Hartwell Bass: Following The Spawn
Josh Fowler follows the bass with baits that match the stage of the spawn.
March is unlike every other month of the year for bass anglers at Lake Hartwell. Fishing during the first half of the month is totally different than the second half. And to make things even more confusing, Lake Hartwell is unusually low, making most of the best places to catch fish in March inaccessible. But the tournament team of Josh Fowler, of Hartwell, and Greg Kellum, of Bowersville, have March bass fishing on Lake Hartwell pretty much figured out.
Josh grew up on the banks of Cranes Creek on Hartwell and started fishing the lake as a child. He thanks his father for taking him fishing at a young age which really sparked his interest in the sport. Josh met Greg in 1998 at Emanuel College in Royston, where the pair became good friends on the baseball team. It wasn’t long before everyday fishing became an obsession, and the pair began fishing tournaments after Josh bought a new Triton bass boat. With Josh’s lake knowledge and Greg’s uncanny ability to catch big fish, the duo began their onslaught on Lake Hartwell tournaments by winning the first tournament they entered. They’ve won plenty more since then, with two of those wins coming in March with a weight of more than 23 pounds.
Josh and Greg now share their Hartwell tactics so anyone can catch those fat, prespawn and spawning largemouths during the ever-changing month of March.
“The thing about March is a lot of things are going to be happening in a hurry. There is going to be a constant change, but during the first two weeks they’ll be relating to the bait,” said Josh.
Josh and Greg always begin the month of March with a run-and-gun approach to morning fishing. During this time they look for those big female bass that have been in the deep timber all year and have finally surfaced and begun to feed.
“These fish are feeding up to prepare for the spawn. Because they don’t feed during the spawn, the whole month of March they are going to be getting ready. In March the biggest fish in the lake are going to be up in these pockets,” said Josh. “You have to find a short run or pocket with a defined ditch that runs through the middle. The bass will get in these pockets and chase the bait and force them into the back of the pockets.”
Josh said these pockets are easy to find with the use of a simple lake map. He took a map and outlined the old creek channels in black permanent marker to make them easy to find.
“Any pocket off the main-river channel, in the mid-lake area where the Seneca and Tugalo rivers come together is where to start. Those places have an old creek channel coming to them. I’ll just come out of one and go to the next one. I’ll work my way all over the lake like that,” said Josh.
He said anglers shouldn’t think they are going to go out and catch fish in every pocket.
“You might fish 20 pockets and only catch fish out of two places. I try as many ditches as I can and run from one to another, you’ve got to be quick, because it won’t last long. Almost 100 percent of the time they’ll be lying right in the middle of the ditch. The farther you get toward the back, the better.”
Josh said the best place in the pocket is also going to be the easiest to pinpoint on the graph. It’s going to be the spot where the bottom drops off into that ditch he mentioned before.
“I want to cast right down the center of the pocket,” he said. “Most of the fish caught are in the back of the pocket, and most of the bites are in 5 or 10 feet of water in the back of the pocket. I just throw it back as far as I can throw it, but remember it’s a prespawn deal.”
He also said for anglers to be wary of ripping their baits through the pockets, because the fish are still a bit lazy, and most aren’t going to chase a fast lure.
“You want to bring your lure right down the middle of the ditch, but you need to have a low-gear-ratio reel, like 5:2:1, it’ll make you slow down. With some of the high-speed reels you’ll actually over wind the bait. With the water temperature in the upper 40s, the fish are still fairly lethargic, and they aren’t going to want to chase anything really fast.
“We usually throw either a No. 7 or No. 9 Shad Rap in natural colors. But, Lucky Craft Pointers also work well in the same colors,” said Josh.
The pair has also had good results with Buckeye Lures new Su-Spin and Ditch Blades tipped with an albino Zoom Super Fluke Jr.
Josh said since they aren’t going to chase anything fast, you need to work these baits accordingly.
“With the Lucky Craft Pointer, I usually jerk it twice and let it pause. Most of the time they’ll hit it on the pause,” he said.
He said you should work the Shad Rap and bladed baits in the same areas, throwing one or two casts with each.
“I’ll have those three rods on the deck when I go into a pocket. I’ll start with one and if I don’t get bit, I’ll try something else. If I don’t get bit on one of these, I’ll move and if you don’t get a bite in 10 or 12 casts you need to be moving,” he said.
Josh said the ditch could be a creek channel, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. This early morning bite might last an hour, or it might last all day depending on the weather.
“If you get the right conditions, if it’s raining and overcast, it’ll last all day. But those types of days are few and far between,” said Greg. “Those types of mild, drizzly days are great. The best day we’ve ever had was on a day just like that. It was one of the days in March when we won a tournament with more than 23 pounds.”
“And when you’re tournament fishing in March on Hartwell, it’s going to take at least 20 pounds to win,” said Josh.
Josh said when you’re fishing on Hartwell, or any other clear lake, you should always hope the wind blows.
“The fish use the wind as cover because the water is so clear. They feel secure, because it makes a little mud line, and the bass use it for cover. They use it to chase the bait into these pockets. In clear-water reservoirs, if there’s no wind it’s easy to see 10 or 12 feet down,” said Josh.
He assured other anglers that little differences like the wind make a good day on the lake a great one.
Josh and Greg said these early morning tactics work well through most of March but as the temperature starts to rise, certain baits work better than others.
“The fish respond better to Shad Raps and jerkbaits until the water temperature gets around 52 to 55; this is when the spinnerbait gets better, especially on windy days. That’s when a spinnerbait is your best option. I would throw something white, but try to keep it transparent. The willow-leaf blade generally works better, but if it’s really muddy try the Colorado blade, something with a little more thump,” said Josh.
While the morning bite is a good start to a March strategy, you can’t forget about the spawn in March.
“If we have any kind of warm spell around the full moon in March, that’s when the biggest fish are going to go (to spawn),” said Josh.
He said the full moon usually coincides with the water temperature rising into the upper 50s and this really gets the bass started.
“If you come to Hartwell and the water temperature is in the upper 40s and low 50s, the fish will still be in a prespawn type mode. If it’s higher there is probably a chance you’ll see some fish cruising on up until April and May.”
Josh said that’s when he’ll move away from the run-and-gun morning approach and start focusing on the spawning fish.
He said when looking for cruising fish you’ll need to find a staging area, a place where the fish can feed or stage before they move back into the pockets. Move out of the pockets and look for long, flat points leading into those pockets. He said the most important thing to do to find these migration routes is to study the map and just spend time on the water. There’s a lot of trial-and-error involved in finding a good spot.
“There are tons of long, flat points on Lake Hartwell. The top of it will be around 7 feet, and there’s going to be a drastic drop on the good ones. The bass use the creek channel like a road, just like you and I use a highway. When they get ready to move up to the bank they’ll use it, if there is somewhere to stop to feed or stage, they’ll stop there,” said Josh. “I’ll start throwing something a little different if I see a fish cruising. Ninety percent of the time I’ll throw a Spot Remover jighead with a floating worm. If I can’t see the fish, I’ll throw the weightless Trick Worm.”
Josh likes methiolate or bubblegum colors for the fish he can’t see and generally throws natural colors like green pumpkin when he can see the fish.
He usually puts a swivel 6 to 8 inches from the hook to keep the line from getting twisted and also because it adds a little weight to throw it with. He uses braided line on a spinning reel with a fluorocarbon leader to reduce visibility.
Josh said anglers looking for bedding fish should focus their efforts in 5 to 8 feet of water close to some type of structure.
“Most of the time it’s walkways on the docks, there are some stumps, sometimes it’s a rock, but they’ll be relating to something. They love to spawn right under the walkway of the dock, right on the edge of the shadow and the sun. A good reason to throw it on a spinning reel is so you can skip it under there,” he said.
When Josh and Greg can see a fish on the bed, the tackle and tactics change a good bit. If it’s a practice day, they aren’t even going to mess with it. They said an angler should never bother the fish on practice days because the more they are harassed, the less likely they are to bite again.
If they are fishing a tournament, it’s usually a team effort to get the bedding fish in the boat. The pair usually starts with some type of craw imitation on a 5/16-oz. Spot Remover jighead.
“We generally use white just because it is easier to see,” said Josh. He said color usually doesn’t matter to bedding fish, but if they’ve been harassed a lot, sometimes switching to a natural color will pick up a bite.
Josh also said while most people will only try to have one lure in a bed at a time, they’ve found that having both partners’ baits in the bed is a good idea.
“Sometimes two lures will irritate the bass and you can catch them a lot quicker. You both have to get up there, and just aggravate the heck out of them,” he said.
Josh also said they won’t spend all day trying to catch one fish on a bed during the spawn. When thousands of fish are spawning at one time, he said they generally won’t try for more than 15 minutes on one fish unless it’s a really nice fish.
“If they’re ready to bite, it will usually be pretty quick,” he said.
The only real question about March on Hartwell is if the water levels will remain low. While it is impossible to predict weather patterns, Josh said it has happened before and although it changes the tactics, the fishing remains fun.
“If the water comes up drastically, we’ll be dealing with muddy water and you will basically be blind casting. In 2003 it started raining in February and we dealt with that. It muddied up, and it was some of the best fishing on the lake. We went back to those same ditches and caught fish.”
Josh suggested going back to a spinnerbait if the much-needed rain does bless the area and cause the water to become muddy.
Josh hosts his own fishing show on Hart Cable on channel 31 in the Hartwell area.
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