The chill of winter puts far too many anglers on the sidelines. Some of the biggest and most impressive stringers of fish you will ever see are caught in early February while air and water temperatures are at their lowest. My advice is to put on plenty of clothes and strike out to Lake Hartwell this time of year. You will experience one of the premier lineside destinations in the country, and you will have an opportunity to boat a number of fish heavier than 10 pounds in a single excursion.
Hartwell is one of the largest and most popular recreational impoundments in the United States. At 56,000 acres including 962 miles of shoreline, it is a massive body of water that includes water flow from the Savannah, Tugaloo and Seneca rivers.
Presently Hartwell is stocked with equal numbers of stripers and hybrids, the goal of which is to continue producing the fast action hybrids are known for while improving trophy striper potential. The result of this ongoing management technique is that 10- to 12-lb. fish are at record high levels. In the latest WRD samples, 26 percent of the fish caught were in that weight class compared to only 6 percent in the samples from the previous year. Because of that trend, fish in the 20-lb. class fish should increase dramatically over the next two to three years. There are also more hybrids in the 3- to 5-lb. range than ever before in the lake.
I recently fished with Hartwell veteran Dan Cisson and his brother Steve. Dan has for many years chased winter stripers on Hartwell, and his knowledge of where to go, what to look for and what to use is impressive.
Dan does not use live bait, and that is right down my alley. We were actively fishing rather than dragging around live bait. It is simply a more enjoyable experience for me to feel the fish bite and set the hook. Don’t get me wrong. You can catch these stripers on live bait, but fishing with spoons is a more exciting experience in my opinion.
Dan said there are three important keys to a successful day spooning for Hartwell linesides. Find the bait, find the birds and find the boats.
The only thing more important is excellent electronics. If the electronics in your boat are of poor quality or not working properly, it is best to do something else. These fish are constantly on the move. They will probably stay in the same general area for days or even weeks at a time, but they will be roaming rather than showing up in a specific spot.
You can catch them by remembering those three “Bs,” because finding fish is the biggest challenge and may consume a lot of your time. If you can find them, you can most likely get some hook-ups.
Dan sets his Lowrance X-85 graph on a split screen so he can view the entire water column. He feels the worst mistake you can make with your graph is to set it on automatic. On that setting you get distortion which shows up as bait and results in time spent fishing areas where there are no fish. His graph is one that requires using less than 75 percent of its maximum power. In water depths of 30 to 60 feet, Dan puts his unit on 67 to 70 percent and believes whatever you see on the graph at that setting will actually be there.
However, the graph is not infallible. In the winter of 2008, in a single day, Dan spooned up a mixed bag of 75 fish that included stripers, hybrids, largemouth bass and white perch in Coneross Creek. He was simply fishing an area that had been productive in the past, but his graph wasn’t showing anything of significance on this particular day. Thinking back, Dan thinks a high pressure system that day had the fish glued to the bottom and invisible on his graph but still willing to bite.
The winter striper pattern on Lake Hartwell is at its best when the water temperature is somewhere between the mid 40s and high 50s, but in most cases prime fishing occurs when the water temperature is right at 51 degrees.
Dan’s favorite areas of the lake are around Clemson, Red Bank, Coneross Creek and Gumlog Creek but will agree that there are plenty of other productive areas. On the Savannah River, the mouth of Lightwood Log Creek, Sadler’s Creek and Powderbag Creek are top-shelf areas for stripers. On the Seneca River, the area of Six and Twenty Creek, Eighteen Mile Creek, Martin’s Creek, Twelve Mile Creek, and Seneca Creek are other productive spots. On the Tugaloo River, fish the area where Barton Creek, Longnose Creek and Gryer Branch converge with the Tugaloo. Other good areas of the Tugaloo arm include Choestoea Creek, Eastanollee Creek, Fair Play Creek, Reed Creek and Glenn Ferry. It’s also worthwhile to check out Big and Little Beaverdam creeks.
Now for key No. 1: Bait. No baitfish, no stripers. If you can find the large schools of blueback herring, threadfin shad and gizzard shad, you are one step closer to catching fish because the stripers and hybrids are going to be close by. The fish may not be actively feeding all the time, but hang in there — the dinner bell will ring at some point, and then the game is on.
On Lake Hartwell, as with other large impoundments, big schools of baitfish work their way up creek and river arms as the weather gets colder. The stripers follow because they are trying to build stamina for the spring spawn (even though for the most part it is a false spawn at Hartwell). The wise fisherman spends as much time as necessary finding these large schools of bait. If you scour an area and can’t find them, it’s probably a good idea to change locations.
Key No. 2: Birds. The seagulls that visit Hartwell in the winter should be an integral part of your strategy. The presence of these birds in an area is a clue baitfish are nearby. They are much more efficient than any graph at quickly identifying pods of baitfish and can save hours of poking around the lake looking at your depthfinder. If there are large numbers of gulls in the area, even if they are just sitting on the water, take plenty of time to work your graph. Those birds are going to stick close to areas where they have had success.
There will be times when the gulls are darting, diving or hovering over a particular spot, and that’s when you get the full benefit of their expertise. The more birds and the more frenetic their actions are, the better the chance that baitfish and the stripers are right there.
The very best omen for success is lots of diving birds in a small area because it usually means the stripers have driven the bait near the surface and are actively feeding. Here’s another tip: one piece of equipment that’s an asset is a good pair of binoculars. They can give you a heads up to concentrations of gulls you might not otherwise notice. As you are cruising and watching the graph, assign someone to scan with the binoculars so you won’t miss out on action in another area.
Key No. 3: Boats. Because it is winter, there won’t be anywhere near the boat traffic you would typically see on Hartwell during the spring or summer. Those boats you do see are most likely doing the same thing you are, looking for pods of bait, looking for birds and trying to catch stripers. Although not as efficient as the birds, it is smart to take note if you see several boats grouped in an area. There is probably some action going on in that vicinity, and you need every edge you can get. If you keep your eyes open and your binoculars on the prowl, you can take advantage of the scouting someone else has done.
However, if you head toward a group of boats, observe common courtesy. Back off the motor well before you get to them. It’s always more fun if you have the fish to yourself, but don’t hesitate to use this strategy to enhance your opportunity for success. After all, catching fish is the name of the game.
Now that you have some idea about how to find fish, let’s talk a little about how to catch them with artificials. Dan believes that because there are so many schools of shad and herring that those fishing with live bait can sometimes get the short end of the stick. He thinks live bait sometimes gets overlooked.
Because most of the bait during this time of year is relatively small (1 to 1 1/2 inches), he prefers smaller spoons. His favorite sizes are in the 1/2- to 5/8-oz. size. Dan’s preference is called a Jig-N-Shad in the 1/2-oz. size, and the only place he has found this particular one is at Academy Sports. It has a black top and chrome sides and is the best match for Hartwell baitfish that he has seen. It is equipped with ultra-sharp red hooks and is a little on the light side, but Dan knows from experience that the slow flutter gets a lot of strikes.
His second choice is the Berry Spoon in a 6/10-oz. size. You will need to add a split ring to ensure the spoon flutters to best advantage and change to sharper hooks on the Berry. We also had good luck with white or silver-and-white Flex-it spoons in the same size range. Be sure to take a good supply of spoons because there are lots of trees and structure in Hartwell that you can get snagged on.
Before dunking your spoon, always tie a barrel swivel about a foot and a half above your spoon. It can keep from fighting bird nests and twisted line all day long. You don’t want to be respooling when the bite gets hot.
Most of our fishing was done vertically in 30 to 50 feet of water. Once Dan started marking bait or fish, we would drop straight down to the depth they were showing up and then jig the spoon up and down. If fishing on the bottom, you simply flip your bait up a couple of feet and let it flutter down. Keep repeating this action until you move on. If the fish are suspended, just let it down to that depth and do the same thing. It’s always smart to change the depth of your spoon in case you’ve misjudged how deep you have it. Some of the strikes are subtle and others are hard, but once you get a bite it’s important to give a strong hook-set.
Occasionally you will run into a situation when the fish have driven bait right up to the shoreline, and you can see them actively feeding. Dan said these fish can be very difficult to catch, and he has thrown everything in his tackle box at them over the years. Those experiences have sold him on the idea of sticking with your spoon and throwing it into the schooling fish. Yo-yo the lure back with 2- to 3-foot drops.
If that doesn’t work, go with a very small fluke or a No. 5 Shad Rap as alternate methods. As you work your way through the day, don’t be surprised if you pick something other than stripers and hybrids. Every once in a while, largemouth bass, spotted bass, crappie or white perch may get after your spoon and enhance the trip.
We fished with 12-lb. test monofilament, and that’s plenty strong enough to land anything you catch provided you have a properly set drag system and the fish doesn’t get hung up in the trees. If they do get hung up, it probably doesn’t matter what pound test you have. The lighter line also improves your spoon action.
So, when you head out to Hartwell in early February, remember the three “Bs,” and make sure your graph is operating properly. Don’t let the cold weather deter you. The action can be spectacular, and you’ll have an opportunity to boat a trophy.