Striper fishing on Clarks Hill can be a lot like another popular November pursuit… deer hunting. Want to know why? Ask guide William Sasser, a veteran of the better part of 30 years on the lake.
On a recent evening, I caught up with William, owner of William Sasser Guide Service, and picked his brain on how he goes about catching striped bass on Clarks Hill in November. The following Saturday, a beautiful mid-October day, I made the trek over from Woodstock with my friend Skip Eliot, of Cumming, to wet a line with a guy who frankly just gets it.
William, who was born and raised in Augusta and resides in Evans, runs a four-boat guide service that has clients on the water every day on Clarks Hill, Lake Russell and the Savannah River. William got started as a crappie guide after years of fishing Clarks Hill with his dad, a Navy retiree who moved to Augusta after the service.
“Dad started fishing here when the lake was impounded, so I have been fishing Clarks Hill my whole life,” William said. “I started out just doing crappie trips and transitioned into the striped bass and hybrids.”
Over time, William and another guide, Mark Crawford, teamed up and started guiding and then bought the Herring Hut in Clarks Hill, S.C. Between guiding and running the store, with the help of William’s wife Donna, the business was growing by leaps and bounds. Soon, William hired his son, Bradd, and another guide into the business, and in October he purchased a second bait and tackle store, the Palmetto Angler in McCormick, S.C.
The thing is, when folks are paying to have you put them on fish, it helps to be technically proficient, but also to make sure clients have a good time. Following those simple rules has William, Mark, Bradd and Andrew Tubbs on the water constantly.
I was intrigued by the prospect of hearing William’s theories on fishing a lake like Clarks Hill. Any of us can likely pick apart a smaller body of water with a little ability and some time spent researching, but I was curious about how one consistently catches striped bass, a saltwater species that can move a long way in a very short time, on a body of water that covers 71,000 acres and has nearly 1,300 miles of shoreline.
“The thing about Clarks Hill is it’s not the easiest lake to fish,” William said. “It’s really big and diverse, so fish are often difficult to pinpoint. To catch fish consistently all year long on Clarks Hill is not the easiest thing to do.”
On the Hill in November, William sticks to a simple philosophy that has helped him successfully stay on fish year after year. William likened the way striped bass act in Clarks Hill to the way deer act in the woods.
“When you are hunting, you often see deer working their way along edges where heavy cover meets more open spaces,” William said. “They are looking for food, looking to breed, or they’re headed to bedding areas. I’ve applied that to fishing for linesides in Clarks Hill, and I have observed that many times I find fish traveling along flooded timber to feed. I call it ‘traveling with a purpose.’
“I am very rarely fishing schooling fish, but rather fishing a travel pattern, much the way a deer hunter would do.”
William explained that when Clarks Hill was flooded, the river valley had pines at the top of many of the hills and mostly hardwoods grew on hillsides. Over the years, the pine timber that wasn’t cut before the lake was built has rotted away, but the heartier hardwoods have remained largely intact in areas. Striped bass relate to the timber and sides of the channels which were once forested hills.
“They like hanging close to those contour changes,” William said. “And that’s where I have a lot of success catching them.”
In fact, William says anyone with a boat and knowledge of how to use their electronics can catch stripers and hybrids on Clarks Hill in November by concentrating on these areas.
“Striped bass move a long way, and they move quickly in search of better oxygen or more baitfish, and the stripers in Clarks Hill seem to swim upriver this time of year as if it’s a spawning ritual,” William said. “In November, the biggest fish will position themselves in the tributaries on the upper end of the lake like it’s a spawning run, and we’ll catch them on downlines on points and over timber and as the month progresses on flatlines and planer boards way back in the creeks.”
In his years of guiding, William has come to recognize that fish that are near the bottom are easier to get in the boat than the ones that are suspended.
“Most of the year, striped bass are bottom-oriented fish, and they seem to feed better when they are near the bottom,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if they are in 20 feet of water or 80 feet of water, they are easier to catch than when they get up in the middle of the water column.”
William explained his approach for catching stripers and hybrids on Clarks Hill in November, and the techniques are pretty straightforward.
“Usually by November the fish will be migrating up the lake, and I’ll be concentrating on areas within 5 miles of the dam, downlining live herring 40 to 50 feet deep,” William said.
William fishes his live baits on 7 1/2-foot Ugly Stik rods paired with Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 6500 C3 reels. The reels are spooled with 20-lb. Berkley Big Game line with a 1-oz. egg sinker. A swivel is tied to the end of the 20-lb. line below the sinker, and William adds a 4-foot section of 17-lb., clear fluorocarbon leader. At the terminal end of the leader, William ties on a 1/0 Kahle hook in chrome.
“The chrome hooks work better than the brown ones for me,” he said.
Hook a live herring through the nostrils, and drop it straight down. William has switched to a new egg sinker this year that has a swivel molded into it, and he believes the bait can be dropped to a more accurate depth because when the sinker is sliding on the line, it sinks much faster than the bait and can sometimes cause the herring to drag or not get to the right depth for catching fish.
William knows the importance of good electronics, and he said reading them can be the key to staying on fish.
“We are fortunate to have every option Lowrance offers in HDS-10 on our boats,” William said. “Because the stripers in this lake relate so closely to the timber, I can turn on the Structure Scan and readily discern fish from timber if they are holding really tight.”
When William knows he is on fish, he gauges their depth and drops baits down to them, preferably keeping the herring just above the stripers in the water column. To do this, William pulls line from the reel by hand until he reaches the first guide on the rod, a 2-foot pull, until he has the herring where he feels like the fish want it. And while having a boat with all the bells and whistles doesn’t hurt, William advises anglers without them to concentrate on points and depth changes when searching for striped bass in November.
“If you can’t find fish on the graph, or if the boat doesn’t have one, you can always anchor at different depths on points to find some fish,” William said.
William keeps a grappling anchor on 100 feet of rope in his boat for this very tactic. Take the boat in fairly close to the bank, drop the anchor, let the boat drift offshore to a tight line and drop the downlines. If the fish don’t bite, pull up the anchor, back off the point a little and anchor again. Try different depths until you catch fish.
While the anchored method of fishing works wonders sometimes, William does like to slowly troll with live herring under the boat. The key is to move the boat along while allowing the bait to stay at the appropriate depth. If the fish are at 50 feet and your baits are down in the strike zone, moving the boat too fast can cause the lines to swing toward the back of the boat, thus making the baits ride higher in the water column and possibly away from the fish you are targeting.
As the weather cools and the water temperatures start dropping, William and his guides will take clients farther back in the creeks on Clarks Hill to catch stripers and hybrids.
“When it cools off, the fish will be way back in much shallower water, and we’ll catch a lot of them on flatlines or planer boards in just a few feet of water,” William said.
When fishing flatlines off the stern, William will often pinch a 1/8-oz. split-shot on the line about a foot above the hook. He still sets up with the 20-lb. Big Game, a swivel and 17-lb. leader, just without the heavy egg sinker. He’ll run planer boards off either side of the boat set at different lengths to avoid tangles when turning the boat. William said the flatlines and planer boards are the go-to tactic when the water is gin clear, like it has been this year.
“The water was so clear earlier, it was pretty easy to see a 10-lb. fish in 10 feet of water,” William said. “I feel like when they get up to 15 feet or shallower, stripers and hybrids are almost impossible to catch under the boat, and that’s when I go to planer boards and flatlines.”
Closely monitoring the speed of the boat is crucial when pulling baits on flatlines and planer boards.
“You want to change speeds a little until you figure out what the fish want, but typically I have found that 1/2 of a mile-per-hour on the GPS is the optimum speed to troll when you are concentrating on these shallow fish,” William said.
William Sasser is a fishing guide who gets it.
“In all the days we have spent on the water over the years, I have come to realize that there is really no rhyme or reason to it,” he said. “Today I had three guys catch 30 fish in about an hour. Some days you can wear the fish out, and the next day in the same water under identical conditions, nothing.
“You can have every new toy on the boat, but some days you are riding around and not seeing any fish. That’s when I’ll go to a spot I feel confident in and just start fishing. The fish will come around.”
Take for instance the day we went fishing. When we got in the boat, it was two days after a major front, two days after the October full moon and frankly, I have seen less of a chop on the Atlantic Ocean when trolling for Spanish mackerel. Add to that the fact that the Corps of Engineers had dropped the lake level by almost 9 feet, and the prospects of catching loads of fish were slim.
William took us to several spots up the Savannah River arm, and all morning we marked bait and fish on the graph where underwater hillsides were covered in timber. We didn’t get a bite. But we weren’t the only ones. William stays in constant contact with his guides and other anglers, and nobody had caught a fish. But that didn’t deter William, who is about as positive a guy as you are likely to board a boat with. With time running out, he tried one more spot in the cove where we launched the boat.
“Look at the graph,” William said. “It looks like there aren’t any fish here, but they are down there on the bottom.”
We dropped six baits over the side of the boat, William started tapping the floor of the boat with a wooden rod, and in about two minutes we had a fish on and watched as the graph lit up with striped bass and hybrids coming up to feed. In a 20-minute stretch, we caught fish so fast it was hard for us to watch six rods and not miss a few.
“That is just spending time on the water and knowing where some fish are,” William said. “They may be gone in a few days, but I felt confident we had some fish here and that we could catch them.”
If you want to learn about striper fishing, it always helps to hire a guide. If you want to get an education on stripers and hybrids and have a great time doing it, call William Sasser.
To book a trip with William Sasser Guide Service, call (706) 589-5468 or visit them online at <williamsasserfishing.com>. Trust me, you’ll have a great time and learn a lot about your quarry.