"I'm pretty straight forward when it comes to April fishing on Hartwell," Latimer said. "It doesn't really matter what conditions are. If it's April, I'm going to be looking for fish on beds. That time of year, it's pretty hard to compete with sight-fishing on Hartwell by fishing any other way."
Latimer grew up fishing on Hartwell with his dad, Jimmy Latimer, who has fished tournaments on the Savannah River chain since the mid-1970s. Brian was in second grade when he fished his first tournament - a night tournament on Hartwell - with his dad. His biggest bass for many years, an 8-pounder, came from Hartwell during a tournament when Latimer was only 10 years old. He's had a boat as long as he has had a driver's license.
"My first boat was a 10-foot johnboat with a 7.5 Mercury, and I had to assemble it on the ramp every afternoon when I'd go fishing," said Latimer, who also caught his first bedding bass on Hartwell when he was a youngster and has been "hooked" on sight-fishing ever since.
Now, he spends much of the year anticipating spring.
Latimer is a serious threat in any Hartwell tournament, and he won an Wal-Mart BFL event there in 2007. It was very late April and naturally, he caught the bulk of his bass sight-fishing. Spring had come early that year, and Latimer had thought the bedding activity was basically done. He had found some bass that were relating to spawning herring, but when a cold morning slowed that bite and left him fishless after three hours, he slipped into a pocket and found a limit of bass, including two 5-pounders, on beds around docks. The other bite materialized later in the day, allowing him to cull a couple of fish, but most of his weighed bass came as a result of sight-fishing.
Latimer considers Hartwell an outstanding sight-fishing lake because of the water clarity, the sheer abundance of pockets off the main body and the lake's creeks and its ultra-plentiful, chunky bass. In short, there are endless place to look for bass and lots of bass to look for.
Based on a 3-year sampling assessment conducted a few years ago by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, Lake Hartwell's largemouths appear to be doing very well. The department recently initiated a 3-year angler survey on Hartwell - the first since 1992 - that will provide a good picture of what anglers are catching, according to Dan Rankin, Region 1 fisheries coordinator for SCDNR.
"The largemouth population seems to be strong," Rankin said. "Lake Hartwell doesn't produce a lot of really big bass, but it supports really good numbers of quality fish."
Latimer does almost all of his fishing on the lower end of the lake, which has the clearest water overall, but he said that an angler can enjoy good sight-fishing on all parts of Lake Hartwell. He grew up fishing mostly downlake from the confluence of the Tugaloo and Seneca rivers, and he's rarely found reason to do too much exploration in other parts of the lake.
Latimer looks for spawning fish in pockets - there are dozens in the lower lake - and he said it's really hard to pinpoint locations much beyond that. Sometimes the best pockets are along the main lake; other times up creeks or coves - and the pockets can be big or small. Beds are often beside cover, but the cover can be as insignificant as an isolated stick-up, a small stump or even an aluminum can on the bottom.
"You just have to go from pocket to pocket looking for green spots," Latimer said, noting that both bass and beds tend to look green in the water at Hartwell. "During the peak, it really doesn't matter where you look; you can go in pretty much any pocket on the Lake Hartwell and find fish. It's that good when it is right."
Although the specific timing varies significantly from year to year, from Latimer's observations, the peak of bedding typically occurs during the first two weeks of April. In late March and very early in April, Latimer looks first in pockets that orient to the north because they tend to be protected from the coldest winds. When cold fronts push through, he'll look for fish in the creeks, because more banks are protected than on the main lake and because many pockets in Hartwell's creeks have docks in them. He believes docks work sort of like solar panels and add slight warmth that attracts fish.
Once Latimer locates fish, he goes after them with a simple arsenal of soft-plastic offerings. His typical 1-2-3 punch, which he keeps rigged and ready, includes a crawfish such as a YUM Craw Papi, a finesse worm and a YUM Dinger. Unlike many sight-fishermen, who favor white offerings so they can see the baits better, Latimer believes he can get a bedding fish to bite more readily with a natural color such as green pumpkin.
Rigging varies with conditions; sometimes he'll have one bait Texas-rigged or strung on a shaky-head and another rigged weightless. He also likes to use a drop-shot rig, which suspends the offering just off the bottom and gives the bass a different look.
From a presentation standpoint, less is more, Latimer said. He'll first try simply letting a bait fall down into a bed or drag it slowly into place and stop it. If that doesn't work he'll jiggle the rod tip with a slack line, seeking to make the bait dance without varying its position. If the fish doesn't take the bait he'll make repeated pitches, hitting different spots in a bed.
Because of the clarity of the water and the popularity of spring fishing, Hartwell bass can be tough customers. Latimer tries to stay well back from the beds he fishes. When he spots a fish, he'll stop the boat and watch the fish for a while to gauge its mood, to see how the bed lies and how the fish is relating to it, making mental notes about bank features or cover that provide visual clues. He'll then back off as far as he thinks he can go and still manage accurate presentations to the right spot.
"It's one of those things that you have to spend time doing to get used to, but you start to get a sense of how a bed is situated and how far the bait should drop through the water column, and you know what's going on even though you can't necessarily see your bait or the bass," Latimer said. "It also keeps you from setting the hook prematurely and hooking a fish outside the mouth when you are watching the line for movements."
Along with staying back as far as possible, Latimer uses docks, deadfalls and other cover to his advantage, both for concealment and to tie up to or rest the boat against.
"I do everything I can to minimize movements and noise," he said. "If I don't have to run my trolling motor, I won't, and I like to have all my rods already rigged and on the deck."
Sight fishing does not always mean bed fishing, Latimer said. Just before the bass get on the beds, they'll cruise the same areas where they'll bed a little later and will hold just under docks, where they are still visible. Latimer actually likes that stage the best because the fish tend to be extremely catchable.
Whether or not the fish are locked onto beds, Latimer expects to find some in bedding areas throughout the month of April, and while some anglers might catch bass by using other techniques, he's going to be looking for them and expecting to find them.