Guide Bill Plumley is more of an early bird than a night owl, and he said that when summer settles in on 56,000-acre Lake Hartwell and the recreational boating crowd tends to dominate the mid-day, he’d rather get up early and finish early than stay up all night. Fortunately, either way is productive on Hartwell, and many local guides can catch striped bass, aka rockfish, any time of day or night.
“I know a lot of people claim it’s too hot to fish, but late July and August are probably the most-consistent months I have here on Lake Hartwell,” Plumley said. “You just gotta fish deep. Down there, things don’t change much from day to day, and I can almost always catch a limit of stripers and hybrids down on the main lake.”
Finding the fish is 90 percent of the battle, according to Plumley. “The hot weather cranks up a striper’s metabolism, and they definitely want to eat. I have days where I may spend half a day looking for fish, then have a 10-fish limit in the boat in just over an hour.”
There is a caveat in what seems to be a no-brainer fishing scenario — the submerged timber that litters the lake floor, especially in the main lake. When fishing around trees, it can be extremely difficult to tell on the depth finder what is tree and what is fish. In addition, fishing in, around or over the trees can be fruitless.
“They are where they are,” said Plumley referring to a striped bass’ affinity for underwater wood. “Some days they relate to trees and won’t leave them. It’s also very hard to determine what’s fish and what’s timber on the depth finder, and that makes it tough. Those are usually the slower days when the fish hold tight to the wood and you might hook them, but you rarely get them out of the wood without hanging up.
“I’d much rather find them relating to a deep flat or a deep-water hump that has clean bottom. In fact, I believe they spend a lot of time in the trees, but when you find them on clean bottom, it’s because they are feeding. I have over 200 places marked on my GPS where there is open water adjacent to standing timber, so I’ve never made it a point to try to find them in the timber.”
Like other times of the year, Bill Plumley relies on live baits, specifically blueback herring, to catch Hartwell’s striped and hybrid striped bass. Because of the extreme depths, typically 40 to 80 feet but possibly as deep as 100 feet on some days, the preferred tactic is a down-rod presentation. That requires a stationary boat, either at anchor or by using the trolling motor to hover over open bottom. A live herring is dropped to the depths on a Carolina rig, and multiple rods are staggered at the depths fish have been marked. It usually doesn’t take long to get a bite.
“I only fish four rods at a time, one on each corner of the boat,” said Plumley. “Once they get going, it’s hard to keep up with just those four.”
Because of the hot water temperature at the surface, it is important to take care of your bait both on the way to the fishing location and once it’s on the hook. Plumley has learned several tricks that help him keep their baits in top shape because stripers won’t show much interest in a dead or half-dead bait.
“I go a little bit heavier on my Carolina rigs this time of year,” said Plumley. “I use a 2-ounce egg sinker in place of the usual 1 ½-ounce to get the bait down quicker. You really need to minimize the time between getting the bait from the tank, hooking it and getting it back down in the water. The worse thing is to dip the bait in the water and let him swim in that upper layer. The 80-degree-plus water will put him in shock.”
Once stripers transition to the deepest portions of the lake, guide Chip Hamilton will often go nocturnal, using artificial lights — the brighter the better — to light up his fishing area. The motivation behind using lights is to draw baitfish to his location, which in turn draws the fish. In recent years, submersible fluorescent lights have grown in popularity, with fluorescent green floating lights becoming especially popular.
Hamilton, however, is partial to old school night fishing which depends on gas-powered generators and electrical lights to draw bait. In particular, he prefers using sodium-arc lights; he feels they penetrate deeper into the water than green, floating lights powered by batteries.
“When fishing the deep river channels of a major impoundment, water depths can be deeper than 100 feet, and the bright sodium lights have the capacity of pulling bait from as deep as 60 feet below the surface on a dark night,” he said.
Like Plumley’s daytime set-up, Hamilton uses a down-rod, vertical presentation of live blueback herring. He may present the bait 2 to 3 feet off the bottom when stripers are feeding on the humps and suspend baits at 20-foot intervals when the fish move into the river channel.
By mid to late August, Hamilton has noticed that the deep-water thermocline begins to change. His experience shows that striped bass and hybrids will generally be holding in deeper water during the day but will move back up on points, humps and deep shoals at night to feed.
“For the last couple of weeks in August and the first couple of weeks in September, the stripers and hybrids will move into 35 to 38 feet of water at night,” he said. “I’ll set up on them with one anchor out from the front of the boat and give them no more than 30 minutes to come in and start feeding. If I don’t get bit within that time, I’ll move on to another likely spot.”
Hamilton indicates that once the deep pattern is on, he catches stripers from 12 pounds up. He once caught a 32-pound bruiser in nearly 100 feet of water at the mouth of the Seneca River. When pursuing fish of this size, he advises fishermen to stay a good distance from any standing timber.
“Hartwell’s trees were cut off below the surface when the lake was made, and a big striper will lead you right into one when he’s hooked,” he said. “That’s why I prefer to anchor directly over the river channel and fish straight down into the channel.”
Even with taking the precaution of anchoring away from standing timber, Hamilton makes a point to keep all of his Garcia 6500 reels spooled with at least 20-pound Berkely Big Game. He is also a firm believer in using Shakespeare’s 6 ½-foot Striper Ugly Stiks to muscle big fish up off the bottom where there’s more danger of the fish wrapping around something.
HOW TO GET THERE — Lake Hartwell is located on the South Carolina-Georgia border near Anderson, Clemson and Westminster. The US Army Corps of Engineers maintains a number of public access ramps that can be found on the internet by accessing their site at www.sas.usace.army.mil/lakes/hartwell.
TACTICS/TECHNIQUES — When Hartwell’s waters are at their hottest in August, striped bass will move to the main-lake basin from the forks of the Tugaloo and Seneca Rivers down toward the dam. Water quality is typically higher in this area. Fish may be found from water depths starting at 40 feet down to over 100 feet. Present live blueback herring on Carolina rigs to suspended fish or drop them to the bottom and reel up one turn. Target them on clean, flat bottoms and humps adjacent to deep creek channels rather than around the forests of standing timber that cover much of the main-lake floor. This can occur during the day or at night, under the lights. Keeping bait fresh and cool and quickly getting them to the depths will greatly increase bites. Anglers may also choose to troll artificial baits during the day using downriggers or lead core line.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Bill Plumley, Capt. Bill’s Fishing Adventures, 864-287-2120, www.lakehartwellfishing.com; Chip Hamilton’s Guide Service, 864-304-9011, www.palmettooutdoorproductions.com; The Bait Shop, 864-287-5005 or www.the-baitshop.com; Lake Hartwell Fishing and Marine, 864-287-9782. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Anderson Convention & Visitors Bureau, 877-282-4650, www.visitanderson.com.
MAPS — Navionics Electronic Charts, www.navionics.com; Kingfisher Maps, 800-326-0257, www.kfmaps.com; Fishing Hot Spots, 800-ALLMAPS, www.fishinghotspots.com; Delorme South Carolina Atlas & Gazetteer, 800- 561-5105, www.delorme.com.