Clarks Hill Lake Live-Bait Linesides In December
Guide Eddie Mason says the action can be fast-paced when you pull up on the right hump and drop your live bait.
Live-bait fishing for hybrids and stripers can be crazy good this time of year on Clarks Hill, with limits in minutes when the fish are bunched on points and humps feeding on herring—if you’re there at the right time.
If you’d like to see proof, take a look at fishing guide Eddie Mason’s Facebook page of recent catches of fat linesides. On Nov. 1, I was on the lake with Eddie to take a look at the fact-paced fishing.
At first light, we idled out of the Plum Branch Yacht Club marina in Eddie’s 23-foot Carolina Skiff with Eddie’s brother Gary, of Warrenville, S.C., and their friend Mark Green, of Ridge Springs, S.C. We didn’t go far, pulling up near a Savannah River marker buoy. Eddie’s sonar showed a fast-rising hump just off the channel. The screen also showed scattered clouds of baitfish, a key ingredient for a successful day catching hybrids.
The gunnel of Eddie’s boat is lined with rod holders, and we were soon loading them up with 10 matching rods. Eddie fishes 7 1/2-foot, medium-light action Ugly Stiks paired with Ambassadeur 6500 reels.
“For live-bait fishing, the limber tips on these rods are just what you want,” he said.
Eddie spools his reels with 20-lb. test line. A 2-oz. egg sinker is slipped on the main line, and then a barrel swivel is tied on ahead of a 30-inch leader of 12- or 15-lb. test fluorocarbon line. The leader end is tied to a 2/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook. It’s a basic, effective rig for downlining live bait.
Eddie, from Edgefield, S.C., has guided anglers on Clarks Hill for more than 30 years, yet he said that he is still learning things about the fish.
“I hope the Lord will allow for a little lying,” said Eddie, “because these fish can make a liar out of you. Some days, you just know they are going to bite early, and they won’t. They can be unpredictable.”
But sometimes when they won’t bite, returning to the same structure later during the trip can be the right move for a cooler full of fish, he said.
“The morning bite has been hard to get going lately,” he said. “We’ve had trips where we have limited out at daylight in an hour and a half. Other times, the fish won’t hit early, but if you come back to a place later on, they’ll often bite.”
Later in the morning, returning to a place we fished early with no luck, would prove his point, and save our day.
Eddie’s bait tank had its own school of baitfish he’d purchased from the Herring Hut bait shop on Highway 28 near the Clarks Hill dam. This school of bait was swimming in well-oxygenated water. The blueback herring averaged about 3-inches long—the “just right eatin’ size” for a hungry hybrid bass or striped bass.
Eddie hooks his baits carefully through the nostrils, taking care not to pull on the bait as the hook is passing through to prevent the hook from creating too large a hole and making it easier for the bait to come off the hook.
Once hooked, the blueback is dropped into the lake. Eddie varies the depth of the baits from about 12 feet to more than 40 feet deep. If he’s marking fish at a specific depth, he’ll drop all his lines to target that depth. He measures the depth by “pulls” off the reels. From the reel to the first eyelet on his rods is 2 feet, thus 12 pulls put a herring down to a depth of about 24 feet. Generally, he puts out baits in the 10- to 15-pulls range.
While you hope your baits will be the target of a frenzied attack by swarms of hybrids, downlining live bait can also be a waiting game—waiting for hungry hybrids to hit while you watch the rod tips vibrate from the pull of swimming herring. We had a number of fish hit throughout the morning that weren’t totally committed to the idea of getting caught—fish that would smack the bait and jerk the rod tip into the water but wouldn’t hook up.
Hybrids and stripers like baits to be lively, and Eddie is quick to replace a bait that’s been hit with a fresh blueback, but the damaged or dead blueback’s day isn’t over just yet. Eddie uses a set of kitchen scissors to snip the dead baits into small chunks, and he scatters the chum around the boat to entice fish. Think of it as an aromatic, free-food banquet in the water to increase the commitment when a fish hits.
On a usual live-bait fishing trip on Clarks Hill, the catch will be about 80% hybrids, says Eddie, with around 20% being stripers. Mostly the fish will run in the 3- to 5-lb. range with an occasional 6- or 7-pounder.
“There used to be a lot of 9-pounders,” he said, “but those fish are harder to come by now.”
Eddie’s two heaviest stripers from Clarks Hill weighed 42 pounds apiece.
“There are still some big ones in here,” he said about the lake’s striped bass.
According to GON’s Lake and River Records, the heaviest striper caught from Clarks Hill weighed 55-lbs., 12-ozs. The heaviest hybrid weighed 16-lbs., 12-ozs.
Our first stop on the river channel didn’t pan out, so we motored into a creek on the Georgia side to fish over a well-defined ditch. As with most fishing, structure is critically important, but the presence of bait is likely more important.
“Bait is the key,” said Eddie.
He looks for clouds of bait on the sonar—and he watches for the large arches that indicate hybrids or stripers shadowing the bait. Humps and points near river or creek channels are the prime locations you’re trying to find.
Usually, downlining herring is a pretty dependable bite. Weather conditions don’t affect the fishing much, says Eddie.
“It’s never too cold, or raining too much to catch fish,” he says. The one exception might be fishing on an east wind. “The line about fish bite least when the wind’s from the east; I’ve seen that,” he said.
By mid-morning, we dropped baits over a point in the mouth of Little River on the South Carolina side. Two other boats targeting linesides were also fishing nearby. The point we fished came up suddenly to about 30 feet, and the sonar showed bait. We put out our lines, and almost immediately Mark boated two small hybrids, one after another. Then as we drifted into shallower water over the point, we boated a 2- or 3-lb. channel catfish, and then a small spotted bass. Linesides aren’t the only fish that dine on herring.
Bridges are another kind of structure that can often be productive for downlining herring for hybrids, said Eddie. Later in the morning, we dropped our 10-fish school of bait under the Highway 378 bridge.
“In the winter, the baitfish like to hang out around the piers, and the hybrids and stripers hang out for the bait,” said Eddie. “The Little River bridge on the Georgia side can be good. I’ve caught a bunch of fish under that bridge.”
He pointed out the Highway 220 bridge in Soap Creek as another good concrete structure that often holds both bait and linesides and funnels them into a smaller area.
On our trip, the fish weren’t interested in hitting our baits under the 378 bridge. We soon picked up our lines and made the run downriver to the same buoy marking the river channel in front of the Plum Branch marina where we started our day. It’s worthwhile to try places more than once, said Eddie.
“You can go back to the same places and catch fish,” said Eddie. “Things can change through the morning, and you just have to be there at the right time.”
We dropped all 10 lines with lively herring and then began to wait and watch rod tips. Initially, there was no activity. Then a rod tip in the back of the boat began to bounce more vigorously.
“Watch that one, Mark,” said Eddie. “He’s getting nervous.”
A few seconds later, the rod tip vibrated, then slammed downward, the first two eyelets plunging into the water. Mark grabbed the rod from the rod holder and set the hook. The rod arched over as the fish surged away from the boat.
“Good fish,” said Mark.”
Ten seconds later, the back rod on the other side of the boat slammed hard into the water. Gary grabbed that rod and held on as the fish pulled. In another 10 seconds or so, a rod in the front of the boat was also jerked sharply into the water. Eddie jumped to set the hook on that fish—and we had three fish on at once!
“This one’s a good striper,” said Mark. “I just saw it.”
Eddie added, “We just went over a wad of fish.”
The upshot is that Mark’s striper got off, and the fish on Gary’s line also escaped. Eddie boated a 3- or 4-lb. hybrid. But two minutes later, rod tips were bouncing again, and we had two fish on at once, and boated two more fat hybrids.
“Look at this,” said Eddie, as he pulled a deeply hooked hybrid out of the landing net. “When the fish are hitting fast, you can’t take time to use a hook-remover to pull a hook out. Just do this.” Eddie held on to the hybrid by its gills, and with his other hand pushed his thumb deeply into the hybrid’s mouth, following the fishing line with the tip of his thumb to the hook. His thumb then pushed to the curve of the hook, forcing it deeper until the barb released from the fish. It took just seconds for the hook to pop out.
“That’s a lot quicker,” he said.
“It got crazy there for a while,” said Eddie.
And it got crazy again a few minutes later with three rod tips smacking into the water and we had another double hookup with 3- to 4-lb. hybrids. The cooler in the back of the boat was starting to look better with a layer of striped fish. We were limited to fishing four or five rods instead of 10 because there wasn’t time to get all the rods baited before a fish hit one of the lines in the water.
The spot-lock on Eddie’s trolling motor, a combination of pinpoint GPS location and automatic trolling-motor maneuvering kept us and our baits over the location where the frenzied bite began. It effectively anchored us above biting fish. In about 15 minutes or so, we boated 10 or 11 hybrids and missed or lost several more before the bite slowed.
“Hard to say what happened there,” said Eddie. “They may have started to generate water. When the water moves and creates a current, the bait moves and the fish really get active.”
Whatever happened, nothing beats being prepared—and being in the right spot at the right time.
Downlining live bait for Clarks Hill linesides this time of year often gets crazy.
“There are times when you can’t get all the lines in the water before a fish bites,” said Eddie. “You can’t fish 10 lines. It can be so busy you can only fish two or three rods.”
For a fisherman, that’s a great problem to have.
To book an often-frantic, hybrid/striper-catching trip on Clarks Hill with Eddie Mason, he can be reached at 706.829.0428 or 803.637.5395.
You can also check out his Facebook page—search Mason’s Guide Service—for current information and recent photos of how the fishing has been.
Editor’s Note: Brad Bailey was a founding editor with GON and worked with us for 22 years before retiring in 2008. He recently moved back to Georgia, and we talked Brad into writing this article. He says he’s definitely not coming out of retirement, but we hope to see an occasional article from Brad.
Clarks Hill Lake Record Fish
|Ralph Barbee Jr.
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