Hills and Trees for Clarks Hill Stripers

Downlines, umbrella rigs and artificial plugs should continue catching deep stripers and hybrids all through September.

Clarks Hill Lake is the largest reservoir in Georgia. At 71,000 acres, it’s a center of outdoor recreation and is one of the best-known lineside fisheries in the state. And well it should be; Ed Bettross is the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) fisheries biologist assigned to Clarks Hill, and he has been working cooperatively with his South Carolina counterparts to manage the lineside fishery on the lake for several years.

“Clarks Hill is a great lake for stripers and hybrids due to the water quality, depth, and structure of the lake,” said Ed. “Add to that the excellent forage base of both shad and blueback herring, and you have a great combination.”

The lake is stocked annually with 15 linesides per acre, on average, split about 50/50 between stripers and hybrids, according to Ed. Do the math; that amounts to over one-million, one-inch fingerlings added to Clarks Hill every year. And as the programs have matured, the Georgia and South Carolina biologists have implemented methods to improve survival rates and maximize year-class results. The bottom line is that there are lots of linesides in Clarks Hill just waiting for you to try and catch them, and some of them are monsters.

The lake-record striper stands at 55-lbs., 12-ozs., and there are plenty of fish in the 20-lb. plus range landed every year by happy anglers.

I had the opportunity to fish Clarks Hill with an experienced guide during the middle of August. I met Daniel LaDow, of Martinez, at the Cherokee Recreation Area ramp on the Little River Georgia side a little before 5:00 a.m. on a Monday morning. It was still well before dawn, but I could see the cockpit lights of Daniels big center-console boat as I pulled into the ramp parking lot. Once we got my gear aboard, we idled toward the main channel of the Little River.

“We’ll start out by fishing the ‘hills’ (or humps) with live bluebacks on a downline,” said Daniel. “We should be able to pick up some stripers in 20 to 30 feet of water before the sun gets up. A little after daylight the bait will generally move out to deeper water, and the stripers will follow.”

Our first stop was a hill near the mouth of Little River just off the main channel. Close by, the water was in the neighborhood of 100 feet deep, but the hill topped out at 22 feet. As the boat settled down and Daniel put the trolling motor over the bow, we began seeing small balls of bait and a few fish on the graph mounted on the console.

“We should be seeing more bait than that this early in the morning,” said Daniel. “Late last week there were huge balls of bait here and plenty of active stripers feeding on them.” Daniel is more interested in the characteristics of a spot than he is the location itself.

“If you just memorize locations you won’t be consistently successful,” says Daniel. “Some of my clients try to write down river markers and specific locations so they can come back. I tell them that’s OK, but they should really pay attention to the pattern, and then they can re-create it all over the lake.”

Over the weekend there had been a significant amount of rain and nighttime temperatures had cooled off substantially. As a result the surface temperature of the water had dropped three to four degrees to 84.

“The bait may have moved to deeper water with the temperature change,” said Daniel. “But you can’t tell just by looking at the graph. The best way to find fish is to get some baits into the water.”

We hooked lively three-inch-long blueback herring onto downlines and dropped them over the side. Daniel instructed that we should drop the baits to the bottom and pull them up with a couple of turns of the reel and suspend them.

The downlines consisted of a 2-oz. sinker above a saltwater (heavy duty) barrel swivel with a leader of 15-lb. test fluorocarbon about three feet long. The rig was terminated with a 3/0 circle hook, and the hook had a small rubber bead placed about midway up the shank to prevent the bait from riding up and becoming fouled.

The rig was tied to 30-lb. test braided line that was spooled onto a medium-sized casting reel coupled with a fiberglass rod with a fairly heavy butt and a flexible tip.

Once we had six rods baited and in the rodholder along both sides of the boat, Daniel began moving us slowly over the hill with the trolling motor.

“The fiberglass rods are an important part of the outfit,” said Daniel. “With the circle hook the fish will almost always hook themselves, and the tip of the rod will be in the water almost immediately.”

Daniel says that many graphite rods have been snapped in a hurry when a big lineside hits and snatches hard on the line. The fiberglass rods have enough flex to give the fish room to run and also make fighting the fish easier. All of Daniel’s downline rods were fiberglass Ugly Stick Striper Rods made by Shakespeare.

As we cruised over the hump slowly, Daniel began tapping on the bottom of the boat with what looked to be a cut-off pool cue. He tapped the end of the short stick on the floor of the cabin with an irregular pattern of taps, keeping a close eye on the graph as he did so.

“These fish are guided to food primarily by smell and vibration,” said Daniel, “so I throw chum over the side and tap the boat bottom to try and attract them to the bait.”

Daniel said that the tapping is not always productive. Sometimes he can see the fish spook and leave the area and other times he watches them move up to the baits. That is why it is important to watch the movements of the fish on the graph. If he notices that the fish move off when he taps the bottom, he puts the stick away for a while.

After about 30 minutes of moving around the hump with almost no action, Daniel decided that it was time to move. We headed into a cove near Moseley Creek that had a roadbed and old bridge abutment near the channel. This spot was a little deeper, and Daniel felt that the bait and the linesides might have moved into the area with the cooler water.

Daniel explained that the narrow cut caused by the channel between the old bridge ruins tended to concentrate the bait and give the linesides a great ambush point.

When we shut down the big motor, it didn’t take long to notice that the situation was different here. The screen was literally full of clouds of bait and the “streaks” of actively feeding fish. We got the lines overboard and almost immediately one of the rod tips dipped into the water under the weight of a fish. After a fight of a few minutes we landed a small but feisty striper of about two pounds.

Five minutes later we had another fish of almost identical size; then another and then a double. There were clearly a lot of fish in the area, but they weren’t of the size we were looking for.

“These fish are gang-style feeders,” said Daniel. “Once you catch one or two it can turn into a feeding frenzy. Often the little fish will hit first and the bigger ones will start right behind them.”

When a bait was hit but didn’t get taken, Daniel always reeled up the line and put on a fresh bait.

“Fresh bait is a big factor in catching fish,” said Daniel. “You need a good bait tank to keep the bait lively and you should change your bait often.”

When Daniel changed a bait he cut the old bait into pieces and threw it over the side as chum. Keeping a combination of fresh bait and chum in the water can keep a feeding frenzy active for several minutes before the cruising fish move on to chase the big bait schools.

While the roadbed and old bridge was providing plenty of action, Daniel decided that we should move on and try another technique that he thought would produce bigger fish. The sun was getting higher in the sky, and he felt that trolling the standing timber near the channel could be the key to catching some big linesides.

Daniel pulled into a long narrow cove just south of the Fort Gordon Recreation Area near Little River. This cove is fed by Mims Branch near Leah. The channel was about 100 feet deep, and there was plenty of standing timber on either side. The graph showed lots of bait in the area so things looked promising. We set out four rods and began trolling along the edge of the trees at about three miles per hour. Two of the rods were pulling umbrella rigs each with five bucktail jigs arranged in a pattern on the wire arms. One of the other rods was equipped with a chrome-and-blue Cordell Red Fin, and the other with a Norman DD22 in white with a red lateral line.

“It is important to let out the right amount of line to get the lures to run at the proper depth,” said Daniel. “If the lures are running too shallow the strikes will be few and far between, and if they are running too deep you’ll constantly be hung in the trees.”

To make sure that he gets the right amount of line out, Daniel has reels equipped with line counters on his trolling rods. We fished the umbrella rigs 130 feet behind the boat. At that line length they should run about 20 feet deep at three miles per hour. The Red Fin and DD22 were fished on 100 feet and 75 feet of line, respectively.

With the baits properly set, we began trolling each side of the channel, along the tree line, in a long loop. We hadn’t gone 30 yards when the reel holding the Red Fin screamed as line spooled off. Fighting the rod out of the holder, we knew that this was a decent fish. Daniel cranked in the umbrella rigs to keep them from getting hung in the standing timber while I fought to get the striper aboard. The fish looked to be about eight pounds, a beautiful fish. After a brief celebration we set the lures out and continued our troll. We caught several good fish on the two diving baits, and then the umbrella rigs got hit. At one point we had fish on three rods at the same time. The action was great for about a half hour. We even landed two linesides on one umbrella rig at one point.

All in all we caught, and released most of, about 40 linesides, a mix of hybrid and stripers, and we were done fishing by 11 a.m. There were some pretty long dry spells during that period, but when we found the fish the action was fast.

Daniel tells us that the patterns we used will continue to produce good catches of linesides through September and even into October if the water stays warm. The hybrids and stripers tend to travel together in packs until they reach the eight- to 10-lb. range. After that, the bigger stripers seem to move about on their on. He also tells us that, if you can pattern the fish, you’ll be able to find them at multiple places around the lake. Remember that these fish stay on the move feeding on bait, so if you locate concentrations of bait you are very likely to find fish.

If you would like to go out with an experienced Clarks Hill fisherman visit Daniels website at <www.acestriperguide.com> or give him a call at (888) 838-6305. He has been fishing Clarks Hill for more than 10 years, and he is on the water more than 200 days a year either guiding clients or locating fish.

If you need overnight lodging there are several places recommended on Daniel’s website. Click on the “Lodging & Marinas” button to see some of the options.

I stayed at the Clarks Hill Lake House. It was comfortable, clean and was right on the lake. If the water is high enough, Daniel can pick you up right at the dock. For reservations call Tim Kiser at (706) 399-6104 or visit their website at <www.bestviewonthurmond.com>.

You might decide to bring your family and either take them fishing with you or let them relax at the house while you and Daniel head out and catch stripers and hybrids. Either way you are sure to have a great time and may even land your trophy of a lifetime.

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