Most anglers, Brad Sasser included, go about fishing for striped bass and hybrid bass the same way. It’s sort of like cousins and half-cousins hanging out together; they live in the same neighborhood, grow up together and get along well, even though they may both share the same parental lineage.
May, however, is a possible exception to that pattern. Contrary to popular belief, both striped bass and hybrid striped bass spawn, whether or not any real reproductive success is achieved. And Sasser, who guides for his father on Clarks Hill Lake, said that live wells tend to fill up more with hybrid bass in late April and May than any other time of year.
“For the most part, this time of year it’s all going to be hybrids, and most of them are within the same size range,” he said. “When you get on a good school of hybrids, they’ll be within a pound of each other, and size-wise, run anywhere from about 3 to 7 pounds.
“In early March, both stripers and hybrids are slam full of milk and eggs,” he said. “The spawn will be over with before we get to the end of April. By May, both fish are in postspawn. For whatever reason, that doesn’t bother hybrids. They’re hungry.”
Fishing tactics vary, but Sasser usually relies on one to fill his clients’ limits in May.
“In late April, we will still be catching a lot of fish using free-lines and on planer boards, then in May, we’ll be swapping over to strictly down-lines as the weather heats up,” he said. “I’ll mark schools of hybrids on the graph anywhere from 35 to 40 foot deep, holding on the bottom around points on the lower end of the lake. The area around the dam will be really good fishing.”
Start times for his trips will vary with the advance of the season. The warmer it gets, the earlier he’ll start. That also means that a trip that starts before daylight may be over and done before the local restaurants stop serving breakfast.
“Late April, you want to be there right at daylight,” said Sasser. “If you’re talking the end of May, you’ll want to be out there well before daylight. I would venture to say the warmer everything gets, the earlier you want to be out there. By the time June rolls around, you need to be out there by 4:30 or 5 o’clock in the morning. It’s also not uncommon to get on a school of fish, and the action is Bam! Bam! Bam! and everyone has their limit and we’re headed back in at 9 o’clock.”
In a typical vertical, live-bait scenario, Sasser may mark plenty of fish and activity at 20 feet over a 40-foot bottom. He‘ll put a rod or two down to 20 feet to entice the schooling hybrids and smaller stripers, but the bigger fish have learned to hold right off the bottom and make an easy meal of the feeding activity above.
“It’s near impossible for me to hook a suspended big fish,” he said. “Whether it’s the proximity of the boat or whether they just don’t hang out up high, I don’t know. Nine times out of 10, when someone else is catching smaller fish at 20, we’ll catch the bigger ones by dropping the bait to the bottom and reeling the bait up three turns of the reel handle.”
The warmer the water gets, the tighter to the bottom the fish will hold.
“The fish will move through the lake in large groups about 20- or 25-foot deep. Once you get into May and it warms up some more, they’ll start settling down in groups on the bottom, lingering on the sides of humps and points waiting on bait to come through to feed,” he said.
Except during winter, when both species of fish will move into the extreme shallows to feed, Sasser won’t wet a hook until he has marked a school on his graph. He uses state-of-the-art electronics, but even finding a school of striped bass on a moderately priced graph isn’t hard. It takes some dedication to commit to spending the first 30 minutes to an hour looking for fish, rather than just throwing baits in the water.
“You really, really need to mark them first,” he said. “You can just blind-fish an area that looks good to you, but with the white perch population out of control the way it is on this lake, a lot of times if you go fishing based on where you caught them in previous years, or one of your favorite spots, you’re going to end up catching nothing but white perch and killing a bunch of bait in the process.”
Both striped bass and hybrids are known to be nomadic, but it’s what Sasser calls consistently or predictably nomadic — so much so that he may stay on one school of fish for up to a week, returning to the same spots each day, then making adjustments before having to go hunt another school.
“Unless you have some kind of major fronts come through or drastic weather pattern changes, we’re able to fish the same school of hybrids for a few days back-to-back,” he said. “On a good school that holds for a while, you may get a week out of it. But generally, this time of year, they don’t move that too terribly far. Even if they move, you can graph an area over pretty good and locate — if they have moved — where they have moved to.”
Sasser’s downline set-up comes right out of the striped bass angler’s playbook. He uses 7 ½-foot Ugly Stik rods paired with Garcia 6500 C3 baitcast reels, 20-pound Berkley Big Game monofilament and a 4-foot section of 14- to 17-pound fluorocarbon leader. A 1 1/2-ounce egg sinker with a molded-in, high-test swivel goes between the main line and the leader, and the business end of the leader sports a No. 1 Kahle-style hook. Sasser threads a lively blueback herring as bait 99.9 percent of the time, whether he’s freelining or downlining.
“I’m going to use the trolling motor, and, pretty much, if I lock down a group on the sonar graph, and they’re holding still, I’ll just auto-anchor the trolling motor and start fishing,” he said. “Sometimes, there is a little bit of transition if the school is moving, so you will bump around just a little bit using the trolling motor to stay with them,” he said. “I go real, real slow — .2 to .3 mph — with the rods in rod holders. Usually it’s that front, leading rod that tells me we caught up with them.”
HOW TO GET THERE — Clarks Hill, aka Lake Thurmond, is the third impoundment of the Savannah River, downstream from Lake Hartwell and Lake Russell. On the South Carolina side, the lake spans from just below Calhoun Falls down to the town of Clarks Hill. SC 28 parallels the length of the lake between these two towns. The US Army Corps of Engineers maintains the majority of the public boat ramps on Clarks Hill. Visit www.sas.usace.army.mil/lakes/thurmond.
WHEN TO GO — Hybrid fishing stands out from the latter part of April through May as fish are feeding up after their spring spawning run.
BEST TECHNIQUES — Guide Brad Sasser typically retires planer boards and freelines by the end of April and begin targeting hybrid bass using a vertical presentation of live herring. Both agree that hybrids are more available in May after the post-spawn season. A down-rod tactic, using a Carolina rig with a 1 ½- to 2-ounce weight, works best when fish are suspended in deep water or are orienting to the bottom. During May, the standard depth of water is 35 to 45 feet deep off to the side of long points or humps. Invest time graphing and locating a school of stripers before putting out baits. Schools may be stationary or slowly work across the bottom. Use a trolling motor to bump along keeping pace if the school is moving. Suggested fishing areas are Germany Creek or Lloyd’s Creek on the Georgia side off of Georgia Little River or target the Parksville and Horseshoe Island areas on the South Carolina side on the lower end of the lake.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Brad Sasser, Sasser’s Guide Service, 706-589-5468, www.williamsasserfishing.com; Herring Hut, Clarks Hill, 864-333-2000; Palmetto Angler, McCormick, 864-852-3373. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Hickory Knob State Park offers cabins, hotel rooms and campsights, 864-391-2450 or www.southcarolinaparks/hickoryknob/introduction. Camping is also available at Baker Creek State Park, 864-443-2457 and Hamilton Branch State Park, 864-333-2223.