The past two years have seen a tremendous boost in the status quo of bass fishing in South Carolina. In August of 2014, Prosperity pro Anthony Gagliardi won the coveted Forrest Wood Cup on his home lake at Lake Murray. Then in February of 2015, in one of the coldest professional bass tournaments, as well as one of the biggest, BASS Elite pro Casey Ashley from Donalds, South Carolina, took home the Bassmaster Classic.
These two home-grown anglers managed to take the top prizes in bass fishing while fishing on two powerhouse South Carolina lakes, cementing the state's reputation for not only producing champion bass fisheries, but for producing champion bass fishermen as well.
For the casual, week-end or even professional angler, any major impoundment in the state has the potential for producing 20-pound bags of bass during fishing tournaments. Here's a look at the status of each major fishery on a region by region basis.
Palmetto Boat Center owner Marty Walker has been fishing, as well as hosting, local bass tournaments on Upstate lakes for a number of years. Walker said he would have to point to Lake Hartwell as the strongest fishery in the region. With a good mix of largemouth and spotted bass, Hartwell is drawing many anglers to it's outstanding fishery.
"The challenge on Hartwell is whether you're going to go ahead and get a limit of fish and then start upgrading to get a better finish, or if you're going to swing for the fence and fish all day for those 5 or 6 big fish bites," he said. "On Hartwell, the guy who gets those big bites usually wins (tournaments) and that happens quite a bit."
Heading up Region 1 from his office in Clemson, Regional Fisheries Coordinator Dan Rankin supervises a large number of great bass fishing waters. The Savannah chain lakes of Hartwell, Russell, and Thurmond, the mountain lakes of Keowee and Jocassee, Lake Greenwood on the Saluda, and a number of high-usage water district lakes in Greenville and Spartanburg are all under his leadership. The question Rankin gets the most is which one of these great fisheries is the best.
When asked about the top largemouth bass fishery in his Region, Rankin claims that Greenwood would be near the top of his choices based on the sizes of fish that his department sees come from the lake during their electro-shocking surveys.
"Greenwood produces good numbers of nice, chunky bass, although our angler surveys suggest that anglers have a hard time catching the bigger fish from the lake. Greenwood is a very fertile system and its fish growing potential should continue. Greenwood would definitely benefit from a reduction in the creel limit down to 5 fish," he said.
Though spotted bass are established in Hartwell, Rankin points out that the next biggest outcropping of spotted bass in his Region is in Lake Russell.
"Russell appears to be 10 years behind the Keowee cycle," he said. "Spots made their way into Russell in the '90s and their growth rate has taken off. There are some nice-sized spots in the lake now but we expect those sizes to taper off like they did in Keowee right after they took hold."
Walker adds that tournaments held on Lake Keowee are still very "spot-prone" but he pointed out that there had been enough of a re-emergence in largemouth bass in the last few years to make a difference.
"Catching an 8- to 10-pound limit of spotted bass on Keowee isn't that hard to do," said Walker, who chose Keowee as a lead-off venue for his new PBC high school bass tournament trail. "In order to win, you're going to have to re-think, go out there and catch four of the bigger spots in the lake and then find a largemouth kicker."
Behind the counter at Lake Wylie based retail bait and tackle shop "Hunt, Fish, Paddle," Adam Fillmore said the three month low-water period experienced on Lake Wylie was overcome in one week by the copious rain events surrounding Hurricane Joaquin last October. Fillmore said the last time Wylie recovered from drought, the fishing was tough, but doesn't believe that will be the case this time.
"There is more and bigger bait in Wylie than I've seen in 10 years," he said. "The fall of 2014 and last spring were two of the best bass fishing trends I have seen as far as the weights required to win a bass tournament."
According to Region 2 Fisheries Coordinator Robert Stroud, who oversees lakes Wateree, Wylie, Fishing Creek, Cedar Creek, and Lake Monticello, the state of the bass fisheries is also good on his Region 2 lakes.
"We just finished some electro sampling of Wateree and the range of fish we caught was excellent, nearly 80 fish per hour, and the sizes ranged from just under 4 inches to around 22 inches," said Stroud. "That factors out to fish from two-tenths of a pound up to nearly 7 pounds, which is pretty typical for all of these lakes on the Catawba River chain."
Stroud points out that the large numbers of fish tended to have a negative effects on growing really trophy sized fish (those over 8 pounds). He says that there was a wide variety of fish in the 2-, 3-, and 4-pound range, but not many in the trophy class.
"It's not due to a lack of food — the forage base in all of these lakes is and always has been extremely healthy, especially in Wateree," he said. "Years ago we used to do population monitoring of the forage and nearly all of it consisted of threadfin shad and gizzard shad."
Stroud says the size limitations on his smaller lakes — Fishing Creek, Stumpy Pond, and Cedar Creek — are similar to typical problems associated with pond management for largemouth bass. The bass eat and grow and reproduce, and soon their numbers begin to limit the growth of all individuals.
"These lakes would actually benefit, size-wise, from some harvest of smaller fish," he said. "Harvest has always been a reliable management tool when it comes to managing size over numbers.
"Fishing Creek bass were in better shape and more plentiful than the other two bigger reservoirs," said Stroud. "That makes it, along with Cedar Creek, which we sampled two years ago with similar results, to be the two sleeper lakes in Region 2 where anglers can go and catch both size and numbers of largemouth bass."
Fillmore picks Wateree as his go-to lake, stating it received less fishing pressure than Wylie but produced the size fish he would expect to see on one of the Santee-Cooper lakes.
"From April through July, the frog bite on Wateree is phenomenal," said Fillmore. "The grass along the bank is easy to access and the fish are in there. It just takes throwing a frog in the right place and working it out toward the edge of the grass — and then, hold on."
Ron Ahle, a Fisheries Biologist for SCDNR in Region 3, says the shining star in his region would have to be the tremendous smallmouth fishery that exists in the Broad River.
The stocking of the Broad and its tributaries has been taking place for the last 20 years, and there has been no peak to the fishery, though fish sizes and numbers are reported bigger and better each year.
The amount of water that flowed through the Broad during the flooding last October was about equal to a heavy rain event we had 2 years ago," said Ahle. "I don't think it's going to hurt that fishery at all. The Broad has a wide river plain basin and there are plenty of velocity shelters for smallmouth to hide from high water flows."
Ahle said the Saluda River likely would not be so lucky due to the high river flow from flooding but said that few if any of the anglers he's ever surveyed fishing the Saluda River below Lake Murray reported black bass as their primary target.
The status of Lake Murray is unchanged in Ahle's 10 years of experience in sampling and managing the lake. He says the lack of shoreline habitat kept largemouth bass from being the ambush predators they were designed to be and forced them more out into open water to feed where they had to exert more energy and compete with the lake's striped bass population to gain weight.
"Murray produces numbers of good fish, 3 to 4 pounds," said Ahle, "but it is missing that contingent of really trophy bass, the 7, 8, and 9 pounders, that would go on somebody's wall or turn the tide in a bass fishing tournament."
Ahle says that while Lake Monticello was not within his region nor under his supervision, he had heard reports from fellow bass anglers that the pump-back activities from Par Reservoir, which is fed by the Broad River, into Monticello was establishing a respectable smallmouth bass fishery in the lake.
Long time Santee-Cooper guide Inky Davis said that he felt the right combination of management practices were being observed on lakes Marion and Moultrie, which had produced two outstanding year classes of not only largemouth bass, but every other fish that swims in those waters.
"Two years ago, the state allowed a depredation season on cormorants," said Davis. "Hunters killed somewhere around 11,000 birds in 2013 and a little over 11,000 in 2014. That has really helped the fisheries in both these lakes. Those birds would migrate down here from up north and each one eats a pound of fish a day."
Davis said another key to the great bass fishery was aquatic vegetation. He didn't exactly see eye-to-eye on the power company's view of hydrilla, but the remaining hydrilla, the lilly pads, the native grasses and even some of the invasive stuff were great locations to catch bass.
"There are so many bass fishing patterns that produce on these lakes," he said. "You can fish the trees, fish the floating vegetation, there are some creeks with docks, thousands of manmade brushpiles and the list goes on. They all catch fish at one time or another."
Region 4 biologist for SCDNR Scott Lamprecht says he has seen exceptional bass reproduction over the last two spawning seasons. He also says that the past spring electro fishing surveys were the best he has ever seen on the lakes.
"The cover we have and the consistent water levels have produced two good year classes of bass," said Lamprecht.
The biologist is also pleased with the big fish side of things, saying that two 10-plus-pound largemouth had shown up in the electro surveys from last spring. He confirmed that his lakes did not get blown out by the flood last fall and that he forecasts a top notch spring for bass anglers on the two impoundments this year.
"Managing for an optimal level of native aquatic vegetation is the name of this game," said Lamprecht. "We want/need more eel grass and less invasive stuff like hydrilla and the crested floating heart."
Lamprecht reports that the Cooper River continued to receive high pressure, but also produced high-yield bass fishing.
He is also pleased with the bass-fishing opportunities available in all of the regions coastal rivers. Fisheries like the Santee, the Waccamaw, the Pee Dee and the Sampit had advanced to the point of attracting the attention of bass fishing promoters and had resulted in the scheduling of a Bassmaster Elite tournament to be held in Georgetown County this month.