Hartwell’s Heavy Metal Winter Bass
At Lake Hartwell in January, Tony Beck recommends dropping a spoon and cranking for schools of bunched-up bass.
Nothing heats up a cold winter day like a bass on the end of the line. Two of the best ways to catch that instant heat are jigging spoons and crankbaits. These two classic cold-water hard lures can warm up a winter day in a hurry when the bass turn on. Working these two baits, an angler can find and catch fish in just about any weather conditions encountered in January.
Lake Hartwell, the sprawling 55,000-acre Savannah River reservoir on the Georgia-South Carolina border, is a great place to fish these two lures and put some bass in the boat in January. Hartwell is a long-time favorite for winter bass fishing, and it’s easy to see why after spending time on the lake. In fact, with its numerous deep creek channels, roadbeds, steep clay banks and rocky shoreline, Hartwell seems custom built for a day of jigging spoons and cranking for bass.
I spent a day last winter at Hartwell with Tony Beck, who enjoys wintertime fishing at Hartwell and loves the one-two combination of spoons and crankbaits. Tony, who lives in Social Circle, grew up in Jackson County and has fished Hartwell and Lanier for winter bass for many years. He enjoys tournament fishing now and has taken home the pot in quite a few club tournaments, but when the tournaments slow down in the winter he still hits the water every chance he gets for some bass action.
“With a jigging spoon and a crankbait, you can find and catch fish at Hartwell in just about any kind of winter weather,” he said.
First of all, consider the jigging spoon. Jigging spoons work well in cold weather because of the behavior and habits of bass and shad during the heart of the winter. The three main species of open-water forage, or baitfish, in Hartwell are threadfin shad, gizzard shad, and blueback herring. Threadfin shad, in particular, tend to struggle through the cold days of winter in a nearly dormant state, which makes them easy pickings for largemouths and spots.
Huge schools of threadfin will bunch up in deep water, often near the bottom, and barely move at all. Some will flutter and twitch weakly, making an irresistible target for schools of hungry bass. Gizzard shad and bluebacks are more cold hardy than threadfin, but they also tend to gather in large schools in deep water, making a regular buffet for any bass with the urge to eat. During hard freezes, threadfin will actually succumb to the cold and experience winter kill.
Shad often twitch, flutter, and flash their sides as they swim slowly along in these big, wintertime schools, and the flutter and flash is what a jigging spoon imitates almost perfectly. In fact, good jigging-spoon fishermen like Tony will tell you that the whole key is finding bait and feeding bass, because once you find that combination the bass can be surprisingly easy to catch.
The best conditions for fishing jigging spoons are sunny, cold days with not too much wind. While the wind doesn’t seem to affect the bite that much, a strong breeze makes it tough to fish vertically. Plenty of sunshine and cool temperatures keep the shad and the bass bunched up tight and close to the bottom, and these are the fish to look for on the graph.
“Be prepared to spend some time looking for bait on your graph or depthfinder,” said Tony. “You have to find the bait to find the bass. It’s nice if you can see the bait and the bass, but sometimes the bass won’t show up because they are either hidden by the bait or are too close to the bottom. If I find a big school of bait close to or on the bottom, I’ll give it a try.”
Tony uses the usual favorites on Hartwell for jigging spoons, such as a white 6/10-oz. Berry’s Flex-It and a 3/4-oz. Hopkins in gold or silver. He replaces the factory hooks with Owner or Gamakatsu red trebles, usually one size larger than the factory hooks, to both add color to the spoon and to increase his hook-up percentage.
Tony drops his spoon all the way to the bottom and always keeps it close to the bottom.
“The fish on the bottom always seem to be active,” said Tony. “Some I’ve caught jigging will actually have red mud on the bellies and fins, where they’ve been laying right on the bottom.”
He works the spoon in fairly quick rips at first, bringing it up 18 to 30 inches at a time and letting it fall with just enough slack in the line to give the spoon free action.
“Most of the time they will hit it on the drop, or you will feel the fish on when you start to pull the spoon back up,” he said. “You don’t want so much slack in the line on the drop that you can’t feel them hit it. If they won’t bite while working it quick, slow it down and leave it in front of them longer — sometimes that will work.”
Tony’s favorite area on Hartwell for wintertime fishing is the Tugaloo River arm of the lake, primarily between I-85 and the area where Tugaloo joins the main lake.
On the day we fished, we launched at the Fairplay landing just a couple of miles inside South Carolina. Down the lake two coves is Carolina Landing, and just inside of this cove is a good location to start. Tony has caught a lot of fish and put friends on fish in this cove in the past, and it always seems to have a lot of shad in it. There is a large island out in the main lake in front of the cove, and a small island at the mouth of the cove.
Down toward the main lake from this cove, on the same side of the river, is the Glenn Ferry access point. The next big cove downstream from Glenn Ferry has a large flat at the mouth of it, and this is another good location to look for bait and fish that might bite a spoon.
“We catch a lot of hybrids in here as well,” said Tony. “Usually if fish are out in the middle of the flat it will be hybrids or white bass. The largemouths and spots will usually be closer to the points or channels.”
Just downstream and across the river from that cove is Reeds Creek. There was a huge school of shad in the back of Reeds Creek the day we fished, and we picked up a couple of bass on spoons in here. Check out the 30- to 40-foot deep water past the last sharp bend to the left in the back of the creek. The mouth of Beaverdam Creek is another good jigging-spoon location. The key is to keep checking these and other likely areas until you find the big schools of shad near the bottom.
Once the bait is located, try jigging for at least 10 or 15 minutes. If there are no bites by then, it’s usually best to search for another school. When the bass are there and in a feeding mood, they will hit a jigging spoon fairly quickly. If a particular school looks promising, but you can’t get a bite, it’s worthwhile to check the area again later in the day — you never can tell when the fish will turn on and start feeding.
Coneross Creek, up the Seneca River, is also a good place for winter bassing, and it has the same types of rocky steep banks, deep flats and submerged roadbeds that are found in the Tugaloo. Regardless of where you are on the lake in January, large flats in creeks, deep channels with sharp bends, roadbeds, and long points extending into the lake will hold shad and bass this time of year. Look for bait in 20 to 40 feet of water, with the 25- to 35-foot range being the most productive. One other thing to remember when jigging is not to release fish back into the school until they stop biting or you reach the legal limit of 10 per person in the livewell. Releasing caught fish back into the school often shuts the school down, so keep your catch and release them later if you choose.
If the fishing is tough, or you find bass and shad but can’t get them to bite, Tony advises trying a drop-shot rig. His experience with the drop-shot has been that it is mainly a numbers technique, and he doesn’t catch many big fish on it, but it can save the day when conditions are tough. He uses a 1/4- or 3/8-oz. drop-shot weight on a 6 1/2-foot spinning outfit with 6-lb. test line. A Bass Pro Shops Quiver Round Tail Minnow in green pumpkin or smoking ice color goes on a No. 1 hook 12 to 14 inches above the weight.
One of his favorite areas on Hartwell to hit with a drop shot when fishing is tough is a roadbed just south of the eastern I-85 bridge. There was a big school of 13- to 15-inch spotted bass on this roadbed the day we fished, and they were wearing out Tony’s drop-shot rig.
Some winter days, as mentioned earlier, just aren’t right for jigging a spoon or fishing vertically with a drop-shot rig. The wind may be blowing too much, water temps may be too warm, or you may just not be able to find the big schools of shad so important to the jigging bite. When this is the case, Tony ties on a crankbait and starts hitting the steep rocky banks in the same area of the lake. One of his favorites is a Norman Deep Little N in Smoky Joe color, and this crankbait, along with a Lucky Craft CB350 in American Shad color, produced some of the best fish of our trip.
The wind picked up in the afternoon, and the air temperature warmed up to near 70. We started cranking rocky banks about 3 p.m. and had fairly steady action until dark. The fish were scattered but seemed to be relating best to steep rocky banks with some type of wood cover and water at least 10-feet deep within a cast of the bank.
There are a dozen or more areas matching that description in the Tugaloo River arm between I-85 and Andersonville Island. One of the best is on the outside of the island at the mouth of the Carolina Landing cove. Another good stretch of shoreline is just downstream of the Glenns Ferry access.
Rip-rap banks can also be productive in January, and two good ones are along the I-85 bridge on the Tugaloo and the Hwy 23 bridge in Beaverdam Creek. There are also quite a few stretches of shoreline that have been rip-rapped by private property owners and businesses on the lake, so don’t overlook these, particularly if they are near deep water or have some wooden cover nearby. We hit a point like this near Glenns Ferry at the end of the day, and Tony quickly hooked up with a nice spotted bass. As he brought the fish into the boat, we saw a school of at least 10 other hungry spotted bass following the one he had hooked. They all spooked when they came near the boat, but it was nice to know there were that many active fish in the area.
Nothing cures a case of cabin fever quicker than a day on the lake bass fishing, so if you’re looking for some action this January, give Tony’s techniques a try on Hartwell. The combination of spoons and crankbaits will put fish in the livewell and a smile on your face, and make those cold winter days seem a little warmer.
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