Go To School For Hartwell Fall Bass
If you are an angler, you have to love the fall. We get less competition from our hunting brothers while they put on their camos and pursue game, the recreational boaters are home waiting for a football game to start and the lakes are quiet and smooth. Add to that the fact that almost every species of fish in the reservoir is stepping up feeding activity in the cooling water, and you have a formula for a great fishing outing.
In early October I experienced a great fall fishing trip with Kerry Partain on Lake Hartwell, along the Georgia/South Carolina border, and it was a trip not soon to be forgotten. Kerry, from Elberton, is a tournament regular on Hartwell and other area lakes and has a very successful record to his credit. He has been fishing Hartwell most of his life and over the last several years has done very well in club and pot tournaments on the lake. In the most recent years he has fished the BFL and Stren tours, finishing high in the standings and qualifying for regional events.
I met Kerry at Hart State Park at about 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday, and there were surprisingly few trailers in the parking lot at the ramp. It was a beautiful clear day with almost no wind and the temperature was in the low 50s — a clear fall morning.
When I got aboard, I found that Kerry, who got on the water at daybreak, already had three nice fish in the livewell that he caught that morning along some rip-rap. So with photo material well in hand we were going to be able to have some fun.
Kerry suggested that the rip-rap bite was probably over for the day, but he had another option that he was pretty sure would produce.
“The shad have begun schooling up at the mouths of the creeks, and the bass are also in schools attacking them,” said Kerry. “We’ll see plenty of surface activity, and we should be able to catch a few good fish over the humps and points at the mouths of the big creeks.”
We only ran about 10 minutes from the ramp to the first spot that Kerry wanted to fish. He set the big Ranger down and dropped the trolling motor over the side.
“We are in about 40 feet of water here, but there is a hump right in front of us that will top out at less than 20 feet,” said Kerry. “We should see balls of shad on the graph and possibly some shad flipping on the surface when we get near the hump.”
As the bottom slanted upward on the graph and neared the 20-foot level, a big ball of shad showed up on the display right on cue. Kerry handed me a rod, and we both began making long casts over the hump. Kerry was fishing a small jerkbait, and I had a pearl-colored Fluke tied on.
It didn’t take long. On the third cast Kerry had a fish smash the jerkbait and head for the bottom. After a brief fight Kerry hefted a chunky largemouth of about two pounds over the side.
“This is an average size for these schooling fish, but we should be able pick up some bigger ones,” said Kerry.
We worked the hump for a few more minutes without any other strikes, and then Kerry spotted some surface activity on another hump about 200 yards away. We moved over to the hump quickly, but by the time we got there the fish had disappeared.
“The fish are very likely still here,” said Kerry. “They push the bait up to the surface but generally don’t stay up very long. When the bait goes down, the fish go with them and continue feeding.”
We started casting, and within a few minutes Kerry had another hookup. On my next cast I got a hit and set the hook on a solid fish. Both fish were in the 3-lb. class. Kerry’s was another largemouth and mine was a spot. Twenty minutes of fishing and we had already boated three good keepers. But the fun was just beginning. We had barely gotten our fish unhooked when four or five bass started busting shad on the surface less than 30 yards from the boat. There were plenty of fish on this hump, and they were hungry and feeding actively.
We caught and released several more good fish before the action died down. Every fish that we boated was a keeper and some were over three pounds. All were caught on either the jerkbait or Fluke but by far most of the fish came on the Fluke.
The action continued that way throughout the morning with fish being caught on virtually every hump or point that we tried. Some only produced a fish or two while on others we caught a half dozen or more. We caught three different species of bass (largemouth, spotted, and coosa) and one striper. The fish were all mingled together gorging themselves on the shad and having a field day. Our biggest fish of the day was a largemouth that was just over six pounds. I don’t know when I’ve seen that much surface activity producing such quality fish.
We did all of our fishing in Lightwood Log Creek from the mouth to about one-third of the way back. While Kerry particularly likes the Lightwood Log area (for obvious reasons), he tells us that there is similar activity available in other creeks all over the lake.
“The key to fishing Hartwell in October and November is the presence of bait,” said Kerry. “The shad are beginning to bunch up and move back into the creeks, and the bass are right behind them.”
Kerry told me that early in the fall the bait, and bass, are near the mouths of the creeks and will work their way back into the creeks as we move through October and into November. They’ll stay in the creeks until the water temperature drops below the mid 50s, and then they’ll head back to deeper water for the winter. While you can always find fish in shallow water, even in the depths of winter, by far most of the bass will be in deep water during the coldest parts of the winter during January and February. But for the next few weeks the fish will be shallow, feeding aggressively, and relatively easy to catch. Kerry explained that in November he expects the fish to be farther back into the creeks and on shallow points and humps, particularly where the creek narrows and concentrates the bait.
On a typical November morning Kerry will head out at first light to sections of rip-rap along the sides of bridges. There are a couple of these places in Lightwood Log Creek, but many of the other creeks also offer good rip-rap options.
“I like to fish the rip-rap early in the day because I can usually catch a few quality fish before the sun gets up,” said Kerry.
He fishes the rip-rap with two basic baits and methods. First he will pull his boat in close to the rocks and parallel cast a spinnerbait along the bank. He slow rolls the bait back to the boat keeping it just off the bottom and letting it clip the rocks as it travels along. His spinnerbait of choice is a 1/2-oz. Blademaster with double willow leaf blades (gold in front and silver in back) and a glimmer-shad skirt. He tips the bait with a Zoom curly-tail grub in various color combinations until he finds something that the fish like. In dingy water he’ll use something bright, but if the water is clear he’ll stick to natural colors.
Kerry offers the spinnerbait on a 6 1/2-foot medium-action casting outfit spooled with 12-lb. test Berkley Big Game line. He likes the abrasion resistance that Big Game offers around the rocks.
If he doesn’t get any action on his first pass with the spinnerbait, he’ll start down the same path with a small crankbait.
“If the fish aren’t in tight to the rocks, I’ll go a little deeper with a crankbait and try to catch fish that are feeding farther out,” said Kerry.
In this case Kerry puts his boat in about nine feet of water and makes casts at a 45-degree angle to the rip-rap and works the crankbait down and back to the boat. Kerry likes to fish the crankbait on a six-foot spinning outfit spooled with 10-lb. test Berkley Sensation line. He uses the spinning reel because it allows him to make longer casts with the light lure, and he likes the feel that Sensation line offers. Since he is fishing the crankbait away from the rocks, abrasion resistance is less of an issue. Kerry typically fishes a Suddeth Little Earl crankbait in a GGG (green, gold, glitter) color combination. Both the Blademaster and Suddeth baits are available in local tackle shops. Blademaster Baits can be ordered at (706) 795-0248.
While the rip-rap bite can last through the day, particularly later in the season, it is usually over by mid-morning. That’s when Kerry heads for the humps and points in search of schooling fish.
“The action should be good through November on points and humps in about 15 feet of water, but the fish by then should be in the back half of the creeks and smaller feeder creeks,” said Kerry. “The points that seem to hold the most fish are those that have rocks or wood cover along the bank and out onto the point.”
The routine is the same as we described at the beginning of the article. Look for clouds of bait on the graph and flipping shad on the surface, and you’ll likely find good schools of bass in the area.
Kerry particularly likes to fish the windward side of wind-blown points because the surface current produced by the wind causes the bait to stack up along the side of the point. However, sometimes the fish will school in deep water right over the channel, particularly in narrow sections of the creek, so Kerry advises that you keep scanning the area looking for surface activity.
Kerry’s preferred baits for the schooling fish include a Zoom Fluke in a pearl or shad color, an X-Rap Rapala jerkbait, or a Blade Runner deep-running spinner for when the fish go deep. Kerry recommends long casts where the bait are holding with an erratic retrieve to simulate a dying baitfish.
The Fluke has a tendency to spin and twist the line, so Kerry ties a short leader of about 12 inches above the Fluke to a barrel swivel to give the bait more freedom and eliminate the twisting issue. Casting tackle is preferred spooled with 12-lb. test line for all of these baits. The Fluke is fished on a 4/0 wide-gap hook.
Kerry recommends that you try New Prospect Creek, Little Lightwood Log Creek, and Gum Branch in the Lightwood Log Creek area.
“When there is an east wind, Gum Branch can really be productive,” said Kerry. “The wind blows right up the creek and pushes the bait back into the creek where they pile up along the rocky points. Under these conditions you can catch a limit here in a hurry.”
School is definitely in for the fish on Hartwell. If you try the techniques and locations that Kerry shared with us, you’ll likely have a great day of fishing. And better yet, you’ll have less competition for a spot on the water than you will most any other time of the year.
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