When Chip Hamilton says, "Get ready, here he comes," you'd better be close to your fishing rod.

Almost every time he repeats that phrase, one or more of his rods takes a nosedive into the clear, cold waters of Lake Hartwell.

A quick hook-set typically signals that a bruising striper or hard-fighting hybrid is on the business end of the rig.

On many days, it will mean multiple hookups, with both stripers and hybrids.

"We enjoy excellent fishing throughout much of the year here on Lake Hartwell," said Hamilton, who operates Lake Hartwell Striper Guide Service (864-304-9011). "But the fishing in December is absolutely outstanding. The really good fishing actually perks up in November and may carry over into January, if the water temperature doesn't get too cold.

"When the water gets really cold, we'll have to sometimes find fish on different patterns, but December is a great month for taking big stripers and hybrids using live bait. Plus, we have the occasional bonus opportunity to take fish on the water's surface."

Hamilton said he'll be geared up to take advantage of any topwater schooling action, but his bread-and-butter is live- bait fishing. With that pattern, he has an outstanding chance of success.

"Live bait fishing is Plan A during December," he said. "Topwater schooling action is heart-stopping exciting, especially when there are some 10-to 20-pound stripers ripping baitfish to shreds on the water's surface. But that action is sometimes sporadic and unpredictable, so most guides at Lake Hartwell see it as Plan B.

"That's a 'B' as in 'bonus.'

"There (are) plenty of places we can consistently find stripers and hybrids this time of the year using live bait."

Steve Crenshaw (864-608-2763) is another full-time Lake Hartwell striper guide, and he echoes Hamilton's appraisal of the end-of-the-year fishery.

"It's one of my busiest months for guiding, and the live-bait pattern is solid and dependable," Crenshaw said. "When we get on a good pattern, it may last for a while, with fish holding in the same general area for a few days. The basic technique is simple: we mark the exact location of the fish on the graph, drop the blueback herring down to the depth the fish are marked, or just slightly above them. It usually doesn't take long before we're hooking and landing fish."

Crenshaw said they will find some schooling fish, and when they do, they're very susceptible to lures like bucktails or swimming minnow lures.

"We seldom see lots of high intensity, shad-ripping topwater schooling as we may during the warmer months," Crenshaw said. "But we'll certainly take advantage of the topwater opportunity when presented."

Both Hamilton and Crenshaw work separately, but their fishing patterns are similar. They often work together on large groups of clients and will provide each other with updates during the day.

"I guess that's one of the advantages for having cell phones," Hamilton said. "It's great to have someone I can check with, or who will check with me.

"Sometimes, success is simply a matter of us eliminating patterns that are not working until we hit the right pattern for the day. Usually, one of us will get on a good pattern in a specific depth of water. Letting the other know that bit of information can make all the difference in success. It does help to double-team these fish at times. It has worked so well for us, I think someone ought to write a story called 'Cell Phones for Stripers.'"

Hamilton said the first consideration for consistent success is the water-temperature transition occurring in December. He said that will have a big impact on which portion of the lake the fish will congregate.

Hamilton said it's necessary to understand the layout of the lake to better understand where stripers will typically be located.

The lake is impounded by Hartwell Dam on the Savannah River, seven miles below the junction of the Tugaloo and Seneca rivers - the two major arms of the lake. Their waters extend many miles upstream and are prime December fishing areas. At normal pool elevation, Lake Hartwell covers nearly 56,000 acres, with 962 miles of shoreline.

"There's a lot of water here, so you've got to narrow your search area," Hamilton said. "Fortunately, that's what occurs during December.

"As the water begins to cool down, the fish begin their migration up the creeks and rivers," Hamilton said. "The impact of the cooling will really begin in late-November and into December. As this occurs, we will begin to find both stripers and hybrids in the tributaries more than the main lake. They will be leaving the main lake, where they often orient to the underwater trees. This time of year, the favored structures are underwater features that are relatively clean and void of trees and brush.

"One of my favorite areas is simply the clean humps that rise up from the deep water in the larger creeks and rivers. Another excellent place I focus on is the end of long, sloping points. Both are typically great places for stripers and hybrids to congregate,"

Crenshaw said he seldom fishes near the dam at this time of the year. The areas he focuses on are the Tugaloo River from U.S. 123 downstream to I-85. Plus, he said fishing is great up the Seneca River from I-85 to the Clemson area.

"That's still a lot of water to cover, but it does give us a target area to focus our fishing efforts," he said.

Crenshaw said that generally, the typical depth he catches fish in December will be 35 to 55 feet, give or take a few feet either way on a given day. Since the basic pattern of stripers and hybrids is to feed on roaming baitfish, live blueback herring four to six inches long are perfect.

"I use 20-pound test Trilene Big Game clear line," Crenshaw said. "I'll put a 1½-ounce egg sinker about 24 to 30 inches above the hook as my basic rig."

Crenshaw also said that almost all of the places he fishes will have a link to the deeper water in the area.

"I always orient to channel ledges and other forms of drops, points or humps throughout the winter, summer and fall," he said. "The spring may be the only exception to this rule. I may fish clean flats during December, but they will be near a channel."

Hamilton said he typically anchors his boat where he marks fish on his depthfinder. It is essential, he said, to get the boat position just right, and he studies the layout of the school of fish on the depthfinder. He calculates and considers the wind direction and velocity before putting out the anchor. If the wind is not howling, he'll often use his electric motor to work an area. Either way, he said that boat position is a real key to success.

"Sometimes the boat will spook the fish at first, but they'll usually get used to it pretty quick," Hamilton said. "But being right on target is a real key to success. One of the keys I look for, in addition to baitfish on the graph, is the presence of the big arches indicative of stripers and hybrids. I'll often mark a lot of fish several feet off the bottom, but if there are some big fish lying near the bottom, that's my key. These are the fish that typically are feeding.

"For that reason, I'll usually lower my bait so it's about three feet off the bottom," he said. "On occasion, you'll find days where all the fish are suspended well off the bottom, and you'll have to work that depth. In that case, if you don't mark fish on the bottom or don't get any bites there, put your bait just above the depth where the mass of fish are marked on the graph. It's better to have the bait just above a striper.

"I continue to watch the graph intently after the boat is positioned to see how the stripers and hybrids react to the bait. Many times, I can see them working into a feeding frenzy based on the erratic lines on the graph. Often I can predict to my clients when a fish is about to bite. Sometimes, when one bites, the other fish literally go on a feeding frenzy, and the action is wild. That's what we're looking for."

Hamilton said another pattern that works during the winter is drifting the main channel of the creek or tributary river being fished. When fish can't be found on the humps, points, ledges and similar structures, they often suspend in the 30- to 40-foot depth range in the middle of the channel.

"When slowly motoring over the channel, you may see only a few big fish marks in a given area, but that usually means there's plenty of fish around," he said. "When I see that, I'll set up and work that area.

"In addition to down rods, I'll use free-line rigs in this situation. I'll put on a small split shot to get the herring down a bit, but basically let the bait free-line behind the boat. This will often work very well during December."

Hamilton said fishermen can expect to catch a mixed bag of hybrids and stripers. Stripers will run from seven to 20 pounds during the winter; hybrids will average five to seven pounds on Hartwell. But, Hamilton said, you can catch some really big fish.

"Sometimes I'll have a client who wishes to focus on trophy stripers," Hamilton said. "If the fisherman is willing to give up action on numbers of fish, we'll focus on a technique for a striper in the 20- to 40-pound size class. The really big stripers can be hooked anywhere, at any time, the way we fish. But I do have a different technique or two when trying to single out those huge fish."

First of all, he likes a clear, bright day with no clouds. Plus, the ideal temperature would be in the upper 50s to lower 60s. The prime time of the day is from about 9 a.m. until 3 p.m.

"Really big stripers are very sensitive to boats and external influences," Hamilton said. "But I've found the above set of conditions is ideal for hooking into a real trophy fish. I'll use free-line rigs over a long, sloping point that drops into deep water or over a clean ridge near deep water. Typically, I won't fish as deep as I normally do at this time of the year either. Often, these really big fish will get into these type areas in 20 to 25 feet of water during mid-day. Plus, I'll use the larger herring when targeting a big striper.

"I get the line and herring well away from the boat and work each area thoroughly and patiently. There usually won't be nearly as much action as with our more traditional fishing pattern. But the odds of hooking a huge fish or two are enhanced using this technique. It's certainly not a sure-fire set-up, but it's the best way I've found to specifically target the really big fish."

Hamilton said that this big-fish pattern stays consistent through January and into February. He said that this general fishing pattern will remain productive into February. He said fish will begin to move further up the rivers and into the mouths of the tributary creeks.

As the water temperature drops, so will the intensity of the action. But stripers and hybrids will be caught and the 35- to 55-foot depths will remain a good depth to begin your search on a daily basis.

Both Hamilton and Crenshaw typically get in on the early-morning action during December. Hamilton said they have places that are often productive just at dawn in shallower water, and they can sometimes get the day jump-started right at the beginning.