"Most of our lakes in the Upstate of South Carolina have blueback herring, and they are the main focus of the bass from late spring throughout the summer," said bass pro Davy Hite of Ninety Six. "In the month of June, the bass are definitely focused in on the bluebacks."
Bass are locked onto herring, he said, because they are coming out of the spawn and are feeding up, trying to recover from the rigors of reproducing. They literally gorge on the readily available baitfish.
"The bass really love them. They must taste like lobster or filet mignon to them," he said.
So catching bass simply boils down to locating those swimming hors d'oeuvres, he said.
"When people hear that somebody is catching fish, the first thing they ask - and I am guilty of the same thing - is 'What did you catch them on?'" Hite said. "But much more important than that is to be around the fish. You can have the greatest baits in the world, and if you are not around the fish, I can promise you, won't catch any fish."
Typically, by June, the herring have moved out to deeper areas with the bass in tow, but not as far out as they will get in July, August and September, he added.
"Earlier in the year, the herring will be up in from two to six to eight feet of water, and you can visually see them, but usually by June, most of them will be out in the 10- to 12-foot range, so the key there is to try to locate them - and your electronics come into play then."
And being on the water right at daylight is a key, he added.
"I can't emphasize how important it is to be out there early in the morning and see what activity is going on," said Hite, the 1999 Bassmasters Classic champion and 1997 and 2002 BASS Angler of the Year. "You might be fishing one point and see fish schooling two or three points away. You have a brief window early in the morning, maybe an hour, when those fish come up and chase the herring, but after that you have to rely on your electronics."
Bass are predators that like to ambush their prey, Hite pointed out, saying he uses his boat's electronics to first locate the herring.
"With the sonar I can split the screen so I can see half-maps and half-sonar. When I see the blueback herring, I see not only where they are, but what they are relating to on the split screen," Hite said. "Once you find the baitfish, look for a rock or a stump or a little hardbottom area, something those fish will relate to around that bait. When you put a few things together, you have a plan for success."
Although there are a few places on the lower end of the lake that can be productive in June, most of the bass there have moved out and are relating to the main-river channel by then, so Hite prefers to concentrate his efforts on the upper third of the lake.
"Those fish seem to do a little better up the Savannah River at Clarks Hill. They are a little behind the rest of the lake then because of the cold water coming out of Lake Russell Dam," said Hite, who has fished Clarks Hill since he started going there with his dad when he was 12 or 13 years old and has seen bass habits transformed by the introduction of the blueback herring.
"To be honest, when we first started getting those blueback herring - and Clarks Hill was the first lake I was familiar with that had a substantial population of herring - I thought it was the greatest thing since ice cream the way those fish would school and feed on the bluebacks," Hite said. "But now, after 20 years, I don't think they are really good for a lake. They eat a lot of fry, and the bass focus on them so much in June on through the summer they are hard to catch because they are out in deep water, roaming and feeding on the schools of herring."
Before the herring were introduced, he said, anglers could catch bass in traditional areas this time of year - around button bushes and flooded willow trees.
"But now they are focused on the herring, and they live in deep water most of the year. It makes you have to become an offshore specialist if you want to be competitive in the summer on Clarks Hill."
Hite used his knowledge of the lake and how the bass react to the herring to win a Bassmaster Elite Series tournament on Clarks Hill in May 2006.
"Knowing the places the herring like to spawn and the type of points where they like to spawn this time of year definitely helped," he said after weighing in 71 pounds of bass in four days to claim the $100,000 first prize. "I've actually stumbled before in tournaments when I knew a lot about the lake and was trying to fish memories, but that didn't happen here."
He caught most of his fish that week - and in a second-place finish in the same BASS event on Clarks Hill two years later - on a Mop Jig, which looks nothing like a blueback herring, but it's Hite's secret weapon when he's fishing at Clarks Hill.
"The Mop Jig simulates a crawfish, which kind of contradicts the main forage those fish are after that time of year, but I always have it in hand," Hite said. "I'm a tournament fisherman, so I always have it tied on. If I go to Clarks Hill with my boys, Parker and Peyton, and we are just trying to catch fish, I might throw a topwater lure like a Zara Spook or a Pencil Popper, but a tournament fisherman has to catch five quality fish."
The Mop Jig isn't Hite's only weapon on Clarks Hill.
"I throw a lot of other baits, too. I like the Buckeye Lures Wake Up Wakebait that was designed by Anthony Gagliardi, and I also use a lot of soft-plastic jerkbaits and Senkos, that sort of thing. I'll also probably have a lipless crankbait to throw when the bass are chasing bait - a Redeye Shad, Strike King's version of the Rat-L-Trap - and a swimming Senko. It's totally different from a Senko; you just cast it out and reel it back in."
Winning the 2006 tournament was perhaps Hite's biggest thrill on Clarks Hill, but he quickly noted there have been some other great fishing days on the lake also.
"My brother-in-law, Scott Martin, and I won a South Carolina Team Tournament Association Classic there 15 or 20 years ago and won $10,000," he said. "That was certainly a big win for us at that point in our fishing careers. I've had some success with the Bass Federation tournaments there and SCTTA tournaments, and then to win the Elite, that really capped it for me."
But perhaps the most enjoyable times he has spent on the lake were with his dad or taking his boys fishing, he said.
"I've had some really good days in June on the lake," he said. "One memorable day was the second week in June four or five years ago when I was between tournaments. My friend Bart Blackburn of Augusta and I just went fishing for fun."
They started the day out fishing topwater and caught some good fish that way. Then when the topwater bite died, Hite tied on a Senko and Blackburn threw a Fluke. After catching more bass that way, they both tied on brown living rubber Mop Jigs.
"Bart caught a 7-pounder, and I caught one about five pounds," Hite said. "It was a really fun day on the water."
June is probably the last month before summer patterns take over, he said, to have a day like that on Clarks Hill.
"The fun times will be getting more rare after this month. It starts getting tough in July and August."