Hartwell Bass On The May Herring Spawn

Ronnie Garrison | April 26, 2023

Justin Kimmel’s May pattern on Hartwell centers around the herring spawn, but he also fishes a Clutch Darter glide bait for shallow—and big—largemouth.

Blueback herring are spawning at Hartwell in May, and that means all month long bass are feeding on main-lake and creek humps and points, gorging themselves on their favorite prey. You can catch bass on a variety of lures, and according to tournament angler Justin Kimmel, you can also keep it simple with just three rods rigged to catch numbers and quality.

Hartwell is a 55,000-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake on the headwaters of the Savannah River. The lake waters are shared by South Carolina, but a Georgia license is good anywhere on Hartwell. The largemouth and spotted bass in the lake have grown big and fat on herring, with 20-lb. stringers common in spring tournaments.

Blueback herring move shallow on shoals and points to spawn starting in mid-April, and they generally continue to drop eggs on the hard bottoms for about six weeks. Even after the spawn, herring hang around the same open-water structures, so bass live there year-round feeding on the baitfish. The only change as the month progresses is that the bass are more likely to hit in deeper water later in the month.

Justin Kimmel lives in Athens and fishes Hartwell often. He grew up in Conyers and got into bass tournament fishing, teaming up with Matt Henry to do well in many local tournaments. After fishing the BFLs for a few years and winning several, Justin fished the National Professional Fishing League circuit last year. This year he and Matt travel together fishing all the BASS Opens trying to qualify for the Elite series.

“I love Hartwell—I have won more than $150,000 there in tournaments,” Justin said.

As a boater and no boater in the Bass Fishing League, he has also won on Oconee in 2012 and 2021, Sinclair in 2018, and on Hartwell he has first-place finishes in BFLs and All Americans in 2013, 2019 and 2020.

Justin met several pro fishermen early in his career and got started working as producer of Bass University. This year he decided to spend more time on the pro trail and the remaining time with his family, so he stopped working on those videos familiar to most bass fishermen. He does have his own YouTube channel @kimmelfishing.

For about five years, Justin wanted to design the perfect glide bait, and last year he worked with Clutch Swimbait Company to produce the Darter. It now sells out almost as soon as a new batch hits the market. He uses it to catch his kicker fish. In addition to the Darter glide bait, Justin depends on a topwater walking bait, a hard swimbait and a soft jerkbait to catch his tournament fish. If the fishing is tough or when he’s not in a tournament, he will also try a Carolina rig, shaky head, jerkbait and spinnerbait. If he has a co-angler in the boat, he recommends they fish those baits to pick up less-active fish behind him.

Justin squeezed in a trip with me on Hartwell the first week of April between getting his new boat rigged out at Sonar Plus in Dawsonville and leaving for the Bassmasters Open on Toledo Bend in Texas.

“Everything seems early this year,” Justin said as we idled from the ramp.

Some herring were already trying to spawn, and in less than six hours on the lake, Justin landed two largemouth about 4 pounds each, two spots and a third largemouth just under 3 pounds each, and six or seven more nice keeper-sized bass.

No. 1: N 34º 30.854 – W 82º 48.572 — On the downstream side of the big island in front of Portman Shoals Marina there are three shoal markers that are a long way apart. The middle one is a great example of the kind of place Justin concentrates on during the herring spawn—it has everything he wants all month long.

Stop out from the middle shoal marker in 30 feet of water. The marker sits on top of a hump that is a few feet deep at full pool. The hump is part of a long point that runs from the island all the way to the Seneca River channel. The hump and parts of the point have a hard bottom where the herring will spawn, and there are brushpiles on the point that hold bass after the herring spawn.

Early in May, Justin concentrates on the shallow hard bottom around the marker and also the points behind it on the island. He works a Berkley Cane Walker or Drift Walker topwater plug to entice bass looking for herring spawning. He will follow it up with a hard swimbait and then a soft jerkbait, quickly covering water for active fish.

Later in the month, he concentrates on deeper brush out on the points and humps. Bass are holding deep but “looking up” to feed on passing herring schools, so the same baits worked from the surface down to 3 feet deep can often catch them.

Before leaving this spot, Justin will ease to the bank and work his Clutch Darter glide bait around the blowdowns there. Blowdowns like these and docks are the places where Justin expects to catch his kicker largemouth on the glide bait.

No. 2: N 34º 30.695 – W 82º 48.320 — Go to the end of the big island on the Six and Twenty Mile creek side, and stop on the shoal marker between it and the small island. This is another great herring spawn place with shallows on both islands and on the hump in the middle between them. And like other places there are brushpiles all over the area.

First, fish the shallow-water pattern with your topwater, hard swimbait and soft jerkbait. Then look for deeper brush where the bass hold and wait on passing herring. Working baits over brushpiles will bring the bass up.

Also, try dragging a bait on the bottom out in 15 to 30 feet of water. A Carolina-rigged, green-pumpkin, 4- or 5-inch Berkley General stick bait works well, as does a lizard. Justin likes a 1-oz. sinker with a 3-foot leader on his Carolina rig. If the fish are inactive, the rig or a shaky head will often catch reluctant bass.

No. 3: N 34º 31.907 – W 82º 47.654 — ­ Go up Six and Twenty Mile Creek under the Highway 24 bridge and go to the left. The first point upstream of the rip-rap is hard clay and drops off into deep water with a ditch on one side and the Three and Twenty Mile Creek channel nearby on the other side. There are also rocks and some blowdowns, as well as deeper brushpiles. There were big balls of herring all around this point when we fished, and we caught a couple of spots up shallow.

Start out from the rocks on the side of the point with your boat in 30 feet of water, and fish your three-bait rotation as you work out on the point. Follow it out deeper after the sun gets on the water and also later in the month after the herring spawn is over.

After trying your walking bait, go to a hard swimbait. Justin likes a chrome Sebile 125 and fishes it fast, keeping it moving 1 to 2 feet deep. Follow that up with your soft jerkbait. If you find the fish prefer one over the others, stick with it.

Watch for brush where the fish hold after eating shallow herring and also after the spawn. Work your same three baits over brush down to 30 feet deep. Bass will come to the top from that deep to feed. Justin’s forward-facing sonar is invaluable in finding brush with fish and watching them react to his bait.

No. 4:  N 34º 32.033 – W 82º 47.551 — The next point upstream on the other side of the double cove is off an island. The point runs straight out from the island. Another smaller point runs out across the mouth of the cove. The one across the mouth is sandy with a couple small bushes on it, and the one running out toward the main channel is hard clay. Herring spawn on both.

Work your rotation over both points. Justin always starts with the bigger Cane Walker 110 or 125 for bigger fish, but he will drop down to the smaller Drift Walker when getting short strikes.

Wind blowing in on any of these points and humps helps the bite as long as it is not too strong. Justin says direction does not really matter as long as it is creating small waves on the point. The water movement seems to help the bite.

No. 5: N 34º 32.124 – W 82º 47.597 — Upstream of the point at location 4, there is a shallow bay that has six docks lined up from the island to a round main-lake point. This is a great example of the kind of place Justin goes to find his kicker largemouth after getting his limit on the early herring spawn.

This cove is on deep water with herring spawn points on both sides of it. It does not run very far back, so fish have a short path from deep water to the docks. Big largemouth will spawn in these pockets. Fish each dock carefully. Sun helps position bass under the docks.

When fishing docks and any blowdowns in between them in May, Justin sticks with his white Clutch Darter. It is a big bait and will not get many bites, but they will be good ones. The Clutch produced the best fish of our day, a pretty 4-lb. largemouth.

Justin makes long casts and works the Darter fast, keeping it within sight over blowdowns and along dock floats. It is designed to move faster than many other glide baits. As he approaches a dock, he runs his bait across the front of it and then down both sides as he passes the docks. He also tries to get it under the dock if possible and across the corners.

No. 6: N 34º 32.167 – W 82º 47.284 — Across the mouth of Three and Twenty Mile Creek, a small island sits off the swimming area at the big park there. Bushes are in the shallows where the main point goes to the island. The blow-through on the backside between the island and swimming area is a great hearing spawn area.

Stop out in deep water on the channel side and work around the island with all your baits. Cast them to very shallow water—bass will often hit in less than a foot of water when feeding on herring that are spawning. Fish around the island to cover the blow-through, too.

Watch for swirls and movement up shallow. If you see activity, get to it fast. Often you will see bass chase herring and make them come out of the water. Sometimes the bass will clear the water, too, showing you what size bass are there. We caught a couple of spotted bass here when they chased baitfish up into very shallow water.

No. 7: N 34º 30.113 – W 82º 50.177 — Go down the creek and across the mouth of the Seneca River to Broyles Boat Ramp. Downstream of the island there is a series of shoal markers and cypress trees that mark long shallow points running out to deep water. Justin says this is probably the best herring spawn area on the lake.

Go out to the trees and shoal marker farthest off the bank. There are several cypress trees on the bank side of it. Fish your baits all around the shallows around the trees, and then back off and try brushpiles and stumps out in deeper water.

After fishing topwater and a hard swimbait, Justin will work a white Jerkshad fast just under the surface. A soft jerkbait like it will often get bites from fish that won’t hits other baits. And they are great to cast to surfacing fish.

No. 8: N 34º 29.646 – W 82º 52.248 — The gap between Andersonville Island and the bank is a shallow flat. Go to the shoal marker on the upstream end of the island and work the shallows around it with your three baits. There was a huge flock of loons here eating herring that were gathering to spawn.

Justin likes to run and gun early, looking for active bass. He wants to hit as many shallow areas as possible before the sun gets on the water. He will make several casts with each bait for a total of about 10 minutes before running to the next spot.

After the sun is up or later in the month after most of the herring spawn is done, he will still hit as many places as possible. Watching his forward-facing sonar helps him tell how the bass are set up and how they react to his baits. He can adjust his tactics based on how they act and respond.

No. 9: N 34º 28.760 – W 82º 50.908 — Follow the Little Beaver Dam Creek channel down through the gap between Andersonville Island and the smaller island on the right just off the bank. As you round the end of the small island, look for a patch of bushes well off a patch of sandy bank on the island. It is out on the end of a shallow gravel point where the herring spawn.

Fish the shallows around the visible brush, and then work the deep brushpiles all around it. Justin says he seldom casts a Carolina rig or shaky head into the brush but fishes them around the brush. For the brush itself, he relies on making the bass come up to hit.

When using a shaky head, he rigs a 3- or 4-inch green-pumpkin General stick bait on a 3/16- to 1/4-oz. head and drags it along with shakes and hops. If he is getting short bites—taps when the fish don’t take the bait good—he will color the tail with chartreuse JJ’s Magic.

A hard jerkbait like the Berkley Stunna can be worked slowly over the brush, offering bass an easier meal than the faster-moving baits. If you are not getting bites on faster baits, try slowing down with a Stunna.

No. 10: N 34º 27.854 – W 82º 51.200 — Go past the opening to Double Spring Ramp that is between the islands, and watch for a shoal marker on a tall pole standing in the middle of a line of willow trees. The trees and marker are on top of a very shallow shoal—it’s a small island when the water is down. Herring spawn all around it. Stop on the channel side and follow the pattern, fishing shallow baits on top of the shoal and then working them over brushpiles. Don’t hesitate to cast your baits to the bases of the bushes, especially your Jerkshad. Herring will spawn on the trunks of the trees, and bass will be there to eat them and your bait. Also try a double willowleaf spinnerbait on these places, slow-rolling it along the bottom like herring moving away from the spawning shallows. That will often draw a hard hit.

Check out these Hartwell locations for fast action on the herring spawn this month, and try Justin’s method for catching as kicker largemouth, too.

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