Try this trio of South Carolina fisheries for October stripers

Leroy Suggs has Santee stripers figured out. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Santee Cooper, Hartwell, Clarks Hill offer the kind of October action that striper fishermen dream about. Here are the details.

Several lakes in South Carolina provide outstanding striper fishing during October, and topwater schooling and live-bait tactics both produce fast-paced, rod-bending action. After a summer of gorging on abundant forage, these fish are fat, feisty and almost frantic to add more to their gorged bellies.

Three prime striper fisheries across South Carolina include the Santee Cooper lakes, Lake Hartwell and Clarks Hill Lake.

When guide Brad Sasser he gets on schooling Clarks Hill stripers, multiple hookups are common. (Photo by Terry Madewell)

Santee Cooper

October ushers in a highly anticipated opening day for fishermen on the Santee Cooper lakes. Striper fishing is closed from mid-June through September as far as keeping fish, and the fishing is typically fantastic throughout October. 

LeRoy Suggs of Cross, S.C., has spent 40 years guiding striper fishermen. Kevin Davis, the owner of Blacks Camp, said Suggs is one of only a few guides strictly specializing in striper fishing at Santee Cooper.

“Leroy is like a homing pigeon headed home at dinnertime, with an almost supernatural knack for finding stripers,” Davis said.

Suggs, 79, said the October-to-December time period is his favorite.

“I’ll have artificial lures and live bait ready for whatever the stripers prefer,” he said. “I like to locate topwater schooling action early, but live bait is effective when that’s not happening.”

Suggs (910-995-1168) said wind direction and speed impact his decision on which lake he’ll fish, but both Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie produce prime striper action.

“I’ll search for gull activity for schooling fish, and I motor around flats near deeper water while scanning with binoculars,” he said. “We can usually hunt them down.”  

Suggs said a variety of lures produce fish when they’re schooling, but a ½- or ¾-ounce white bucktail, dressed with two chartreuse feathers, is a favorite lure. 

“The technique is simply cast and retrieve,” he said. “A Berry Flex spoon is another excellent lure to cast and retrieve for schooling fish. When they’re not schooling, I’ll let the spoon free-fall through the fish, then power-reel and rip it back. That’ll get your pole bent in a hurry.”

Suggs said low-light periods are prime for schooling action but cloudy days provide potential for schooling fish at any time.  

When schooling action slows, he uses live blueback herring and employs his graph to locate stripers suspended under forage. He drops live herring to the depth where stripers are marked.

“I like to get bait at a striper’s eye-ball level,” he said. “The lake is full of legal-sized fish, and limits of stripers are common.” 

The creel limit is 3 fish per person per day in a 23- to 25-inch slot, but one striper longer than 26 inches can be kept daily. 

Guide Leroy Suggs nets a striper that tried to swallow Kevin Davis’s live bait

Lake Hartwell

Chip Hamilton from Anderson, S.C., has guided exclusively for stripers for 20 years on Lake Hartwell; he said fishing this past summer was very good, and he’s expecting excellent fishing in October.

“The first point I make about October striper and hybrid fishing is it’s a transition period for fish patterns, and this can be beneficial for fishermen,” Hamilton said. 

One change for the better is the location of fish, he said. Summer action was primarily on the lower end of the lake, but that changes.

“Not all the fish have migrated from the lower end, so that’s still a good area,” he said. “Many fish make a fall migration to the Tugaloo and Seneca rivers. I typically find them in general terms, in the I-85 bridge area of the Tugaloo arm and in the Clemson area of the Seneca arm.

“Schooling action is another positive change, and (it) becomes a prominent part of the fishing strategy at Hartwell,” he said. “I think this is the best month for schooling fish. Surface action occurs sporadically during late spring and summer, but it’s almost exclusively during low-light conditions. By October, it’s likely to occur any time of the day, and some of the biggest schools of surface feeding stripers I’ve seen have occurred mid-morning.”

Hamilton (864-304-9011) said high-probability targets include mouth of creeks or coves as well as near the deep water in the river channels. Fish may school over points, humps or deep water in the middle of the lake, but it’s based on the location of forage.

“Not all lures are created equal this time of the year for schooling fish,” he said. “I ‘match-the-hatch’ because most of the forage fish are 2 to 3 inches long, and the most-productive lures are in that size range. I like the Crème Lit’l Fishie to cast and retrieve right under the surface. The Zara Puppy and Sebile Magic Swimmer are great lures, too, in white or chrome patterns.”  

Hamilton said the size of live bait is crucial when fishing down rods or free-lines. He tries to get an assortment of sizes, but he prefers smaller blueback herring in October.

Big topwater plugs are great lures to cast into stripers located schooling on baitfish at the surface — as long as the baitfish aren’t on the small size, 2 to 3 inches long.

“Stripers and hybrids are gorging on forage that size, and on some days, they are really that picky in terms of the smaller live baits producing noticeably better,” he said. 

When searching for stripers, Hamilton usually motors slowly around creek and cove mouths near deep water and along the main-channel area. He’s looking for a combination of forage with lots of stripers suspended underneath.

“Stripers roam a lot, and while they may stay in a general area for a while, they often move daily, so every day is a hunting process to find them,” he said. “When I mark suspended fish, I’ll drop bait to the depth fish are marked and use free lines.

“I employ both tactics because a quirk of early fall stripers here is they’ll maul the bait on the down-lines one day, but the next day it may be the free-lines,” he said. 

The daily creel limit is a total of 10 stripers or hybrids per person with only three allowed at longer than 26 inches. 

Clarks Hill Lake

Clarks Hill Lake is a super-sized striper fishery with 71,000 acres of water on the Savannah River. 

Brad Sasser has fished these waters all his life, the past 30 years as a fishing guide. He said live bait and schooling action are productive October patterns.

“With normal weather, the stripers and hybrids begin migrating away from the lower end of the lake,” he said. “They don’t all leave at once, but that’s the basic trend.”

“In 2020, by the latter part of September, the fish began to migrate up the lake and into the tributaries,” said Sasser (706-267-4313), whose bread-and-butter technique is live-bait fishing. He’ll use down rods and free-lines to present the bait. 

“I’ll motor around creek mouths using the graph to locate fish,” he said. “I’ll begin searching in the 30- to 50-foot depth (range), but that’s a basic guideline. I’ll drop eight down-lines to the depth fish are marked, and action is usually fast.

“I prefer smaller blueback herring this month. When fish are really finicky about bait size, I’ll downsize my live bait to medium shiners; that can be a killer tactic.”

Guide Chip Hamilton expects October to be a great month for hybrids and stripers on Lake Hartwell, even though fish are on the move.

Sasser said that, along with creek and river junctions, long points and humps are productive; he’ll target coves and pockets where a steady wind can herd scads of baitfish into a confined area.

“All of these places are prime targets for fish to surface school, too,” he said. “Right at dawn or dusk is prime schooling time, but by now, they’ll often school mid-morning. Last October, for over two weeks, fish started schooling every morning about 8:30 to 9.”

Sasser said topwater lures such as the Lucky Craft Sammy are productive, as is a jighead rigged with a white/ice Fluke trailer.

“When in schooling fish, I’ll fish my down-lines shallow, along with two free-line rigs,” Sasser said. “This invites chaos, but it’s productive, super-exciting, and multiple fish are usually hooked up.”

In this scenario, Sasser will drop one of the down-line rigs considerably deeper to probe for a really big striper.

“This is a good time for trophy stripers as well as numbers of fish,” he said. 

The creel limit for Clarks Hill is a total of 10 stripers or hybrids per person with only three allowed longer than 26 inches.

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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