Hit the lake early this time of year for some incredibly fast action!(May 2008)
Hartwell striper guide Chip Hamilton with a nice striped bass near the Lake Hartwell dam.
Photo by Terry Madewell.
When fishing for Lake Hartwell stripers during the month of May, getting an early start to the fishing can be a really good idea. I learned that on a trip to this deep, clear lake last spring.
At least it was that way when I fished with Chip Hamilton. Hamilton wants to be on this clearwater lake and fishing about an hour before sunrise.
He said that the hour before sunrise is an almost magical time of the day for stripers on Lake Hartwell. He added that as the eastern sky begins to get the first hint of light, the stripers sometimes go on a feeding binge.
Since I prefer being on the lake early anyway, I was rigged and ready. On the morning we fished, he was casting blueback herring off a point while the sky was still very dark. He had eased the boat onto the gravel shoreline on an island point and was casting the rigs out of the back of the boat. He slipped three rods into rod holders and the waiting began. After 30 seconds without a bite, Hamilton mentioned something about it being a slow morning.
I thought he was kidding.
Before I could chuckle at what I figured was a joke, one of the rods took a nosedive under the strain of a linesider. I was solidly hooked to the first striper of the day. In the next 10 minutes, we caught two more and missed two bites. Then five minutes with no fish action caused Hamilton to re-think his strategy. He began to pull the rigs in to move to another spot. By now, I realized he was serous about the fast-paced action he was expecting.
"We still have a half hour to find them feeding in the shallows," he said. "We'll try another point, then we'll start looking for them in the deeper water."
A five-minute boat run ensued and we quickly worked the same setup. This time we didn't have to wait so long for the fish to bite. Before he got the second rig out, I had one hooked on the first rod.
The action continued until sunrise and then it switched off like a light switch had been flipped.
"OK, it's time to get serious," Hamilton said. "We're going striper hunting now. We may have to motor around a bit to find them, but once we do, we'll see some pretty fast action."
While I had thought we'd already seen some fast action, I took him seriously this time. In the next few hours, we did get into a considerable amount of what even Hamilton admitted was fast-paced striper and hybrid action.
"We enjoy excellent fishing throughout much of the year here on Lake Hartwell," Hamilton said. "But the fishing in May and June is outstanding. And, unbelievably, some of the best striper fishing of the year actually occurs during the real hot weather months of July and August. It can be absolutely outstanding. By mid- to late April and May, we get into a strong, predictable pattern that lasts for several months."
Most of the action is on live bait, but there can be some topwater schooling action, too. Hamilton said that he is geared up to take advantage of any topwater schooling action. However, his bread-and-butter pattern from now through summer is live-bait fishing. With that pattern, he said he has an outstanding chance of success on a daily basis.
"Live-bait fishing is the primary focus during May and throughout the summer," he said. "Topwater schooling action is heart-stopping exciting, especially when there are some 10- to 20-pound stripers ripping baitfish to shreds on the water's surface. But that action is sometimes sporadic and unpredictable, so most guides at Lake Hartwell see it as a backup plan, sort of a Plan B. That's a 'B' as in 'bonus.' There's plenty of places we can consistently find stripers and hybrids during this time of the year using live bait.
"We seldom see a lot of shad-ripping topwater schooling during May as we might during the hot months," Hamilton said. "But we'll certainly take advantage of the topwater opportunity when presented."
Hamilton said the first consideration for consistent success is the water temperature transition occurring at this time of the year. He said that will have a big effect on determining which portion of the lake the fish will congregate.
Hamilton said that it's necessary to understand the layout of the lake to better understand where the stripers will typically be located.
At normal pool elevation, Lake Hartwell Lake comprises nearly 56,000 acres of water with a shoreline of 962 miles.
He explained that the lake is impounded by the Hartwell Dam located on the Savannah River seven miles below the junction of the Tugaloo and Seneca rivers. These are the two major arms of the lake and the waters in the Tugaloo and Seneca rivers, and the creeks flowing into them, are the prime fishing areas during May.
"There's a lot of water here, so you've got to narrow your search area," Hamilton said. "Fortunately, that's what occurs during May and into the summer. The fish patterns dictate the areas we can most successfully fish.
"As the water begins to warm, the fish begin their migration down the rivers and creeks toward the main river on Lake Hartwell," Hamilton said. "The impact of the warming will really begin in late April and into May. As this occurs, we will begin to find both stripers and hybrids in the tributaries more than the main lake. But as the water continues to warm, the fish will leave the rivers and creeks in favor of the main lake. Here, during hot weather they will often orient to the underwater trees."
During the spring portion of the year, the favored structures are underwater features that are sometimes relatively clean and void of trees and brush.
"One of my favorite areas is to fish the clean humps that rise up from the deep water in the larger creeks and rivers," Hamilton said. "Another excellent place I focus on is the end of long, sloping points. Both are typically great places for stripers and hybrids to congregate.
"During the spring, I like the middle sector of the lake best. I'll fish uplake and in the lower end of the lake at times. But I like the mid-sector because there's a great diversity of humps, points, drops and ledges both in the creeks and along the mai
n river channel. The fish seem to hold in this part of the lake in big numbers during this time of the year."
Later on in the season, during the really hot weather, he will begin to fish farther downlake, sometimes even catching them right in front of the dam in very deep water during July and August. In fact, he mentioned that some of the heaviest catches of stripers he makes during a normal year would occur during this midsummer period. For anglers who understand the pattern, this hot weather fishing is very predictable and incredibly productive.
Hamilton added that this is still a lot of water to cover, but it does give him and other anglers a target area to focus on for May fishing.
Hamilton added that generally the typical depth to catch fish at this time of the year would be in the 35- to 50-foot depth range; the exact depth of the fish, not surprisingly, may change a few feet either way on a given day. Since the basic feeding pattern of the stripers and hybrids is to gorge on roaming baitfish during spring, a live 4- to 6-inch blueback herring is the perfect size to catch the fish.
"I use 20-pound-test clear line during this time of the year," Hamilton said. "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. I don't get real caught up in the actual size of the bait I use at this time of the year. Usually, the stripers will be feeding on fairly small forage, so bluebacks in the 4- to 6-inch size work well. There are times during the spring when I think big bait may actually be a turnoff, even for the larger fish."
Hamilton said that almost all of the places he will fish have a link to the deeper water in the area.
"I generally orient to channel ledges and other forms of drops, points or humps throughout most of the year," he said. "The early springtime may be the only exception to this rule, but by May, I'm looking for fish hovering over good underwater structure. I may fish clean flats during April and May, but they usually will be near a channel."
Hamilton said the typical pattern is to anchor the boat where fish are marked on the graph. He added that it is essential to get the boat positioned just right, so he studies the layout of the fish as depicted on the graph. He calculates and considers the wind direction and velocity before putting out the anchor. If the wind is not howling, he'll often use his electric motor to work an area. Either way, he said that boat position is a real key to success.
"Sometimes the boat will spook the fish at first, but they'll usually get used to it pretty quick," Hamilton said. "But being right on target can be a real key to success during this time. One of the keys I look for, in addition to baitfish on the graph, is the presence of the big arches indicative of stripers. 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 my key. These are the fish that typically are feeding.
"For that reason, I'll usually lower my bait so it's about 3 feet off the bottom," he said. "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.
"Also, I'll use a free-line rig a lot during this time of the year. Essentially, that's exactly what it sounds like. I hook a blueback on an unweighted line and get it out behind the boat. The bait will swim freely and often suspended fish will rise several feet to take that bait. They will seldom go deeper to take bait, but they may come up much shallower to take one.
"I continue to watch the graph intently after the boat is positioned to see how the stripers and hybrids react to the bait. Often I can see them working into a feeding frenzy based on the erratic lines on the graph. Often, I can predict to my clients when a fish is about to bite. Sometimes, when one bites, the other fish literally go on a feeding frenzy and the action is wild. That's what we're looking for."
Even when the bait is out, Hamilton will focus his attention on the depthfinder. Often he'll spot a fish that moves up to take a bait before the rod tip goes down. As I found out that day, when Chip Hamilton said, "Get ready, here he comes," you'd better be close to your fishing rod. In almost every case when he excitedly said that phrase, one or more of his live-bait rigged rods took a nosedive. A quick hookset response typically ensures a bruising striper or a hard-fighting hybrid is on the business end of the rig.
On many days, it will mean multiple hookups at the same time with both stripers and hybrids.
Hamilton said fishermen can expect to catch a mixed bag of hybrids and stripers. The stripers will average in the 7- to 20-pound range during the springtime. The hybrids will usually average in the 5- to 7-pound class on Hartwell. However, Hamilton said you can also catch some really big fish now.
"Sometimes I'll have a client who wishes to focus on trophy stripers," Hamilton said. "If the fisherman is willing to give up action on numbers of fish, we'll focus on a technique for a striper in the 20- to 40-pound size class. The really big stripers can be hooked anywhere at any time the way we fish. But I do have a different technique or two when trying to single out those huge fish.
"Really big stripers are very sensitive to boats and external influences," Hamilton said. "But I've found the above set of conditions is ideal for hooking into a real trophy fish. I'll use freeline rigs over a long, sloping point that drops into deep water or over a clean ridge near deep water. Typically, I won't fish as deep. Often, these really big fish will get into these types of areas in 20 to 25 feet of water during midday. Plus I'll use the larger herring when targeting a big striper.
"I get the line and herring well away from the boat and work each area thoroughly and patiently," he said. "There usually won't be as much action as with our more traditional fishing pattern. But the odds of hooking a huge fish or two are enhanced using this technique. It's certainly not a sure-fire setup, but it's the best way I've found to specifically target the really big fish."
On our trip, there were periods of time where he slowly motored along, looking for the combination of forage and game fish over a good structure. This is time well spent, he said.
"Unless you have the different keys to success found together, odds of getting into red-hot fishing action is somewhat diminished," he said.
However, when it all comes together, each person in the boat is basically limited to one rod because as fast as he slips a blueback on the hook and it is lowered to the right depth, another fish loads on.
When first setting up, he'll often put out four and sometimes more rods. But a hard-charging striper or two that becomes hooked seems to turn on the rest of them. Then it's literally action as fast as you can crank them in.
This spring and summer don't miss the outstanding fishing going on at Lake Hartwell. If you haven't enjoyed this type of striper fishing, now's the time and Lake Hartwell is the place.
Contact Hamilton (Lake Hartwell Striper Guide Service at 864/304-9011) to book a trip anytime of the year.