory.
"I'll fish the Tugaloo and Seneca river areas with my favorite being the area between the I-85 bridge and the Concross Creek area. But there is good fishing throughout he lake," he added.
As noted by Hamilton, you can expect to catch a mixed bag of hybrids and stripers. The stripers will usually run from 7 to 20 pounds this time of year. The hybrids will usually be in the 5- to 7-pound class on Hartwell. However, as Hamilton noted, you can still catch some really big fish in the wintertime.
Hamilton added that this general fishing pattern will remain productive into February. He said the fish might begin to move farther up the rivers and in the mouths of the tributary creeks. But on a day-to-day basis, beginning your search for fish in the 35- to 50-foot range will remain a good best bet.
For more information or to book a trip with Hamilton, contact him at Lake Hartwell Striper Guide Service at (864) 304-9011.
THURMOND (CLARKS HILL)
Another topnotch striper lake for cold-weather fishing is Lake Thurmond (Clarks Hill Lake). This huge lake has an abundance of fish, both stripers and hybrids, with some very large stripers caught during the winter season ev
ery year. In addition, the lake is chock-full of underwater structures, such as channel ledge, humps, points, river bends and more. In fact, one of the biggest problems an angler can have here is defining where the fish will be on a given day because of the diverse structure options the fish have.
Again, a little local knowledge will go a long way in helping you solve this problem. Tommy Bertzfield has been fishing Thurmond for 30 years, with 18 of those years working as a professional fishing guide. Bertzfield said the December to mid-March period is an excellent time to catch good numbers of fish.
"Plus, we'll typically catch some really large fish during this time of the year as well," Bertzfield quickly pointed out.
"There is good fishing throughout the lake, but my favorite area is the Little River (South Carolina) portion of the lake. But the strategies I use will work just about anywhere on the lake during the winter," he added.
Bertzfield said that the two primary methods he and most successful anglers employ are free-lining live bait and using planing boards to present the bait.
"Usually, I'll use blueback herring, but some fishermen will catch gizzard shad and have really good success with that as well. I use the planing boards as a mechanism to get the baits spread out over a large area, so I can cover a lot of water effectively. That's one of the keys to success. While the fish may be congregated in general areas, often they are not so thick that you can successfully just anchor over them and catch them. Using these rigs, I can cover 50 to 75 yards of water on a single pass. Plus, I'm covering water where my boat is not close to the bait. During this time of the year, I am convinced that the boat can cause the stripers to shy away a bit," he said.
He uses his electric motor to troll slowly along and he will focus his efforts on underwater creek bends, points, humps and even steep shorelines.
"One area that most anglers bypass is working the bait near the shoreline. On some of the steep shorelines, we've caught 20-pound-plus stripers only a few feet off the bank using the planing boards.
"When free-lining, which sometimes works very well, I'll put the bait out to the side and behind the boat with only a small split shot to get the bait down. Get the bait well away from the boat so the boat doesn't spook the fish too badly. While you won't be covering as wide a path as you will using the boards, this is a very effective technique and one that doesn't require the use of boards. When I set up for this type of fishing, I'll use four rods, with two straight behind the boat and one out on each side. Sometimes I'll even use a cork placed about 10 feet in front of the bait. This is a great method to work the points," he added.
Another tactic he uses is to fish some down rods, rigged with heavier sinkers, placed about 12 to 15 feet deep. "While the boat will seem to spook some fish, we do pick up hybrids and stripers in this manner as well. However, for the most part, the really big fish are caught on rigs that are far away from the boat," he said.
Bertzfield also noted that he might pick up two or three fish on a single pass on a point. If he encounters a specific area like that, or if he gets several bites on a long stretch of drifting or trolling over a ledge, he'll make repeated passes over that area.
"Sometimes you will have to pull your rigs in, move back to the productive area, and repeat the process. If you pick up a couple or three fish on each pass, it won't take long to have a box full of fish," he noted.
Bertzfield said that the catch of hybrids and stripers is about half and half on a typical day at Lake Thurmond. The stripers will generally average 5 to 10 pounds each, with 30-pound fish possible during this time of the year. The hybrids will often average in the 5- to 8-pound class, he said.
Contact Bertzfield for more information or to book a trip at Lake Thurmond by calling Tommy's Herring & Guide service at (864) 443-5088 or on his cell phone at (864) 378-2130.
The striper fishing on Lake Moultrie during January can also be outstanding. Sometimes, during really cold weather years when the water temperature is extremely low, the fishing can be more difficult. However, in most years, there's excellent fishing for stripers, both with live-bait rigs and in taking advantage of the opportunity to catch schooling fish. In many cases, you'll have a chance to catch fish schooling early and late in the day and then catch them by drifting live bait the rest of the day.
Unlike the other two lakes, Lake Moultrie is a striper-only lake. But that certainly doesn't limit your potential action. While on the surface, the lake looks like a huge nine-by-11-mile bowl of water; the underwater contours of this lake are quite dramatic. These underwater structures are key to striper fishing success for anglers seeking both topwater schooling action as well as those fish susceptible to live-bait drifting techniques.
Study topographic maps of this lake and you'll be able to pinpoint these potential hotspot areas. Plus, once you add some on-the-lake experience to the formula, you'll be even better able to fine-tune the specific tactics that work best on this lake.
Keep in mind that stripers are streamlined eating machines. For this reason, it's crucial to find forage associated with the structure. Either structure or forage can be enough to attract these voracious eaters, but if you find both, you radically increase your chances of hooking a fish.
The best bait for this time of the year seems to be live bait, preferably blueback herring, although some anglers will make good catches using shad minnows and live shiners. One of the keys is to keep a fresh, lively bait on the hook at all times. The care you give your bait will certainly influence the number of bites you get.
Surface-feeding fish offer a great opportunity at Lake Moultrie. Typically, this action occurs early and late in the day. However, it is not the only method I would rely upon for success.
Chasing the gulls for surface-feeding fish is one very popular method of fishing. Lake Moultrie is much more open in terms of trees and snags in the open water than her sister lake of Marion, where standing timber makes chasing stripers at full speed problematic. You still need to watch for shallow humps in some areas of Moultrie, but in general, this water is very conducive to chasing those surface-feeding, schooling fish. Flathead bucktails in the 3/4- and 1-ounce size are excellent baits, as are Striper Delights for surface-feeding fish.
When the fish are not active on the surface, use herring, shad or shiners as a live-bait offering. Use the wind to drift the offering over areas where you've marked plenty of forage fish on the graph. Often you can get into some outstanding striper fishing without ever seeing a fish break the surface or see a gull flyin
Typically, most guides will try to locate the forage over a dropoff, hump or underwater island. By pinpointing stripers on these identifiable underwater areas, they increase their clients' odds of success and you can do the same thing for yourself. On the other hand, random searching and drifting in the open water of this huge lake is often unproductive for long periods.
On cloudy days, you can sometimes enjoy good "gull chasing" all day. On clear, cold bluebird-sky days, the stripers may still be caught; they just usually work on the shad in deeper water. Some local anglers have actually patterned this well enough that they sleep in on those cold mornings, then get out about the time the "gull watchers" are leaving. But they often return home with a limit of fish before the afternoon shift of gull watchers get out.
Regardless of where you live in South Carolina, you can get to one of these three lakes within a reasonable amount of time. A real plus is that despite the cold weather, the striper fishing action can be really hot. It's quite common, on any of these lakes, to have multiple fish hooked at once.
As Chip Hamilton pointed out, "When you get on a school of wintertime stripers, the action can be all a boatload of fishermen can handle . . . and sometimes more."
If that type of striper action is something that appeals to you, then now's the time to get out and do it.