Steve Crenshaw began to gesture wildly toward the stern of the boat without actually looking up from his console-mounted fish-finder.
"Fish coming in, right at the bait," he said excitedly. "That rod, right there!"
And as if right on cue, the rod tip in the holder he is gesturing at began dancing; I lunged for it.
"Whoa, wait for the rod to bend all the way toward the water," he said.
Right on cue, the rod tip bent toward the bottom of the lake, and I set the hook. After several moments of a tenacious game of tug-of-war, I hauled the 6-pound striped bass over the side of the boat and admired its hefty shoulders and chunky girth.
By now Crenshaw was yelling again.
"Don't just stand there gawking at the thing, there's another fish on up front," he said.
And so it went; just another day in striper paradise.
For serious South Carolina striped bass anglers, a visit to Lake Hartwell is as much a pilgrimage as it is a fishing trip. And as good as the largemouth bass and crappie fishing can be, there's little doubt as to the main attraction. In fact, the state record was caught at Lake Hartwell, bolstering its reputation as a top destination in the Palmetto State for big rockfish.
"Lake Hartwell has some of the best striper fishing in South Carolina as far as fish size and numbers." said Crenshaw, a Lake Hartwell striped bass guide of 14 years. "It's also conveniently near towns like Anderson, Greenville, and Spartanburg, making it a convenient and popular fishing lake."
Lake Hartwell is a sprawling impoundment of 56,000 acres in northwestern South Carolina with 960 miles of shoreline and several well-defined river channels dotted with rocky islands. The reservoir was created by flooding the Tugaloo, Seneca and Savannah Rivers by the Hartwell Dam. It's also the first of three big lakes that make up the Savannah River system and border Georgia.
According to Crenshaw, the average striped bass catch in Hartwell is 3 to 8 pounds, and he boats several each week that exceed 10. Fish weighing more than 20 pounds are real trophies. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Georgia Wildlife Resources Division both aggressively stock Lake Hartwell with striped bass each year.
The keys to success at Lake Hartwell are knowledge of the structures in the lake, ability to find fish, and presenting baits properly with good boat control. The underwater trees - a constant reminder when fishing water 30 to 60 feet deep - make great fish habitat but treacherous fishing conditions.
"When they flooded this lake back in 1963, they filled it to within 30 feet of full pool and stopped," Crenshaw explains. "Then the U.S. Corp of Engineers came in and cut all the timber from that water level up to the top of the banks." The result is when fishing in water 30 feet or deeper, you're often having to contend with the tops of submerged trees - a hazard for anchoring the boat and losing big fish."
Crenshaw firmly believes in using live bait when fishing Hartwell, particularly blueback herring - although threadfin and gizzard shad are plentiful throughout the lake.
"Nine times out of 10 the fish will take a herring over a shad," Crenshaw said.
But in examining the stomach contents of striped bass caught at Hartwell, he usually finds more shad than herring.
"I believe the herring is preferred by stripers but they're also the faster swimmer - making them harder to catch in the wild," he said. "So you have them eating more shad as a part of their diet. But when used as bait, they'll usually take the herring over a shad if they are both available."
Flat-lining and down-lining blueback herring are the two most popular live-bait techniques for stripers at Hartwell.
Flat-lining (free-lining) is a technique where the live bait is either drifted or slowly trolled behind the boat in an area with schools of baitfish relatively close to the surface. Live shad or herring are hooked through the nose and cast far behind the boat. With rods in the holders, the boat is allowed to drift or trolls slowly through the area. Baits must be drifted far enough away from the boat so fish aren't spooked easily.
While flat-lining Feb. 3, 2002, Terry McConnell of Eastanolle, Ga., caught the South Carolina state record striped bass. He was fishing some deep water near the dam at about 11:30 a.m. when the 59 ½-pound monster hit a live blueback herring he was drifting.
After the fish stripped off more than 150 yards of 20-pound test line, McConnell turned it away from underwater trees and landed it by hand - besting the previous record by 3 ½ pounds.
Crenshaw's preferred technique for Hartwell is down-lining - which is simply dropping the bait strait down to the fish below the boat. He'll idle over a location he intends to fish while keeping an eye on his fish-finder for stripers or schools of baitfish.
Once he locates good marks, he'll carefully anchor the boat at a location free from submerged trees. With stout 7-foot rods and bait-caster reels filled with 20-pound-test line, he lowers live bait, weighted with a heavy egg-sinker, to the depth showing fish on his graph. He uses multiple rods to fish baits at various depths, if needed.
When a fish approaches a live bait, it becomes agitated and tries to flee - making the rod bounce and dance in the rod-holder. The temptation to anglers will be to set the hook too early, before the striper takes the bait. But once the striper hits, it does so with all the subtlety of a heavyweight prize fighter.
Crenshaw is adamant about using fresh, lively blueback herring. If one of his baits takes a hit from a fish but isn't dislodged from the hook, he replaces it immediately with a healthier bait.
Since stripers often travel in schools, things can get interesting when the action really heats up. The fishing can be literally non-stop for 20 or 30 minutes at a time and will keep two or more anglers scrambling for rods, fighting fish, and getting lines crossed up in terrifying chaos or sweet angling bliss - depending how you want to look at it.
Crenshaw depends on his fish-finder not only to locate fish but to seek underwater points, humps, elevated plateaus, sunken islands and other lake-bottom features. Stripers don't rely upon structure or cover the same way largemouth bass do, but they are often found near these features since it's where baitfish tend to congregate.
Stripers are voracious feeders and predictably can be found anywhere baitfish are holding. Anglers rarely find stripers where abundant schools of baitfish are not present.
Another important factor in finding fish is water temperature. Stripers like cold water, with 55 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit being optimal. Water temperatures higher than 70 degrees will stress and start to suffocate fish while temperatures into the low 40s will slow metabolism and make them lethargic.
During the colder winter months, stripers also can be found in shallow water and near the surface, rounding up schools of baitfish into tight balls and gorging on them. Plugs, spoons, jerk baits and bucktails can be cast to these active fish with explosive results.
Crenshaw keeps a rod rigged up with a pearl-colored Lit'l Fishie soft-plastic jerkbait to throw during these situations. Flat-lining is also effective when fish are shallow.
The spring finds many stripers heading up the Seneca or Tugaloo Rivers, great places to locate fish. Other smaller creeks to check out include Six and Twenty Creek, Reed Creek, Flat Shoals Creek, and Coneross Creek.
"Most people like to fish up in the rivers in the spring, and there are a lot of fish up there then," Crenshaw said. "But there are still plenty of fish throughout the lake at that time as well."
It's still important at this time of year to locate baitfish because stripers won't be far behind.
"In the summer most of the fish have moved back to the main, deeper part of the lake," Crenshaw said.
While stripers and baitfish are seeking thermal refuge from warm water temperatures, finding structure that baitfish relate to becomes important. The down-lining technique is the most effective during this time of year when the fish are holding in deeper water.
In the fall, the lake's stratification turns over and fish become more dispersed.
"The fall is when the baitfish and stripers begin moving back out of the deeper main lake and into the rivers again," said Crenshaw.
The best fishing conditions for stripers at Lake Hartwell, Crenshaw said, are clear, cool days with little or no wind.
"Early mornings, particularly pre-dawn can bring on some dynamite action," he said. "This is the coolest time of the day and big stripers can often be seen near the surface busting schools of bait. Throwing a top-water or shallow-running crankbait can bring on some of the most exciting striper action before the sun comes up."
A cousin of the striped bass, the hybrid bass, (the hybridization of a male white bass and a female striped bass) will school with stripers, and the two are often caught side by side. Hybrid sometimes can be distinguished from stripers by the broken lateral lines along the lower sides of their bodies, while stripers' lateral lines usually are continuous and unbroken.
The more reliable way to tell the two apart is by body shape. The body of a hybrid is shorter, thicker, and deeper - more like the body characteristics found in the sunfish family, of which the white bass belongs. Striped bass usually are thinner and sleeker than hybrids.
Hybrids also are generally smaller than stripers but can still put up an impressive fight when hooked. Its flat, deep body is used as extra leverage against the angler and often ends up being a smaller fish than the fight indicated.
The creel regulations at Lake Hartwell permit 10 striped bass/hybrid bass combinations per day with no size limit. South Carolina and Georgia have a reciprocal license agreement for the lake, so a general fishing license from either state is acceptable.
Ample boat access exists throughout the lake with ramps and marinas at the S.C. and Georgia sides.
Crenshaw operates from the Portman Marina near Anderson, which gives him quick, easy access to the main body of the lake and the upper rivers.
If you're looking for big fish that hit hard, fight even harder, and are relatively easy to find, consider Lake Hartwell striped-bass fishing.