Wilson had anchored his 20-foot Action Craft center-console boat less than 30 minutes previously at a group of standing timber. Fishing at Lake Hartwell, the early morning sun was about to get high enough to let us know July had arrived.
The rod tip attached to the bait I'd just been instructed to watch began to quiver, a sure sign the blueback herring on the other end wasn't too happy. Then the tip took a dip toward the bottom of Lake Hartwell.
This movement definitely wasn't the slurp-and-hold bite of a black crappie, nor the bite-chew-ease-away attack of a deep-water summertime largemouth bass. It was the full-bore, grab-breakfast-and-run onslaught of one of Hartwell's chunky hybrid striped bass.
I grabbed the rod above the reel and freed it from the rod-holder and set the hook. The problem now was the fish at the other end of the line was headed back into the trees. If I couldn't stop him, he'd wrap the line in the branches and we'd never get him out of the tangle.
With rod tip high, I managed to hang on and convince the fish to try the "run-away-from-the-boat-to-open-water" tactic. The hybrid began to peel line from the reel.
Fortunately for me, the line stayed out of the trees and after three bulldog runs, the unmistakable football shape of a hybrid bass flashed in the July sun as Wilson slid the net under him.
"That's one," I said to Wilson, and he nodded, unhooking the fish and live-releasing the 8 ½-pound hybrid back into the lake.
Hybrid bass aren't native to South Carolina lakes; in fact they're not natives of any place; they're an engineered fish. The species designed genetically for South Carolina waters, specifically the Savannah chain of lakes, is know elsewhere as the Palmetto bass. Most South Carolinians just call them hybrids.
The reason the fish is known elsewhere as the Palmetto bass is because the fish is a hybrid cross between a striped bass female and white bass male parents. The celebrity status of the Palmetto bass is because it was the "original" hybrid.
Some years later, after the technology of producing striped bass and hybrid striped bass in hatcheries had been passed on to other states, some biologists in Florida developed the "Sunshine" bass, which is the parental reverse (striped-bass male, white bass female) of the S.C. hybrid bass. (In North Carolina, the state's wildlife commission several years ago officially re-named the hybrid bass the "Bodie bass" to honor Greenwood native and long-time outdoors writer Bodie McDowell of Greensboro).
Development of the hybrid bass came about in the mid 1960s when biologists, working out the mysteries of reproducing striped bass in hatcheries, decided to augment the burgeoning striped-bass fishery. They discovered stripers and their close close relatives, white bass, were compatible.
"The hybrid bass adds another dimension to the state's already successful striped-bass fishery" said Wade Bales, a S.C. Department of Natural Resources biologist who has overseen the stocking of the Savannah chain of lakes in years past.
"The idea was to put a hard-fighting, easy-to-catch fish in this system" he said. "An added bonus is the hybrid has a little more range than the striped bass during summer months, as it is a more temperature-tolerant fish, not so dependent on cooler water to survive.
"Most of the time, all you need to do to catch hybrids is to find them."
The Savannah chain of lakes consists of three lakes - Hartwell, Russell, and Thurmond. The three lakes are impounded by hydro-electric dams along the Savannah River and form the majority of the state border between South Carolina and Georgia.
Although built at different times, these three lakes were constructed by and are still owned by the Army Corps of Engineers.
According to Bales, the initial assessment of needs by the then S.C. Wildlife and Marine Resources Department was to stock Lakes Hartwell and Thurmond with hybrids and stripers but not stock them in the middle lake, Russell, in favor of establishing a largemouth bass fishery. In fact, to this day, SCDNR hasn't stocked Lake Russell with striped bass or hybrid bass.
With a little of the history of why and how the hybrid came to be a prized game fish in these lakes, the next question would be how to go about establishing a July pattern for these scrappy fighters.
Veteran guide Wilson, who specializes in hybrid and striper fishing at the three lakes, was a good choice.
The upper lake of the Savannah chain, Lake Hartwell, is a 56,000-acre impoundment of the Seneca and Tugaloo Rivers. The confluence of the Seneca and Tugaloo creates the beginning of the Savannah River.
Wilson's main recommendation for fishing Lake Hartwell during the summertime is to look for fish between the river forks and the dam.
Early morning is the best bet, with the coolest water of the day prevailing at daybreak. Anchoring at or near one of the many points that jut into the lake is a good place to mark fish.
Wilson said the use of a good depth-recording device (fish-finder, depth-finder) is essential in order to separate fish, bait and submerged timber readings.
When the lake was impounded, timber at Lake Hartwell was cut at what is now 30 feet below the surface. With summertime water levels usually being a few feet below normal pool, the level that Wilson likes to target is right at the 25-foot mark, just a foot or so above the tree line.
While it's not unusual to fish in standing timber situated in 100 feet of water, the best action will still be at tree-top height.
Wilson's main tackle setup includes a Carolina-rigged down-rod, baited with a lively blueback herring. He said when hybrids are feeding actively, six rods are usually as many as he and a party of fishermen can handle without getting lines crossed and losing fish.
Because the initial strike of a hybrid often will be hard and pull straight down, Wilson likes to spool his reels with at least 20-pound-test line on medium-heavy-action Eagle Claw bait-cast rods - fairly strong-spined poles - in order to be able to turn fish away from the trees. When fish are finicky, he downsizes his line diameter and has gone as low as 6-pound test with a light-action spinning rod.
"Not much help if we're over trees" he said, "but if we find the fish feeding on a bare point or hump, I usually set the hook, hand the spinning rod to the guest and wish them good luck."
Wilson also said because hybrids often come to the surface and school in deep water - even during the middle of the day - it's best to have a casting rod rigged with a topwater or shallow-diving crankbait ready to cast.
As earlier indicated, when Russell was impounded during the late 1980s, it was intended to be primarily a largemouth destination. So the SCDNR didn't stock hybrids or stripers in the lake.
However, that doesn't mean it wasn't stocked with those species.
"Georgia stocked it with stripers a couple of years ago for only a season or two" Wilson said, "and those fish have done well. There's a good class of two-year-old stripers in Lake Russell."
Despite the lack of stocking, Russell is known to be a haven for trophy-size hybrids.
"Most of the hybrids that are caught out of Russell are good fish that can get into double digits," Bales said, "and there are several theories on how they got there.
"A couple of years during the late 1990s, the Corps (of Engineers) spilled some water over the dam for flood control. However, it's hard to imagine a fish making it through the Hartwell Dam with turbines running during power generation.
"The most likely scenario is fishermen transported hybrids to Russell from either Hartwell or Thurmond."
Wilson usually doesn't fish Russell for hybrids or stripers unless he gets a charter that only wants a big fish.
"There aren't enough stripers/hybrids in Russell to talk about," he said, "but if I'm looking for a trophy, I'll target both ends of the lake."
Since timber wasn't removed from Russell during its excavation, except for navigational purposes, thousands of slightly-submerged trees remain in the main lake and make it difficult to fish.
Summer at this lake finds Wilson pulling free lines in the shallow waters behind the Hartwell dam. This cooler water offers a thermal refuge for stripers and hybrids, and the depths go from 30 feet in the channel at Sander's Ferry Bridge to extremely shallow near the dam, an area marked by rough rocks.
Criss-crossing the channel and looking for fish holding near the channel edge in approximately 10 feet of water is a good tactic. However, boaters and anglers need to take precautions when water is being released through the Hartwell Dam as conditions can get dangerous in a hurry.
Wilson's other choice at Lake Russell is to fish humps and points near the Russell Dam under similar situations as Hartwell. Most of the fish will hold in the trees at the edge of the river channel.
Along the oxygen line that spans across the bottom of Russell from the area of Hester's Marina to Shuck Pen Eddie is also a high-percentage spot to find willing hybrids.
This impoundment, also called Clarks Hill Lake, is Wilson's pick for summertime hybrid fishing.
"Clarks Hill has an abundant supply of hybrids," the Georgia native said, "and it's got its share of really big stripers, too."
The July pattern at Lake Thurmond takes place at the ends of the lake, similar to the pattern at Lake Russell.
Wilson said catching hybrids near the dam is much easier to accomplish at Thurmond than Hartwell because of the absence of standing timber and consistent number of 2- to 4-pound hybrids.
However, during most July mornings, Wilson will be double-anchored at a hump in about 30 or 40 feet of water not far downstream from the Russell Dam.
Summer water releases at the dam usually start about 1 p.m. and continue for three to four hours (to generate power for air-conditioners during the peak-demand time of day). However, the moving water serves a secondary purpose for fish and anglers.
Running water is like ringing a dinner bell for Thurmond's hybrids, and the bite usually lasts during the first two hours of power generation.
"The first hour or two will trigger the bite, and it's a good time to catch bigger fish," Wilson said.
Other prime locations to fish at the upper part of Lake Thurmond are to target the river channel and standing timber near that channel. With moving current, Wilson recommended putting a couple of free lines out the back of the boat as well as a couple of weighted lines baited with live or cut bait to trail downstream into a flat adjacent to the channel. Coupled with a few live baits suspended above the tree tops, he said he can cover most of the water column likely to hold hybrids and stripers.
Anglers wishing to access the Savannah chain lakes may do so from a number of launch areas in South Carolina or Georgia (see Destination Information).
Additionally, a reciprocal fishing-license agreement between the two states allows anglers to fish anywhere at Thurmond/Clarks Hill lake.