Lake Hartwell In May: Topwater Bass Blast

When the largemouths and spotted bass at Lake Hartwell start schooling on top, it is some of the most fun you can have catching bass.

Brad Bailey | April 26, 2006

The reef markers on Hartwell also mark some of the prime topwater fishing areas.

Hartwell anglers are getting the topwater itch — it’s almost topwater time!

Hartwell is famous for this post-spawn topwater bass-fishing blast. After the spawn is completed, the bass move out of the creeks and migrate to deep-water summer hangouts. At Hartwell that means main-lake points and humps that are usually lined with timber. The fish will hang in the timber until something compels them to feed. When they torpedo up under a school of baitfish, their onslaught often supported by droves of hybrids and stripers, they can literally rip up an acre of water.

This open-water schooling activity was made famous in part by Hartwell guide Mark Waller, who used the run-and-gun tactics with Spooks and Flukes to win, place, and show in a lot of Hartwell bass tournaments in the mid 90s. Since then, a lot of Hartwell anglers have been getting in on the fun.

Terry Whitworth is among the Hartwell fishermen eager for topwater time to begin. Terry fishes with the Palmetto State bass club, and if there is an open tournament on the lake, he is usually signed up. Terry lives in Canon where he owns several chicken houses. His hours are flexible, and he uses the flex time to go fishing. This time of year, he is on Hartwell four or five days a week.

By May, the bass spawn is winding down on Hartwell, and the topwater is cranking up, he says.

“By the first week of May, the spawn is usually pretty much over,” said Terry. “Because the lake was slow to warm up this year, there will probably still be some fish on bed early in the month, but a lot of them will be done, and they will start moving out to the main lake. By early May, the water temperature ought to be in the 70-degree range, and it’s time for the topwater bite to kick in.”

While Spooks and Super Flukes are favorites for some Hartwell anglers, Terry has a different top gun. His favorite topwater bait at Hartwell is a Creek Chub. The bait has a concave head and pops and chugs water as it darts erratically on top like a struggling baitfish. The small bucktail on the back treble hook also gives the bait a little extra flash in the water.

“You can’t beat a Creek Chub for topwater,” said Terry. “The bass used to tear up a Sammy, but then they seemed to want a Creek Chub better.”
Terry fishes the Creek Chub in a pop-pop-pop rhythm across the surface, like a crippled blueback that is trying to make an escape. The bass will often rocket clear out of the water on the strike.

While a Creek Chub ranks No. 1, an inspection of Terry’s tackle, however, will reveal a couple of other pretty good backups for the Creek Chub — pearl Super Flukes, and Zara Spooks (I expect that there is probably a Sammy in there somewhere, too.)

“Every day is a little different,” said Terry. “Some days they will take one bait over another.”

Terry Whitworth with a Hartwell keeper.

Terry targets the middle part of Hartwell around Andersonville, and once he is on the water he is looking for shoal markers, humps, and long points. Mostly he is fishing main-lake structure, but if secondary points break off quickly to deep water, and especially if there is deep timber nearby, they can be productive also.

Terry prefers a windy day.

“You don‘t want the lake smooth, you want some chop on the water,” he said.

The ripple apparently breaks up the fish’s view of the bait, and somehow seems to make them more likely to feed. Too, the wind will move water and baitfish, pushing them up on humps and points. Windblown points tend to be better fishing. When there is a good breeze blowing is one time that Terry is likely to fall off the Chug Bug in favor of a Spook.

“The fishing is almost always better when there is a ripple on the water,” said Terry. “But when it gets to be a chop, I switch to a Spook because it is a bigger bait, and it has rattles that make a sound.”

Like with most bass fishing, bait is the key, and at Hartwell, that means primarily blueback herring. Bluebacks are open-water fish most of the year and when they get herded to the surface by bass, hybrids and stripers, they can explode on top nearly anywhere. Gulls working bait can be a long-distance beacon to clue you in to baitfish being attacked at the surface.

Hartwell topwater fishing can be spectacular.

In May 1995, I was fishing with Paul Duke of Hartwell, one of the founding members of the Hartwell Bass Club. We were beating the bank for bass in Powder Keg Creek and having only so-so success when we noticed the surface of the lake being ripped by feeding fish. The activity was probably a quarter mile away, but there were enough fish chasing bait on top that we could clearly see the splashing.

“Want to have some fun?” Paul said. “Those are probably hybrids, but they will be fun to catch.”

He didn’t have to ask twice.

We hurried over, and as soon as we were in range, began throwing unweighted, white Bass Assassins. The fish were extremely aggressive. If one fish didn’t hit the soft jerkbait, the next one, or the next one flashing up through the clear water might. And it wasn’t just hybrids. We hit a school of largemouths mixed with some good-sized hybrids. The fish were out in open water off a secondary point in water 25- to 40-feet deep, and the school was up for about an hour. During that time, we caught nine bass that weighed nearly 19 pounds, two 6-lb. hybrids, had several fish come off, and missed a bunch of strikes.

It was awesome.

An unweighted Bass Assassin, or Super Fluke is still one of the prime baits for topwater fishing at Hartwell. Terry rigs a Fluke on a 2/0 wide-gap hook on a foot-long leader, followed by a swivel. Terry recommends ripping the bait on the surface, then letting it sink, then ripping it back to the surface again.

“They will blow it out of the water,” he says.

Terry takes a run-and-gun approach to the topwater fishing, hitting one point or hump after another until he finds fish.

“Once you locate feeding fish, you can usually catch several,” he said.

Terry shuts down the big motor on his Ranger well off any structure he intends to fish, and eases in on the trolling motor to avoid spooking fish. Hartwell is usually glass-clear and he stays well off the point or hump and makes long casts.

“I like to keep the boat in about 20 feet of water, and cast up on the point or hump,” said Terry.

These open-water bass tend to be grown ones. Expect to catch bass in the 3- to 5-lb. range, with an occasional bigger bass.

“The HD Marine tournament is coming to Hartwell in May (May 23) and it will take some big weight to win that tournament,” said Terry.

You will often find hybrids, spots and largemouths schooling together, so any topwater bait in the water is in danger of going for a wild ride.

“You never know where they are going to come up,” said Terry. “You can be fishing a hump, and the fish might come up out in open water over the river channel. It’s unpredictable.”

But when it happens — it’s awesome!

Editor’s Note: On Saturday, April 10, Terry fished the Tugaloo Fish Hole tournament, and he finished second among 30 boats with just over 13 pounds. Terry also had big fish, a 5-lb., 5.3-oz. spot that hit a plastic lizard in about 20 feet of water. Had the bass been weighed on certified scales, Terry’s fish would have qualified as the new lake-record spotted bass on Hartwell, exceeding a bass caught in 2000 that weighed 5-lbs., 4-ozs.
The topwater bite hadn’t started at presstime, but the post-spawn topwater blast isn’t far away

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