William Sasser, a veteran fishing guide on Clarks Hill Lake, just shrugged his shoulders and remained pretty much speechless.

The list of items that Sasser doesn't have much to say about is definitely a short one, but ask him why May is such a good time to catch striped bass and their hybridized cousins on the sprawling, 70,000-acre reservoir, and the instantly likeable angler goes silent.

"The colleges have published studies using those radio tracking tags that they put in the stripers so they can locate them throughout the year and find out where they've been," said Sasser. "I've read all of them - it takes about two hours to read each one - but here's the bottom line: about half the fish in this lake are swimmers, and the other half aren't."

Though unscientific, Sasser's assessment of several radio-telemetry studies done by Clemson University and the University of Georgia may be spot on. Among other things, scientists were trying to establish seasonal migration patterns among striped bass in Clarks Hill and what preferences the fish showed during these migrations.

"I can't tell you why they are where they are this time of year, but I can tell you where they are, and that's all we need to know to catch them," he said. "It seems like about half of the stripers migrate up the lake during the winter and then come back down the lake during the spring and head back up the lake for the summer, and the other half pick an area that they like, and they stay within about a 2-mile radius of that area year-round. They'll occasionally move, but they won't go far."

Sasser and the other guides who work for Sasser's Guide Service will spend late April fishing in front of the Clarks Hill Dam before daylight. The early morning routine is to pull free lines along several main-lake points located within four miles of the dam. When and if that bite cuts off at mid-day, he may hop over to "someplace weird" like Germany Creek off the Georgia Little River or he may ease off of one of the points he free-lined to fish down lines in 40 to 50 feet of water. Sasser admits that he and his guides catch a bunch of fish using down lines, and filling a limit this time of year doesn't take long.

"Both stripers and hybrids will move up on the main-lake points early in the morning to feed," he said. "You can target them in two to 15 feet of water using planer boards that will carry the free line up on the point away from the boat. After that, they move back off the points, and we get right over the top of them and put lines straight down."

Sasser's downline set-up comes right out of the striped bass angler's playbook. He uses 7½-foot Ugly Stik rods paired with Garcia 6500 C3 baitcast reels, 20-pound Berkley Big Game line and a 4-foot section of 14- to 17-pound fluorocarbon leader. A 1½-ounce egg sinker with a molded-in, high-test swivel goes between the main line and the leader, and the business end of the leader sports a No. 1 Kahle hook. Sasser's calling card, a lively blueback herring, mans the hook 99.9 percent of the time whether he's free-lining or down-lining.

"I typically try to target stripers rather than hybrids, simply because the stripers are bigger fish," he said. "At the end of the day, we'll have more hybrids than stripers and that's OK; a 4- to 6-pound hybrid puts up a great fight, and we'll have some nice sized stripers in the box, too."

With no difference in fishing locations, no difference in tackle, no change of baits, Sasser sums up how he targets stripers over hybrids in four words.

"Fish on the bottom," he said.

In a typical down-line scenario, Sasser may mark plenty of fish and fish activity 20 feet deep over a 40-foot bottom. He'll put a rod or two down to 20 feet to entice the schooling hybrids and smaller stripers, but the bigger fish have learned to hold right off the bottom and make an easy meal of the feeding activity above.

"It's near impossible for me to hook a suspended big fish," he said. "Whether it's the proximity of the boat or whether they just don't hang out up high, I don't know. Nine times out of 10, when someone else is catching smaller fish at 20, we'll catch the bigger ones by dropping the bait to the bottom and reeling the bait up three turns of the reel handle."

William Sasser's first lieutenant in the guide business, Mark Crawford, has been fishing Clarks Hill just as long as Sasser, Crawford loves to free-line, and he said the one thing a newcomer not familiar with the lake and not adept at reading sonar charts could do to catch stripers and hybrids is, "Get on a main lake point and pull free lines.

"This time of year, both hybrids and stripers will be feeding heavily on the points," he said, "or if the wind or weather keeps you off the point, go to the back of a creek and pull lines in five to six feet of water."

Because of the possibility of hooking one of the 30- to 40-pound striped bass that regularly show up during the spring, Crawford upgrades his line to 30-pound Big Game and his hooks to a 3/0 Octopus hook, but he uses the same rod and reel combos that both he, Sasser and other guides use for down-lining. Occasionally, he will add an eighth-ounce sinker to the free line between the main line and the leader if he's targeting suspended fish over deeper water, but for the tops of points and the backs of creeks, he's pulling unweighted lines at speeds around .7 and .8 miles per hour. His typical set-up is two lines straight back and two to three lines attached to planer boards on each side of the boat.

"I use a 5-foot section of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader," said Crawford. "If I'm in the back of a creek, I'll attach the planer boards just ahead of the swivel between the main line and the leader. After that, it's a matter of experimenting with how much line between the bait and the board you need to get to the fish. I may pull off 12 feet if I'm over six to eight feet of water. If I'm fishing deeper water, I'll add the weight and reduce the amount of line between."

At the end of a day of battling and boating fish, neither Sasser nor Crawford have much in the way of explanation for why they caught fish.

"I don't know if they were heading north or south, going up the lake or coming back down," said Sasser. "One thing I do know is that we've got a box full of them to clean."

 

DESTINATION INFORMATION

HOW TO GET THERE - Clarks Hill, aka Lake Thurmond, is the third impoundment of the Savannah River, lying downstream from Lake Hartwell and Lake Russell. On the South Carolina side, the lake spans from just below Calhoun Falls down to the town of Clarks Hill. SC 28 parallels the length of the lake between these two towns. The US Army Corps of Engineers maintains the majority of the public boat ramps on Clarks Hill and you can find these by looking on any decent lake map or on the Corps website at http://www.sas.usace.army.mil/lakes/thurmond/.

BEST TACTICS - Pull live herring on freelines and planer boards around main-lake points early in the day, and then back out to 40 to 50 feet of water off the points and fish herring on downlines over deeper schools of fish. The most-productive area will be in a 5-mile stretch upstream from the Clarks Hill Dam, although some, typically larger striped bass, can be found near the upper end of the lake downstream from Lake Russell dam in the area of Russell Creek. Also, try Germany Creek or Lloyd's Creek on the Georgia side off of Georgia Little River or target the Parksville and Horseshoe Island areas on the South Carolina side.

GUIDES/FISHING INFO - William Sasser, Mark Crawford, Sasser's Guide Service, 706-589-5468, http://www.williamsasserfishing.com/; The Herring Hut, Clarks Hill, 864-333-2000; Palmetto Angler, McCormick, 864-852-3373. See also GUIDES & CHARTERS in Classifieds.

ACCOMMODATIONS - South Carolina Association of Visitors Bureaus, http://www.discoversouthcarolina.com/. Hickory Knob State Park offers cabins, hotel rooms and campsites, http://www.southcarolinaparks.com/site-map/default.aspx?error=404. Reserving accommodations early is recommended if you want to sleep inside. Camp sites are also available at Baker Creek and Hamilton Branch State Parks.

MAPS - Navionics Electronic Charts, 6 Thatcher Lane, Wareham, MA 02571; Delorme South Carolina or Georgia Atlas & Gazetteer, 800-561-5105, http://www.delorme.com/; Fishing Hot Spots, 800-ALLMAPS, http://www.fishinghotspots.com/.