The dawning sun winked pink against a pastel sky, promising another hot, humid, windless day. Andrew Tubbs had already launched his boat and was waiting at the dock at Clarks Hill Recreation Park, one of several U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recreational facilities along the more than 1,000 miles of shoreline encircling J. Strom Thurmond Lake.
“We are all ready to go,” Tubbs said. “We want to get in on the daylight bite. Stripers and hybrids bite the best early in the morning.”
The 71,100-acre lake straddles the border between South Carolina and Georgia and is the largest man-made lake east of the Mississippi River. Also known as Clarks Hill Lake, it is the 10th most-visited USACE body of water in the nation — little wonder, because its fishing for striped bass and hybrid bass is some of the best in any inland waterway.
“My clients usually catch limits or close to their limits in a day of fishing,” Tubbs said. “In summer, when the fish are deep, we mostly use live herring, trolling them slowly in the deep-water areas near the dam.”
Tubbs didn’t have far to go, motoring just a few hundred yards before he began to fish, dipping a herring from his live well, slipping the point of a Kahle-style hook through its nose and pitching it into the water, free-spooling it down to the desired depth, where is depth finder showed clouds of baitfish and larger marks that were the echo returns of hybrids and stripers.
“I’m fishing here because this is where we caught fish recently,” he said. “Unless we get some big weather fronts, the fish don’t change locations very much from day to day.”
Tubbs was fishing in 110 feet of water, but the fish he was marking were swimming between 60 and 80 feet.
“First, I find concentrations of fish and try to set my baits about 5 feet above them,” he said. “If I see fish at varying depths, I vary the depths of the baits until the fish start striking, then I adjust most of the lines to the best depth while keeping one or two higher or lower. Setting the baits higher than the fish is the trick, because a striper or hybrid will come up to strike a bait, but not (go) down.”
Tubbs, 33, has guided for stripers for two years, fishing Clarks Hill for 10. He prospects around underwater humps, channel edges and creek junctions for fish, using single-hook rigs weighted with egg sinkers.
“But you can also catch them by trolling bucktails with curlytail trailers on downriggers,” he said. “You should also have a rod rigged with a topwater lure because you might see fish feeding on the surface any time. You can see them on the points or in the coves, chasing herring early and late or on overcast days, especially when it gets closer to fall.”
As he trolled along, Tubbs kept his eyes on the screen using a remote-controlled electric motor to move the boat or hold it in place once he found a spot with some potential for action. He set out six rods, two on each side plus one from each stern corner. It was not long before he had difficulty keeping baits in the water because the fish were biting so fast. Soon, fishermen were grinning ear to ear, hoisting fish for the camera.
The first two fish were hybrids, followed by a striper. It wasn’t long before he had difficulty keeping track of the order because the fish kept biting.
Tubbs’ sonar unit was so sensitive that it was possible to count the number of fish in a small school up to around three or four fish. The stripers or hybrids would come from any direction, swim toward the baits and strike one or more, or a fish would move right up to a bait before swimming away.
Not long after the sun came up, the bite died. The water temperature at the surface was in the mid-80s.
“I keep the baits alive by using an oxygen infuser on the livewell,” Tubbs said. “When nothing is showing on the screen, I sometimes tap on the hull with a shovel handle.”
Tubbs demonstrated the technique, a rhythmic tapping or light pounding by raising the shovel handle and allowing it to fall back down against the fiberglass. He said the sound was louder in areas of the hull not filled with foam flotation.
As he watched the sonar screen, a small school of fish moved in, attacking a bait. Soon, another hybrid was in the boat. The scenario repeated several times, enough of a test to show the tapping was certainly drawing fish to the baits.
“Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t,” Tubbs said. “Sometimes it even seems to scare fish away. I think it attracts them because it sounds like schooling baitfish. It is worth a try anytime the fish are not biting.”
Eventually, Tubbs moved to an area where an oxygenation system was making a disturbance on the surface. Like the oxygen infuser of his live well, the infuser in the lake kept herring alive, except on a much more massive scale.
Ken Boyd, a biologist with the USACE, said one reason the lake has such good fishing is its oxygenation system. Adding oxygen to the water by artificial means helps to keep the lake’s fisheries healthy.
“Deep-water impoundments of this type heat up significantly, and oxygen levels begin to deplete until fish are eventually pushed into a smaller and smaller area where they get trapped,” Boyd said. “Fish have very specific requirements as far as the temperatures they prefer. In the past at Thurmond, as that bubble began to shrink, blueback herring would congregate at the dam until the bubble disappeared, and then they would wind up going through the dam.
“To mitigate that effect on herring, as well as on the hybrids and stripers, we built an oxygenation system just off Modoc, near the Modoc Ramp 7. The oxygenation system is almost straight out from the ramp at the main channel of the Savannah River.”
The system’s tanks are located just past the boat ramp, and the lines run out about a half-mile into the lake. The main lines then branch at 90 degrees into nine diffuser lines 1,300 feet in length, with three lines of 56 feet deep, three lines of 68 feet and three lines of 80 feet. Anglers can see the disturbance the diffusers make when they are operating.
“When fishing in and around the system, if people want to anchor in this area, they should use caution so they don’t harm the components of the system,” Boyd said. “The area is marked with buoys. The system operation usually begins around mid-July and continues until October, but that hinges on seasonal temperatures and oxygen levels. We monitor oxygen levels monthly until summer, when we start to monitor them weekly. We may start operating just a couple of lines and bring additional lines on later in the summer.”
The oxygenated water concentrates baitfish and the predators that eat them. It may also bring them closer to the surface where anglers with less-sophisticated equipment can have a better chance to catch them.
Away from the oxygenation system, several other factors dictate where and when stripers and hybrids bite, aside from the “This is where we caught them here yesterday” theory. Tubbs said the reason the fish were biting between 60 and 80 feet deep was that the thermocline acts as a barrier to baitfish as well as the predators. The fish remain at the depth where optimal temperature and oxygen levels occur for days at a time.
Aside from finding the right structure and depth, the major factor affecting the strength of the bite is weather. Consistent hot, calm weather is a good situation for catching line-sided fish.
“The worst day to fish is the first day after a cold front,” Tubbs said. “The best day is the third day in a row of a steady barometer. That’s when I really want to be trolling along the edges of the humps near the dam. Another great spot is the area where the Georgia Little River joins the Savannah River.”
The hotter the day grew and the higher the sun climbed, the more the bite tapered off, until by about 3 p.m. it was non-existent. The catch for the day had been 15 stripers and hybrids, with the largest striped bass weighing more than 8 pounds. The largest striper the lake has produced weighed 55 pounds, and anglers can expect to catch stripers weighing 10 to 30 pounds routinely.
Once back at the Herring Hut in Clarks Hill, the headquarters for the William Sasser Guide Service, Tubbs shared another tip. He turned on electric fans so they blew across the fish-cleaning table. Temperature comfort was not the goal.
“When you are cleaning fish, it attracts yellow jackets,” Tubbs said. “The fans keep them away so you won’t get stung. That could ruin the ending to a wonderful day on the water.”
HOW TO GET THERE — Lake Thurmond, aka Clarks Hill, forms much of the boundary between Georgia and South Carolina, with most of the South Carolina side of the lake being in McCormick County. Access is best from US 221 and US 378. For a complete list of public boat ramps, visit www.dnr.sc.gov/mlands/boatramp/?p_type=335836.
WHEN TO GO — Striped bass and hybrid bass bite all year, however, summer typically offers streaks of days with calm winds that make for excellent trolling with live baits.
BEST LURES/TECHNIQUES — When the fish are deep, slow-trolling with live herring is the winning ticket. Tubbs uses 7-foot-6 Ugly Stik striper rods and Ambassadeur 6500 reels spooled with 20-pound Berkley Big Game mono. Trolling with a 1-ounce bucktail dressed with a chartreuse curlytail trailer on a downrigger can also be effective. Anglers should also have a spinning rod rigged with a walk-the-dog topwater bait — something like a Lucky Craft Sammy — in a herring pattern to cast to surfacing fish.
GUIDES/FISHING INFO — Andrew Tubbs, William Sasser Guide Service, 706-589-5468; The Herring Hut, 864-333-2000. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Sleep Inn, North Augusta, 866-671-6773. Camping facilities are located at several of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recreation areas. Call 800-533-3478 or visit http://www.sas.usace.army.mil/About/DivisionsandOffices/OperationsDivision/JStromThurmondDamandLake.aspx.