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Cold weather bass fishing on Lake Keowee with Guide Charles Townson

  • by Jay

Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Clemson, anyone who has ever seen Lake Keowee knows that it is one of the most beautiful lakes in South Carolina.  The water is clear and blue, the shoreline is clean and carefully controlled with only floating docks, and the mountains make for a majestic backdrop.  Just being on Lake Keowee, whether you are fishing or not, is a treat.  

Outside of the obvious similarities to nearby Lake Jocassee, Keowee does not look like a typical impoundment in this state.  It also does not fish like one.  This is partly a result of Keowee’s unique geography and physical aspects, but also a result of the species that are in the lake.  

Unlike many South Carolina lakes, Lake Keowee does not have striped bass stocked by the Department of Natural Resources – or significant numbers of blueback herring.   While there are random trout caught in Keowee each year due to nearby Jocassee or some of the feeder streams, DNR also does not stock it with trout.  It does have largemouth bass, with two ten-pound fish caught in tournaments this spring, but the numbers are dwindling and DNR has launched a habitat restoration project aiming to re-grow native vegetation.  A decade or more ago there were articles regularly written about Keowee crappie, and it still has some big white crappie as well as a very few black crappie, but this population has also dwindled.  There are bream and catfish in Lake Keowee, and with an 89-pound blue cat caught this spring that may be an-up-and-coming fishery on the lake.  But what is no secret is that right now Lake Keowee is absolutely loaded with a massive population of non-native spotted bass. Much of the year these eating machines roam the lake following the schools of threadfin shad, and it is plainly obvious that they have taken over.  While that may not be ideal, that they are aggressive, hard-fighting fish is impossible to deny.  In fact, it is probably why they have out-competed native species.  

A few days ago I was fortunate enough to go out on Keowee with Guide Charles Townson, who has been fishing Lake Keowee since 1996.  Since moving to the lake in 2013 he has fished it about two hundred days a year, and for several years now he has provided the regular reports on this site detailing what the fish are doing from week-to-week.  To view his reports visit here.  Charles is a retired health care administrator and then school teacher, and last Saturday I received an education in catching spotted bass on Lake Keowee from him.

The beautiful backdrop to Lake Keowee
The beautiful backdrop to Lake Keowee

Lake Keowee

Owned and operated by Duke Power, Lake Keowee is a relatively young lake and has been a source of energy and recreation since it was impounded in 1971. The approximately 18,500-acre lake has a full pool elevation of 800 feet, and it is oriented in a north/ south direction.  About halfway up is the Oconee Nuclear Station, a nuclear power plant and cooling station with a warm water 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. 

Like most people, Charles discusses the lake as composed of three main 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.  With maximum depths of 120 feet the water does not reach incredible depths, but because of the steep terrain there is a relative absence of flat, shallow areas. 

Seasonal patterns throughout the year

Lake Keowee spotted bass are still bass, and so they do follow some of the same general patterns that typify the species.  However, because of the unique nature of the lake and spotted bass themselves they also behave differently in many ways. 

Like all naturally reproducing species, spotted bass can only survive because of successful spawns.  The bass spawn takes place in the spring, and even though Keowee is deep and mountainous the effect of the nuclear plant means that fish actually spawn earlier on Keowee than on neighboring lakes.  Even though the mid-lake section is most affected by the cooling station, due to the massive amounts of water moved around the lake due to the pump-back mechanism between Keowee and Jocassee the whole lake is warmed.  The lower lake is least affected and generally the coolest in the winter.  

Generally Lake Keowee bass start to get into pre-spawn patterns in March, although in the warmest section of the lake near the hot hole fish can spawn as early as late February.  In the pre-spawn period bass set up very heavily around docks, basically the one available form of cover.  Spotted bass will spawn a little deeper, often out of sight of searching anglers.  While visual scouting for largemouth beds in the spring is common on Keowee, it is more typical to catch spotted bass off of beds that are never seen.  It also worth noting that because of the temperature variance on Lake Keowee in the spring you can more easily target fish at one stage of the spawn by moving around than on many other lakes.  For example, if you want to fish for pre-spawn fish you can fish the mid-lake, then the north, then the south.  

In the post-spawn period and until the summer gets very hot there is generally a good topwater and crankbait bite off of points and shallow humps, and especially before 9 a.m. it is always worth looking for schooling fish.  During the day you can fish deeper around docks and points, and anglers also pattern bass that are feeding on spawning bream into the summer in the backs of coves and cuts. 

By the Fourth of July it has usually gotten very hot on Lake Keowee, and outside of an early morning shallow bite (which is generally not as good as in the late spring and early summer) anglers need to look very deep.  Charles fishes similarly to how he fishes in the late fall and winter, although fish can be even deeper and not as grouped up and are primarily on the main lake.

In the fall when temperatures start to cool again the bite begins to improve, and surface activity can get better again.  When fish are not on top they can be found in intermediate depths of 15-40 feet with a shakey head, and on windy days they can be caught with a spinnerbait.

Late fall and winter 

Locations 

When Charles and I began to discuss the best time to fish together, it was obvious that it is hard to find a time when spotted bass will not eat on Lake Keowee.  However, while spring is often considered the peak of bass fishing on many lakes, on Lake Keowee the most exciting time is often when the weather starts to get cold.  I was not disappointed.  

Usually around the first or second week of November water temperatures on Lake Keowee have begun to drop into the 60s and seasonal changes begin, although Charles believes that fish also start to behave differently because of day length.  They know that winter is coming.  Bait begins to move into the creeks and the bass follow it.  Bass live on the main lake the year round, and so you can certainly fish there the whole year, but Charles finds that relatively higher numbers of fish seem to be in the creeks in the fall.  In this period 40-60 feet of water is a good depth range to fish, with 50 often ideal.  In November fish are often in the largest schools of the year.  

For 4-6 weeks the creeks are the best place to fish, but when water temperatures start to drop into the 50s there is another transition time in mid-December as fish begin to return to the main lake.  That is where we are right now, and on the day I fished with Charles bass were mixed between creeks and the main lake.  There are fish that will stay in creeks through the winter, but since 60-80 feet is a better depth range in the winter it needs to be deep creeks.  Charles has caught bass as deep as 102 feet on Keowee.  Like most of the lake it is mainly spotted bass at these depths, but he has caught largemouth as deep as 84 feet.  Last week he caught one at 60 feet, and a general rule for largemouth this time of year is that he catches them when he least expects it!  Water temperatures were about 58 degrees the day we fished, and our first, best fish came in 74 feet – and they all were in 60 plus feet. 

Fishing deep water is never like casting at a visible stump or laydown on the shore, but fishing deep water in Lake Keowee is even more remote from “traditional” bass fishing.  There is very little in the way of cover such as brush piles in Lake Keowee, and spotted bass are known for roaming from day-to-day.  Charles has little expectation that fish will be set up today in the same area where he caught them yesterday. 

A typical, relatively shallow section of Lake Keowee
A typical, relatively shallow section of Lake Keowee

While spots are roaming fortunately there are some particularly areas where it is worth looking for them, and the day we fished we spent a lot of time following creek channels.  Any topographical change can be good, be it a steep point that falls into a creek, a hump, the intersection of two channels, or a severe bend in a creek.  Any type of deep depth change could hold fish in the cold months. 

Anglers should also look for bait, although they should not count on marking fish.  There are bass suspended in the water column, although the day we fished we did not catch any suspended fish – which I understand is not unusual.  The fish we caught were flat on the bottom, and when one would bite we would almost always see several more come off the bottom with it.  Charles says that when water temperatures drop into the 50s most fish are glued to the bottom and it is not uncommon to catch fish with brown bellies from lying in the mud.  (A useful trick is to immediately drop down when one fish is hooked to try to hook another.) 

Deep bridges will hold fish, but overall there are few visual cues outside of what can be seen on electronics.  However, birds can also tip off anglers.  Loons will dive down and drive bait schools shallower, and then gulls will dive on them.  Usually there are bass around these schools on Keowee, and it is always worth checking them.  In very cold weather Charles has had luck following birds.   Interestingly, Charles notes that on Keowee it is very rare to get schooling action unless conditions are calm – the opposite of other area lakes.  

The day Charles and I fished we stuck to the lower lake, but the seasonal pattern is the same over most of the lake except perhaps some minor variances in depth.  

Tackle and techniques 

While other baits will work in the cool months, Charles spends most of the time with a rod in his hand rigged with a spoon.  The day we fished it was very windy, and he never put it down in favor of a more finesse-oriented bait that would be harder to fish.  When Charles is fishing a spoon he tries to fish it vertically as much as conditions will allow, and he points out the importance of keeping your thumb just off the spool as it falls (when many fish will bite).  Baitcasting gear makes this possible, and you also get less line twists and don’t need a swivel like you would on spinning gear.  In windy conditions you can get a more vertical presentation if the boat is moving by casting a little ahead.  Working the bait Charles fishes it in sharp hops with slack line on the fall, and he explains that you want to make the bait look like a shad taking its last dying breath when it falls.  

While other spoons will work Charles fishes with Captain Mack’s spoons the most, opting for different weights in different conditions.  For deeper fishing he wants a heavier bait that will get down faster.  In 40-60 feet he opts for a ½ ounce spoon, and in 60 plus feet he fishes ¾ ounce spoons until water temperatures get in the lower 50s and he picks up a 1-ounce spoon.  The lower 50s is about as cold as Lake Keowee gets, again because of the hot hole effect.  He wants natural colors and will fish spoons in white, silver, or some combination thereof.  Charles fishes this on 12-15 pound fluorocarbon and sets the drag loose since there is very little that fish could swim into and get hung up.  He prefers a medium heavy rod as some "backbone" is needed when catching fish vertically in deep water.

A typical array of spoons and gear on Charles' boat
A typical array of spoons and gear on Charles' boat

While a spoon is Charles’ go-to bait, there are other options that will work.  He had drop shot rigs on the deck, and he has also experimented with a Damiki rig.  This finesse presentation makes use of light line and a jighead dropped straight down that sits horizontally right off the bottom and barely moves, requiring great patience and electronics.  You can also pull a Carolina rig or drag a jig. 

For anglers who do not want to fish very deep there are some options in the cold months, and you can cast to points in 30-40 feet of water with a sinking jerkbait.  You can also target docks in the 15-25 foot range with a shakey head or Carolina rig fished very slowly.  While there are fish around docks, with so little brush to attract fish it can seem very random.  Overall Charles finds the deep pattern we fished in the most consistent in winter. 

There was a time when the spotted bass was not king on Lake Keowee, and perhaps as a result of changes such as the DNR habitat restoration project things could change again.  But in a day of jigging up spotted bass with Guide Charles Townson with nary a largemouth to be seen, it does not look like that is going to happen any time soon.  And If in the future the lake changes, someone who is on the water every day like Charles will be among the first to know about it, and I’m sure his patterns will adapt. 

For now and in the future If you want a guide to teach you about Keowee bass, show you around this pristine lake, and help you catch fish Charles would be very hard to beat.   For more information/ to book a trip visit http://www.keoweefishing.com and contact Charles.  He can be reached at 864-324-2065 or by email to: cd_townson@yahoo.com.

Guide Charles Townson shows off a healthy Keowee spotted bass caught with the author
Guide Charles Townson shows off a healthy Keowee spotted bass caught with the author

 

 

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