February gives fishermen the opportunity for a 3-for-1 special on Lake Richard B. Russell. Action on big striped bass is excellent on the lower end of the lake, especially early in the morning. Fishing for spotted bass and largemouth bass is outstanding with jigging spoons, and the middle of the lake holds a buffet of hungry gamefish.
Guide Wendell Wilson of Elberton, Ga., said the only problem is the rigging, tackle and techniques required for each is different.
“I can and sometimes do all types of fishing in one day, but usually I’ll have to stop and exchange all the striper gear out for the other species, but it’s certainly worth the effort,” Wilson said. “Fishermen can enjoy excellent striper fishing for big fish, not necessarily numbers of fish, early in the morning. When that slows, we can exchange gear and continue the chase for a variety of species, including black bass, crappie, yellow perch, white perch and catfish, by fishing live bait around sunken brush and other cover. In fact, the yellow perch fishing is often extremely good and some of the best fishermen will find in South Carolina. Plus, bass fishermen can target spotted and largemouth bass using jigging spoons.”
But to begin most days, Wilson said that striper fishing is the way to go. He said the low-light conditions around dawn favor a good bite.
“I first look for active signs of gull activity, and that can lead me straight to the stripers,” he said. “But I do often have to look around for the stripers, because they are very baitfish-oriented and will change specific locations from day-to-day, and I can’t always depend on gull activity. But they don’t necessarily change their general location, and that is in the lower end of the lake. I watch for gulls and signs for fish-feeding activity as well as searching for them by using my graph. Once I find them, action occurs pretty quick, as these fish are fairly aggressive. It is a great time for the year to catch some really big stripers on Lake Russell.
“There’s always a chance to get into a bunch of fish, but to be honest, a reasonable morning would be to catch two or three stripers,” Wilson said. “But at this time of the year, while the number of fish may not be high, the average size is very good. I had one day last winter when I two over 30 pounds in one morning, but we were exclusively targeting stripers. My son had a 34-pound fish one day, and I’d say the average-sized striper boated will be in the 15- to 20-pound class. That’s a pretty good striper, and if we target them exclusively, there’s a good chance we’ll end up with a 20-pound-plus fish.”
Wilson (706-283-3336) said for really big stripers, he’ll try to make the best out of the bad weather often associated with February.
“It can be pretty miserable on some days in February,” he said. “But I’ve found that the cold, cloudy, damp days right before a front bringing cold rain or even snow flurries will be the best days. Those are the ones I would target for the big stripers as well as the most stripers.
“I’ll typically work the lower end of the lake and will use a variety of methods to catch stripers,” he said. “On some days, especially with cloudy and dismal conditions, the fish will school a bit and artificial lures will work great. But I don’t count on that happening, so I’m always prepared with some live herring and shiners as well. The depth is the key, and that’s where things are different this time of year and why some anglers find it more difficult to hook these fish.”
Wilson said he will be typically fish for stripers in the 30- to 50-foot depth range, but fish will not usually be on or near the bottom.
“The stripers will typically be found in the upper column of water, 15 feet of shallower,” he said. “In one sense, that makes those big fish spooky, and I have to take great care to keep things quiet and not spook the fish. I do look for a concentration of fish on my graph, and it’s always better to be in association with a bunch of forage. To get the bait away from the boat, I will often use two planer boards, and I will also put two free lines well behind the boat. I’ll use two herring in the 5- to 7-inch size and two shiners, big jumbo shiners, as bait. Shiners are tough and stay alive and frisky, which is ideal for this time of the year.
“I slowly work through the area, using the electric motor to keep the boat where I want it and at a reasonably slow speed if there is some wind. Wind can be an aggravation to some fishermen, but it can actually help when striper fishing in February. The chop will help in terms of noise reduction and will help keep the stripers shallower.”
Wilson said it’s best to keep the striper fishing simple.
“Again, I am looking for quality fish and I employ heavy baitcasting rigs” he said. “I don’t try to overdo the presentation. The four rigs I use will suffice if you plan it right and get on the fish and forage.”
Another excellent winter fishery at Russell is black bass; guide Jerry Kotal specializes in catching black bass, generally a lot of spotted bass, on jigging spoons in winter.
“I find bass throughout the lake, and I work a lot of main-lake points and humps,” he said. “Actually, I target both spotted and largemouth bass, but there’s is definitely more spotted bass to be caught. I’ll often catch striper and big perch as well on many days.
“In addition to the main lake, I find plenty of fish in some of the major creeks on points and high spots as well,” Kotal said. “It’s surprising, but there’s not a lot of anglers out here doing this at this time of the year, and they are missing some quality fishing.
“One thing I’ve found is that the fish will tend to stack up in an area and be concentrated in a small spot. When you catch one, you may catch several. The nature of the fishing is that you may have to fish two or three areas with no or few bites when searching. But it’s worth it when you get on them; you can catch a good number of fish quickly.
Kotal (706-213-8745) said it’s not difficult; he’ll use a jigging spoon and will employ different varieties. The depths he fishes will change as he searches structure over the course of the day.
“The weather, whether it’s cloudy or bright, will impact depth,” Kotal said. “The bass may be in 25 feet of water or down in 70 feet or deeper. But the general pattern is to find them using the graph and drop a spoon and simply jig it vertically around the area.
“Often, the fish will be holding close together, but sometimes I’ll find them scattered on a point or at the edge of a drop at the end of a flat. February is actually ending the tight-schooling time for the fish, but they’re still holding in tight groups this month. I do recall one of my best winter trips during this time frame; I caught and released 68 bass on my first stop using jigging spoons.
“I’ll change the size of the spoon with the depth, and sometimes, simply the preference of the fish on a particular day will dictate a change,” he said. “But that’s typical for bass fishing anytime of the year. Vertically jigging right under the boat or casting and working it back in a hopping motion will work. Again, I may have to try different techniques on different days, but once I figure it out, I can load the boat.”
Kotal said there are days when he’ll find both spotted and largemouth together, but while most of the action will be on spotted bass, some hefty largemouth are caught during February as well.
Wilson said another February scenario is the one likely to provide the most action. Despite the very cold water temperatures, the fishing activity for a variety of species is excellent if you utilize the right technique.
“One of my best days last winter was a day where the temperature never got above the mid-30s, and the water temperature was in the mid-40s,” Wilson said.”The morning low temperature was 21 degrees that day. But I searched around some deep cover — trees and brush piles on the bottom in about 40 feet of water — and marked fish and forage together around the cover. I put live threadfin shad on as bait, dropped the rigs down and rods started bending immediately.
“My clients caught a variety of fish from that first spot that included crappie, white perch, yellow perch, spotted bass and largemouth bass. Despite the depth and the temperature, rods were being bent over like we were fishing a red-hot bream bed in May.”
Wilson said the cool thing about this February fishing is that kind of result is fairly typical, not the exception. On one trip, he was fishing 40 feet deep, and by using his graph, he had located a school of threadfin shad with fish surrounding them. In an hour, about 30 fish were boated, including several slab crappie, seven keeper spotted bass, three yellow perch, a largemouth bass and scads of really big white perch. That’s just the ones his clients kept, and it was only the first stop of the day.
Wilson said he works the larger creeks in the middle portion of the lake for this technique. He said he will fish from 25 to 70 feet deep, depending on where he marks forage and fish.
Knowing where a lot of brush and debris are located is a big advantage, but it’s also a searching process every day.
“I usually motor slowly along and frequently find fish bunched up in new places (where) I’ve not found them before,” he said. “They may be relating just to shad or some very small feature on the bottom. So it’s not like secret hot spots; it’s something any fisherman can do. But one of the keys is having the patience to look around for the fish until you find the combination of fish, forage and usually some form of cover. Then, I typically drop live bait to the appropriate depth. But I’ll sometimes use jigs or spoons.”
Wilson said crappie are one of his clients’ top targets, but by the end of the day, they’ve usually caught a variety of fish.
“And those are good, quality keeper fish, and we cull a lot of fish. A typical day will include numerous crappie, several spotted bass, a few largemouth bass, many white and yellow perch and usually a couple catfish,” he said. “And even though we don’t target them, we’ll hook the occasional striper and sometimes we’ll land them. So it is truly a fishing technique that works for about everything in Lake Russell in February.
“The wintertime pattern at Lake Russell is strong even with the temperatures still in the mid-40s,” Wilson said. “We’ll catch lots of fish with this tactic, and often this is after we’ve enjoyed excellent striper fishing in the early morning.”
HOW TO GET THERE — On the Savannah River, Lake Russell serves as the boundary between South Carolina and Georgia. It can be easily accessed from a number of public ramps around the South Carolina portion of the lake, with the Calhoun State Park being an excellent choice. Other public access areas include: Felker Creek, Wilson Creek, Allen Creek, Beer Garden Creek and Latimer ramps.
WHEN TO GO — A variety of species are caught in big sizes and good numbers during February, with stripers caught on the lower end of the lake and a great mixed-bag opportunity by fishing live bait around deep brush in the mid-part of the lake. Crappie, spotted bass, largemouth bass, catfish, and huge white perch are all readily caught during February and actually throughout the cold season.
TACTICS — Good early morning striped bass action is usually on the lower end of Lake Russell; follow the gulls or use your electronics to find forage and stripers. Later in the day, live bait and artificial lures will work on various species, and a mixed bag of crappie, perch, spotted bass, largemouth bass and yellow perch is the result; look for the fish in deeper water in coves or creeks adjacent to the main channel. The bass and big white perch are consistently caught on jigging spoons around the same brushy cover as well as on main-lake points and long, secondary points in the creeks.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO — Wendell Wilson, Wilson’s Guide Service, 760-283-3336, www.wilsonsguideservice.com; Jerry Kotal, 706-213-8745, www.jerrykotalfishingguideservice.com. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Calhoun Falls Chamber of Commerce, Calhoun Falls, 864-418-8672, www.calhounfallschamberofcommerce.com.