Hartwell Stripers Top To Bottom In June

Hartwell guide Cain Waller shares his techniques for linesides in June.

Nick Carter | June 1, 2007

This fish took a freelined blueback.

With wind-blown chop rocking the surface of Lake Hartwell, close attention was necessary to keep up with the commotion made by a white stickbait being ripped as quickly and erratically as possible across the surface. For an instant it was lost from sight behind a whitecap, before emerging on the face of the wave with a dark shadow trailing close behind it.

“There he is,” I had time to spit out as a silver back swirled on the bait and a tail slapped the water. Out of reflex, I yanked back on the rod and came up with a slack line.

It was about 9:30 a.m., and Cain Waller and I were fishing the tail end of the morning top- water bite on a hump that rose from 75 feet of water up to less than 18 feet. By the time I got my line in and ready for another cast, the wind had blown us past the hump and Cain fired the motor and took us back upwind of the hump for another pass.

“He was right there where he was supposed to be, wasn’t he?” Cain asked. “They’re holding at about 15 or 25 feet in schools. There’ll be eight or 12 of them together, and when one of them comes up chasing bait, they’ll all come with him. If you had gotten that one on, I could have probably thrown right in behind you and gotten another one.”

Then, watching the depthfinder, Cain started counting down as I began casting and retrieving my bait furiously. “25 feet, 23 feet, 20 feet, 17 feet…we should be right on top them,” he said.

Boom! A fish slammed my lure and sounded, putting a deep bend in the medium-heavy rod. He made a series of short, hard, downward runs before I manhandled him up to the boat where Cain was waiting with the net and brought him aboard. The Abu Garcia Ambassador 5000 reel and 15-lb. test monofilament line were more than a match for the 5- or 6-lb. striper in open water, but the fight was fun while it lasted, and the jarring topwater strike was enough to get your blood running.

Cain said the topwater, lineside bite on Hartwell is best in the early mornings and late evenings of April through about the middle of June. The best conditions are when the surface temperature is between 55 and 70 degrees, but the fish will hit the top sporadically through the summer, as long as the bait is there. Finding the blueback herring is the key to finding the fish on this lake, and stripers from about 3 to 12 pounds, hybrid and large- mouth will school together waiting for the opportunity to ambush some bluebacks and push them to the surface.

“You’re looking for humps and trees, but birds mainly. The birds give it away,” Cain said. “You hit it on the right day, and you’ll see 10 acres worth of schooling. It looks like kids throwing rocks in the lake.”

The water was a little choppy for us to see much of the schooling activity that morning, but we did see some gulls diving, and they put us on some fish. It seems that everything on the lake eats the blueback, and the birds aren’t going to miss out when the predators push the hapless baitfish to the surface.

“When you can see ’em, when you know where they’re at, it’s just about automatic if you can get to ’em,” Cain said. “If they had teeth, you wouldn’t be able to swim in this lake.”

We threw Sammys with and without rattles and an off-brand, white stickbait that looked a lot like a Zara Spook. Cain said you want the lure to look like a blueback skittering across the surface, but color doesn’t matter as much as the splashy action does.

We fished the topwater bite at three spots that morning with some success. The first was just south of the Mary Ann Branch boat ramp, on some 20- to 30-foot-deep shoals with lots of submerged, standing trees that topped out at about 15 feet. The second was at the previously mentioned hump, and the third was a shallow, visible point that juts out from an island across the lake from the Broyles Landing.

However, when the fish aren’t busting the surface as aggressively as you hoped they would, it doesn’t hurt to sweeten the pot. We also spent some time that morning freelining live blueback and pulling planer boards across a series of points and humps west of Broyles Landing. Cain put us in the downwind side of an island while trolling, so battling the wind was not as much of an issue as it could have been.

Cain eases a rigged planer board off the side of the boat. Pulling planer boards and freelines can be productive when stripers are looking up for bluebacks.

Using the same rods and reels with the same 15-lb. test, Cain tied a swivel to the line, followed by a 3-foot leader of 20-lb. monofilament and a circle hook. He hooked a 5-inch blueback through the nose and tossed it in, set- ting the rod down in a holder at the back of the boat. We were moving about 3 mph into the wind with the trolling motor, and he rigged another one the same way and let them both out about 30 feet behind the boat.

Blueback herring properly hooked through the nose and ready to go for a swim.

After having a close encounter with a striper.

He then turned his attention to the planer boards. Using the same rig, he fed about 20 feet of line out before attaching the planer board and setting it in a rodholder on the side of the boat. He let the line free-spool off the reel as the board took off like a horizontal kite about 30 feet out from the boat. It was while he was rigging a board on the other side that we got a hit on one of the freelines.

“Get that rod!” Cain barked. But before I could get to it, the fish had let go, leaving a mauled blueback on the end of the line.

“That striper won’t mess around,” he warned. “He won’t play games.”

We didn’t have to wait long for another bite, though, and this one stayed on.

“I said they were 3 to 12 pounds, and you had to catch the 3-pounder,” Cain laughed as he netted the fish.

He later revealed that the bigger fish are in Hartwell, also, but he has better luck catching them at night. Cain said he catches most of his 20- to 30-lb. stripers at night, while downlining under the 400-watt sodium light he has mounted on the front of his boat.

“The night bite starts when it gets too hot to be out here during the day; when we get consistent 85- to 90- degree days,” he said.

About the middle of this month, during most years, when the surface temperature reaches about 75 or 80 degrees, the fish will have to move deeper to find cooler water, and they’ll suspend at about 40 feet. Cain will find the fish on his depthfinder, turn on the light to draw in the baitfish and anchor over them.

“That bait will come in to feed, and that’s what’ll draw the fish in there,” he said. “And that’s when you can run about eight rods.”

He’ll add a 1 1/2-oz. sinker above the swivel to the same rig he uses freelining and drop blueback down to the fish at about 35 or 40 feet deep. As an added bonus, he doesn’t have to buy bait when he’s night fishing because the bluebacks come under the lights, in range of a cast net.

June, typically being the transition month for Hartwell stripers, can be a good time to be on the water. The top- water bite can be fast-paced and exciting when it is on, and when it gets too hot to be comfortable sitting in a boat, it’s time to go after the big boys when the sun goes down.

Cain holds a striped bass that slammed a topwater bait ripped across the surface. He said the morning topwater bite will be on until the fish move deep late in the month.

The depthfinder will sometimes make you pay a little more attention to the rods when trolling. It can look like spaghetti when a school of striper are hanging in the water column.

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