Clarks Hill bass will soon be moving up and staging for the spawn like they always every year in late February as early March do as water temperatures warm. Some winters in Georgia are dry, and Clarks Hill is known for low-water levels. This year, the lake is 12 feet below full pool as bass hit the prespawn mode.
That the red ribbon of clay bank, as it was eloquently described in James Kilgo’s “Deep Enough For Ivory Bills,” is more like a red landing strip, and many of the spawning flats once utilized by egg-heavy largemouths are now high and dry and covered in grass. The fish are still going to make their spring migration up into the ditches, but anglers are going to have to adjust to find them. Those same old honey-holes that have produced for years may not be the ticket to heavy sacks this spring. It may take a little looking to find new ones.
“The water being down has made it a lot tougher,” said tournament angler and guide Dale Gibbs. “You’d think it’d have ’em all hemmed in, but I think it’s actually got a lot of them suspended and hard to find.”
Recently, some very impressive sacks from Clarks Hill have been making it to the scales, including a 34-lb. sack caught by Woody Parks, of Lincolnton, at a local weekend tournament a couple of months ago. Obviously, some people have them figured out, and Dale thinks ditches adjacent to spawning flats are going to the go-to pattern for a great prespawn bite before the fish hit the beds and it’s time to go sight fishing.
He should know. Dale has been fishing Clarks Hill a long time. He was introduced to the lake and learned its moods from Gene Williams, of Grovetown, when he was just 11 years old.
“We fished together on weekends for years,” Dale said. “He taught me about fishing this lake.”
Since that time, Dale has amassed a pretty impressive resume on Clarks Hill. Starting with one of the lake’s most prestigious open tournaments, the 180-boat annual Easter Seals Team Tournament, Dale won it with partner Mike Rukes in 1990, then he won it with his current partner, Thomas Nathan Thomas — who he said has been his best partner ever — in 2005.
You’ll also see Dale’s name on the Mr. Clarks Hill plaque for his victories in that tournament in 1998 and 2001. And, last October, he finished in the money, in 26th place at an FLW event on the lake. After holding the No. 3 spot on the leader board the first day, he was knocked out of contention for a top-20 finish by serious boat trouble.
But perhaps the most telling wins in Dale’s progression as a springtime angler were the Clarks Hill Committee Top Six tourneys. He won the Clarks Hill Committee Top Six almost exclusively sight fishing for bedded fish in the lake’s clear waters for three consecutive years, from 1997-’99. That streak earned him a reputation as a sight fish- er, but he’s had to adjust as others have caught on, he said. Dale won the tournament again in 2007 catching fish schooled up in a prespawn pattern. He said that should be the ticket for March, and he agreed to share some of his expertise with GON readers.
First off, Dale said you can always go finesse fishing and catch some keepers at any time on the lake, but as mostly a single-day tournament angler, he likes to go big.
“For guys who fish the single-day tournaments, I wouldn’t do anything but swing for the fence. Most of the money in those tournaments is either first place or big fish. So give it all you’ve got,” he said. “I’d throw a spinnerbait, jig… topwater. I ain’t dismissing the worm; sometimes it will catch big fish, but spring… I like to fish ditches with flats in the back end of them. And I like to fish anything that imitates a shad — a fluke, spinnerbait or crankbait.”
Finding the right ditch is key to finding bass when they stack up in early March. Dale said you’ll find bass mixed in with stripers feeding voraciously on shad and sometimes pushing them up to the surface in ditches adjacent to good spawning flats.
First thing in the morning, he’ll start out looking for schooling activity in the ditches on the lower end of the lake. Dale said the fish get started a little earlier on the clearer south end of the lake. It gets good when water temperatures get into the mid to high 50s, and he narrows his search from the Little River Bridge area to the dam and as far up the South Carolina side as Parksville.
“It may be different from everything you’ve been told, but the clear- water area of the lake seems to start earlier than the stained water,” he said. “They’ll be up there crushing threadfin shad in the backs of the coves. Any ditch with a flat nearby is a good recipe for getting your string stretched.
“Look for periodic breaking activity — two or three fish coming up every now and then,” he added. “It may be 20 or 30 bass down there, but they aren’t all coming up at the same time. If you see 10 or 12, you’re in a good spot.”
For these breaking fish, Dale likes to keep a couple of pearl flukes tied on. When he sees them coming up, he’ll throw a weightless fluke at them. He fishes his flukes on casting gear with 15- to 17-lb. test line, and he adds a 16- inch fluorocarbon leader of the same test attached with a swivel to the main line. Try to hit the fish in the head with the bait, give it a couple of jerks and let it settle down out of sight before working it again.
If you want to fish something a little faster, try threading a fluke on a 1/4- or 1/8-oz. Buckeye lead-head. It will give you the same action, but you can fish it a little faster.
“Sometimes, when they’re on real good, and the line doesn’t seem to make a difference, I’ll go with about 30-lb. Spiderwire,” Dale said. “That way I don’t have to change or mess with my line all day.”
Everyone loves to catch fish busting on top, but everyone also knows it doesn’t always work out that way. If you don’t see them creaming baitfish on top, it’s time to start looking for good structure and bait on your graph.
“I’m lookin’ for a good, flat ditch that’s flat out a good way on either side. A little hydrilla in it helps, too, because the bait like to hide in it,” Dale said. “Look for a little secondary flat point in that ditch, It can be underwater, and it can be real minute, but that’s all they need to push the bait up on.”
Dale said he’ll start working in toward the back of a pocket from about 20 feet of water, but most of the fish will be in 15 feet or shallower. He’ll throw his crankbait or spinnerbait searching for a school, and he’ll follow with a jig, looking for that kicker fish.
The spinnerbait Dale likes is a 1/2- oz. Buckeye with double willowleaf blades. He’ll fish a chartreuse-and-white bait with gold blades in dingy water, and he also throws one in glimmer blue with silver blades in clear water. He trailers his spinnerbaits with a Zoom 4-inch Tab Tail grub, chartreuse for stained water and glimmer blue or white for clear water. He’ll sometimes dye the tail chartreuse, and he always uses a stinger hook for this open-water application. He fishes it on medium/heavy casting tackle and almost always goes with 20-lb. Berkley Big Game line.
Dale slow rolls his spinnerbait, giving it a little 1-foot twitch every now and then to flare the skirt. He said that little flare will entice a few bites you might not have gotten otherwise.
For the crankbait, Dale opts for a No. 5 Shad Rap in either firetiger or a natural-shad color if the water is clear. He’ll throw either bait right up in the grass when he finds it on that magic spot he mentioned earlier.
“Anywhere you can find a little secondary point with a little grass on it poking out into the ditch, that’s where they’ll be,” he said. “A lot of times you’ll get your bite when it gets hung in some grass then pops loose. It’ll stop, and that’s when they’ll hit it.”
He likes medium-action spinning or casting gear and 10-lb. test for fishing crankbaits. If he’s into the fish, he’ll use his casting rod, which he’s more comfortable with. But he’ll go with the spinning rod for searching.
“I like something with a little bit of a buggy-whip feel,” Dale said. “Anytime I’m fishing treble hooks, I like something a little softer. It gives you a better hook set.”
The fish will be stacked up on these small changes in contour, so work an area hard if you find fish. If you want to slow it down a little and fish more methodically, switch to a jig.
Dale likes a 7- to 7 1/2-foot flipping stick for jig fishing. His is a G- Loomis with fast action. His jig of choice is a 3/8- to 1/2-oz. Buckeye Mop jig in brown. He tips it with a Zoom Super Chunk in green pumpkin and tries to fish it like it’s a crawfish.
“When you pull that Mop jig across the bottom and stop it, it flares out and exposes that chunk. I think it makes it more enticing,” he said. “I do use rattles. I don’t know that I’m convinced it makes any difference at all, but I do leave them on there.”
These tactics can put a limit of fish in the boat pretty quickly when the fish are stacked up like they should be. But the first wave of fish should also move up onto those flats to spawn about the third week of the month.
“I used to cruise the banks after putting a limit in the boat to upgrade with a sight fish,” Dale said. “It takes a great hole to pull me away from a big fish on the bed. Possibly, it’s the big fish if you catch it, and it’s worth two or three smaller fish.”
However, with the popularity of sight fishing in a few feet of water growing over the years, Dale said he has adapted his tactics.
“In this clear water, everyone knows where the ones are in the first 3 feet of water,” he said. “But most of the bigger fish bed in 3 to 7 feet of water. You need a good pair of polarized glasses and a bright-colored bait to catch these fish. It doesn’t have any- thing to do with the fish. It’s just so you can see your bait. It takes a little more intestinal fortitude to sit there and fish for one 7-feet deep when you can barely make him out.”
Again, a Mop jig is Dale’s choice for fishing beds. Only he goes with a chartreuse and white one for this application. He’ll also fish a 1/4-oz., pegged, Texas-rigged Zoom tube on the beds. He always goes with bright colors so he can see the bait, which is important since he often fishes a bed from 60 to 80 feet away.
“One thing I really believe in in clear water is to make as long a cast as possible while still being accurate,” he said. “That way you’re fishing for fish that don’t know you’re there yet.”
The first wave of spawning fish should be on the banks by about the third week of March on Clarks Hill, when the temperature hits 58 degrees. Dale said spawning will be full blown by Masters weekend, which is the second weekend in April.
“I like to plan all my sight fishing trips around the full and new moon,” he said. “About two days before or after is prime.”
The March full moon is on the 11th this year, which will be a little early, but Dale said the new moon on March 26 should be about right.
Dale guides part time on Clarks Hill, and he doesn’t mind sharing his knowledge of the lake with paying customers — even if he might compete against them later. To book a trip with Dale, call (706) 288-7510. Just be ready to fish hard, because he doesn’t mess around.