Clarks Hill Stripers Get Shallow In Winter

Both Little Rivers—Georgia and South Carolina—and Baker and Buffalo creeks are great places to start for Clarks Hill stripers.

Don Baldwin | January 3, 2008

President of the Clarks Hill Striper Club Mark Crawford of Martinez holds a 9-lb. striper he caught while fishing with the author. Mark looks for stripers in the shallows in January, and he will use freelines, downlines and planer boards to catch them.

The day was absolutely beautiful. Blue, cloudless skies, no wind, and a high of about 80 degrees. It was Dec. 10, and an unseasonable warm spell had hit the Southeast driving temperatures far higher than their normal. As a result, the water temperature was also on the rise, so the typical winter striper pattern was questionable. But my companion for the day was undaunted.

“I’m sure we will be able to find some fish,” said Mark Crawford of Martinez. “We caught fish yesterday in the backs of the creeks, and I expect they will still be close to that area.”

Mark should know what he is talking about. He has been fishing Clarks Hill virtually all of his life and is a full-time guide on the lake. While he has only been fishing professionally for the past few months, he is the president of the Clarks Hill Striper Club and has an impressive tournament record on the NSBA trail, which is now called the Striped Bass Conservation Coalition (SBCC). Mark is acknowledged as one of the more accomplished striper fishermen in the area. His personal best on the lake is a 42.6-lb. monster.

When we launched Mark’s big Carolina Skiff at the Holiday Park Ramp, there were only a few trucks and trailers in the parking lot. Even though it was a beautiful day, it was a Monday, and the lake was down about 13 feet. There was a lot of bank showing between the normal shoreline and the water line. In fact, I thought with the lake so low, it would be a great time just to cruise the area and take some pictures of the structure, brushpiles and other cover for future reference.

Mark left the ramp and headed upstream. It didn’t take long before we sighted a few boats sharing an area and four or five pods of gulls circling and diving for bait.

Looks like fun doesn’t it? For better hook ups, Mark keeps fresh baits on the ends of his lines. A good bait tank is key to having plenty of lively bait for the day.

Mark shut down the outboard and began setting out rods on the stern and both side rodholders. He put out two planer-board rigs on each side and a freeline out the stern. All of the rigs were baited with blueback herring about 3 to 4 inches in length.

With the rods in place, Mark began approaching one of the pods of birds very slowly on the trolling motor. We were literally less than a quarter of a mile from the ramp.

“It is important to approach the birds quietly because they are diving on a ball of bait that has most likely been pushed to the surface by feeding stripers,” said Mark. “If you rush in with your outboard, the bait will spook and disperse, and the feeding frenzy will be over.”

As we got close to the feeding birds, they moved off, but the bait stayed put. We could see a huge ball of bait on the graph. When our baits reached the school, one of them was hit almost immediately. After a brief tussle, a hybrid of about 3 pounds was led to the net. This wasn’t exactly what we were looking for but not a bad start. We had boated our first fish within about five minutes of leaving the ramp.

We trolled the area for a while and were rewarded with several more hybrids about the size of the first one.

“We may be able to catch a striper or two in this area, but I believe most of these fish are going to be hybrids,” said Mark. “These fish are holding in about 10 feet of water, and the stripers have been much shallower in the last couple of weeks.”

When Mark sees birds diving on bait, he approaches slowly. Birds often indicate stripers feeding just under the surface. An outboard will likely disperse the bait and end the feeding frenzy.

We pulled in the lines and moved farther upstream to the back of Georgia Little River past Kemp Creek. Mark had caught some big stripers in this area the day before and hoped that the warm weather hadn’t driven the big fish to deeper water.

When we shut down the big motor the depthfinder read 3 feet under the boat. Mark said when the water temperature drops into the low 50s the baitfish move toward the shallows in the backs of creeks, and the stripers follow them and have a feast in the shallow water.

“Two days earlier, the water temp was in the low 50s in this area, and the place was loaded with both bait and stripers,” he said.

When we fished the temperature was close to 60 degrees, so Mark was concerned that the stripers might have moved farther out into the creek.

We made a couple of passes through the shallow creek with no action and were considering making a move when the outside starboard planer board took off. Unfortunately the fish didn’t quite get the bait, so we didn’t get the hook into the fish. Mark re-baited, and we set out on our slow troll again. On the next pass, we got another strike and this time made contact. The reel screamed as the fish pulled drag, and after a brief fight we landed a nice striper of about 9 pounds. Again, not the 15-lb. plus fish we were looking for but good action all the same.

Mark guessed that the concentration of big fish that had been in the area just a few days before had moved out with the warming temperatures, so he decided to try another location.

Our next stop was near the area of the lake locally known as “Red Bank.” It’s downstream from Holiday Park less than a half mile. The water was deeper here, as deep as about 18 feet, and Mark added a couple of downlines to our arsenal in the deeper water. Again there were plenty of birds working, and we could see lots of bait and fish on the graph. We were hooked up almost immediately and caught several nice fish, but most were hybrids.

The warm weather clearly had the stripers confused, and they had left their normal winter pattern.

Mark said that, generally speaking, stripers will start to move into the shallows following bait in late November and stay there through at least January or February. During those cold months, you can catch some surprisingly large fish in very shallow water. It isn’t unusual to hook a 30-lb. plus fish in as little as 2 feet of water during the cold winter months.

In the shallows, Mark’s preferred method is slow trolling with planer boards. These flat pieces of plastic cause the baits to spread out behind the boat, which allows the angler to cover a lot of water on a single pass.

The boards are rigged on 30-lb. test Berkley Trilene Big Game line with a bead and barrel swivel that prevents the board from sliding down to the hook. The bead is used to protect the knot and keep the board off the swivel. Below the barrel swivel, Mike ties on a 4- to 5-foot fluorocarbon leader, also of about 30-lb. test. The tough fluorocarbon is resistant to the stripers’ sharp gill plates and teeth while at the same time being relatively invisible in the clear water. Mark usually finishes off the rig with an Eagle Claw LO42 Wide Gap Hook, but he will vary the hook size with the size of the bait.

Mark rigs his planer boards with 30-lb. test Berkley Trilene Big Game line with a bead and barrel swivel that prevents the board from sliding down to the hook. Below the barrel swivel, Mike ties on a 4- to 5-foot fluorocarbon leader, also of about 30-lb. test. Mark usually finishes off the rig with an Eagle Claw LO42 Wide Gap Hook.

Mark often uses blueback herring, but large gizzard shad are a great choice when trying to tempt big fish. If the bait is extremely large (10 to 12 inches), Mark will add a “stinger” treble hook to the end of the line and hook it in the tail of the bait. The main hook goes through the nostrils.

In addition to the planer boards, Mark also uses a freeline at times. This rig is best used in slightly deeper water. The freeline gives the bait a lot of freedom to move and can attract stripers because of its natural action. But in shallow water that freedom allows the bait to dive in to cover and get hung in stumps and roots. Mark recommends that freelines only be used on water 10 feet deep or more.

Downlines can also produce if the fish have moved out slightly to water of about 15 to 20 feet. This will sometimes happen in the winter when a warm spell keeps the temperatures elevated for a few days in a row. If you see deep bait balls on the graph, Mark recommends that you drop a downline to the level of the bait. This is basically a Carolina-type rig with a 1- to 1 1/2-oz. egg sinker, bead, barrel swivel and leader of about 3 feet. Mark fishes his downlines on 17-lb. test Big Game with a 17-lb. test fluorocarbon leader.

Whether Mark is fishing the planer boards, freelines or downlines, he continually moves about on the trolling motor. He tries to keep his trolling speed at about 0.7 miles per hour. Any faster and you will be dragging the bait through the water. A fast, unnatural, presentation is unlikely to draw strikes and can actually kill the bait in a relatively short period of time.

Mark said that fresh bait is also a key element in catching fish. He takes plenty of bait to the lake, keeps them fresh in a specially designed bait tank and changes them often.

“If a bait gets hit and the fish doesn’t get it, I put on a new one,” said Mark. “Even if the bait seems to be lively when I bring it back to the boat, I replace it. I want fresh bait, with all of their scales, in front of the fish. I believe they draw more strikes.”

Mark uses Ambassadeur reels equipped with bait alarms mounted on stout fiberglass rods. The fiberglass is limber enough at the tip to “feed” the fish when it strikes, but with a stiff-enough butt to fight a big striper back to the boat.

Mark often uses blueback herring for bait and hooks them through the nostrils.

In January the fish should be back in the shallows cruising and chasing the bait that stacks up in the backs of the creeks. Mark recommends that you plot out five or six locations that you want to try, and rotate through them during the day. Fish will move in and out of areas with the bait. Start at the backs of creeks and work out. That should put you in the most productive water right away and maximize the use of your fishing time.

If you are in slightly deeper water and you see a huge ball of bait on the graph, Mark recommends that you stick with the bait school for a while. Big balls of bait usually attract fish eventually, so sticking with them will often pay off.

In addition to the locations listed earlier, Mark says that some of his other favorite winter spots include, South Carolina Little River, Baker Creek and Buffalo Creek. However, in the winter months you are likely to find stripers roaming the shallows in the back of most any creek on the lake.

This pattern will continue to be effective through the cold months until the spawning run starts in the early spring. So now is the time to go out and try your luck at boating one of these magnificent fish.

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