It doesn't matter which way, as long as there's a strong current carrying it in one direction or the other, and it doesn't hurt if there's a nice breeze blowing, even one hard enough to dot the surface of Lake Keowee with whitecaps.
Those are the conditions that bass fishermen know they need to see when they venture out onto 18,000-acre Lake Keowee, a Duke Energy reservoir of the Keowee River near Seneca.
If the water moves, the fish bite. Which way it moves only puts fish on different places at different times. If it doesn't move, they don't bite.
Hey, it's December. It's not like it's supposed to be easy.
But to fishermen, such as guide Jay Dodd, it's as simple as the sport can can get. You put together an equation starting with the water that's flushed out of the warm-water discharge just west of Keowee Dam, add current that's either pushing water down through Keowee from Lake Jocassee upstream, or it's water being pulled upstream as it's pumped out of Keowee back into Jocassee, add wind, then find a big underwater hump somewhere in the middle section of the lake, drop a little plastic bait on a rocky spot and hold on.
"December is an excellent time to catch 'em here," said Dodd (828-281-1538 or 828-318-7911), who lives at nearby Alexander, N.C., and guides at Keowee and Jocassee as well as doing float trips for muskies on the French Broad River and guiding trout fishermen in mountain streams.
"They're out in deep water, and that's the beauty of this lake - beating the bank doesn't pay off very much besides in the spring. Most of the time, fishermen who are successful here fish deep water and offshore structure."
The offshore structure can be just about anywhere, Dodd said. The lake is full of underwater islands or "humps" that rise off the bottom into water as shallow as 5 or 6 feet. Their locations aren't wedded to any particular features of the lake such as the edges of the main river channel or creek channels, main points or ridges.
"The bass will herd shad up against those offshore humps," Dodd said. "They don't necessarily have to be deep, and they can be scattered all over the lake. A lot of them are marked with marker buoys, but there are lot of them that aren't - and they can be good spots.
"A lot of the locals who find those humps will put some brush piles on them. Most of them, you can find on a good topo map.
"Some of them will have small patches of rocks on them, and to catch fish, it helps if you can find the hard spots. You fish the rocky areas or you find the steeper side of the hump and fish them.
"Spotted bass are notorious for liking rocks, so a lot of fish will be on little patches of rocks. They'll school up real good on those kinds of places on humps. Some of the deeper humps have 20 feet of water on top, and they can be good if there's rock on them. Humps with 12 to 15 feet of water on top are the ones I really look for.
"There are humps where the tops will be real shallow. On some sunny days, spots will move up on the tops of those humps in 3 or 4 feet of water to sun and get warm."
Ah, spotted bass. The chunky little cousins of the largemouth and smallmouth that bite like crazy, fight like mad and usually hang out way off the bank - a perfect match for Keowee, right?
Spotted bass weren't on the menu when Duke Power impounded Lake Keowee in 1971. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources figured species that were native to the watershed should make up the lake's fishery: largemouth bass, redeyes or "Coosa" bass, crappies and the usual sunfish species and perch.
The SCDNR has done 18 creel surveys since 1974, and before 1990, spotted bass didn't even show up on their radar.
Dan Rankin, a fisheries biologist who works out of the DRN's nearby office in Clemson, said it was the mid- to late-1980s when he started to hear reports of spotted bass in Keowee.
"When Keowee was impounded, it was a largemouth bass fishery, and it had Coosa bass, redeyes, but small ones," Rankin said. "Up until 1990, our creel surveys showed largemouth bass made up 75 percent of the total harvest by weight, with black crappie second at 15 percent. In 1990 we had our first documentation of spotted bass showing up. Largemouth bass were still 75 percent, but spots were a little less than one percent.
"The introduction of spotted bass was made in the mid-80s, and it was unauthorized. Reports we got indicated it was an organized effort by local anglers to bring spotted bass in, and they came from Lake Lanier in Georgia. We believe that because we have the Alabama strain of spotted bass in Keowee, and that's the strain that's in Lanier."
"At first, the spotted bass great really fast. Fish weighing from 2 1/2 to 3 pounds were very common, and for several years, the total black bass harvest was way up there. The largemouth harvest was consistent, but with the spotted bass, it far exceeded what we had had before the spots."
Around 1996, creel surveys indicated the harvest of black bass was divided equally between largemouths and spots, but by 2005, spotted bass made up 68 percent of the total harvest, with largemouths down to 11 percent.
"From '96 to '99, our creel surveys showed a harvest of 18,000 kilograms of largemouth bass," Rankin said. "In 2002 it was 8,000 kilos, and by 2005 it was 2,800 kilos. Spotted bass catches have stayed consistent - it looks like a displacement thing."
In other words, spots have moved out largemouths.
"Catch rates of spots have gone up dramatically, incredibly, since the early '90s," Rankin said. "When the population exploded, they were growing like gang-busters. Their growth rates were as fast as largemouths. What we're seeing now is that we've reached our carrying capacity at Keowee.
"It's like the old saying, 'as you get more cows in the pasture, they grow slower as the grass gives out.' Numbers wise, black bass totals are as good as they've ever been, but we've definitely sacrificed size (largemouths) for numbers (spots).
"Only 1 percent of our spotted bass are 18 inches or longer, whereas 14 to 15 percent of our largemouth bass are 18 inches or longer."
Rankin believes spotted bass are a success story - even if it's a story that wasn't supposed to be told - because spotted bass are a more open-water, schooling species that isn't oriented to the shallows. And the shallows in Keowee aren't terribly productive, even in the spring, because the lake is generally very clear.
"I definitely think the spotted bass do a better job of utilizing the forage we have in Keowee," Rankin said. "They go where they need to, and they school more than largemouths. Their home range is double the size of largemouths, and they are more aggressive."
Threadfin shad make up between two-thirds and three-fourths of Keowee's forage base. The smaller threadfins are a perfect-sized forage for growing spotted bass.
The threadfins are also a viable forage fish in Keowee because the warm-water discharge from the Oconee Nuclear Station provides a warm-water sanctuary for the cold-sensitive threadfins during the winter, when they experience die-offs in other lakes.
"The warm-water discharge is the whole reason threadfins are dominant in Keowee," Rankin said. "You go up to Jocassee and you see bluebacks, and it makes sense that Keowee is more of a numbers lake (for bass) and at Jocassee, you have fewer numbers, but bigger fish."
Dodd said that there are plenty of 2 1/2- to 3-pound spotted bass in Keowee, and they make up a large percentage of anglers' catches year-round, especially during the colder months.
"Twenty years ago, we had nothing but largemouths here; now, a lot of people think the largemouths are gone, but they're not," he said. "In tournaments, about 70 percent of the fish caught are spots, but the winners always have largemouths."
Dodd landed his first Lake Keowee spotted bass during 1985; his biggest since then weighed 5 1/2 pounds. Nowadays, he expects to catch nice spotted bass most of the time when he fishes in December, calling largemouths "a bonus."
"A lot of fishermen will go to Jocassee Dam the first thing in the morning to look for largemouths," Dodd said. "It's hit or miss, but when they're moving water through Jocassee Dam into Keowee, you'll get lots of big largemouths up there, schooling. And there's a good population of largemouths down in what's called the 'South Cove,' which is the Cane Creek area. The upper and lower ends are better for largemouths. All the spots are in the middle."
Well, they're actually at a section of lake roughly from the mouth of Crow Creek to the Gap Hill area. Exactly where they are depends on what kind of current is flowing and where the wind's blowing because both factors affect where the warm water winds up.
Sucked out of the lake at the "skimmer wall" intake just west of the Rt. 183 or "Canal Bridge" the water is used in the Oconee Nuclear Station, then returned to the lake through a cove just west of the dam - the "hot hole."
Wind direction largely determines where the warmer water will be - current set up by the pushing or pulling of water through Jocassee and Keowee dams is secondary but contributes.
"They move a lot of water from Gap Hill to the canal bridge - around the hot hole," Dodd said. "In the better sections of the lake, the water will be warmer than anywhere else; it stays around 55 degrees through the winter. The rest of the lake will drop down much lower.
"There'll be some guys who'll go down to the South Cove area where there are a lot of islands, and they'll fish a drop shot super deep, in 60 feet of water, and pull big spots out of there, but I like to fish the humps and points in the warmer water."
Dodd said his first move of the day is usually to make a run from Gap Hill Landing, where he normally launches his boat, toward the canal bridge area, looking for the warmer water. When he figures out the area where the hot-hole discharge is affecting the most, he limits his efforts to that area. It can be a pretty wide area, he said, often covering five miles.
After that, he starts a milk run to the humps in that area. When he gets to the humps, he sets up to fish the down-current side - whether the current is pulling water up the Keowee River arm toward Jocassee or down toward the dam at either arm of the lake.
"The wind and the current can move the warm water around, and by December, the bass are almost always offshore," he said. "You'll see a big difference in the water temperature as you move around. You can have hot water from the mouth of Crow Creek, but above there, the temperature will start falling.
"So you go to the warm water, then you go to the humps, and the current is the key to which side of the humps you fish. The downstream side will hold fish. So I go to the canal bridge and look at which way the water is moving, and that lets you know whether it's going back up to Jocassee or from Jocassee to Keowee. You get an idea where to start.
"But they whole key is (Duke Power) pushing or pulling water. It doesn't matter which - if there's current, it's right."
A perfect situation for Dodd would be to find the steep side of an offshore hump at the down-current side with a patch or two of rocks at the same side.
"There are humps scattered all over the lake, and the fish will roam, moving around following shad," said Dodd, who admits that really socking it to 'em is a matter of timing. "When there's a current set up, they can trap the shad around the humps.
"If you pull up to a hump and fish 15 or 20 minutes without a strike, you just move and go find another one. Maybe you can come back later and fish them all again. You might come back to a hump two hours later, and by that time, they've pushed the shad dup on that hump and are feeding, and you load up on 'em."
Dodd said when water is being pulled through Jocassee into Keowee, it takes until about 1 p.m. for the current that's set up at daylight to reach the Gap Hill area.
Dodd has two or three main techniques for catching Keowee's December bass. His No. 1 weapon is a drop-shot rig, which he fishes with a 6 1/2-foot medium-action spinning outfit spooled with 8-pound Trilene XT mono. He ties on a quarter-ounce drop-shot sinker and ties in a red No. 2 Gamakatsu hook about a foot above the weight. Sometimes, he'll move it to within 6 inches of the hook. Onto the hook he threads a rather small piece of plastic, either a Zoom Finesse worm or a Berkley "pulse" worm. Color doesn't matter - as long as it's a shade of green.
"Any hue of green will work real well in this lake because the water is so clear," Dodd said. "Watermelon, green pumpkin and smokin' shad have worked real well."
Dodd will also fish those two worms with a Carolina rig, but that changes the way he sets up on a hump. When he's drop-shotting, he'd just dropping the worm straight down and giving it a little action by twitching his rod tip before moving it ever so slightly. It's not vertical jigging, but it's close. When he goes to a Carolina rig, he normally sets up off the hump and casts to his targeted rock pile or high spot, then works the bait back down the slope. Occasionally, he'll get right on top of the hump and cast into deep water, crawling the worm back up.
Dodd doesn't vertical jig a jigging spoon much himself, but he said a lot of Keowee regulars will fish the tops and sides of humps with something like a Hopkins 75 Shorty or other jigging spoon.
One other bait Dodd counts on occasionally is a suspending jerkbait such as a Rapala Husky Jerk or even an X-Rap in silver/blue or silver/black. When it's cloudy, he'll even go to a chartreuse bait, preferring the color known as "clown."
He'll cast it up on top of a jump and jerk and twitch it back to the boat; it's an especially good technique when fish are suspended.
"The thing about fishing the warm water is that it changes your mindset about fishing in the winter," Dodd said. "You don't have to fish like you're fishing in the winter. The water isn't cold enough to make the fish lethargic, so you don't have to fish super slow.
"It took me a while to figure out how to catch 'em with a drop shot rig," he said. "The biggest mistake you can make is shaking it too much. It takes very little movement of your rod tip to give the worm plenty of action.
"You're trying to let it fall down to the bottom and let it work itself. I try to keep my weight on the bottom and just barely move the worm in one spot, then I'll lift it and move it a little and shake it some more."
One other thing he'll try occasionally is targeting the outside edges of docks that have a lot of deep water nearby and a lot of chunk rock on the banks.
Dodd said spots will gang up in front of the docks, most of which are floaters, relating to the anchor weights at the bottom to which the corners of the dock are typically tethered with a cable.
He'll make an underhanded flip with a drop-shot rig and just ease it around.