With bait and big stripers coming shallow, spring offers some of the best striper fishing of the year in South Carolina.
By Ronnell Smith
When a large striper picks up the bait from the end of an angler's line, the fish usually does so with all the subtlety of a mugger snatching a purse from a hapless victim. Stripers yank the rods tip down violently, then pull line until the reel's drag squeals unmercifully. They fight with bulldog determination. Ultimately, they boil at the surface before making their last diving run. But not before they have used their powerful muscles to exhaust the angler.
In a word, these fish can be monsters on the end of the line.
May is the ideal month to take advantage of these creatures as they move shallow to spawn and feed on the ample supply of shad that are along the shore as well. Early in the month, these stripers are easy prey for a well-placed blueback herring impaled on a circle hook or a 1/2-ounce jighead topped with a plastic grub or shad-imitating lure. Later in the month, these fish can be caught at the backs of coves or on the main lake near standing timber, where they can be taken with jigs, spoons or live herring.
Three Palmetto State reservoirs offer excellent fishing for stripers this month: Murray, Hartwell and Russell. Each of these bodies of water is clear, deep and offers plenty of forage.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
LAKE MURRAY This 48,000-acre lake is considered striper central in the state, as hundreds of anglers flock here each year in search of fat striped bass. Murray, despite the drawdown underway at the lake, offers ideal habitat for the creatures. Besides the deep water, the lake also offers a large forage base in the way of blueback herring, along with threadfin and gizzard shad. Additionally, Murray also has the Saluda River for the fish to run to in the hot summer months, where they can access cool, deep waters year 'round. It's not uncommon to catch fish in the 20- to 30-pound range.
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources stocks about one million striper fingerlings each year, according to Gene Hayes, fisheries biologist for South Carolina. As the lake's reputation as a world-class striper fishery has grown, so, too, has the angling pressure on the fish.
"It now ranks as the most sought-after species of fish on Murray," he said.
To enjoy the striper fishing on Murray in May, try putting in at one of the marinas in the middle of the lake, such as Hollands on Buffalo Creek or Lake Murray Park and Ramp on Rocky Creek.
Once on the lake, look for activity near the surface around points or flats, where the fish can often be found in the early mornings and late evenings feeding on shad or herring. If there is activity near the surface, stay offshore from one of the main-lake points and present noisy topwater baits or soft jerkbaits. Also, try using cut bait and live bait.
Stripers are notorious roamers, often moving about in schools that push herring and shad to the surface from point to point. Though the drawdown on Murray isn't expected to be completed until next fall, the lowered water level can be a boon to striper fishing on the lake. Primarily, it provides anglers with less water to work in search of the fish. As the day wears on, look for the shad to move back toward the ends of the creeks, where the stripers will ultimately corral them in the ditches where the creeks end.
Frequently anglers can troll into these creeks and see, via their electronic graph, balls of shad hovering beneath the surface. It's certain the stripers won't be far away. Try lowering leadhead grubs or Rooster Tails just below the shad. Often the stripers will be right below the forage.
Striper fishing on Murray stays strong throughout this month. But while points, flats and creeks are the key in spring, look for them on the main lake later in the month. With the water rapidly warming, the shad will begin moving out of the creeks and onto the main lake at the end of the month. The stripers will once again ambush the forage along the main-lake points, but also look for the predators along humps as well.
Make no mistake about it, there are numerous ways to catch stripers on Murray, or just about any lake for that matter, during late spring. With the water warming but not yet at summer warmth levels, these fish will be more active than they were just a few months earlier and can be taken from top to bottom on points, in creeks and on the main lake. The key is to keep moving until you find fish, either on the graph or at the surface, then present baits until they strike. And when they do strike, it can set the heart - and the reel - a racing.
HARTWELL This 56,000-acre lake may not have as healthy a population of stripers as Murray, but it's no slouch either. In fact, the state-record striper, a 59-pound, 8-ounce fish, was caught in Hartwell.
Like Murray, Hartwell is a deep, clear body of water that also features blueback herring and threadfin and gizzard shad as forage species. But here the bluebacks provide the dominant forage for the stripers.
Aside from being large and prolific, bluebacks also like to inhabit the deeper waters of the lake during the summer months, which makes them a veritable buffet for the deep-water-haunting stripers.
Like Murray, it is also stocked each year with stripers, but not nearly as intensely, with fewer fingerlings added to the water each year. However, that doesn't stop Hartwell from producing some dynamite striper action this month.
South Carolina resident Steve Crenshaw has fished for stripers on Hartwell for years, catching both good numbers and sizes of fish on the lake.
In early May, he likes to catch stripers early in the morning using live blueback herring. He puts in at Portman Marina, which is located about midlake on the Seneca River, and from there, he heads down the lake and goes up the Tugaloo River to fish the Eastanolle and Choestoea creeks.
He looks for clay points or shoals, then anchors his boat right along the shore and throws live herring out into the deeper water away from the shore. He knows the fish will be shallow, where they can usually be taken with live or cut bait in the early morning.
"They are going to turn on really well before daylight," said Crenshaw, who guides for stripers on the lake. "An hour or so before daylight, they are going to be wide open."
Another early-May technique he uses is to find windblown
points on the main lake. The wind agitates zooplankton and other aquatic creatures, which the shad and herring feed on. And once the shad move in near the shore, he said, the stripers won't be far behind. What's more, the mud line formed by the wind beating against the point also provides great cover for the stripers, which often wait outside this makeshift shield and ambush scurrying shad and herring.
"Stripers love a mud line," he said.
Later this month, however, Crenshaw's strategy is to find the stripers at the backs of ditches and in standing timber on the main lake.
The ditches where he often finds the fish are along the Seneca River in creeks such as the Coneross, Big Powder Bay and Lightwood Log. Hartwell has very large, long, winding creeks, and at the backs of these the ditches emptying into them are very distinctive and deep. The water in these ditches can be 30 to 50 feet deep and is often occupied by hungry stripers.
"There will be a school of shad in there, and they'll be back in there feeding on that bait," said Crenshaw.
Using a 1.5-ounce egg sinker placed 2 feet above a 1/0 or 2/0 hook holding a blueback herring, he lowers his rig to the depth at which he sees shad holding and waits on a strike from the aggressive stripers.
But the most notable tactic he uses to catch stripers this month is to fish the standing timber on the main lake. When Hartwell was formed, the timber was not removed, but instead lopped off about 15 feet beneath the surface. The stripers, when they move back onto the main lake in late May, will hold in the tops of this timber.
Often these fish won't show up on a graph, but are instead often buried down inside these trees. However, knowledgeable anglers like Crenshaw trust their instincts and fish this timber anyway.
He still uses the Carolina rig with a herring, but he allows the fish to tell him how deep to drop his bait.
"If they're not feeding heavily, they'll be buried inside the trees," he said. "But if they're getting after it, they'll be right on top of the trees."
LAKE RUSSELL This 26,650-acre lake is a year-round favorite of fishermen, largely due to the reservoir not having much in the way of recreational watercraft traffic and the fact that it offers excellent fishing. The deep, clear lake is located downlake from Hartwell and just above Lake Thurmond on the Savannah River chain.
Like the other lakes, Richard B. Russell has excellent water quality and a healthy population of forage in the way of gizzard and threadfin shad and blueback herring. But unlike Murray and Hartwell, the lake is not stocked with stripers, said Alfred Mauldin, senior fisheries biologist for Georgia. He said the stripers, which are in the lake, have likely migrated downstream from Hartwell.
Even so, Russell has a thriving population of stripers.
"It's a good place to catch a trophy-sized fish," said Mauldin.
A major benefit to the stripers in Russell, he said, is the fact that the lake has a well-defined thermocline. This is important because during the summer months, stripers like to get in the middle layer of the thermocline, where they can access the cooler water but have available oxygen as well. Mauldin said that in this respect Russell is ideal, since it allows the fish to find water below 70 degrees year 'round and thus reduce the stress of summer.
"We know the lake has excellent habitat," he said.
No one has to tell Joseph Taylor that Russell grows nice stripers and plenty of them. He has caught good-sized stripers and high numbers of the fish.
He usually starts out by putting in at the Pearl Mill Landing in Elberton, then trolls to the bridge located less than 100 yards away. He ties off to the metal girders, turns on his gas generator-powered lights and begins looking on his electronic graph for the presence of shad, which he knows will be coming through this bottleneck eventually. Once he sees the forage's distinctive blip on the screen, he throws out his cast net and proceeds to haul in the blueback herring needed to catch the stripers.
But he often doesn't even have to move from the bridge to catch them.
Knowing that stripers are likely to follow the shad and herring as they move down the lake, he'll often drop a live herring right down beside the boat. He uses a traditional Carolina rig, consisting of an egg sinker placed above a circle hook impaled with a live herring.
"If a striper runs up and nails it, you might want to stay right there for a while," he said. "If it doesn't, you might want to start off working your holes and your points."
Russell isn't nearly as big as the other lakes, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for with one of the best settings around. Traveling north on the lake, it's easy to get lost in the scenery, especially as there are not likely to be nearly as many boats as there are on other South Carolina lakes. It's unmarred by boat docks, yet still has excellent structure and cover in the way of ditches, brushpiles and blowdowns.
Therefore, it's easy to find a point or hump where stripers are breaking and have it all to yourself. With the fish likely to be both shallow and deep this month, Taylor looks to establish a pattern early. Once the bridge bite slows, he looks for a good point, then anchors his boat in 20 to 25 feet of water and begins throwing out live herring and cut bait on both sides of the boat.
"Mix it up," he said. "Try some of everything."
From there, he'll usually work back into the creeks and begin working the secondary points, or he goes out onto the main lake and tries to catch the fish near humps.
Another great strategy is to find the timber that was, like Hartwell, left standing when the lake was formed. Though Russell has an abundant stand of timber right off the main-river channel, there are also numerous stands of timber 15 feet or more beneath the surface in mouths of tributaries such as Rocky Creek.
Try trolling over these trees with long-billed crankbaits or bucktail jigs. Or if the fish are active near the surface, walking or chugging-type topwater baits, Taylor admits, can elicit some dynamite strikes.
"A lot of times in May, you'll get some good topwater action," he said.
Any one or all three of these lakes will provide the ideal location for catching stripers in May. Whether it's catching them on the Saluda River in Murray, near the points or treetops on Hartwell or at the bridges on Russell, these lakes have something for everyone.
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