Clarks Hill Anglers Sing The Blues, Smith Looks For Summer Bass

The lake's blueback herring spawn has been one of the poorest ever.

Brad Gill | April 27, 2006

David Smith looks for a shallow, floating worm bite in grass above the Hwy 378 bridge. His favorite area is in the back of Fishing Creek on a five-acre grass flat.

As the summer heat begins to drive water temperatures well into the 80s, there will be a bass pattern developing on Clarks Hill that not too many bass anglers ever take advantage of. We’ll be talking with David Smith of Lincolnton, one of the lake’s top club fishermen, about how and where he is catching aggressive fish in shallow water. We’ll get to that shortly, but first we need to address the local news.

Clarks Hill Lake is in a funk — at least according to a good number of local bass fishermen who say it has been one of the worst springs on record for heavy sacks of fish. David, who fishes with the Columbia County River Rats Bass Club, has spent the better part of April and all of May scratching his head. David’s a good fisherman — he’s tied for first place in points in his bass club — but he wants to know what happened to the high-flying, aerobatic, explosive fish you’re supposed to catch on the blow-throughs when the blueback herring spend nearly a month spawning.
A lot of other good fishermen wondered where the good schooling action was — like David Mathews, this year’s Clarks Hill Committee Top-6 winner, Larry Gilpin, a former Mr. Clarks Hill and even Tommy Shaw, an older gentleman that probably knows the lake better than anyone.

“The good fishing usually starts about the third week in April, when the water temperature gets to 68 or 69 degrees and the bluebacks start spawning,” said David. “That’s when your blow-through fish normally turn on, but this year I don’t know what happened.”

I had been waiting by the phone for weeks, waiting for my contacts to let me know that the bluebacks were spawning, so I could spend a day chunking Spooks, Flukes and Sammys while loading the boat with bass, hybrids and stripers. I finally got that call from Larry Gilpin.

“Grab your fishing stuff, and come on — it just barely started this past weekend,” he told me.

That call came on May 3, normally about the end of the herring spawn. David and I planned our trip together for May 12, trying to predict a time when the largest flurry of bluebacks would be schooling. Once I got to the lake I was shocked to learn that I had missed the biggest wave of spawning herring.

“Normally we have three or four weeks of schooling fish, and we didn’t have but one week of good fishing this year,” said David. “I just don’t know what happened.

“A couple of people claim the pumpback at Russell dam is killing the bluebacks, but I don’t think that could have killed all the herring,” said David. “This lake is 30-miles long. I don’t think bluebacks travel from one end of the lake to the other. They spawn everywhere. Besides, for one weekend we saw herring everywhere when it started. Then they were gone.”

David fishes about every week, and he’ll spend hours around the boat ramp afterwards to discuss Clarks Hill issues with his club boys. He’s got a few blueback theories of his own.

“Maybe the grass had an impact,” said David. “The bluebacks normally come up and spawn on rocky, sandy places, which is why your blow-throughs are so good. But the few fish we saw school weren’t on the blow-throughs like they normally are. They were on the points. Maybe now that the blow-throughs have so much grass on them (because they were out of water so long during Georgia’s drought) that it was giving the bluebacks fewer places to spawn. But with as many fishermen as we had on the lake for Easter Seals and BFL (May 8), somebody would have found them.”

The schooling activity wasn’t a total washout while I was on Clarks Hill. I saw a few big fish chasing herring to the top, all of which were on points in the Little River between the Little River bridge and Raysville, and I caught a 4-lb. largemouth on a Sammy and a 6-lb. striper on a Spook. Both were explosive strikes, and I was slap tickled to put them in the boat. But for the local boys, that’s a heart-breaking morning when they keep reminiscing about those single blow-throughs that would produce 20-lb. largemouth sacks and a livewell full of stripers and hybrids.

What’s done is done, and all the boys can do is hope for a better next year. I can guarantee you it hasn’t got David down enough that he’s forgot to put together a June plan. After all, he’s trying to make that Clarks Hill Committee Top 6 tournament again, where he’ll battle for team- and individual-bragging rights.

While I fished with him on May 12 he told me that he’ll start the month of June down the lake around Little River, Keg Creek and Parksville, but as the month gets longer, he’ll head up the lake, above the Hwy 378 bridge, looking for a shallow bite in the grass.

In the lower end of the lake, from the Hwy 378 bridge to the dam, fish have already started pulling out of the pockets and shallow creeks, and fishermen are finding them on points, humps and shoal markers. Carolina rigs and shallow-running crankbaits have been producing. David likes to start his June days looking for an early-morning bite on top around any sort of grass or wood cover.

“First thing I’m throwing is a buzzbait if I’ve got a little bit of wind,” said David. “You really want to look for grass or any kind of stickup. I fish short pockets with some deep water close by because bass will come in to feed and pull right back out. Right now the blow-throughs have a lot of trash of them, and they’re good areas to hit first thing in the morning with a buzzbait.”

For the first couple of hours David may hit 30 spots throwing his double-bladed Buckeye Lure buzzbait. When David pulls up to a likely spot, he’ll hit it pretty quick and then crank the big motor and run.

“Every four to six feet I’ll make a cast,” said David. “I just keep working the area hard and fast because if he’s there, he’s going to hit it. If you find the right spot, you might catch a couple of good fish. The biggest deal is to try and catch that early-morning fish because after that you’re grinding.”

One of David’s favorite morning runs is to start at Bass Alley, the first big cove on the left as you come out of Little River (Georgia side) and head up the Savannah, and fish all the way up to Wells Creek. This is about a 10-mile stretch, and there are 30 different blow-throughs and points to fish.

“If it’s cloudy and you have a five to 10 mile per hour wind, you can throw a buzzbait up until lunchtime,” said David. “Another bait I like from mid morning until about noon, if we get some clouds and wind, is the Pointer Minnow (SP 78 crankbait). You definitely want to hit them hard with that.”

David will do your standard twitch-and-pause method with the Pointer, where the pause generally gets you bit. This bait dives about four-feet deep, and it’s a great bait to rip through these shallow, grassy areas.
On those stagnant, windless mornings in June, you can still see some topwater action.

“On those mornings we’ll go back to our blow-throughs and points and fish Spooks and Flukes for the first two or three hours, cast up shallow and work out to 12 and 14 feet of water,” said David. “After that you’ll have to pick up the Carolina rig and start dragging.”

David’s Carolina-rig setup is to use a 1/2-oz. weight, a two-foot leader and a six-inch green pumpkin- or watermelon-colored brushhog on a 4/0 offset hook. David uses 10- to 12-lb. line on nearly every bait he throws into the clear waters of Clarks Hill.

“We’ve got people that throw 20-lb. test out here — I call it rope,” said David. “I think the lighter line effects the bite a lot, especially on something like a floating worm because you get a lot more action out of the bait. Also, using light line on Clarks Hill, which is super clear right now, keeps the fish from seeing your line.”

Floating worms will play a big part in David’s tournament strategy this month, but he’s going to the north end of the lake before he throws one. He says there is something pretty special going on up the lake in mid to late June that not too many fishermen take advantage of — a shallow-water grass bite. You can find shallow grass in a 12-mile stretch from Murry Creek to the Russell dam.

“The farther you go up the lake, the better,” said David. “The grass is real good and thick from the Russell dam down to where the Broad River dumps into the Savannah River. Of course there’s grass on the south end of the lake, but I like it up there in the summertime because the water temperature is cooler when they’re generating. When they’re generating it’ll sometimes be a 10-degree difference from the south end of the lake. It’s like ice water coming off the bottom of Lake Russell. When they’re not generating you’ll still see about a three-degree difference, which is enough to keep the fish shallow.”

David said that navigating this timber-infested area can be tricky, so you’ll want to make sure that when you’re doing your hard running you’re staying in the marked channel. You’ll find grassy areas along the bank and out to four and five feet of water. David describes the grass as a free-standing shoot, and not a moss-like or matted grass. Later in the summer it’ll grow out taller, but right now most of the grass is all under water and in only about three feet of water. As June progresses, more and more of this grass will become good fishable cover.

“There will be plenty of grass for your fish to come in and hit a floating worm, and it’ll get even better as the summer progresses,” said David. “If you can catch a day with cloud cover or a breeze, you can catch fish all day on the floating worm. I work it pretty fast, jerking it through the grass. You don’t want to let it sit still until you get to the end of the grass line. Let it fall there, and a lot of times that’s when you’ll get your bite.”

David buys his floating worms from a guy in Alabama where he’ll purchase several thousand at a time, but any of the floating worms from Zoom or Spike-It should get you bit. David likes yellow-pepper, white and bubblegum for colors, and he fishes those on a spinning reel.

In this area, David is partial to the three-quarters-of-a-mile stretch of Broad River from the mouth to the shoals. This area is not only covered with shallow grass, but you’ll find some big rocks here, too. He may start a morning here, and after that he’ll fish grassy areas north along the Savannah River to the Russell dam. On the Carolina side, he said Calhoun Falls is full of grass, and he spends time in there with a floating worm. But, he may tie on a floating worm and stay in one creek all day.

“There’s no prettier place than Fishing Creek,” said David. “It’s probably five miles long, full of creeks, sloughs, pockets and plenty of trees and cover in the water. It runs a long way back through the woods. There’s a five-acre flat in the back with nothing but standing grass. There is standing grass in four to five feet of water everywhere.”

If it’s one of those sunny, June days with temperatures in the 90s, and the fish don’t seem to want a floating worm, try dragging the Carolina rig on these shallow grass edges. You may be surprised at just how shallow they’ll be, even in that dead part of the day. Remember, the water temperatures up there stay cooler.

David Smith could be at the Clarks Hill dam one day and up at the Russell dam the next. It just depends on where he’s finding the best bite, but more than likely he’ll start heading above the 378 bridge as the days and nights begin to get hotter. Cool water, shallow grass, beautiful scenery, and an aggressive floating-worm bite. I’ve got plans to go back and see David this month, and I think I’m going to ask him to take me north.

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