October 04, 2010
In South Carolina during the cold-weather months, Hartwell and Thurmond are among the best places in the state to hook trophy stripers. (December 2009)
Striped bass anglers who fish the Savannah chain lakes of Hartwell and Thurmond are hoping to give a collective sigh of relief this winter. True rockfish fans recognize that the colder weather months are the best times to catch both numbers of fish and quality fish. In fact, striper anglers typically find they have the lakes all to themselves this time of year. The reason for the high expectations for this season is because after some 26 months of drought that reduced both lakes to the lowest levels on record, normal water levels have returned.
That's not to say that there were not striped bass to be caught last winter. Many anglers who adapted to the changing patterns brought on by less water and more visible structure did exceedingly well. But it's with high anticipation that many yearn to get back into the creeks this winter where they have caught so many fish in the past.
Two of these diehard anglers are striper guides Bill Plumley and Mark Crawford. While Plumley's home turf is the 56,000 acres of impounded reservoir created by the Hartwell dam, Crawford calls his home lake Thurmond, the 71,000 acres located two lakes down the Savannah River chain.
Captain Bill Plumley retired to Lake Hartwell several years ago with two goals in mind: He wanted to spend more time fishing and hunting. He reasoned that becoming a fishing guide would be the best way to do that and is often found fishing the lake whether he has a guide party or not. Plumley said that the striped bass bite on Lake Hartwell is dictated mostly by water temperature. He said the magic mark for him is 50 degrees. He fishes one way if the surface temps are above 50 and an entirely different way if they are below that mark.
As November progresses into December, it is likely that water temperatures will still be above the 50-degree mark, so December typically finds Plumley trolling live baits to catch trophy stripers.
"I'll offer striped bass a choice of either live gizzard shad, blueback herring or rainbow trout," said Plumley. "My hands-down favorite for big fish is a gizzard shad. I'll run five rods out of the back of the boat. Two rods on each side will be towing live gizzards behind a planerboard, and the middle rod will be a free line that goes straight back with a blueback herring on it."
Obtaining such baits is a matter of pulling into the drive-through at the local bait shop -- which is, incidentally, named "The Bait Shop" and is located just off Hwy. 24 below the interstate in Townville. Plumley credits proprietor Tim Marchbanks, an avid striper fan himself, with knowing the needs of striper anglers and doing his best to ensure they have a variety of baits, including the highly sought gizzard shad, at their disposal.
Once on the water, Plumley believes that trophy striped bass behave much like big bucks. Both are typically loners and have a habit of showing up at odd times, contrary to the rest of the school or herd. It's for this reason that he prefers to fish the mid-morning through mid-afternoon hours for trophy stripers. He believes that schooling fish dominate the waters at daybreak and then head off to deeper water as the sun gets up. He contends that big fish may be anywhere, anytime but are rarely found in the company of smaller fish.
"Gizzard shad are shallow-water fish, even in the winter, so I like to troll my baits where one line of baits is running right up along the bank in 5 feet of water or less," said the guide. "I start out by going to the very back end of the creek and work my way out as the day progresses."
At lot of trophy anglers like to use gizzard shad that may weigh up to a pound or better, but Plumley has never had much success with monster baits. His ideal range is a 6- to 10-inch gizzard that will weed out all of the yearling stripers and hybrids, but will start catching fish in the 10- to 12-pound range, as well as the 20-plus-pound fish if one comes across it. He uses a stinger rig on these baits: A 5/0 or 6/0 Kahle hook goes through the bait's nose with a short leader attached to the main hook. On the end of the leader he ties a No. 4 treble hook, which impales the shad lightly behind the bait's dorsal fin. The treble is not enough to impede the movement of the bait, but is enough to catch a short-striking striper or a big one that takes the bait tail first.
Another tip for live bait anglers is to keep an eye on the sky for birds working the surface of the water. These birds -- gulls, terns and loons -- are drawn by baitfish that are driven to the surface by striped bass feeding below. He tries to avoid large flocks of birds, however, because they also tend to draw more attention from other anglers.
"Big stripers won't tolerate much boat traffic," he said. "I'd much rather find one or two birds that are working the back of a small pocket and just seem to be glued to the area. That tells me there is some bait in the back of that pocket and only one or two birds won't attract much attention from other boats. That's a great situation to slip up on a big fish -- especially if on up into the middle of the day."
Plumley's favorite venues for pulling live baits are Coneross Creek, Martin's Creek and 18 Mile Creek off the Seneca River, as well as the smaller arms of 3 & 20, and 6 & 20 creeks. Access to these areas is available at Twin Lakes Ramp located off Hwy. 187 near Pendleton.
As the winter progresses and water temperatures decrease below the 50-degree mark, Plumley changes tactics entirely. He goes from live bait fishing to completely artificial baits -- trolling umbrella rigs.
"When the water gets that cold, the striped bass' metabolism slows down and they don't feed much," explained Plumley. "The umbrella rigs work because it's a reaction bite. Stripers may be holding along a piece of structure or channel drop and here comes what looks to be a pod of baitfish tearing through the middle of the school. They just slash into the rig and end up hanging themselves."
While umbrella rigs are immensely effective at hanging fish, they're also good at hanging up on anything else that gets in their path. It's for that reason that Plumley reserves his umbrella rig runs for the main channels on major tributaries. As can be attested by anyone who fished Hartwell during its low water last winter, there are still many submerged standing trees left, even in the major creeks.
"I rely heavily on my GPS mapping unit to let me know that I'm on the edge of the main channel anywhere I'm fishing with umbrellas," said Plumley. "Stripers move into the backs of the creeks at night and early in the winter, but as the water cools, the bait and the fish will ease back toward
the major tributaries. The edges of those tributaries are staging points, especially the bends in those channels and that's a good place both to catch stripers and avoid getting snagged."
Plumley pulls two umbrella rigs at the same time behind his 23-foot center console boat. The average trolling speed is somewhere between 2.5 and 3.0 mph, a speed he achieves through the use of the main outboard on the boat. He's quick to point out that it is possible to troll umbrellas too fast this time of year and will slow his boat down as much as possible while still keeping the heavy rigs off the bottom.
"I use one five-bait rig and one nine-bait rig when I troll," said Plumley. "I run the lighter rig closer to the boat, letting out around 80 feet of line for that one. The heavier rig is let out somewhere between 100 to 130 feet. I'm going to make sure I follow the channel edge and always keep the boat moving unless I find a situation where I mark some fish suspended over deep water. In that case, I may pop the boat out of gear and drop in on them."
Despite their weight, the umbrellas do not sink as deep as one might think when trolled with the big motor. By putting the boat into neutral for a count of 10 to 15 seconds, Plumley causes the baits to nosedive as the boat drifts forward in neutral and then swoop back on track when the motor is reengaged. This erratic movement is often enough to entice the suspended stripers into attacking the rig.
Plumley rigs his own umbrella rigs from bare frames he buys at The Bait Shop. He uses 50-pound mono to hand-tie bucktail jigs to the frame on 4- to 6-inch leaders. He uses two different kinds of baits. The first is a bucktail jig and trailer that sports combination colors of white and green. He also uses 4-inch Storm swimbaits in a mullet pattern with a heavy brown tone.
Plumley says that to the main Seneca River from the I-85 bridge crossing up to Clemson Marina is a great umbrella rig trolling run. He indicates the water may be close to 80 feet deep at the edge of the channel near the interstate and shallow to just over 40 feet when you get to Clemson. He has also had success staying near the middle of the 6 & 20 creek channel as well as the 3 & 20 tributary.
According to Augusta-based guide Mark Crawford, December and January are two of the top months for catching Lake Thurmond stripers in numbers -- and anglers have a reasonable chance of hooking a big fish too. Crawford operates Team Save One More Guide Service and is president of the Clarks Hill Striper Club. Crawford has been fishing Thurmond since he was a boy with his father and also fishes a number of striped bass tournaments across the Southeast.
Still referred to by many of the old-timers as Clarks Hill, now officially called J. Strom Thurmond Reservoir in honor of the longtime South Carolina senator, Thurmond is the third impoundment of the Savannah River that flows between the states of South Carolina and Georgia. Over the course of the last eight years, Thurmond has traded the South Carolina state-record striped bass with its Savannah siblings -- Russell and Hartwell. Though the current record resides in Russell, based on a whopper caught this past April, many veteran striped bass anglers point to Thurmond as not only the likely successor to the state record but a strong contender for the next world record. With a healthy population of large stripers, abundant forage base and sprawling fertile waters, Thurmond is ripe for the striper angler who knows where to look for trophy fish and how to tempt them into eating.
Crawford's favorite winter striper tactic for Thurmond is free-lining live bait. His favorite locations are near the pumping station in the Raysville area on the Georgia side of the lake. He indicated that the areas west of the Raysville Bridge at Hwy. 43 are also great locations to find a number of shallow feeder creeks dumping into the main tributary.
These shallow areas offer warmer water during the winter. Just a couple of degrees are all it takes to draw in baitfish, which in turn draw striped bass. Crawford said that if he can find water in the upper 50s, he's going to work that area hard. He also indicated that the only place to find water that warm in the winter is on extremely shallow sun-soaked flats in the heat of the day. Little River splits north past 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 some sort of deeper water crisscrossing the flat, such as ditches, holes or slight depressions. This is typical of the area in the back of the river known as the "Goat Pasture." Striped bass will infiltrate the shallows using the deeper water and ambush baitfish up on the flat.
"I've found that I do better during the middle of the day than early in the morning or late in the evening," said Crawford. "Stripers will 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. It's pretty exciting to be pulling a planerboard out across a flat, knowing your bait is only 4 feet behind the board, and a big wake comes charging toward the line. It's like watching a scene from the movie Jaws."
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 Thurmond and stripers are known to 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. I prefer the Waterbugz planerboards because they are great for pulling smaller baits and they will pull way out to the side of the boat into the smaller water that's hard to access."
He also doesn't write off catching a trophy fish just because he isn't using fillet-able-sized bait. In fact, his best striped bass from Thurmond, a monster that tipped the scales at over 42 pounds, came on a 6-inch herring. He believes that the large baits cause a reaction strike from striped bass, but most of the fish, including the big ones, are gorging on threadfins and smaller baits while they're in such abundance.
"One of the best ways to locate a striper feeding frenzy is to watch the sky for seagulls, loons or herons. These coastal 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," said Crawford.
BEFORE YOU GO
Based on the reciprocal agreement between the states of South Carolina and Georgia, there is no length limit for striped bass, hybrid striped bass or white bass on either Thurmond or Lake Hartwell. The daily creel limit is 10 fish per angler. Anglers with appropriate fishing licenses, according to either the state of Georgia or South Carolina, are legal to fish any of the waters of both lakes on either side of the Savannah River.Guides
To fish with Captain Bill Plumley on Lake Hartwell, contact him by phone at (864) 287-2120 or (864) 230-7363. You can also visit t
he Web site for his guide service, Lake Hartwell Fishing Adventures at www.lakehartwellfishing.com.
Captain Mark Crawford of Team Save One More Guide Service on Lake Thurmond can be reached at (706) 373-8347, or visit his Web site at www.teamsaveonemore.com.