Lake Hartwell stripers, hybrids biting fast and furious

Stripers and hybrids are biting fast and furious at Lake Hartwell, especially early in the day on clay banks.

When blueback herring spawn on Lake Hartwell this month, stripers and hybrid bass will pile into the shallows on red-clay banks to gorge themselves.

It is nighttime — the crack of dawn is still an hour or more away — and South Carolina’s Lake Hartwell is dark. Chip Hamilton points the bow of his striper boat straight at the bank of a point jutting out into the lake. He revs the engine briefly to drive the front of the boat up on the bank.

No boat lights nor any other lights are shining on the water near the boat. But Hamilton uses a small light in the boat to start baiting Carolina rigs with live blueback herring. One by one, he casts four baits out the back and off the sides of the boat. If the fish are there, a fish will be on the first rod before the fourth bait hits the water.

It’s spring and that means it is striper/hybrid bonanza time on Hartwell, the sprawling reservoir on the Savannah River along the South Carolina-Georgia border.

By dawn’s early light, the feeding frenzy is beginning to wind down. But on a good day, that’s fine, because the cooler is full of stripers and hybrids. And on a really good day, a bonus of nice spotted bass and largemouth bass will be in the mixture.

Water temperature is a key factor

“If you can get on a point where the fish are stacked up, a four-person limit of 40 fish is not a problem,” said Hamilton, who runs Lake Hartwell Fishing Charters. “This kind of fishing can start as early as March, and I have seen it go all the way to the end of May and the first of June. Usually, it is wrapped up by the middle of May. But it will go into June if the water temperature has not gotten too hot.”

The feeding frenzy starts to kick in, he said, when the water temperature hits the 60- to 62-degree mark and holds on until it gets into the low 70s.

“Once the water temperature gets into the 70s, that’s when it begins to phase out,” Hamilton said.

Red-clay banks are key for this bonanza, and the bite happens in two phases, he said.

“The first time we do it is when the fish are doing a false spawn,” he said. “They will be up on the banks, and when you put a bait in front of them, they will readily take it. The second phase is when the baitfish, especially blueback herring, spawn. The fish move up onto the banks to eat them.”

Red clay makes a big difference

Hamilton prefers gently sloping, red-clay banks on points jutting out into the lake near deep water.

“I have caught them on rocky points and sandy points. But if I fish 10 points, at least eight of them will be red clay, and Hartwell is full of red clay,” he said.

“The water your bait is in can be as shallow as 18 inches or even 4 feet deep, but not super deep. You want your rods sitting in about 2 to 4 feet with a decent cast. If you are on a deep point, that’s not good. And if you are on a long, sloping point that is not good.”

Hybrid bass will mix in with stripers in April, as both species head shallow to take advantage of the herring and shad spawns.
Hybrid bass will mix in with stripers in April, as both species head shallow to take advantage of the herring and shad spawns.

The ideal place to set up, he said, is a point where the water level goes out to just shy of 20 feet before it drops off into deeper water.

“That is the best situation,” he said. “The fish patrol at 12 to 14 feet. When they see the bait up there near the bank, they ease up there and get it.”

These fish are hungry this time of year

In fact, Hamilton said, there is no need for bait to match the baitfish this time of year. Most of the baitfish are blueback herring, but smaller threadfin shad may be spawning up the creeks.

“If you are upriver and they are feeding on the smaller threadfins and you throw a 5- to 6-inch herring out there, they will eat it,” he said. “The size of the bait doesn’t matter that much. They are just ready to eat this time of year.”

The basic rig for this type of fishing is a Carolina rig with an egg sinker and a 2-foot leader.

“The egg sinker hits the bottom, and the bait can swim around the sinker,” he said. “If you cast it out into 2 feet of water, the bait can make it to the surface. All of a sudden, you hear the same sound when fish are schooling and one blows up on the bait. You know he ran that bait all the way to the end of the leader and got it. It’s a real adrenaline rush to hear that and feel the rod bend with a hostile hybrid.”

But the bank-bite feeding frenzy only lasts as long at darkness reigns, he said.

Catch ’em in the dark, because the sun will move them deeper

“The reason is because Hartwell is so clear for the most part. The sun makes them move out to deeper water for comfort and safety,” said Hamilton. He believes some of the best action is just before the move. “A lot of times at the crack of daylight, they know the bait is ready to leave the bank. So they just absolutely gorge themselves. They know the easy feeding is about over.

“When the daylight is strong enough to turn off the light in the boat, you have about 20 more minutes to fish the bank. I will give it an extra 15 or 20 minutes to see if a big striper comes by in search of a quick meal. Many times, I’ve had some nice stripers come in right at daylight, 12- to 15-pound stripers, occasionally a 20-pounder.”

A heavy, overcast sky or even a little misty rain can prolong the bank bite a bit, Hamilton said. But eventually it will be over. Then, he backs off to fish free-lines over a nearby ditch or pocket if his party has not already limited out.

The only way to describe the bank bite when the fish are in a feeding frenzy is “chaos,” Hamilton said.

Multiple hookups are not at all uncommon

“The hybrids will be 2 to 3 pounds up to 8 or 9 pounds,” he said. “A big hybrid is a real job up on the bank. It’s harder to fight the fish on the bank versus straight down in deeper water because he is able to do more sideways fighting. But that is good for the customer. It’s all about the fight.”

It can be really chaotic when everybody on the boat is fighting a fish in that shallow water, he noted.

“On some of my more-exciting trips, we have had four fish on at a time,” Hamilton said. “You just cast the rod out, turn the reel handle and hand it to the customer. If the fish are there, you just set the hook.”

The pattern can be pretty consistent while the herring are spawning and hybrids and stripers are gorging in the shallow water, Hamilton said.

“If they are there one day, they will be there the next day — or not far from that spot,” he said. “One spring, I fished one point, sitting in the same direction each day, and caught a limit for everyone on the boat for 13 trips in a row. That was several hundred hybrids just sitting in the same spot every morning.”

Bonus bass make for a spring slam

The primary targets for Lake Hartwell’s early dawn, red-bank fishing are hybrids and stripers. But bonus spotted and largemouth bass can turn a great morning of fishing into a springtime slam.

“If the hybrids and stripers are there thick enough to catch a 20-fish box up to a limit of 40 fish, the catch usually is just stripers and hybrids,” said Hamilton. “But if a lot of stripers and hybrids are not present on a particular morning, we often fill out our limits with spotted and largemouth bass.”

Largemouth bass and spotted bass may visit spreads of baits intended for stripers or hybrids in March.
Largemouth bass and spotted bass may visit spreads of baits intended for stripers or hybrids in March.

Hamilton doesn’t know whether bass are schooling with the hybrids and stripers or just waiting their turn at the baitfish bunched up against the bank.

“I think it really just depends on how thick and aggressive the school of hybrids are. If the hybrids are thick and aggressively feeding, we usually don’t catch any bass,” he said. “Largemouths don’t like to school with hybrids because of how aggressive they are. But spotted bass don’t really care.”

Typically, he said, the spotted bass catch occurs at the beginning of the feeding frenzy or at the end when the hybrids start to slow down.

“But usually, during a flurry of hybrid feeding, you don’t catch any spots,” he said.

Patience is not a virtue

Fishing success often depends on being patient. You put your lines out, wait — and hope for a bite. But not when fishing the spring hybrid/striper feeding frenzy on Lake Hartwell.

“You have a small window to catch these fish,” said Hamilton. “We put the boat in a couple of hours before daylight, and it’s over at good daylight. If the fish are there, you will know it in a few minutes.”

Don’t wait for fish to bite when you set up this month at Lake Hartwell. Move if they aren’t biting. If they are, you might finish off your limit before daylight, but maybe not.
Don’t wait for fish to bite when you set up this month at Lake Hartwell. Move if they aren’t biting. If they are, you might finish off your limit before daylight.

If he has picked a good spot that morning, Hamilton said, once the egg sinkers on the Carolina rigs hit the water, they will have a fish on.

“Half the time, you don’t get the fourth rod out before you are netting the first fish,” he said.

Be ready

It can be so automatic that if Hamilton has had repeated success on a particular point, he will have his fishing party hold their rods while he baits them, then he quickly casts them out without having to stop and put a bait on in between.

“If I feel that strong about a place, I want to have everyone ready before I cast the first rod out. It can be fast and furious,” he said.

But sometimes, he said, after that first fish or two, the bite might slow down or stop for whatever reason.

“If we sit there for 15 minutes and don’t get another bite, I reel in and leave. I know that on that particular pattern, I should be steady catching fish,” he said. “You can’t waste time being patient. If they are there, they are going to eat. If not, you have to move.”

Red clay will make your day

Location, location, location. The key to success for this springtime striper-hybrid fishing bonanza is a red clay bank on a gently sloping point, Hamilton said.

“I believe that some of the mildly rocky points are good. But we don’t pull up on them because the rocks just beat your boat to death.”

Pull up on a red-clay point and fan-cast live baits for striped and hybrid bass this month on Lake Hartwell.
Pull up on a red-clay point and fan-cast live baits for striped and hybrid bass this month on Lake Hartwell.

Hamilton said one guide did pull up on a point with smaller, gravel-sized rocks and stabilized his boat with power poles away from the bank.

“He did very well on this point several days in a row, but I would not fish it because of the possibility of tearing my boat up on the rocks. It’s just harder to fish a rocky bank unless you are using power poles.”

The other advantage, Hamilton said, is that the red clay helps pinpoint which point and which sloping bank to pull up on.

“Why red clay is better than sand I don’t know. I have caught them on sandy banks, but the sand was mixed in with the red clay.”

And that is a critical factor. If there is no wind you can’t pinpoint which bank to go to. But if there is a good wind rocking the bank, it creates a mud line and the baitfish will pull up into that mud line because they feel safer there, he added.

“Trial and error has shown that red clay is better than sand,” Hamilton said.


  • HOW TO GET THERE — Lake Hartwell straddles the border between Georgia and South Carolina on the Savannah, Tugaloo and Seneca rivers. The best access is via I-85 to areas around Clemson and Anderson. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, local governments, South Carolina and Georgia maintain boating facilities around the lake. For information visit:
  • WHEN TO GO — Depending on water temperatures the annual herring spawn, which triggers the striper/hybrid feeding frenzy along the banks, can begin in late March and last through late May, sometimes into early June.
  • BEST TECHNIQUES — Well before the first crack of dawn, run your boat up onto a red-clay bank to stabilize it, then cast live blueback herring on Carolina rigs behind and off the sides of the boat in less than 4 feet of water. If the bite is slow, move to another red-clay bank.
  • FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Chip Hamilton, Lake Hartwell Fishing Charters,, 864-304-9011. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.
  • ACCOMMODATIONS — Lake Hartwell Country,; Anderson Convention and Visitors Bureau,;
  • MAPS — Kingfisher Maps, 800-326-0257,

Click here to read about Clark Hill’s spring striper and hybrid fishing.