In terms of fishing opportunities, South Carolina is a unique state for a number of reasons, and the presence of blueback herring in a lot of our major reservoirs is a big one. When these baitfish are in a lake in good numbers, they make the bass and stripers and hybrids act differently.
If you’ve ever wondered about this, May is the perfect example. It’s already a good fishing month, and on lakes that have herring, it’s a tremendous time to be on the water. The bluebacks are spawning in relatively shallow water, and there’s not a predator fish in any of those lakes that doesn’t pay attention and take advantage of the buffet that’s set up for them.
Really, if a restaurant in your hometown advertised that it was putting big steak dinners on sale for $5, you’d pay attention and start making plans, wouldn’t you?
In my opinion, May is the best month to take advantage of the blueback herring bite. The herring are spawning throughout the month, depending on the weather, and they’re spawning in shallow water, on long, flat points with small gravel, sand or red-clay bottoms. They don’t seem to get on areas with big rocks the way they get on the smooth, hard bottoms. The bass, of course, pull up in the same areas; they’re really relating more to the herring than they are to any kind of structure.
Most of the year, I’m looking for baitfish using my Humminbird electronics, but when the herring spawn, I’m using my eyes. I’ll use the mapping features of my depth finder to find the kind of points I think will hold herring, but I’m looking for them — looking for fish, and looking for the great blue herons. Those big birds can see the herring and know where they are, and you can bet you’re going to find herring and bass where you find herons.
Like the bass spawn, the herring spawn will start on the lower end of lakes like Murray, Clarks Hill and Hartwell, and it will move up the lake as the month progresses. Herring will spawn by size and age-class in different parts of the lake, so it’s really important to find an area where the bigger herring are spawning. Bass are more likely to be feeding on bigger shad and herring, so if you can find an area that’s holding bigger herring, you’re more likely to catch a bigger class of bass.That’s also why I like to move around a lot, from point to point, looking for herring. I might go from the west side to the east side, up or down the lake, to try to find that combination of big bait and big bass. But when you find them, it might be worth your time to sit down and stay in an area like that. In tournaments, you can only weigh in five fish, so if I think I can stay in an area and get five big bites, that might be better than running around looking.
Now, even though herring are in shallow water, it’s still often an open-water bite. I throw a variety of baits, but my favorite is a topwater bait. You can catch them on walking baits or popping-type baits — I’ve even caught them on buzzbaits. You can catch them on hard-plastic jerkbaits or soft-plastic baits like Yamamoto’s D-Shad.
I like to fish a D-Shad on a weighed hook, a 3/32-ounce VMC Drop Dead hook. I can fish it right at the surface, or if they’re not on the surface, I can let it slide to the bottom and fish it up and down back to the boat like a Texas-rigged worm. No matter what kind of bait you use, it should be blueback herring color. Most manufacturers or soft-plastic or hard-plastic baits have blueback colors available.
When I’m focusing on a herring bite, you’ll never find me with a rod on deck that’s not at least 7 feet long. I fish for herring with 7-foot or 7-foot-6 Bass Pro Shops CarbonLite baitcasting rods and BPS CarbonLite reels spooled with 10- to 20-pound XPS fluorocarbon or monofilament. When I’m fishing topwater, I’ll use monofilament; on anything else, I’ll be using fluoro.
The long rods are really important, because you want to be able to make the longest cast possible. The worst thing that can happen is to have a bunch of nice fish come up busting herring and you can’t reach them.
The herring spawn should last through the entire month of May. Somewhere on your lake, herring will be spawning all the way until Memorial Day. They tend to go up in different places, at different times, based on size and age. It’s up to you to get on the water and move around enough until you find them. When you do, it can be a very memorable day.