In 2012, fishermen began urging South Carolina officials to put in place regulations that would turn Lake Russell, the middle lake of the three major impoundments on the Savannah River, into a trophy striped bass fishery.
At the time, Georgia had been stocking Russell with striped bass on a limited and unscheduled basis, an the lake had become well-known for holding large stripers, trophy specimens thought to be fish held over from Clarks Hill that had run upriver before Russell was impounded in 1987, as well as some hardy — or lucky — individuals that had survived the trip through Lake Hartwell Dam.
In 2013, South Carolina put those regulations into play, including a two-fish daily creel limit for stripers, hybrids or a combination of the two, with only one fish longer than 34 inches allowed per day. South Carolina also started a stocking program.
Lake Russell fishes very different from other South Carolina lakes that have striper populations, and in order to have a chance to catch a trophy, veteran anglers use some slightly different tactics, particularly during the warmer months. Here are five tips from veteran fishermen that should help fishermen do the trophy dance at Russell.
• Use trout for bait. Guide William Sasser said using rainbow trout for bait is not a secret for fishing Lake Russell, but it is a near necessity.
“The state stocks trout in the lake, and those big stripers eat them almost as fast as they go in there,” said Sasser. “I rig the trout with a stinger hook in the tail because sometimes, the fish will swipe at the bait and that’s just the old saltwater angler in me to rig a stinger for big fish.”
Trout can be purchased from local bait shops. Sasser’s Palmetto Angler in McCormick normally carries trout nine months out of the year.
• Beef up your tackle. Guide Steve Pietrykowski suggests coming to Lake Russell equipped with beefy tackle.
“Even in the flat areas, you’re not far from submerged timber, and they will head for the trees,” he said. “Thirty-pound tackle is a minimum. I mostly free-line trout in the tailrace, so the leader is the only thing that you need to worry about visibility. Flourocarbon works well there. When he gets on, you just need to make sure you get him up and away from the structure.”
Pietrykowski prefers fishing when current is running through the Hartwell Dam but that is not always a necessity.
“You can call the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers);they publish a generation schedule that’s usually pretty accurate,” he said.
• Fish both ends of the lake. Guide Wendell Wilson said while most anglers only fish the tailwaters downstream from Hartwell Dam, he splits his time — even in August — between the tailrace and the main-lake basin.
“There’s some big fish that hang out in the tops of the trees in front of the dam,” he said. “I free-line trout with planer boards in the tailrace, but I will down-rod trout down the lake. Most people think trout won’t survive, but they will find the depth they like and stay there.”
Wilson said catching big stripers near the dam means getting them to the boat quickly, taking a quick picture and getting them back down quickly in order to insure the fish’s survival when surface temperatures are hot.
• Have something big tied on to cast. Veteran Kenny Dawson, a veteran Lake Russell angler, prefers to free-line trout or blueback herring, and like most anglers, he will keep a casting rod handy when he’s fishing Hartwell, Clarks Hill or Murray. He does the same thing on Russell, but he uses much larger lures.
“So many times when fishing that clear water, you’ll see a fish come up,” he said. “Doesn’t matter what time of year, and you can’t haul around and put a bait on him fast enough. That’s when a big artificial bait comes in handy.”
Dawson said while a big topwater plug is the norm in that situation, he prefers a sub-surface bait like a Bomber Long A or a big, sinking swimbait. Anything in clear, blue or rainbow trout colors is his preferred choice.
• Don’t overlook cut bait. This last tip may be the biggest secret of all. Not many anglers fish cut bait at Lake Russell, but Randy Brown of Anderson swears a lot of big striped bass, those that don’t get a lot of press, fall to cut bait.
“I like to find a cut or pocket off the main run, something with clean bottom,” he said. “I’ve used cut trout, cut gizzard shad, herring and perch.”
Brown said he will anchor his boat from the bow with only one anchor in the current. He frequently fishes cut bait at night. He said the key to success was to use navigation lights only and be patient.
HOW TO GET THERE — These ramps provide access to the upper and lower ends of Lake Russell: Millwood, southwest of Calhoun Falls, off SC 81; Calhoun Falls State Park, Calhoun Falls, off SC 81; Manor Creek, south of Calhoun Falls, off SC 81; Smith McGee, Hartwell tailrace, SC 181; Sander’s Ferry, Hartwell Tailrace, SC 368.
SPECIAL REGULATIONS — On Lake Richard B. Russell and the tailwaters below Lake Hartwell, fishermen can not possess more than two striped hybrid bass, or a combination of stripers and hybrids, per day, with only one fish longer than 34 inches allowed in the creel.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — William Sasser, Sasser’s Guide Service, 706-589-5468, www.williamsasserfishing.com; Wendell Wilson, Wilson’s Guide Service, 706-283-3336, www.wilsonsguideservice.com; Steve Pietrykowski, Fishski Business Guide Service, 864-353-03438, www.fishskiinfo.com. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.