Up the Creek for Stripers

Up the Creek for Stripers

On Hartwell, Thurmond and Murray, cold weather causes baitfish -- and stripers -- to head up the creeks. Here's how to find them.

By Jeff Samsel

Why go striper fishing in the winter in South Carolina?

"The fishing is fairly basic during winter, and it's a good time to catch fish," said Chip Hamilton, a Lake Hartwell striper guide. "We go looking for schools of baitfish and when we find them, there usually are stripers nearby that can be caught."

During other times of the year, stripers relate to specific structural features and anglers must be able to identify those spots and be precise in their boat positioning. Through mid-winter, however, the stripers relate to the baitfish much more than they relate to the bottom, so if a fisherman gets in the right area, he often can find the fish.

The right area at Lake Hartwell, more often than not, is somewhere up the Tugaloo or Seneca rivers or up a big creek like Coneross or Twenty-Six Mile. During winter, big schools of shad and herring work their way up the creek and river arms, according to Hamilton, who has been fishing lakes Hartwell and Thurmond since he was 3 or 4 years old and has been guiding on Hartwell for the past nine years. And where the baitfish lead, the stripers typically follow.

Lake Hartwell, which produced South Carolina's state-record striped bass in 2002, is one of three large Palmetto State reservoirs that consistently kick out heavyweight stripers. Lakes Thurmond and Murray also serve up outstanding fishing with good trophy potential, and the winter fishing scenario is similar on all three lakes.

Photo by Dan Kibler

On Lake Murray, which impounds 65,000 acres on the Saluda River and is located just north of Columbia, a lot of fish move up the Saluda and Little Saluda river arms of the lake. In addition, several tributary creeks also form major arms on Lake Murray, and some stripers move up all of them.

On Clarks Hill, some fish move up the main Savannah toward Richard B. Russell Dam. Many others, however, move up the lake's numerous tributaries, including the Little River, the Broad River and their large creek arms.

Lake Murray's striper population is strong and healthy. The fish are in good condition, and there are more fish from older year-classes in the lake than there had been in many years, according to Gene Hayes, regional fisheries biologist over Murray for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR). Hayes attributes the abundance of older fish to special regulations that were put into place in 1991, at which time big-fish numbers were very low.

Lakes Hartwell and Thurmond provide abundant striper habitat and support good populations of blueback herring and gizzard and threadfin shad, providing the big predators with plenty of food. Both lakes get stocked annually with stripers and striper/ white bass hybrids, but stripers typically dominate the catch through the winter, according to Hamilton.

The SCDNR has doubled the percentage of stripers in the striper/ hybrid mix for the past few years in response to fishermen's requests. As a result, anglers are catching far more stripers than they used to.

"The schools (of stripers and hybrids) also have become much more separated," Hamilton noted. "Where we used to always catch them together, now we typically catch one or the other in an area. It seems that as the stripers have gotten more numerous, they have really taken over the spots they choose."

Lake Hartwell and Thurmond have very similar striper populations, according to Wade Bales, fisheries biologist over the Savannah River lakes for the SCDNR.

"Tournament results show that anglers are just as likely to catch a trophy striper from one lake as the other," Bales said, noting that both lakes continue to produce plenty of 30-pounders, and that 40-pound-plus fish come from both lakes every year. Hartwell's state-record fish, which was caught by Terry McConnell of Eastanolee, Georgia, tipped the scales to 59 pounds, 8 ounces.

Hamilton always begins winter days looking for baitfish in the places where he expects them to be. Because the baitfish and stripers move so much, a lot of that depends on where the fish have been in recent days. Anglers who don't enjoy a guide's advantage of getting out on a very regular basis should ask around in bait shops for help identifying starting points. Just knowing which arm the most fish are being caught from and roughly how far up can provide a big head start.

"Within the areas where I have seen baitfish or heard reports, I look at the types of places they tend to congregate, like creek confluences, big bends in creek or river channels or at times over major humps or flats," Hamilton said.

Prime areas for January fishing are part way up creeks and rivers, where deep water is still available. The fish move farther into the headwaters as winter gives way to spring. Hamilton typically finds the most fish in over 40 to 90 feet of water, but the baitfish and the stripers alike often are suspended less than 20 feet deep.

Hamilton does most of his searching with his electronics, but he noted that seagulls can provide good clues. Even if the gulls aren't darting and diving, which they do when schooling stripers are pushing bait all the way to the top, birds that are circling or even congregated in an area suggest the baitfish and stripers probably aren't far away.

"I always have my clients watching for birds as we go, and the birds can play a big part in the fishing," Hamilton said.

Once Hamilton locates some baitfish, he'll look the area over more thoroughly, seeking to identify depth ranges and specific areas where the bait is concentrated and stripers are holding. Based on what he sees, he will devise a plan and then put out some lines.

Hamilton fishes almost exclusively with blueback herring on guide trips. Shad will work, he noted, but he considers herring the best bait, as do most other guides on Hartwell, Thurmond and Murray. Specific set-ups vary substantially from day to day, but Hamilton's most common setup to start with uses two down lines put out on opposite sides of the boat, and two free lines fished straight out the back.

Lines out, he'll begin working the area very thoroughly, ever watching the water around him, the rod tips and the graph. He'll adjust his setup as he goes, often by adding down lines or changing depths, according to where hits occur and what the graph revels to him.

Interestingly, Ha

milton catches most of his biggest stripers on the free lines, even on days when down lines are drawing the most strikes. "I think the boat will spook the biggest fish," he said. " They'll move out for a moment and circle back and then see the free-lined baits coming over them."

Hamilton uses either No. 1 or 1/0 hooks, depending on the size of the fish he has been catching. He likes a No. 1 best, overall, but will switch to a 1/0 when he has been catching mostly large fish, because big stripers are less likely to twist the slightly large hooks out during the fight. Hartwell stripers average 5 to 10 pounds, he said, but some days virtually everything he catches will be larger than that.

Hamilton adds a swivel 18 to 24 inches from his hook and weights down lines with 1 1/2-ounce egg weights. He fishes 15- to 20-pound-test on baitcasting reels and 7-foot medium-action rods.

Hamilton also suggested that anglers keep bucktails tied on to a rod or two. "A bucktail will catch fish that you spot," he said. "They won't usually bust bait on the top in January, but they will roll right at the surface. When they do, throw that bucktail to them and start reeling. They'll usually hit it within the first 15 feet."

Lakes Hartwell and Thurmond both fall under the general statewide limit of 10 stripers or hybrids, with no minimum size. A reciprocal licensing agreement with Georgia allows anglers properly licensed by either state to fish anywhere on either lake. Access to all parts of both lakes is outstanding, with ramps at dozens of Corps of Engineers recreation areas and state and county parks.

Lake Murray is managed with a five-fish limit and a 21-inch minimum size. Again, access is excellent, and numerous public and private ramps have been modified to account for low water from the two-year drawdown. Dreher Island State Park, which is located in the upper half of the lake, provides good access for winter striper fishing.

For guided fishing on Lake Hartwell, call Chip Hamilton at (864) 306-9745 or (864) 304-9011, or check out www.scguideservice.com. For guided fishing on Lake Thurmond, call Daniel LaDow at (888) 838-6305, or check out www.acestriperguide.com. For guided fishing on Lake Murray, call Rob Lee at (803) 892-5669.

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