Winter Bass Fishing on Lake Keowee with Guide Brad Fowler
As we pulled up to our first spot and prepared to drop our lines in the water on a cool, early winter morning, Guide Brad Fowler asked me what was the deepest I had ever caught a bass. I thought for a few moments and then guessed that my deepest fish had come in about twenty feet of water – a personal “record” which was to only last about five more minutes. Over the next few hours my first bass came in 55 feet of water, my deepest fish came in 78 feet, and none were caught shallower than 50 feet. Brad has caught winter fish 90 feet deep! I learned that winter bass fishing on Lake Keowee is a totally different game.
Owned and operated by Duke Power, Lake Keowee has been a source of energy and recreation since it was impounded in 1971. The approximately 18,500-acre lake lies in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and has a full pool elevation of 800 feet. It is oriented in a north/ south direction, and about halfway up is the Oconee Nuclear Station, a nuclear power plant and cooling station with a warmwater discharge which locals call the “hot hole.” To the north water from Lake Jocassee feeds Lake Keowee, and to the south water that flows out of Lake Keowee makes up the Seneca River and the headwaters of one branch of Lake Hartwell. Brad divides the lake into three sections – the upper, middle and lower thirds (discussed below). Before Lake Keowee was impounded all of the trees were cut down, and so there is no standing timber unlike in the lakes to the north and the south. There is also an absence of man-made cover, as the only docks allowed on the lake are floating docks without pilings. The relative absence of cover and clear, deep water makes for a unique fishery well-suited for the most well-known inhabitant, spotted bass.
Largemouth bass do live in Lake Keowee, but the bass population is dominated by aggressive spotted bass. There are some large 3-6 plus pound spotted bass in the lake, and Brad says the spots seem bigger than usual this year, but Lake Keowee is not known for the population of monster spotted bass such as that for which Lake Lanier outside Atlanta is known. Brad speculates that if there were more herring in the lake the spots would probably be bigger, but the dominant forage base is threadfin shad. Usually the spots are feeding on 1 ¼ – 1 ½ inch shad. The relative absences of herring, particularly outside the hot hole and just below Jocassee, may be due to the absence of striper fishermen. Keowee has not been stocked with striped bass – unlike Lake Hartwell to the south. Lake Keowee does have healthy populations of catfish, bream and crappie, and trout are even caught occasionally.
When it comes to catching bass on Lake Keowee, Brad is only half-joking when he advises fishermen to throw everything they know about bass fishing out the window in order to understand fishing on this lake. As an example of this, he points out that in December and January it is not uncommon to see bass schooling on the surface on Lake Keowee. While they are usually rolling more lethargically than they would be at other times of the year, it is certainly the rare lake where surface black bass activity is normal in the winter.
By mid- to late November Lake Keowee bass have generally started to move into a winter pattern, and on the mid- to late December day when Brad and I fished together water temperatures were still a very mild 58 degrees – what Brad called November temperatures – but nonetheless fish were solidly in a winter pattern. While there are certainly other ways to catch bass on Lake Keowee, what a winter pattern usually means for Brad is fishing deep where bass can be found schooled up tight, usually just off the bottom, near depth changes and bait. While fish doing essentially the same thing can be found shallower or deeper, as discussed above, the peak winter zone for catching bass is usually 50-70 feet deep.
Because Lake Keowee is devoid of timber, even a 1 or 2 foot depth change can provide fish with something to relate to. Examples of prime winter structure include channel bends, old road beds, the sides of humps, main creek channels, and even very small drops or depressions. Deep flats off the river channel, making them adjacent to a depth change, can also be good. While fish can be found near depth changes even when there is no bait present, finding bait at a depth change is far preferable and usually indicative that bass will also be present. With this type of fishing being able to read your electronics is essential, and the day Brad and I fished together he was constantly studying the graph. An article could easily be devoted to using electronics to target Lake Keowee bass in the winter, but one important lesson is that if fish are not tight to the bottom they are usually difficult to catch. When it gets very cold fish concentrate more and get tighter to the bottom, and under these circumstances ground clutter can make it hard to distinguish fish on your depth finder. Even with sophisticated modern electronics and mild water temperatures it was fascinating to see how when one bass would come off the bottom to take a bait, dozens more would often appear (by swimming up a bit) – they can very effectively hide near the bottom.
Stereotypically Lake Keowee winter bass are found out near the main channel, and certainly a significant number of fish winter here. Brad usually focuses on these big-water fish. However, Brad says that in the winter a good number of fish also relate to the deeper creek channels, and anglers can really fish the type of area they prefer. Most of the year there are fishermen who specialize in the more riverine upper section of the lake below Lake Jocassee, and fish can certainly be caught in the warmest mid-lake section where the warm water discharge raises water temperatures the year round. The hot hole itself can be twenty or more degrees warmer than the rest of the lake, but it is usually off-limits in most tournaments and Brad spends little of his time there. Brad spends the most time fishing the south end of the lake which is adjacent to his preferred landing, Keowee Marina.
As with the creek versus main channel decision, bass fishermen can catch fish on both ends of the lake. The northern end may have some of the biggest fish, in part because of the greater prevalence of blueback herring, but it is also one of the most difficult sections of the lake to learn to fish. Brad finds that the mid-lake section seems to have very good numbers of fish but they are often smaller, while the lower lake where he concentrates his energy seems to have good quality. Overall, it is Brad’s experience that the two ends of the lake have bigger fish – although some anglers would undoubtedly disagree.
Equipment and Technique
Each fishermen will have to find his own winter spots unless someone shows you his, and after many years on the lake Brad still makes a point of seeking out new areas. However, his basic technique for catching winter bass is relatively easy to replicate, and after a few minutes of coaching I was able to pick up some of the basics of his go-to technique of drop-shotting. The right tackle is essential, and Brad likes a 6”8” or 6’3” Lew’s spinning rod with a soft tip designed for drop-shotting. His winter spinning reels are spooled with 20 pound braided line, and Brad says anyone not using strong but sensitive, and relatively stretch-free, braid is at a significant disadvantage for this type of fishing. He combines this with an 8-10 foot leader of 6-8 pound test fluorocarbon, and at the bottom of the leader is a 5/16 or 3/8 ounce weight. He tries to use the lightest weight he can get away with. 12-18 inches above the weight a 1/0 or 2/0 straight shank hook is tied off and a plastic worm threaded through the nose and hooked back around and rigged weedless. Brad uses both RoboWorms and Zoom 4 inch and 6 inch straight worms in a variety of colors. Pink, green, watermelon red, smoke purple and more colors will all catch fish, but particularly very deep the color does not seem to be super-important. Fish will often bite different colors on successive presentations without displaying a great deal of preference.
The drop-shotting technique Brad uses is a subtle presentation, and he will typically drop the rig all the way to the bottom vertically until line stops spooling off the spinning reel. Then he will wind and tighten the line until it is taut but so that the weight remains on the bottom, and then lightly jiggles the rod tip so that the worm flutters but the weight does not move. When fish bite a very strong hookset is usually not required, and lifting the rod tip and reeling is usually enough to set the hook. Brad notes that essentially the same technique can be used for drop shotting live shad or minnows, except that it is not necessary to move the rod tip and you will catch about twice as many fish!
The time of day when fish feed best is not consistent, and the morning Brad and I fished we caught more than twenty-five bass in less than four hours – but the bite was slower once the sun got very high. On other days the bite is best at mid-day. It is also worth pointing out that schools seem to be broadly grouped by size. This is not to say that all the fish in a school are identical, but Brad has found (and on the day we fished it was true) that some schools seem to be comprised mainly of small fish, while others may have a better mix of quality.
Brad’s experience is that about 1 in 40 or 1 in 50 bass caught on this pattern is a largemouth, with the vast majority being spotted bass. It is typical for him to go a couple of winter trips without catching a largemouth. However, largemouth are mixed in with the spots, and his partner caught a 5 pound largemouth on a spoon in a tournament fishing in 70 feet of water. The fish barely fought and basically came to the surface like a dead weight! On the subject of other lures, Brad showed me that football jigs could be an effective alternative to drop shot rigs, but he did not catch any fish on a spoon with limited effort the day we fished together. He generally finds that spoons are more effective later in the winter once the water has gotten very cold. One utility of spoons is that they can be presented to fish that are not tight to the bottom by dropping them through suspended fish on the graph.
After seeing first-hand its deadly effectiveness on the day we fished, I would have very little interest in trying a different winter pattern on Lake Keowee – as long as I could find deep spots to fish. However, for someone who doesn’t want to fish this way or who does not have electronics capability, there are other options. Brad says that through the winter fish can still be found on deeper docks, with shakey head worms, jigs and Texas rigs all popular lures for catching these fish. Fish can also be caught on steeper, rockier banks, although Brad advises anglers to stay away from flat or red clay banks in the winter. While both of these types of locations will hold plenty of spots, there is a greater chance of catching a largemouth than with the open water, depth change technique.
The pattern Brad showed me on Lake Keowee will almost certainly hold up through the end of February, and probably into March. We caught as many fish in as short a time as I have experienced on any bass fishing trip, and it was clearly apparent why Brad says that winter is usually the best season of the year for catching numbers of fish on Lake Keowee. While Brad says that catching a 6 or 7 pound five fish limit is easy with this technique, I also saw that catching a lot of hard-fighting 2 ¼ to 2½ plus pound fish is very doable – with someone who knows the lake. I was fortunate that the day we were fishing the weather was very mild and pleasant, but Brad says that at 60 or 70 feet the fish aren’t very concerned about the weather and will still bite in the worst of conditions. It’s the anglers who stay away on bad days, not the fish. Overall, while I can certainly understand picking your day, I highly recommend a winter fishing trip on Lake Keowee with Guide Brad Fowler. For numbers of fish and the excitement of catching hard-fighting spots it is difficult to top.