“Get the net!” said Sarah Willard, who was hanging onto her rod as a hybrid bass flashed and pulled next to the boat.
Sarah’s dad, Clarks Hill linesides guide Dave Willard, stepped to the gunnel with the net, scooped, and netted a silvery, 3-lb. hybrid.
Dave unhooked the fish, and was holding the fish in one hand and the hook in the other while he explained some detail to me.
Sarah stood patiently holding her rod for a moment, then, politely:
“Can we get my line back in the water?”
On June 14, I was on the water with Dave and his two daughters, Jesse, 15, and Sarah, 12, for a preview of the summer linesides pattern at Clarks Hill.
I say preview, because by mid June, the fish weren’t where they were supposed to be.
It was an odd spring at Clarks Hill, according to Dave — who had quickly baited Sarah’s line with another lively blueback herring to get her back in the business of catching fish.
Usually by mid June the fish are on their summer pattern and schooled on main-lake points and humps. After the spawn, the bluebacks move into the creek runs at Clarks Hill, and the hybrids and stripers move in with them. As the water warms in early summer, the fish gradually move out of the creeks looking for cooler water and set up for the summer on deep-water structure on the main lake. This year, best as Dave can figure, a series of cold fronts and water temperatures that rocketed up and down between the upper 50s and the low 70s had the fish not knowing which direction to swim. Spring conditions lasted into the summer.
“We pulled planers and freelines on shallow fish in the creeks longer this spring than we ever have,” said Dave. “The transition has taken longer than usual this year.”
By the end of June the summer pattern should be setting in, and the fishing in July is usually some of the best of the year, with quick limits early and late in the day.
Dave Willard of Clark Hill, S.C. has been a fishing guide on Clarks Hill Lake since 1985. The reason he still enjoys the long hours and the work behind taking people fishing is that he enjoys seeing other people catch fish, he says. He especially likes to see kids — including his two daughters — catch fish.
In July, lineside fishing at Clarks Hill moves to the main lake and the trips move to very early or very late in the day to escape the midday heat.
“To find fish, you can follow just about any creek channel on the south end of the lake out to the river channel,” said Dave. “Then look for humps that top out at about 25 or 30 feet, that’s where the fish will be congregated. As the summer progresses they will gradually move down to the 40- to 50-foot range. The trick is to find concentrations of fish. If you have to pick them off one at a time, it is hard to catch a dozen.”
Typically, Dave will anchor his boat over a productive hump or ledge. He uses 300 feet of line on the bow anchor and 300 feet of line on the stern anchor to secure the boat over a hump or ledge. The long lines hold the boat in the wind over deep water and keep the anchor lines out of the way. If it is an early-morning trip — starting as early as 3 a.m., he will turn on lights to help attract bait before dropping downlines baited with frisky bluebacks.
If the fish need encouragement, Dave has some tricks ready to use.
The first one, an oddity that is uniquely popular on Clarks Hill, is calling the fish by tapping on the hull of the boat. The usual wisdom is to be quiet in your boat because noise spooks the fish. Not at Clarks Hill. Dave uses a five-foot wooden mop handle to “tap-tap, tap-tap,” a cadence on the floor of his Twin V catamaran.
The theory is that the noise is a fish attractor. Curious fish come to see what the commotion is about, and they also discover the baits in the water.
“Watch the fish on the screen and see how they respond,” said Dave when we were anchored in about 25 feet of water. As he tapped his rhythmic beat on the floor of the boat, I’ll have to admit that the number of arches on the screen increased.
“You have heard of horse whispering,” said Dave, with a grin. “This is fish whispering.”
The tapping technique is supposed to work best during the summer over big schools of fish.
“Sometimes when you see one big arch on the bottom you can get his attention and call him up,” said Dave. “But if you have 200 fish to call, that’s a lot better.”
Dave said he first noticed the fish-attraction trait of certain noises when he cranked a small gas trolling motor when he still had baits in the water.
“A lot of times, when I would crank the motor, the lines would get hit,” he said.
“Fish are curious about noises,” said Dave. “You’ve known people who feed fish in a pond, and they call the fish by tapping on the dock. It isn’t a silver bullet; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Meanwhile, Jesse and Sarah were watching their lines. Jesse’s rod tip began to vibrate and bounce, usually an indication that the bait is doing its best evasive maneuvers to avoid becoming dinner for a hybrid or striper.
“Let him pull it down,” Dave cautioned.
If you pull too soon, you often miss the fish, says Dave. The trick is to wait until the rod tip is literally pulled into the water — which Jesse’s rod finally did. She pulled the rod out of the holder, and it arched under the weight of another hybrid. The fish was soon flopping in the cooler.
Quality bait is critical for live-bait fishing. Dave keeps fresh bait in tanks at his home. He wants smaller herring that are brightly colored and in good condition. A 3 1/2- to four-inch bait is perfect.
“Hybrids are the predominant fish you are going to catch,” he said. “And they have a small mouth. If you go to a bigger bait you will miss a lot more fish. If you put on a six-inch bait, they will ignore you.”
Dave hooks the downsized herring on a treble hook through the nose. The hook-up rate is good with the mostly-exposed hooks, and it eliminates the problem of sometimes having to set the point of a single hook through the body of the bait before it hits the hybrid.
However, when he is trying to catch larger stripers, he converts to a single 1/0 circle or Kahle Bleeding-Bait Hooks.
Do the red-colored Bleeding Bait Hooks help?
“I don’t know,” said Dave. “That’s more fish whispering. They catch fish. But when the red wears off, they are gold, and they still catch fish.”
Dave fishes his baits straight down just above the fish he is seeing on the graph. He uses a 1- or 1/2-oz. weight, depending on the wind. Wind helps, he says, both because it breaks up the light, and because it causes the water to move and stimulates the fish to feed.
Once he is set up, he tries to read what the fish are doing.
“If the fish are finicky, I might try something a little different,” he said. “If the fish are acting shy, I will go to a lighter leader or to a longer leader. If you keep doing the same things, the fish will figure you out.”
If the fish need encouragement, Dave uses another tactic: chumming. He has used commercial fish oils and chum concoctions, and he has his own “secret” chum recipe, but usually he chums with blueback herring. He saves dead bluebacks and simply cuts the fish into small chunks that he tosses overboard. Like pouring fish food into an aquarium, the appearance and smell of the chum in the water can turn on a feeding spree.
Hybrids in the 3- to 7-lb. range make up most of a typical day’s catch at Clarks Hill. Stripers up to the mid teens will be mixed in, and occasionally you will catch a striper in the mid 20-lb. range. Dave’s personal best at Clarks Hill was a 44-pounder.
Surface activity will pick up, early and late, during the summer, too.
“If they are feeding on top, you can throw a Sammy or Thing Popper or Baby Spook,” he said. “I try to stay small because they are usually feeding on small threadfin shad.
“If I haven’t anchored down, I will pull live bait through an area where the fish have come up. They are usually stacked up below.”
Linesides on a summer pattern is a great time to take a kid fishing because there is a lot of activity.
“Usually on a morning trip that starts at 3 or 4 a.m. we have our limits and are back filleting fish by 8:30 or 9 o’clock,” said Dave.
He said he recently took a group of six elderly anglers on an early-morning, mid-summer trip.
“They had brought coffee and doughnuts, and while I was putting out bait they went to the front of the boat to drink their coffee. The first rod got hit immediately, and I said, ‘Hey, we got a fish on back here.’ They said, ‘Already?’ After that, they didn’t have time to go back to eat their doughnuts. By daylight, the six guys had 60 fish.” (The limit for stripers and hybrids at Clarks Hill is 10 per day.)
If you would like to set up an early-morning trip with Dave, or a late afternoon trip he calls a “fried chicken trip” because clients so often bring chicken, he can be reached at (803) 637-6379. If he is on fish, he will let you know. If he is not, he will let you know that, too.