Sensational stripers and black bass at Richard B. Russell

These big stripers were hooked, fought and caught, at the same time on Lake Russell. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Upstate SC lake provides surprisingly hot action for numerous species of summertime fish

Nestled between two of South Carolina’s most popular summertime striper fishing lakes is a July fishing jewel that’s often overlooked. 

Lake Richard B. Russell, on the Savannah River chain of lakes, doesn’t give up the big numbers of stripers, or generate the topwater action of black bass of lakes Hartwell and Clarks Hill that sandwich it. But this rural and mostly-undeveloped shoreline lake produces sensational summertime bass fishing for big stripers, and quantity and quality spotted bass, with a few largemouth bass to round out the bass fishing prospects.

And this fishery is user-friendly. One guide has figured out how to combine these species for a fishing trip to enjoy the best of all bass species on any given summer day. 

Jerry Kotal, from Elberton, GA, has been guiding on Lake Russell for 12 years, and fulltime for the past 5 years.  

Striped and spotted bass action is highly dependable, and occasional largemouth bass action can be as hot as the July weather. From a fishing-friendly viewpoint, Kotal has developed a plan of action to incorporate these varied bass species into one bass-enriched, fish-catching trip.

“As it works out, the timing of the bite for these species, and the locations I catch them on Lake Richard B. Russell, are such that I can effectively fish for all on the same trip,” Kotal said. “Largemouth are the least predictable of the three this time of year, but it’s fairly common to pick up a few good largemouth, too.”

Timing is key

Kotal said timing and location factors are critical. And while striper fishing can be productive early, during the low light hours, their locations are often easier to predict later in the morning when they tend to congregate in bigger schools around specific targets. The spotted and largemouth bass are often much shallower, and on a strong bite early in the morning.

Such was the case the hot July day Kotal opted to target black bass early.

After a short boat ride from the Richard B. Russell State Park ramp, he employed his sonar to scan two offshore humps, both decorated with brush piles. Bass were abundant on both humps. On Lake Russell during the summer, humps in the15-foot depth range are considered shallow. And they are ideal early morning targets for active bass. 

Kotal maneuvered the boat along the hump searching for fish via his electronics, and when he found them, worked that specific area thoroughly. Kotal, a successful bass tournament pro prior to guiding, said angler preference dictates the fish-catching method, with artificial lures being an excellent choice as well as using live, blueback herring.

“Once the sun gets up, the spotted bass move considerably deeper following forage,” he said. “The places I’ll find them early are humps, points, and ledges, often shallower, in creeks and coves. And usually on an aggressive bite. But they don’t school on the surface much on Lake Russell this time of year. I fish lakes Hartwell and Clarks Hill where spotted bass frequently surface school at both of those lakes during the summer. It’s not a reliable pattern here, but we’ve got a lot of spotted bass at Lake Russell.”

Jerry Kotal said plastic worms can be lethal on bass when working ledges and humps. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

He said by mid-morning, the spotted bass migrate deeper, often down to 20 or 30 feet deep. And the bite is less aggressive.

“But they’re still caught throughout the day in that deeper water,” Kotal said.

Kotal (706-988-0860) recommends the drop-shot rig, shakeyhead worms, and deep diving crankbaits as his preferred artificial lures for bass right now.

“The lake’s changed a lot, and what was once an incredible largemouth bass fishery is now dominated by spotted bass,” he said. “We’ll catch occasional largemouth, but the lake is loaded with spotted bass in the 2- to 3-pound class, and they’re fun to catch. And it’s common to catch considerably larger fish.” 

As the suns rises higher, Kotal moves from the creeks and coves to target mid-lake, mainstream Savannah River ledges, humps, and points. These targets hold the stripers, plus he’ll also catch spotted bass here, too.

“It’s literally the best of both bass fishing worlds for striped and spotted bass,” he said. “My tactic for consistently catching stripers during the summer is primarily live, blueback herring. Stripers can be caught on artificial lures during July, but live bait is much more effective because of where they are, and the depths they’re found.”

Be ready

Kotal said stripers may surface school, making them susceptible to artificial lures. But it’s not a consistent option because the forage generally remains deep, even in low light conditions during July. He said anglers should be rigged and ready, because when it occurs, it can produce quality fish. 

This graph is displaying stripers under the boat on Lake Russell in July. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Locating stripers during July and August often involves checking multiple areas for active fish. 

The entire lake can be productive, but he typically targets the mid-lake area, around the state park, down to the Lake Russell Dam. 

“Plenty of quality striper habitat exists, and I find very little fishing pressure for stripers in this sector of the lake,” he said. “The few fishermen I see are primarily bass fishermen. The summer striper fishing pressure is comparatively light compared to lakes Hartwell and Clarks Hill.

Kotal said he’ll typically begin working areas in the 30- to 40-foot depths and will fish clean flats, above the depth where the standing timber was left when the lake was impounded. 

“Finding stripers in these clean-bottom areas is important in terms of landing big fish,” he said. “The first thing a big striper does when hooked is turn toward the standing, submerged trees, and they’ll power surge to reach that cover. If they make it, they’re likely to wrap the line and break off. But if we can contain that initial surge, they’ll often finish the fight higher in the water column, giving us the opportunity to boat the fish.”

While the fish are often deep even in the low light, sometimes they’ll move from the shallower flats and suspend over the tops of the standing trees, often found at the edge of a drop or ledge. 

“This is a consistent pattern. These fish may only be 15 to 20 feet deep, suspended over 70 to 80 feet of water in the morning,” he said. “When we hook fish in this situation, I coach my anglers to give no quarter, and to pressure the fish higher in the water column as quickly as possible. It’s a calculated risk to fish these spots, but we’ve got to fish where the stripers are found.”

Live bait

Kotal said another hot weather pattern exists in the very upper end of the lake. It is a tailwater fishery below Lake Hartwell Dam. He’ll fish live bait along the old river channel ledge. 

“I drift with the current and place live bait such as herring, or commercially-purchased rainbow trout, behind the boat on multiple rods,” he said. “Since trout are stocked here, and are part of the food chain for big stripers, it’s a reliable bait too, as are big gizzard shad.”

He said some of his rigs are freelines without weight. And others have small weights to get them slightly deeper. Presentation is the key to success. Using an electric motor to stay close to the old Savannah River channel ledge is essential. In low light conditions, the fish may be close to the top of the ledge, but they’re often deeper on bright, sunny days. The first few miles below the Hartwell dam are the most productive for this fishing. 

Lake Russell produces great bass fishing in July for largemouth, spotted and striped bass. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

The South Carolina regulation for Lake Richard B. Russell and the Lake Hartwell tailwater is a possession limit of 2 striped bass or hybrid bass, or a combination of those a day, and only 1 may be over 34 inches total length.

The daily creel limit for all black bass species on Lake Richard B. Russell in South Carolina is 10 fish per person, including largemouth, smallmouth, spotted, or redeye bass. But no minimum size limit exists for spotted bass on Lake Russell.

South Carolina and Georgia have a reciprocal license agreement for Lake Russell, so residents of either state can fish on the lake with a license from either state. Nonresidents must purchase a license from either state. 

Guide Jerry Kotal with big stripers taken on live herring in deep water on a hot July day. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Russell is a trophy fishery

Kotal said anglers should recognize the opportunity at Lake Russell, but understand the difference in this lake compared to lakes Hartwell and Clarks Hill.

“It’s crucial to remember that Lake Russell is a trophy striper lake, not a numbers lake,” he said. “That’s why marking them with the graph and setting up on them is more difficult at Lake Russell, because the numbers of Russell’s fish are not comparable to lakes Hartwell and Clarks Hill. Those lakes are stocked with millions of stripers and produce quality fishing for numbers of fish.”

“At Lake Russell, the striper stocking rate is lower. But if someone wants to catch big stripers, I think Lake Russell is the best trophy striper fishery in the state,” he said. “Managing Lake Russell as a trophy fishery has worked well because 40- to 50-pound fish are caught here.” 

Kotal’s personal best that he’s landed is 47 pounds, but he’s hooked considerably larger fish that he’s visually seen before they broke free. He said this time of year, 20-pound stripers are frequently caught, and 30-pound stripers are realistic goals, and are occasionally caught during the summer.

 “Combine this striped bass fishing with the opportunity to reasonably expect to catch 15 to 20 spotted and largemouth bass a day, and the fish-catching action rivals any place, while providing the realistic opportunity to catch trophy stripers.” 

About Terry Madewell 812 Articles
Award-winning writer and photographer Terry Madewell of Ridgeway, S.C., has been an outdoors writer for more than 30 years. He has a degree in wildlife and fisheries management and has a long career as a professional wildlife biologist/natural resources manager.

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