If you follow the bass fishing media, it would seem that the state of South Carolina has become the pinnacle of bass fishing. Last August, the professional anglers of the Forrest Wood Cup trail, better known as the FLW, made two stops in the Palmetto state, first in March at Lake Hartwell and then again during the championship at Lake Murray in August.
About the time this article hits the newsstands, the best of the best anglers of the Bassmaster trail will be converging on Lake Hartwell for their end-of-the year championship with the prestigious Bassmaster Classic.
Fish weights were high in both of the FLW tournamants, even the Forrest Wood Cup where it was speculated that August temperatures would hamper the fishing. Each day, the top anglers weighed 20 pounds of bass at Lake Murray.
Predications for the Bassmaster Classic are that the total bag weights could break all time records. While these media events are only focusing on two of the Palmetto state's great bass venues, other lakes like Clarks Hill, Greenwood, and the Santee-Cooper system are also thriving. Here's a breakdown of each area by region.
Even anglers who have never considered themselves very adept at bass fishing are having no trouble finding willing fish at Lake Hartwell. According to bass fishing veterans, several factors have come together at the same time to make the bass bite better than he's seen it in years.
Hartwell bass fishing means largemouth and spotted bass, and fish can be found in abundance throughout the 56,000-acre lake. One ingredient of Hartwell's recent boom is flooded grass, grown up when the lake levels were down. This growth is now 3 to 5 feet under water and chock full of fry from every species of fish that has or will spawn throughout the spring.
"We saw it several years ago when Hartwell stayed so low for so long and it looks like this year will be a return to a good spawn for just about everything that swims in the lake," said DNR biologist Dan Rankin. "The grass and even some small shrubbery that has grown up around the lake is now underwater with the lake reaching full pool at 660 feet. In a lake that is otherwise void of good cover, the grass and weeds are a welcome sight."
Local anglers indicate that most of the bites were coming from more aggressive spotted bass, which have taken hold at Hartwell in recent years, but largemouth bass still maintain a stronghold in the lake.
Moving north in Region 1, Lake Jocassee, which lies mostly in South Carolina but dips over into North Carolina, is still considered the best spot for landing a trophy largemouth in the state.
According to local bass pro and host of "The Carolina Outdoorsman TV Show" Monty McGuffin, from mid-April to the end of May largemouth bass enter a spawning/bedding pattern on Lake Jocassee when water temperatures reach a steady 58 degrees. The best fishing occurs during new moon and full moon cycles. Bass will stage or hold on and around visible structure in water depths from 2 to 25 feet.
The clear water makes sight fishing for bedding bass possible. Anglers should strive to maintain distance from the fish to avoid spooking them and to cast a variety of topwater, suspending or soft-plastic baits to the fish to elicit a strike.
The better fishing is widespread around the perimeter of the lake. Small cuts, coves and ledges with gradual slopes typically offer better fish-attracting structure than stream tributaries, which can be deeper and colder than preferred by the fish.
Trophy largemouth bass are not the only black bass species that call Lake Jocassee home. Like largemouth bass, the smallmouth, redeye, and spotted bass that live in the lake frequently grow to phenomenal sizes. In fact, Jocassee is home to all but the state records for every species of bass except the largemouth.
'We've got some good redeye, smallmouth and spotted bass that swim in here too," said McGuffin. "Each fish has it's subtle differences in how they relate to the lake. The smallmouth is probably the most unique. There are a few guys who have figured the smallies out, but most anglers catch smallmouth by accident while fishing for largemouth bass."
"You can target smallmouth up against the rocks using small jigs, the float-and-fly pattern using a cork to suspend a jig right off the rocks, that sometimes works real well up here," said McGuffin.
Biologists are at odds with how to manage the interaction between the native redeye bass in Jocassee and the spotted bass that have found their way in from other lakes. Spotted bass interbreed with the redeyes and even some of the native shoal bass in the lake, causing a hybridized species that is threatening to wipe out pure strains of both the redeye and shoal bass.
"You'd have a hard time telling some of these fish apart, they've all mixed in together," said McGuffin. "Some will have the markings of a redeye but then you look closer and it's really a spotted bass and then the mouths of both of those fish are generally smaller, so a lot of people mistake them for a smallmouth."
Speaking on behalf of Region 2, which encompasses Lakes Wylie, Wateree, Fishing Creek, and a large section of the Broad River as it's primary bass fisheries, Chief Ross Self claims those fisheries are all fairing very well.
"There's been nothing in any of our sampling that causes us any concerns in either Wylie or Wateree," he said. "Both lakes are similar in makeup, size and growth potential.
"Wylie seems to have a little more following with the bass fans while Wateree is the favorite pick between the two of crappie anglers. It may be that Wylie gets a little more press because it's home to a couple of popular bass fishing pros so you see it more in the media than Wateree."
Even with the lakes on the Catawba chain in good shape, Self says the top pick in terms of it's best bass fishery would go to the Broad River. While the Broad has a healthy supply of largemouth bass in it's waters, it's the establishment of smallmouth bass, one of the few viable smallmouth fisheries in the state, that earn the river it's top billing for the region.
"We're really pleased with the smallmouth population in the Broad River," said Self. "In fact, the river seems to have become self sustaining in smallmouth recruitment. We have not had to stock smallmouth in the Broad in the last 5 years or so: Our sampling showed it wasn't necessary. But we'll continue to monitor the numbers as time goes on."
Self claims the limited access to the Broad accounts for much of the success of the fishery. Much of the river is rocky with numerous shoal areas, rendering large boats ineffective, while the remoteness of the area is not conducive to the number of public access points that would be available on other waterways.
The forecast for Lake Murray, the only major impoundment in Region 3, is pretty much a carbon copy over the last several years, according to Regional Biologist Ron Ahle, and that means more of a good thing.
Ahle states that creel and electro surveys have remained consistent on Murray, with a good number of better-than-average fish in the mix. South Carolina established state-wide creel and length limits three years ago, but even before this change, typically referred to as the 5-14 rule, Murray's bass fishery was in good shape.
"I don't believe the 5-14 rules have had as big an effect on Murray as some other lakes in the state," said Ahle. "Reason is most of our fish were already over 14 inches and our anglers highly practice catch-and-release.
"We don't have a reputation for growing a lot of heavyweight fish. You won't see many fish in the 8-plus-pound range come out of here, but we've got a good number of pretty decent fish and that's remained steady for some time."
Part of that prosperity is an agreement with SCE&G, who owns Lake Murray, to maintain a pool elevation management schedule based on a rule curve where lake levels would remain at or near full pool for six months out of the year, through the spring spawning and growing season. Even during the fall and winter, the purpose is to not allow a fluctuation of more than 4 feet.
"Lake Murray's shoreline is highly developed, so we don't have a lot of typical aquatic habitat to support the extra recruitment you might see somewhere like Santee," he said. "The upper lake has more shoreline cover that is conducive to bass and sunfish species, but on down the lake, the residential areas have removed a lot of that type of structure."
Like the Catawba chain lakes in Region 2, Ahle claims numbers of bass species, both white and black, tend to limit the sizes of all concerned. The net effect is that a body of water can only support a certain amount of aquatic life.
"There are many times our bass have to compete with the stripers for open water forage," said Ahle. "There's plenty of food, but the numbers of fish in the lake is the determining factor in how big any of them will get."
The Coastal Region includes two very famous bass fisheries and one locally famous fishery that are all known as better-than-average largemouth bass factories. Regional Coordinator Scott Lamprecht provided the details on Lakes Marion, Moultrie and the Cooper River from his office in Bonneau.
"For so long we suffered under low water conditions that hurt all of our fisheries in the Santee-Cooper impoundments," said Lamprecht. "That rebounded, now I guess three years ago, and then we had exceptionally good water conditions the past couple of years due to all of the rain. The more rainfall we get, the more nutrients that come into our system and the better our fish grow."
Due to the more temperate climate and longer growing season, the Santee-Cooper chain already has an advanced growing season and good growth rates regardless of water conditions, but Lamprecht said he would not be surprised to see double the growth rates of largemouth bass in the coming years.
"The 14-inch size and 5-fish creel limits are just starting to kick in on the lakes and then we got lots of rain that has recharged all of our coastal rivers and swamps," he said. "Any location in Region 4 that holds largemouth bass should be having a banner year this year. That includes the Santee River, the Edisto, the Ashepoo, Combahee, Black, and all of the coastal swamps and oxbows that feed into those rivers."
Lamprecht said that due to some changing dynamics, Lakes Marion and Moultrie may catch some bass anglers off guard if those anglers only fish the lakes a couple of times a year. Changing conditions may be having an effect on where anglers might find trophy bass.
"We have experienced a substantial decline in our catfish population and our striped bass population is coming back," said Lamprecht. "Anglers have reported catching some big bass off of open waters flats around stumps that aren't readily visible from the surface, those places that were traditionally thought to be catfish waters or striper waters are holding big bass at times too."
Lamprecht also had high marks for what he describes as the most bulletproof bass fishery in the state, the Cooper River. He said the Cooper River is seemingly impervious to all of the ills that have plagued Santee-Cooper over the years and keeps coming back for more.
"The Cooper River has steady vegetation and a steady supply of water," he said. "It's full of hydrilla and is about the only place in the state where hydrilla isn't a problem because the tidal flow flushes it every day to keep it oxygenated.
"The Pinopolis dam also runs a regular schedule of water releases so water levels are not a concern either. It does get a good bit of fishing pressure but I think most of those guys are catch-and-release friendly so the population isn't taking a beating by the pressure."
Editor's Note: Author Phillip Gentry is the host of "Upstate Outdoors" a Saturday radio program heard on WORD 106.3 FM from noon to 2 p.m. in the Upstate or streamed online here.