Daytime temperatures may get up to the 50s, but overnight temps are often at freezing or below.
It's the season that fishing "how-to" books refer to as "late winter," often the coldest part of the year. Most people can't conceive of fishing when it's this cold. Even for those who do brave the elements, it's a time of frozen motor controls, ice in the rod guides and fingers turning so numb it's hard to cast.
Except for the numb finger part, it's almost perfect. Straight out of the fishing tactics books comes the standard advice about winter fishing: locate areas of the lake or river where warmer water enters the main area. An increase in temperature of 1 to 2 degrees can be significant.
If one or two degrees is significant, then 25 to 30 degrees should be downright phenomenal. Most times it is.
Lake Keowee was built in the late 1960s by Duke Energy Corporation. The lake was designed to provide water for Duke Power's Oconee nuclear power station. Water is pumped into the nuclear station and used as a coolant in the outside chambers of the station's nuclear reactors. Afterwards, the heated water is discharged into the reservoir where it enters at temperatures ranging in the high 70s. The process is both energy efficient and environmentally friendly.
The benefit for anglers is the majority of baitfish that inhabit this otherwise cold, clear reservoir bunch up at pockets and coves surrounding the power-station discharge. This area is commonly referred to as the "hot hole."
Where baits swim, predator fish swim. Lake Keowee is no exception to this rule as fish of all species congregate at the general area of the "hot hole."
The most predominant of Keowee's fishery is the spotted bass.
"Largemouth bass were the predominant species in Keowee when the lake was first built," said South Carolina Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Dan Rankin. "At some point spotted bass were introduced to the lake, probably by fishermen, and during the last 14 years or so, spotted bass numbers have increased while largemouth numbers have declined."
A DNR creel survey 2005 indicated spotted bass now make up around 68 percent (by weight) of the fish caught at Lake Keowee. During 1991 that number was 2 percent.
Based upon the 2005 survey, angler effort and harvest is six to eight times higher in the area affected by the warm-water discharge than anywhere else on the lake.
While spotted bass don't achieve the same size as their largemouth cousins, the "spot" definitely has a more aggressive attitude. Spotted bass are known to be more of a schooling fish than largemouths and when Lake Keowee's forage begin to group en masse at the "hot hole," the lake's spots go on a rampage.
Schools of baitfish, primarily threadfin shad and blueback herring, get bunched into corners, pockets or driven to the surface by schooling spots. The eruption of spotted bass tearing into baitfish schools can be seen from a distance and at times lasts for several hours early and late in the day.
Someone who knows how aggressive Keowee's spots can be is local fishing guide Monty McGuffin of Westminster. McGuffin is host of a local fishing television show called "The Carolina Outdoorsman Show."
"Late January through February is definitely the best time to go after Keowee spotted bass," said McGuffin, who has featured the lake and this particular area in a number of his television shows. "This is some of the best schooling action you'll find anywhere in the state."
Although some anglers do well fishing from the rocky bank that surrounds the discharge cove, McGuffin prefers to target Keowee spots from his 21-foot Ranger Comanche. The current in the "hot hole" is normally pretty swift and an angler needs to stay on the trolling motor while fishing in the discharge. McGuffin said the aerated water coming out of the discharge area offers baitfish surface cover as the water is filled with dime-size bubbles. Spotted bass, normally a bottom-oriented species, move into the rushing water and hide among the rocks that line the sides and bottom of the discharge area.
"At times they'll be up at the surface chasing bait but usually prefer to hold below the bait waiting for an opportunity to strike," said McGuffin, who indicated his first bait of choice for fishing the "hot hole" is a bucktail jig in white, pearl or chartreuse colors.
He's quick to point out almost any minnow-imitating bait will work and has found any bait a fishermen has confidence in will catch more fish for that angler. The bait that holds McGuffin's confidence is a Pro Shad Spin, made by Fish Stalker, in 3/8- or 1/2-ounce.
"The Pro Shad Spin is a minnow-head bucktail with a willowleaf spinnerblade attached below the bait," McGuffin said. "That blade puts off both vibrations and extra flash, which helps the bass hone in on it as it's being retrieved through the turbulent water."
McGuffin also likes the way a compact bait such as the Pro Shad Spin casts, an important aspect when schooling fish blow up a good distance from the boat. When this occurs, cast the bait into the disturbance and count down to the 15-foot mark and begin a steady retrieve back to the boat.
McGuffin admits some days spots seem to like an erratic retrieve, but his best success comes by acquiring a steady rhythm during the retrieve.
"It's like riding a bike, once you've done it and get the feel for it, that steady retrieve will catch you a lot of fish," he said.
Later in the day when spotted bass spread out chasing shad, a preferred pattern is to position the boat pointing directly into the current of the discharge and fan cast perpendicular to the flow as the current pushes the boat out. Once the boat has moved at least 250 yards out into the lake, go back to the output and start over again.
The warm-water discharge cove contains a lot of fish, but some anglers have found fighting the current while allowing room for other boats isn't as lucrative as finding a school of fish farther out in the lake.
Water depths in Lake Keowee quickly drop to depths ranging near 100 feet within sight of the "hot hole," and the discharge effect can be measured considerable distances from the discharge. In addition to dropoffs, numerous points, banks and saddles are located in the area and knowledgeable anglers use their sonar equipment to locate bottom-hugging spotted bass in one of these locations. It's not uncommon to find 100 or more spotted bass holding tight to a rock ledge and only one or two of these fish will show up on the graph. When this occurs, McGuffin will position his boat directly above the fish on the graph, especially if he can mark baitfish with them, and drops a 4-inch worm hooked to a drop shot rig straight to the bottom. If he can get one fish to bite, he is often rewarded with seeing a "Christmas tree" shape on his graph as the other competitive fish charge up after the thrashing fish on the hook. Once this occurs, the door is opened to catching large numbers of spotted bass from one location.
Speaking of numbers of fish, Rankin had additional observations about the spotted bass population in Lake Keowee.
"In recent years we have noticed the individual size of the spotted bass has decreased " he said.
Likely causes for this decrease is the spotted bass infiltration of Lake Keowee has reached the lake's carrying capacity.
"They're starting to stunt," said Rankin, who noted spotted bass are a highly-prolific breeders, meaning the success rate for newly hatched spots is generally greater than expected for other black bass species, such as largemouths and smallmouths. An additional factor is that black bass anglers fiercely cling to a "catch-and-release" mentality.
Catch and release is great for the largemouth fishery at Keowee, but releasing spots works against the largemouth and the spot fisheries because of increased competition for food. Rankin said angler harvests are necessary in order to bring the spotted bass numbers back to optimum growth and carrying capacity of the lake.
Another interesting factor regarding the growth of the spotted bass is their ability to naturally hybridize with the redeye bass. Redeye bass are a much smaller black bass species and were the native to the Keowee River and Savannah headwaters before the lake was impounded.
A genetic study still in progress suggests that as many as 30 percent of the spotted bass in Lake Keowee show genetic signs of cross breeding with redeyes.
While spotted bass are tremendous fighters and present a good challenge for anglers using artificial bait, live bait tactics are tough to beat, especially those days when the fish have been hammered with jigging spoons, drop shots, bucktails, and crankbaits or on days when weather patterns put the spots in a finicky mood.
The No. 1 live bait for Keowee spots is a run-of-the-mill bait-shop minnow. Crappie minnows work well, but as with most fish, bigger shiner minnows in the 3- to 4-inch range catch bigger fish - but perhaps not as many.
Orient the minnow near the bottom, hanging the bait straight down on a Carolina-rig hook. Drifting the area with baits suspended at various depths between 15 feet and the bottom will let the spotted bass decide which depths they prefer.
One overlooked live-bait tactic is to suspend a whole nightcrawler on a light line in the channel near the S.C. 130 Bridge, just around the corner from the "hot hole." Don't be surprised if occasionally a trophy rainbow trout shows up.