As a fisherman, Chris Powell is most at home when he is on the pointy end of a bass boat with rods scattered at his feet and a target in range of his next cast. If that bass boat is on Lake Hartwell, then Chris is not just at home, he is in his own den.
Chris was raised on Lake Hartwell, and his record in competitive bass fishing underscores his understanding of the lake and its bass.
There is this magic time of the year when most bass have completed their spawn and are looking to recover from the rigors of spawning when, just in time, the blueback herring spawn. It is a magical time of the year for bass fishermen.
“I don’t like it,” says Chris the tournament angler. “Anybody can catch them when the bluebacks are spawning.”
That is the magic of the blueback spawn. Anyone can catch bass, lots of them… big’uns, too!
And while Chris complains a bit, he plans for the blueback spawn and knows how best to fish it.
In its most basic terms, herring move up on shallow structure to spawn. Like shad, the female herring scatters her eggs on rocks or vegetation, and the eggs are fertilized by males swimming with her in a spawning frenzy. This ball of herring swimming in a wad in shallow water naturally attracts predators because the herring are not paying as close attention to possible predators when they are “in the act.”
Bass stalk the herring by waiting in deeper water, and when the female herring makes her run onto a flat to spawn and her suitors race to join her, the bass are in hot pursuit and are eager to feed. In just such a condition, the bass are more easily fooled by fishermen. Again, to quote Chris, “Anybody can catch them.”
The first key to bent rods and broke lines is knowing where to fish. That part is simple, maybe too simple to be very helpful. The answer is to be where the herring are. And fortunately, herring have a “tell.” If there are herring around a place with love on their mind, they will follow and bump a spinnerbait in a sort of false spawn. Where you find bluebacks wooing your blades is a good place to fish.
Bluebacks will spawn on clean bottoms with rocks, but they also will spawn on vegetation. This spring Hartwell has a lot of newly flooded grass; vegetation along the banks over the past two years of drought. This newly flooded grass will host many spawning herring this spring. These places are hard to find because the entire shoreline has grass, and they are even harder to fish because it is difficult to run a lure through the grass and because the bass could be anywhere from the deep edge of the grass to the very back of a pocket. This is actually bad news for the magic fishing this month.
The traditional great places for herring to spawn, for bass to gorge, and for fishermen to connect is on clean red-clay banks with some chunk rock and on what are called shoal markers and blow-throughs.
The best example of the places, and perhaps the greatest density of these great spawning places is around Andersonville Island at the confluence of the Seneca and Tugaloo rivers.
If you don’t already know what sort of places you should be looking for when it comes to fishing the blueback spawn, go to Andersonville Island. Boats will be staked out on the prime locations all around the island and its many poles and shoal markers. At times it reminds me of gulls hovering around a shrimp boat.
In May, Andersonville Island is the mother of all community holes. And community holes become community holes because bass keep going there and getting caught. If you are not accustomed to this sort of fishing, this area is the place to go watch other boats and watch the fish and learn.
You will catch some fish there.
What to tie on before you go?
Chris laid his top-five choices out for you to see.
His No. 1 choice is a white Zoom Super Fluke on an Owner 5/0 twist-lock hook with a weight on the shank of the hook. He stresses the need for long casts when fishing the blueback spawn, and the weight helps with distance and helps him get the bait down quickly if the bass want it a bit deeper some days.
His No 2 choice is a Zara Spook, the saltwater version. It has been my pleasure to watch Chris fish a Spook and other topwater baits. If “Dancing With the Stars” ever has a contest that includes using a rod, I am betting on Chris. He can make a lure dance in ways I cannot make happen. I typically just quit fishing and watch his lure, mesmerized. Imagine how a bass feels. The big Spook has the added benefit of casting a very long way.
No. 3 on Chris’s lure list is the Alabama Rig. It can be cast a long way and has the benefit of already looking like a wad of spawning bluebacks. Chunk and wind, and don’t be surprised when you catch more than one fish on a cast.
No. 4 is a beauty, a Magic Swimmer swimbait by Sebile. His favorite color here and everywhere else is white. Cast it, and bring it back fast and erratically.
No. 5 is the traditional favorite spinnerbait with twin willow leaves. Bass like it, and so do bluebacks.
Chris uses 15-lb. test Trilene Big Game line for all of this fishing.
These are the basics, the why, the where, and the with what; the blueback 101 of May bassing on Hartwell.
But there is so much more.
The best bassing is where the bait has not been spooked and the bass have not been hammered. In a word, not the community hole.
Chris would not point those spots out, of course, but he did tell us what to search for.
“You are looking for red-clay banks with scattered rocks,” he said.
Some of these places are visible above the surface, others are just shallow spots, but you can see that it is shallow after the sun gets up. Some places are shallow enough, but not really visible unless you are right on top of them.
Once you find a likely spot, how do you fish it?
“The key is to not spook the bait or the bass,” says Chris. “I set the boat down about four casts from the place I think holds herring and bass. I do this because the boat wake can spook the herring out of the shallow water, and when they spook, the bass chase them. You will see this chasing, but it is almost always so far from the boat that you can’t get even one cast to them. You can see the bass busting, but you can’t catch them.”
Ease the boat into your spot with the trolling motor, make long casts, and sort of fish your way in.
Casting off the sides or edges of “the spot” as you fish your way in may permit you to catch bass and not spook either the bait or any other bass around the spot. Catching several fish on one spot is common. On April 21 at Lake Russell, Chris and his partner caught four largemouth on four casts on one such spot.
Expect bass to bite fast. Even as careful as he is getting on a spot, Chris hits a lot of places—maybe 30 to 40 spots in a day’s fishing. And while he gave us is top-five lures, he likely will have 10 to 12 rods on the deck so he can feed them what they want to eat. There is no point in having it in the box if you don’t have it ready to fish. Chris stays ready.
The best time of day for this fishing is daylight to sun-on-the water, but this fishing is good all day, especially if the sun is shining brightly. On a smooth cloudy day, this fishing can be iffy.
If you watch, you will see some fishermen waiting at a spot for fish to school and break, and then the angler will cast to the feeding fish. This is a very effective technique, but it is one Chris never uses.
“I don’t wait on fish,” Chris said. “I want to find a spot where the herring are staged, and the bass are ready. If they aren’t there in the first few casts, I am gone on to the next spot.”
The other side of that logic is that if things are right, the bass are going to hit what you throw. There is no need to wait. If they don’t hit it, move to where things are right, and they will hit.
While Hartwell is choked full of both spots and Coosa bass, Chris rarely catches them when fishing this herring magic. He catches a few, or course, but mostly he catches largemouth… unless he catches something with lines on it.
“Oh yes,” he said, “you will definitely have to deal with some hybrids and stripers when you are fishing this way, particularly with the fluke and the Spook.”
Chris reckons that for every 10 bites he gets fishing this way, three or four will be hybrids or stripers.
“And we don’t catch many small hybrids and stripers doing this,” he continued. “It can take time out of your fishing day to deal with those fish. They are strong, and when you are fishing a tournament, you don’t always like spending time with a 10-lb. hybrid or a 20-lb. striper.”
The lesson I took from this is that fishing is good for bass and for linesides on these spots using these baits for the next month or so on Hartwell.
But now is better than later.
“It used to be that the upper end of the lake would warm up first, and the herring spawn would start up toward Clemson and work its way down the lake as the water warmed,” Chris said.
“But the past few years, it seems like the whole lake has been about the same temperature. I am not sure why that might be, but it seems that the herring spawn is on all over the lake at the same time lately.
What about the moon’s effect?
“They are going to spawn when they have daylight and when the water temperature gets where they like it,” Chris continued. “But the full moon usually increases the intensity of the spawning and the fishing. Usually the peak is on the full moon is May, but the late full moon in April this year may make things a bit earlier or it may spread the whole spawn out as some spawn earlier than normal.
“And the grass this year is another wild card. We saw this six or eight years ago with the end of the last drought.
“All I know is that I look forward to it every year, and I hate it because anyone can catch them when they are up chasing herring on the flats.”
They are up there now. It is blueback magic time on Hartwell’s many flats.