Striped Bass Conservation Coalition (SBCC)

Non-Profit Member based Organization

Winter Fishing Hartwell

Winter Striped Bass Fishing on Lake Hartwell; Why should I consider it?

by Warren Turner

If you can take the cold, winter striped bass fishing is the time for beginners to learn the sport of striped bass fishing because it is very basic.  For example, one of the main factors of being successful in striped bass fishing is to be able to find bait.  Experienced striped bass fishermen spend a lot of their time looking for schools of baitfish and when they find them, usually the striped bass are holding nearby.  And these fish holding near bait are either actively feeding, or will be actively feeding very soon and can thus be caught.  Winter fishing makes this task much easier for those that do not fully understand their sonar equipment or can’t afford sonar equipment. 

During other times of the year, stripers relate more to specific structural features such as trees, ditches, drops, points, sunken bridges, etc., 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. But where are the right areas?

 

 

For example, Lake Hartwell is a 56,000 acre lake with 962 miles of shoreline boarding Georgia and South Carolina on the Savannah River (7-miles), Tugaloo River (49-miles), and Seneca River (45-miles) river.  It was built 1955-1963 by the US Army Corp of Engineers, who control the lake and the core area around the lake.  The Hartwell dam was built in 1962, is 18,000-feet wide, 204-feet tall, and has a water depth of 180-feet out in front of the dam.  During construction, the trees near the shoreline were cleared in much of the Tugaloo River and Seneca River arms of lake; in the main body of the reservoir the trees were simply flooded.  The result is an expansive forest of trees hidden below the surface anywhere from 10 to 100 feet down.  Like most reservoirs constructed with flood control in mind, Lake Hartwell undergoes a winter drawdown every year.  The lake is usually down 10 to 12 feet by mid-December and generally reaches full pool again in March. The lake covers 6 counties with 3 counties in South Carolina (Anderson, Pickens, and Oconee), and 3 counties in Georgia (Hart, Franklin, and Stephens). The average lake elevation is 657.5 ft measured from the sea level.  However, right now Lake Hartwell is in a region that is suffering the most extreme drought in its history.  There are 3 major marinas and 77 public access areas.



At Lake Hartwell, more often than not, the right areas involve the major intersections of main creeks to the river channel and the secondary creeks to the main creeks. 

·         On the Savannah River look for the area at the mouth of Lightwood Log Creek, Saddlers Creek and Powderbag Creek. 

·         On the Seneca River, check out the area of Six and Twenty Creek, (Hurricane Creek, Salem Creek, and Three and Twenty Creek), 18-Mile Creek, Coneross Creek, Martin’s Creek, 12-Mile Creek, Seneca Creek, and the area near Clemson University. 

·         Finally, on the Tugaloo River, in the upper reaches (when water levels allow) try the area where Barton Creek, Longnose Creek and Gryer Branch converge with the Tugaloo.  For the mid and lower areas of the Tugaloo, check Choestoea, Creek, Eastanollee Creek, Fair Play Creek, Reed Creek and the Glenn Ferry area, Big Beaverdam Creek, and Little Beaverdam Creek.

On Lake Hartwell during winter, big schools of shad and herring work their way up the creek and river arms; and where the baitfish lead, the stripers typically follow.  The reason the stripers follow the bait so close is that they are being driven by natural urge to build up their energy in preparation for the upcoming spawning season.  Unlike those in Santee and a few other specific systems, landlocked striped bass in Lake Hartwell will spawn, but their efforts will not actually produce baby striped bass because the eggs are denser (heavier) than the water and without the continuous flow of current, the eggs will sink to the bottom and die.  We will expand on this in a later article on striped bass spawning.  Now, by following and aggressively feeding on the bait the striped bass are also packing on the weight.  Lake Hartwell provides abundant striper habitat and also supports good populations of blueback herring and gizzard and threadfin shad, thus providing these big predators with plenty of food.  In February 2002, Lake Hartwell produced South Carolina's state-record striped bass which was caught by Terry McConnell of Eastanollee, Georgia, and tipped the scales to 59 pounds, 8 ounces. 

Although Lake Hartwell usually gets annually stockings with stripers and hybrids (striper/white bass cross), stripers tend to dominate the tournament anglers catch.

Thanks in part to the efforts of the Striped Bass Conservation Coalition (previously called the NSBA of America) and the area striper clubs; the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) has increased the percentage of stripers in the striper/ hybrid stocking 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 Striper Kings of Greenville were very influential in supporting striped bass stocking needs from the early 1990’s through about 2001.  Even though most of their efforts during this time went to lakes that the Striper Kings did not normally fish, during that time they adopted the SCDNR Striped Bass Hatchery and completed many projects to assist the biologists in producing striped bass and hybrid striped bass.  Since 2001, other clubs have been started and/or have increased in part by the efforts and support of the SBCC.  These striper club members spend many hours and a lot of money working to improve a fishery for everyone to enjoy.  Now that we have told you more about the lake, the areas to look for the stripers, the work that is done to keep the stripers in the lakes, we must now change directions to more precisely pinpoint and find the striped bass and then catch them.

 

FINDING & CATCHING 'EM

Because the baitfish and stripers move so much, one way to find them is to start by listening to reports from others on where the fish have been in recent days.  Even so, because they move so much, to be successful in finding them an angler must to be able to adjust to changes.  Experienced striped bass anglers is to keep a log of your fishing adventures and look at the patterns and start by looking for baitfish in the places where he expects them to be.  Just knowing which arm the most fish are being caught from and roughly how far up can provide a big head start.  In addition to places like creek confluences, other places they tend to congregate are, big bends in creek or river channels or at times over major humps or flats.  

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. One standard is that most fish hold in water over 40 to 90 feet of water, however, on cloudy dark days both baitfish and the stripers alike often are suspended less than 20 feet deep.  And on some warmer days you can find them right up on the bank or on the rocky rip-rap along roads where the water temperature might be just 1-2 degrees warmer than the rest of the water.  

Modern electronics are great, but during the winter seagulls can provide great clues as to where the bait and fish are.  But remember that just like reading the electronics, you must be able to read the signs the birds display as well.  For example, even if the seagulls aren't darting and diving, which they do when schooling striped bass are pushing bait to the surface, birds that are circling or even congregated in an area suggest the baitfish and stripers are usually close.  



This is a picture of me and my team (STRIPER TUBE-II) while we were fishing an FLW Saltwater Striper Series tournament at Virginia Beach VA, in December 2007

I always watch for birds because they play a big part in wintertime striped bass fishing, and when I locate some baitfish, I look the area over more thoroughly, seeking to identify depth ranges and specific areas where the bait is concentrated because the stripers will usually be holding near the bait at the same level or below it just waiting for the dinner bell.  Based on what I see, I will make the decision of what method we will use and then put out the lines based on my plan.  It is very important to have a plan to be successful.  Just dropping lines in the water will work sometimes, but to better your chances you need to be observant of many things in addition to the fact that there are bait and striped bass present.  Things such as water depth, bait and fish depth, are there trees and other cover near, which direction is the wind blowing, and what direction will most boat traffic be coming, just to name a few. 

For winter striped bass fishing I use blueback herring, medium to large shiners, threadfin shad, and occasionally trout and gizzard shad.   While all these will work, I believe that the herring is the best overall bait during the winter.  Although set-ups do vary from day to day and hour to hour, a common setup to start with two down lines put out on opposite sides of the boat, two to four planer boards with free lines fished out each side of the boat, and two free lines fished flat-lined straight out the back of the boat.  And once the lines are out, begin working the area very thoroughly moving slowly with the trolling motor, continuously watching the water for surface action, the skies and horizon for bird action, the rod tips and the sonar.  Adjust your setup as things change, by adding/taking away lines, or changing depths on down lines according to where hits occur and what the sonar.

Even on those days when my down lines are producing the most bites, most of my largest striped bass have come during the winter and early spring on the free lines either on flat lines behind the boat or free lines on planer boards out to the sides of the boat.  Although fish are curious, big fish got big by being cautiously curious.  I personally believe that either the boat, or the noise from the boat, will throw up some kind of alert with the biggest fish so they move out away from the boat and then see the free-lined baits coming over them.

My personal preference is to match the hook size with the bait.  I use a No. 4, 2, or 1 hook when fishing with threadfin and shiners.  When fishing with larger baits I go up on the hook sometimes to a No. 4/0.  Always add a swivel 18 to 24 inches from the hook and I personally like to use 2-ounce egg shaped sinkers as weights on the down lines.  Because of the trees in Lake Hartwell I recommend 15- to 20-pound-test line on bait-casting reels and 7-foot medium to medium-heavy action rods.

Always keep a casting rod available with bucktails jigs.  When you see surface action with striped bass rolling right at the surface, throw the bucktail and start reeling as soon as the jig hits the water.  Striped bass will usually hit it within the first 15 feet after you start reeling.

Lakes Hartwell’s creel limit falls under the general South Carolina 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.  

I hope these basic instructions help you find and catch more fish.  But please remember that it is alright to let those go you don’t need.  When you get on that big schools of fish and the bite is strong, consider only keeping those you plan to eat.  Also, remember that fresh fish are best eaten fresh.  Unfortunately, many people fill their freezer only to have the cats dine on them later when the freezer is being cleaned out. 

Getting to Know Hartwell Lake

By: Pam Turner

 The next lake on the SBCC tournament schedule is Lake Hartwell located on the border between Georgia and South Carolina.  Hartwell Lake was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1955 and 1963 for the purpose of flood control, hydropower, and navigation projects.  Later authorized uses of recreation, water supply, water management, fish and wildlife management were added.  The man-made lake if formed from the Hartwell Dam on the Savannah River located 7 miles below point where the Tugaloo and Seneca Rivers join.  The lake extends 49 miles up the Tugaloo and 45 miles up the Seneca at normal pool, creating 56,000 acres of water with a shoreline of 962 miles.  The lake is bisected by Interstate 85 making it very accessible to visitors. 

Hartwell Lake and Dam is the second Army Corp project to be built on the Savannah River.  Strom Thurmond Lake and Dam were completed in 1952, followed by Hartwell, then Richard B. Russell Lake in 1985.  The cost of the entire Hartwell Lake and Dam project was more than $89 million. 

Full pool for Hartwell Lake is 660 feet.  The depth of the lake behind the dam is approximately 180 feet.    The lowest lake level ever recorded was 642 ft on December 24, 1981.  The highest lake elevation ever reached was 665.4 ft on April 8, 1964.  The average lake elevation is 657.5 ft. 

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