Kerry Partain learned a long time ago that February fishing at Lake Hartwell has its own set of rules.
“One of the first things you have to do is see what kind of mood they’re in,” he said. “They might be feeding—or they may not be doing much of anything and just sitting on the bottom.”
On a recent Saturday, as midday temperatures hovered just above freezing, Kerry steered his boat into open water against a brisk, lip-chapping breeze.
We were fishing about six weeks before the pros with the Bassmaster Classic will compete on Lake Hartwell. While Kerry isn’t fishing in that tournament, I’d say he’d have a pretty good shot at finishing near the top of the field. In my few hours on the water with him, he caught several nice fish and shared with me a February bass plan that will work on this east-central Georgia lake.
“When it’s cold like this, they tend to be in channels and deep banks,” he said. “If you get a warm spell, though, they might go a bit shallower, and you can look for rocks and blowdowns.”
Using his Lowrance to scan the bottom, he eased the boat along a jagged ditch in the center of a deserted channel. After a few minutes, telltale arcs on the screen indicated fish were hugging the bottom 30 feet below.
“This is a place we’ve found some good fish before,” he said. “You need to keep moving around until you find the fish, then you have to stay on them.”
A favorite seasonal bait is a 4-inch Zoom Z Drop worm on a drop-shot rig, which can be particularly effective on stubborn, stationary largemouth.
Kerry dropped the lure off the bow of the boat and waited for it to hit the bottom. Rather than reeling or jigging, he simply wiggled the rod tip.
“You just shake it gently,” he said. “You want the weight to stay on the bottom, but you want the worm to move.”
It took a few tries, but eventually the fish gave in—and Kerry set the hook into a shimmering 3-lb. largemouth.
Searching for cold-weather fish among the reservoir’s 56,000 acres is a daunting task any time of the year, but a general knowledge of submerged terrain and bottom features is always helpful.
“Old roadbeds are really good this time of year,” he said. “There are lots of them out there on the bottom, too. If a ditch crosses one, that’s an even better place to find fish.”
Kerry, who has fished tournaments at Hartwell for the past 18 years, headed for just such a location. Then, using the trolling motor, he eased along the submerged roadbed looking for signs of fish or bait.
Soon, he smiled.
“Now here’s a sweet spot,” he said, looking at his screen. “You can see on the bottom it’s where two springs meet. There’s even a little drop-off ledge—and fish like that.”
For this location, he suggested another effective bait—a football-head jig fitted with a Zoom Magnum Swamp Crawler.
“This will usually get them interested, even if they’re not feeding,” he said. “Sometimes you just need to get a reaction strike.”
The Lowrance showed fish rising from the bottom and following the bait back down each time the weighted worm was lifted off the bottom.
After a few minutes of playing piscatorial cat and mouse, he set the hook again into something so solid it seemed at first he was snagged.
Then the line began to move away at a steep angle, and the fight was on. Moments later a 4-lb. spotted bass was guided into the landing net.
“I knew it was hung into a fish, and I knew it was big,” Kerry said excitedly.
Winter weather also makes it more likely to find largemouth mixed with their cousins, the spotted bass. “We’ve been catching largemouth with the spots ever since it got cold,” he said.
There are some distinct advantages with February fishing, countered, of course, with some obvious challenges.
Anglers willing to brave the cold can expect crystal-clear water and lots of privacy, as there are fewer boats moving around than in the warmer seasons.
The hardest part is balancing comfort with cold weather.
Kerry wears a heavy coat and thick gloves while running between locations in the lake. When he’s fishing, he shifts to light cotton gloves made from fabric no thicker than a T-shirt.
“These will keep you hands warm, but you can also feel even the slightest strike,” he said, noting that being able to detect and react to gentle strikes often dictates whether a fish is landed or lost.
Winter fishing is less dependent upon traditional morning and evening hours, which can also make it more convenient.
“When it’s cold, the time of day you’re out here is less important,” he said. “And if it’s a full moon, the fish might be more focused in the middle of the day.”
February fishermen at Hartwell can encounter drastically different weather from day to day and must learn to respond to varied conditions.
“If you’re fishing a cloudy, overcast, or even rainy day, the fish might be more suspended, Kerry said. “But if you’re out in clear weather with high pressure, they don’t want to move around as much.”
Every angler has favorite spots, and all areas of Hartwell have produced good fishing. Kerry often launches from Hart State Park in Hartwell.
“I’ve always liked the lower end,” he said. “You can spend a lot of time running the creek channels and looking for baitfish—or bass. Once you find them, it gets fun.”
Although schooling surface baitfish and diving birds are more commonly seen in other seasons, February anglers should always keep their eyes open for unforeseen opportunities.
Kerry noticed a subtle swirl—out in open, windswept water—during a full-throttle run to a different fishing spot.
“Something’s going on over there,” he said, slowing and turning the boat.
As he approached the nondescript area, a pair of loons could be seen frantically diving and surfacing nearby.
Then the Lowrance showed a clearer picture of what was going on under the surface.
“Look here,” he said excitedly. “You got baitfish, brush, rocks and fish. That spells trouble—in a good way!”
This time, the depth was almost 70 feet, and fish were stacked up at varied elevations. Kerry suggested dropping some elliptical white spoons fashioned by one of his fishing friends.
On the very first drop, a fish struck Kerry’s lure. It turned out to be the beast of the day, a 6-lb. largemouth that would make any angler proud.
“You can land some big fish in the winter,” he said. “Five-pounders is what we look for as our kicker fish in tournaments. You catch a lot of threes but not many over five.”
Lake Hartwell, which has more than 960 miles of shoreline and enough variation in depth and structure to accommodate every fisherman’s taste, has always been a producer of quality catches.
“Now through March is the best time to catch the biggest fish, as far as girth is concerned,” he said. “They’ll be feeding up, looking for shad.”
The lake, which straddles the Georgia-South Carolina state line along the Savannah River, also benefits from a reciprocal agreement in which residents in both states can fish anywhere on Hartwell or its tailwaters with a license from either state.
Pre-impoundment/topographic maps are also available for $5 at the Hartwell Lake Office.
Kerry summed up his February fishing advice with one final suggestion that could also apply year-round.
“When you find a place that excites you, fish it!”