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Chumming & Drumming For Hartwell Linesides

Hartwell fishing fanatic Preston Harden has a big bag of tricks for catching linesides in November.

Anthony Rabern | November 1, 2008

If you look up the term “fishing addict” in the dictionary, you may notice a picture of Preston Harden in the margin. Preston loves to fish whether it is casting gold spoons for tailing redfish in the Louisiana bayous or flinging flies for trout in north Georgia or even hurling plugs for spotted bass on Lake Lanier. On most days, you will find Preston fishing for stripers on Lake Hartwell. Preston is so addicted to fishing for stripers that he built a house on the lake a couple of years ago. Preston admits that living on the lake gives him an unfair advantage because he is able to maintain first-hand knowledge of striper movements and feeding patterns. When an open slot became available in his schedule a couple of weeks ago, I jumped at the chance to tag along to watch this passionate striper guide perform his magic. As the day unfolded, I would not be disappointed with the new tricks that Preston pulled out of his magic hat.

Fall is a great season to fish for  stripers and hybrid bass, especially on Lake Hartwell where a healthy population of both species co-exists. The cooling temperatures attract more fish to the surface and create the right con- ditions for some exciting topwater action. I met Preston at sunrise at the Weldon Island boat ramp, which is just a stone’s throw away from Preston’s lakeside home. The air was relatively warm for a fall day, but my fleece jacket added a touch of comfort as we motored toward the dam in the early morning hours. Over the short trip to the dam, Preston was constantly on the lookout for our quarry — surface feeding stripers. We saw about a dozen other striper hunters on the water, but Hartwell’s expansive size made us feel as if we had the whole lake to ourselves.

“During the summer and fall, stripers and hybrids congregate in the main channel on the lower lake and in the mouths of the major coves within sight distance of the dam,” said Preston.

We would explore the cove mouths at Powderbag Creek, Lightwood Log Creek and Singing Pines throughout the morning and find fish at each location. Preston said that these same areas will hold fish through December. Pointing to the temperature reading on his chart recorder, he said, “When the surface temperature cools down below 75 degrees, fish move up from their deep-water summer hideouts and begin chasing shad and herring at the surface. This can be an explosive time to catch fish on topwater,” he said, “but the fall turnover can make them a little finicky at times.”

Fall turnover is that period of time when the different temperature layers that developed during the summer begin to break up and mix together. Preston pointed to the murky, tea-colored water and foam on the surface as early indicators that the fall turnover was just around the corner.

Around 8 a.m., we idled into the mouth of Powderbag Creek where Preston spotted a few fish blowing up on bait at the surface.

“If you see fish splashing water 2 or 3 feet into the air, then you have found fish that are aggressively feeding and can be caught on topwater lures,” he said.

Preston’s advice for finding surface feeding fish in November and December is to look for sea gulls. “Scan the horizon for gulls with a good set of binoculars,” he said. “Whenever you see the gulls circling in a tight bunch and diving into the water, you know that feeding fish are below.” He cautions anglers to use the quietest approach possible when moving into casting range.

“Use the wind to your advantage, if possible, or a trolling motor as a second option,” he said. “Never approach a feeding frenzy with the big motor at full throttle. They will go down for sure.”

As we approached a few feeding fish out in the middle of the cove, Preston prepared to show me a few of his special tricks for catching fall stripers and hybrids.

The wind silently pushed us toward a spot where the surface feeding activity was heating up. A pair of stripers made a huge splash about 25 yards in front of the bow, which got us scrambling for the topwater gear. Preston quickly handed me a 7-foot Pflueger IM8 medium-action spinning rod tipped with a Sammy 100 in the ghost color pattern. While I worked the Sammy for its maximum zig-zagging action, Preston tossed a 1/4-oz. jighead tipped with a pearl-colored fluke into a swirl. I expected Preston to use a fast retrieve, but he said a slow “twitch and fall” retrieve works best during this finicky fall transition period. Preston emphasized the importance of keeping a taught line when working the jig.

“Work into the wind or against the wind, never across the wind,” he said. “Any bow or slack in the line will inter- fere with the natural downward fall of the jig, which Hartwell stripers and hybrids find very unappealing.”

He reinforced the importance of keeping a taught line by saying, “You’ve got to keep the line tight to feel the tap-tap-tap that indicates a strike.”

Unfortunately, the bright sunshine overhead and the warm morning air quickly shut down the topwater bite before we had a chance to hook up. Preston, however, was not ready to call it quits so easily.

Believing that a few fish still lingered just below the surface, Preston tossed out a fresh blueback herring on a freeline behind the boat. Although I really wanted a big striper to blow up on my Sammy, a nice-sized striper decided to try to snatch the herring off the freeline instead. The tip of Preston’s 7 1/2-foot medium-action Striper Ugly Stik bent double, and the fight was on. A couple of minutes later, Preston netted a striper that weighed about 12 pounds. This would be our only surface hookup of the day.

Preston commented that weather can really influence the topwater bite.

“During November, the topwater bite really heats up when the sky is cloudy and the wind is calm, especially before a cold front moves in,” he said. “Under those conditions, you can throw topwater all day and have a blast!”

On this day, the bright bluebird sky forced fish to retreat to deeper water. At 8:20 a.m., Preston marked a good school of fish on his Lowrance LCX- IIIc chart recorder. The cluster of gold- en-yellow arches on the screen looked like a plate of spaghetti noodles. The fish were suspended 45 feet deep over a 60-foot bottom. A few scattered trees stood erect above the muddy lake bot- tom. The topo map indicated we were over a large flat near the creek channel. Our location was approximately 400 yards south of the Duncan Branch boat ramp (N 34° 22.534’ and W82° 51.689’ ).

Preston baited two downlines with fresh herring and lowered them to the 45-foot mark. The Lowrance chart recorder was so accurate and Preston’s skill at interpreting the markings so acute that he observed a fish suspended in a gap between two trees. Lowering his bait into the gap, he immediately hooked a striper that weighed about 3 pounds.

I noticed that Preston never set the hook on this fish. Instead, he let the rod maintain steady pressure on the fish, which he promised would guarantee a good hook set. When fishing with live bait, Preston uses an Owner 4/0 light- wire circle hook. Just as he predicted, the hook was impaled firmly in the corner of the fish’s mouth. Preston commented that he liked the circle hooks because fish hook themselves. He also felt that it was important to use a fluorocarbon leader. His downlines were spooled with 20-lb. test monofilament tipped with a 3-foot Seaguar fluorocarbon leader. Stripers are ‘line-shy,’ so the fluorocarbon leader is a must, he said.

A few minutes of soak time on our baits generated little interest from the stripers 45 feet beneath Preston’s Bay Quest boat. Not to be outsmarted by a fish, Preston showed me a couple of tricks that I rarely see striper guides use. First, he anchored the boat. Most stripers guides don’t even own an anchor, much less use one when fishing. Next, Preston pulled out a herring from the bait well and with a pair of scissors, he cut the herring into small pieces and dropped them into the water around the perimeter of the boat.

“Sprinkling chum around the boat creates a big scent trail that draws fish to the area and triggers their appetite for taking the bait,” he said.

Preston’s theories about chumming proved accurate because over the next 10 minutes fish after fish were chewing on our baits. In fact, we could watch the action on the chart recorder and anticipate the strike.

Chumming drew a lot of attention to the baits below us, but the scent trail only enticed nibblers. Preston commented that, “Under normal summer- time conditions, the fish we are marking would be jumping all over our baits and jerking the rods out of their holders. Adjusting to the fall turnover trans- forms normally aggressive fish into finicky eaters this time of year.”

Still not ready to concede defeat, Preston had one last trick to play on these fish—power reeling.

“Power reeling can sometimes cause finicky fish to really turn on as they watch the bait yo-yo up and down in front of their nose. Sometimes a few cranks of the reel is all it takes to start them feeding again.”

Preston explained power reeling as the technique of lowering the bait down through the school and then slowly retrieving it up again.

“The continuous up and down movement of the bait through the school of fish is what will trigger a strike,” he said.

After a minute or so of power reeling… WHAM… a 6-lb. striper nailed the bait. All I could say was, “Preston, you are the man!”

Within the span of about one hour, we boated four fish, had a couple of fish pull off, and watched about a dozen short strikes.

About 9:30 a.m., we pulled anchor and headed across the lake into South Carolina waters. The day before, Preston caught some fish in the Singing Pines area (N 34o 22.654’ and W82o 49.293’). As we pulled into the cove, Preston noticed a few large swirls near the bank. Preston lowered the trolling motor, while I climbed into position to cast a Sammy. The surface activity was fleeting, so we moved back to the mouth of the cove. It was 10:05 a.m. when Preston found the exact spot on his Navionics map. One look at the chart recorder told me this was not a promising spot because the signature arches of stripers were absent but Preston reassured me, “Just watch.” He lowered a couple of baits to the 50-foot mark.

“Now watch the graph,” he said. Within seconds, the arches began to rise from the bottom and nose up toward the bait. Before Preston could say, “Those fish are sitting right on the bottom,” — and we had a hook up. A few seconds later, another fish was on. Over the next 20 minutes we boated several stripers ranging from 2 to 8 pounds. When the action slowed, Preston began chumming, but this time the scent trail did not work its magic. And since the fish were holding tight to the bottom, power reeling was not an option.

I was intrigued that all the fish we boated were stripers. I expected to catch a mixture of stripers and hybrid bass. Preston told me that his guiding partner, Travis Long, had gotten into a school of hybrids the day before in the mouth of Crane Creek, which is a short distance down- stream of the area where the Tugaloo and Seneca rivers merge to form the Savannah River.

“Want to give the hybrids a try?” Preston asked.

Within a few minutes, we reached Crane Creek (N 34o 27.968’ and W 82o 52.785’ ). After spending two decades hanging around striper guides, I’ve learned to watch the chart recorder. Preston pointed to a dark band on the screen that spanned the middle of the water column.

“That dark band indicates a strong thermocline in this area,” he said. “Most of the time, bigger stripers and hybrids will suspend near the top of the thermocline layer in the summer and early fall.”

I did not see any signature arches on the graph, so Preston said, “It looks like we will have to do a little drumming.” And with that, he walked over to his rod box and pulled out a pool cue. Yes, a pool cue! A little concerned, I sheepishly asked, “What’s that for?”

“It’s for drumming,” he said, “Watch.”

After lowering a couple of fresh baits just above the thermocline, Preston began to rhythmically tap the butt of the pool cue against the floor of the boat. With amazement, I watched the screen as arches emerged from the thermocline and zeroed in our baits.

“They are pretty small fish,” Preston said, “probably a group of small hybrids.”

Preston drummed with his pool cue for about 15 minutes, but the hybrids below the boat were just too finicky to take the bait. At about noon, we called it a day and headed back to the ramp. A cold Coke and a peanut- butter sandwich on the ride back home topped off the end to a great day of striper fishing on Lake Hartwell.

Let’s recap Preston’s techniques for catching stripers and hybrids this month on Lake Hartwell. First, look for diving gulls around the lower lake body and coves on calm, cloudy days. When you find them, approach the area with maximum stealth. If you see fish splashing water 2 or 3 feet into the air, cast a ghost pattern Sammy 100 right into the breaks. If fish are just swirling at the surface, then use a 1/4-oz. jig- head tipped with a white fluke. In December, Preston will downsize to an 1/8-oz. jighead tipped with a 3-inch fluke. In fact, Preston’s largest striper, a 41-pounder, was caught on this light- weight combination. Preston strongly advises you to use a slow “twitch and fall” retrieve. A tight line will help you detect the strike, which usually occurs on the downfall. On brighter days with limited surface activity, switch over to flatlining live herring. Fish are often right on the banks in the fall, so Preston recommends casting herring to the bank instead of pulling it directly behind the boat. If you happen to run across some suspended fish, you might want to give Preston’s chumming and drumming techniques a try. If you’re interested in booking a trip with Preston Harden’s Bucktail Guide Service, you can reach him at (706) 255-5622 or you can visit his website at www.bucktailguideservice.com.

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