If you’re looking for the best way to hook monster striped bass from Lake Hartwell this winter, one of the best ways is to forget live bait and use artificial lures.
According to guide Preston Harden, artificial lures give you versatility in your effort to locate stripers, and they also give you and endless variety of depths and patterns you can fish.
“December is the ideal time for to me to catch stripers on artificial lures, and it is certainly my favorite time and method to catch big fish,” Harden said. “The irony of fishing for huge stripers is that often it’s the small artificial lures, especially jig-type lures that produce the largest stripers. I love to striper fish anytime, but this is why I love living on Lake Hartwell at this time of year. This artificial-lure season really ramps up in December and provides some of the best big fish opportunities of the entire year.”
Harden also said there’s no shortage of stripers of all sizes. He said a lot of stripers and hybrids and limits of quality fish are common. Most important, he said the big ones are on the prowl and in depths where artificial lures are extremely effective.
“It may seem strange, but November can often be tough fishing because the lake ‘turns over’ and fish can be real scattered,” Harden said. “But by December the fish are in a pattern that I can identify. The pattern does change, but basically once I get on the fish I can stay with them throughout most of the winter. But December is a prime time to make big catches that are anchored with some very large fish. In December, the fish will go on a hard feed once the water temperature gets in the 57- to 58-degree range. The fishing usually stays awesome until the temperature gets below 48 degrees, then it slows, but there is that time period where the bite is really on, and artificial lures are the way to go.”
A personal favorite for Harden (706-255-5622) is the “Scrounger” a jighead with a plastic bill and gives great wobble and action to the jig. He adds various soft-plastic trailers to the jighead.
“I catch more big fish on the 1/8-ounce jighead than any other when the water is cold,” Harden said. “Sometimes if the fish are deep or the wind is up, I’ll have to go to a ¼-ounce size to maintain good feel. My favorite color patterns for the jig trailer (a Zoom Tiny Fluke) include off-white or pearl, as well as a green-albino pattern.”
Harden said that in December and into early January, stripers are often quite shallow, at least in terms of normal Lake Hartwell depths. Often, on cloudy days or days just before a front, fish may be actively feeding in 5 to 15 feet of water. A lot of the activity will be schooling activity, or enough schooling action to betray their locations. Early and late is best, but a cloudy day can produce action all day. The worst days are the clear, post-front windy days.”
“The 1/8-ounce lure is plenty heavy enough to maintain feel, but more importantly, it’s the ideal size for them to eat,” he said. “Usually they just take the lure as if on a dead run, and the battle is on. Even on these small lures, it’s not uncommon to catch or hook stripers in the 20- to 30-pound class, and we’ve caught much larger.”
Harden said most of the lake can be productive, but he generally fishes the upper half.
“One of the keys in terms of general location of the fish is to watch the seagulls,” he said. “They will be on the forage, and that’s the area where the stripers will be. Sometimes the fish will school on the surface in December, and when they do, it’s easy to see them, and these same lures are my favorites for the schooling fish as well. But when they are not schooling, which is the majority of the time, I’ll be fishing rocky points, humps, ledges and even rocky shorelines that drop into deeper water. But the fish will often be fairly shallow.
“Sometimes, I’ll find the fish will be in distinct size-classes, and if I get into some smaller fish, I don’t stay long on that area,” he said. “When I get on a big-fish spot, the bites are typically not as frequent, but you get a lot more fish per bite. Occasionally, we’ll have a couple big fish hooked at the same time. This is the time of the year I probably have fewer bookings to take people fishing, and that’s ironic because it is actually one of the best times of the year to hook into some really big fish and be able to do it using artificial lures.
Harden said the toughest days are those immediately following the passes of a weather front.
“These days are usually windy and bright and typically make the fish go a bit deeper and not be as aggressive on the bite,” he said. “They can still be caught, but it’s the most difficult time.”
Harden said his favorite gear to target big stripers on jigs is spinning tackle, with 15-pound Spider Wire Stealth on the reel and a 4- to 6-foot leader of 10-pound fluorocarbon.
“Stripers in clear-water lakes such as Lake Hartwell respond well to light line, and it does make a big difference in the bites we get,” Harden said. “Also with the braid, the small diameter to line strength is ideal, plus, there’s no line stretch, and the ability to feel is enhanced. Typically, we land a lot of 20- to 30-pound stripers in December and some larger (fish) that literally spool us — we scarcely slow them down; those are really big fish. We hook a lot of big hybrids and a lot of good-sized stripers. Essentially the overall fishing is excellent at Lake Hartwell in December.”
HOW TO GET THERE — Public boat-access areas are numerous on the South Carolina side of the lake, especially around Anderson and Clemson. Take I-85 to the area; exits 21 and 19 provide good access to most ramps. For a complete list of ramps, visit www.dnr.sc.gov/mlands/boatramp/?p_type=1229779.
WHEN TO GO — December is a prime time to catch stripers and hybrid bass. The water temperature, usually in the 50s, is perfect for both species. January will also produce quality fishing, but the action does slow down as the water temperature dips into the 40s.
BEST TECHNIQUES — December is artificial lure month for stripers and hybrids on Lake Hartwell. Light jigheads — the Scrounger is a local favorite — dressed with small, soft-plastic baits are often the best choices for picking up oversized stripers. Keep a Little Fishy or bucktail rigged and ready for surface action.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Preston Harden, Bucktail Guide Service, 706-255-5622, www.bucktailguideservice.com; Lake Hartwell Fishing & Marine, Anderson, 864-287-9782. See also Guides & Charters in Classifieds.