Lake Wateree has long been respected as a great place to catch hefty largemouth bass and good numbers of chunky fish. In 2014, the stars aligned and the spring fishing exploded with bigger fish.
At a Carolina Bass Challenge tournament on March 29, the winning weight was 34.32 pounds, anchored by a 9.93-pound fish. The fishing was the best in memory, according to some local experts, and that includes one angler who has fished the lake for more than 50 years.
Don Wells of Ridgeway lives on the lake and focuses his attention on largemouth. He fishes tournaments with his son, Paul, and although their styles contrast, they are a formidable team.
“I won my first bass tournament on Lake Wateree in 1969,” Wells said. “Last year, we enjoyed perhaps the best fishing for big largemouth bass that I have seen, and we caught great numbers of fish as well. I believe the spring of 2015, especially April, should be very special.”
Wells is 60 years young and being retired except for some lawn-care jogs, he has plenty of time for fishing.
“Generally, late March and April are exceptional for largemouth fishing because it is prime time for shallow-water, big-bass action,” he said. “I’ve kept track in recent years, and even three years ago, a 7-pound fish would have a good chance to win a tournament big fish, and anything close to a five-fish, 20-pound weight had a chance to win a tournament. But last spring, 20 pounds might not have been in the money. Paul and I had one day with a bass over 8 pounds and a limit over 25 pounds and didn’t win big fish or the tournament.
Wells believes that the forage base, which has always been good, is now exceptional, and he said there seems to me. He said there also seems to be more vegetative areas for the bass to utilize.
“We release our fish, but if we end up with a dead fish, I’ll check the stomach to learn what forage they are consuming, and they’re always crammed full of shad,” he said. “I caught a big fish on a spinner bait last year, and it still had the tail of a big gizzard shad hanging out of its mouth. I believe forage and habitat are the keys to the Lake Wateree bass boom.”
Don and Paul Wells have developed personal preferences for April tactics and lures. They agree on the same type structures and places to fish, but they have different preferences for favorite lures.
“In April, actually beginning in late-March, the bass move to the shallow water,” Don Wells said. “I fish a spinner bait primarily because I love the versatility of the lure when working shallow cover. Paul prefers a jig. The jig and trailers Paul uses are outstanding for April largemouth, and when we’re fishing for fun or in a tournament it really helps to use both. I’ll switch to a jig when he’s catching a lot of fish, and other days, he’ll tie on a spinner bait based on what I’m catching. We certainly have days where we wind up using other baits, and there are those really good days when it doesn’t seem to matter what you use.”
Wells targets a lot of different areas during the prespawn said said April is the month when big bass spawn on Wateree.
“Prior to the spawn, most fish will be in the creeks and lot of them in the coves and pockets in shallow water in early April,” he said. “I’ll be targeting weedbeds, and they’re usually beginning to show emergent growth by then. We’ll fish shallow stumps, fallen trees and docks a lot.”
The Wells work the outsides of docks in March, but by early April, they’ll be targeting the back poles on stationary docks or back under walkways and around dock corners.
“Getting your bait under a floating or stationary dock can be a great way to hook a big bass,” Don Wells said.
Paul Wells, a 27-year-old middle-school teacher from Union, has fished Wateree most of his life. He said using a jig in April give him as much versatility as his father.
“With the water warming and fish swarming the shallows, there are few wrong way to fish a jig and trailer,” he said. “When fishing weedbeds, using a jighead rigged weedless, I will actually swim it through the weeds and have fish slam it back in the weeds or just as it hits the edge. They’ll even chase it out of the weeds and take it on a steady retrieve.
“Another tactic is to swim it through weeds or cover and let it fall, just as you would a spinner bait or worm, “he said. “Some days fishing around heavy cover, I have to bump in and around the limbs, but if you fish enough places in different ways in April, you’re likely going to find good bass at Lake Wateree.
“Docks are a target where the jig excels because I can skip it back under docks and tight to cover that some can’t reach with other lures,” he said. “Fishing tough-to-reach spots makes a big difference on some days, and we look for places others pass by.”
He said that as April progresses and the water continues to warm, other lures begin to produce, including buzzbaits, plastic worms and crankbaits.
“Dad and I change lures as situations dictate in warming water and shallow bass, and we’ll often end up using about everything in the box,” he said. “A great thing about Lake Wateree is that they can all be successful tools during April.”
Don Wells said that as the water warms, lures should be worked much faster.
“By mid-April, I’ve found that I often need to really burn it in terms of speed to trigger more bites,” he said. “I‘ll sometimes have the blades gurgle the water top, creating a disturbance, and that will trigger bites from around any type of cover. But also, I’ll sometimes go with a much-heavier head on the spinner bait and work it deeper, but still at a fast pace. This is a ‘go-to’ lure when fishing a tournament. Many times we have to fish ‘used’ water, but using a ¾- to 1-ounce spinner bait allows me to still fish shallow water just a bit deeper, but worked fast. I am very comfortable fishing behind other boats.”
Wells said by April, the fishing will be good throughout the lake.
“Often, we’ll go dam to dam during the course of a day’s fishing,” he said. “The lake changes a lot from the upper to lower end, and often we can find a specific color of water we prefer by moving around. Wateree Creek in the upper end of the lake tends to get muddy quickly when we have rain. But sometimes rising water that’s discolored can be good. Fishermen can usually find a type of water condition during April that suits them if they search for it.”
Paul Wells said targeting spawning fish is a great way to hook a hawg this month.
“When sight-fishing for spawning fish, I like sand, gravel, pea gravel bottom substrate, and you’ll find that in grass or weeds as well,” he said. “A stump by itself on such a bottom as well as dock posts are prime targets to check. It is essential to have good polarized sunglasses to maximize seeing the beds. My first goal is to ensure the bass is locked in on the bed. Some bass will move off when you approach, and those are hard to catch. If the fish stays there, I believe it can be caught. I use my jig primarily and just repeatedly cast and try to actually bump the bass. The fish usually doesn’t want to eat the bait at first; you’ve got to make him mad.
“When they’re annoyed, they’ll spin a circle and stare at the bait, and then they’ll flare their gills and engulf it,” he said. “You have to react quickly, because they’ll get rid of it quick. It may take two casts or as long as 30 minutes or more, but you can put some big bass in the boat fishing the beds.
“On Lake Wateree, I’ve found that under normal water conditions during April, the amber tint of sunglasses work best,” Paul Wells said. “Different ones work best on various lakes, but this is the best I’ve found for Lake Wateree.”
Chris Heinning guides on Lake Wateree, and he agrees the lake experienced excellent bass fishing last April, and he expects the same this spring.
“My clients had a great year on Lake Wateree during April and the entire year,” said Heinning (803-236-1257). “April is all about the bass spawning ritual. Productive areas are those that catch a lot of sun, are protected from cold north winds and have a hard bottom. I look for any type object in shallow water to potentially hold bass and I’ll work a variety of lures on a given day.
“I’ll use a spinner bait for weedy areas and a shallow-running crankbait on rocks to catch prespawn bass,” he said. “Also, once I see a potential spawn target, I’ll fan-cast a weightless Senko before I get too close. Once I locate a bass on a bed, I like to pitch a lightly-weighted creature, craw or lizard bait to get a reaction strike.”
Heinning said he releases spawning bass immediately and recommends other anglers do the same to keep bass numbers high at Wateree.
“After the spawn, male bass will guard the fry and can be very aggressive and easy to catch on buzzbaits, swim jigs and plastic swim baits,” he said. “I’ll use a jig and craw and shakey head around dock posts as well.”
Heinning said that Wateree has become much better lake than only a few years ago.
“With the quality and quantity of largemouth being caught at Lake Wateree it’s one of the prime places for springtime largemouth fishing including big bass,” he said. “Plus the excellent bass fishing holds up good throughout the spring, summer and fall.”
HOW TO GET THERE — Lake Wateree has shoreline in Kershaw, Fairfield and Lancaster counties and can be accessed from many directions. From points east, take SC 97 along the lake to the White Oak Creek and Beaver Creek access areas. From west of the lake, take Longtown Road to SSR 151, then to River Road and south to the Colonels Creek access areas. From the north, take Exit 41 off I-77 and SSR 41 to River Road and south to Wateree Creek, Taylor Creek and June Creek accesses, plus Lake Wateree State Park.
WHEN TO GO — April is the prime shallow-water fishing month. Fish generally bed in April, and you can find post-spawn fish in the shallows. It is an excellent month to target big largemouth bass
BEST TECHNIQUES — Fish all kinds of shallow cover, and Wateree has plenty. In early April, a lot of bottom-bumping lures will work with jigs and spinner baits being prime lures. Later on, buzzbaits and crankbaits work well. Jigs and head rigs will work throughout the month.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Capt. Chris Heinning, 803-236-1257, www.captchrisfishing.com; Colonels Creek Market, Ridgeway, 803-337-2100. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Kershaw County Chamber of Commerce, Camden, 800-968-4037. Camping is available at Lake Wateree State Park, 803-482-6401.
MAPS — Duke Energy, http://www.duke-energy.com/lakes/facts-and-maps/lake-wateree.asp; Navionics Electronic Charts, www.navionics.com; Delorme’s South Carolina Atlas & Gazetteer, 800-561-5105, www.delorme.com; Kingfisher Maps, 800-326-0257, www.kfmaps.com.