Captain Steve Pietrykowski developed his passion for fishing growing up in Northern Ohio and fishing for trout and salmon in Michigan with his father. For the better part of the last decade he has made a living doing what he loves. Captain Steve has guided from Alaska to the Florida Keys, and now that he makes his home in the Upstate of South Carolina his specialties are trout fishing on Lake Jocassee and striped bass and hybrid fishing on Lake Hartwell.
I met Captain Steve when he was coming in from a successful trout fishing trip on Lake Jocassee and I was headed out bass fishing with Captain Pat Bennett. He had a healthy stringer of keeper sized brown and rainbow trout caught from the newly outfitted Fishski Business, LLC boat. Soon after that trip the rains came, Jocassee came up almost ten feet and the trout went off the feed, but I felt fortunate when Captain Steve offered to take me out striper and hybrid fishing on Lake Hartwell. On a cool, overcast and damp fall day we set out from Big Oaks Landing in search of striper in the big water near the Lake Hartwell Dam.
By the end of the summer most of the striped and hybrid bass in Lake Hartwell have sought temperature relief and made their way down to the deep, cool waters of the lower lake. Early in the fall large schools of small stripers and hybrids make their way up the rivers and school in areas like the Coneross and Martin’s Creek, but the bigger fish will stay in the deep waters of the main lake. They will remain in these areas throughout the fall until the surface cools significantly and the lake turns over.
Knowing the general part of the lake where striped and hybrid bass can be found is one thing, but finding them is a different matter. Without electronics it would be akin to searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack as there is a very large amount of water to cover. In the open part of the lake near the dam there is extensive surface area, and with depths of several hundred feet there is also a lot of room for the fish to travel vertically.
Until he finds feeding fish Captain Steve spends a substantial amount of time driving the boat and analyzing his graph. There is no point to dropping down lines if there are no fish around, and with herring at $7.00 per dozen you don’t want to kill them fishing dead water. Captain Steve will sometimes look for fish by trolling lures at 2.5 or so knots, but on the day we went out he did his prospecting by watching the graph.
While on the surface the big water of Lake Hartwell appears to all be of a uniform depth, in reality the lake floor has anything but a flat topography. There are humps, hills, valleys and troughs on the lake bottom, but the most important terrain in the search for striped and hybrid bass are the old river and creek basins. When looking for fish Captain Steve likes to get his boat over the old river basin and then follow the deep channel where fish will be holding. The day I fished on his boat we caught all of our fish in the river runs; these areas were also generally heavily timbered and we were fishing just above the trees. (Lake Hartwell has significant amount of timber that was flooded and then “topped” at a uniform height.)
Before our trip there had been little weather change in the previous week and so Captain Steve suspected that fish would be in the same general areas where they had been on his previous trips. While striper are well known for traveling great distances, if conditions do not change they are likely to stay in the same overall area. Still, they are not like largemouth bass or crappie that may orient to a particular brushpile, dock or piece of cover and so there is still a lot of searching to be done.
On our first stop trolling up an old river basin where fish had been on his previous trip we marked very few fish. On the second run half a mile away, however, Captain Steve found a healthy concentration of fish. Trees, baitfish, the thermocline and even your down line and weight can all be difficult to distinguish to the untrained eye, but Captain Steve showed me the telltale sign of feeding striper and hybrids that he likes to see – so-called “stoplights.” The name comes from the red, yellow and green colored line with which the depth finder marks fish.
Just as important as locating the fish is the right tackle and presentation. If fish are 70 feet deep but imprecise presentation only gets the bait down to 40 or 50 feet you are unlikely to get bit. Similarly, if a fish does take the bait but the tackle isn’t strong enough he is likely to come off.
On this particular day the fish were in about 70 feet of water over 90-100 feet. Since we were down line fishing with live herring we had to get the bait down to about this depth to get bit. Like many species Captain Steve says that striped and hybrid bass would rather come up than go down to eat and so he errs on the side of putting the bait just above the fish.
In order to present baits at the right depth Captain Steve has found that there is no substitute for a reel with a good line counter. He uses Okuma baitcasters with built in line counters that should automatically set to zero when all the line is wound in and then count down as line comes off the spool. However, if the count gets off they can be “zeroed” by pressing a button. It is important to remember that the counter assumes a full spool of line, and if your spool is not full you have to compensate by feeding out a greater amount of line to get down to the same depth.
Captain Steve pairs the baitcasters with Shakespeare Ugly Stik Striper rods. Much of the time he likes to use light to medium action rods because of the greater fight he gets from the fish. However, for horsing big fish out of the trees a medium to heavy action rod is more suited.
Fishing sailfish tournaments in the Florida Keys light line was required and so Captain Steve became accustomed to catching large fish on thin monofilament. When he first started fishing Lake Hartwell he tried to import this same style but quickly learned that fishing around the trees required heavier line if the big ones were to be turned. Now he rigs all of his rods with twenty pound test line. Captain Steve’s down line rig is a Carolina rig with a one to three ounce egg sinker, depending on drift speed, desired depth and personal preference. Below the swivel he uses a long six foot leader of fourteen to seventeen pound fluorocarbon line.
At the business end of the rig Captain Steve uses either a 2/0 Mustad 9175, a hook he became fond of sailfishing, or a 2/0 or 3/0 circle hook. When rods are laid out horizontal to the water in the holder 80-90% of fish will pull the rod tip down to the water and hook themselves, but on some days they will strike a little shorter and be harder to hook. One of the biggest thrills of the trip for me was watching a striper streak up to take the bait on the fish finder and then seeing the rod bow over when he got it.
As far as bait Captain Steve is very particular about the blueback herring he uses. The worst kind of bait is a “red-nosed” herring which is near the end of its life and has a bloodied nose from exertion and/or contact with the sides of a bait tank, other fish or some other physical object. The best bait is a very lively herring which is so full of energy that it vibrates in your hand – so-called “hummers.” With the goal of keeping his bait as lively as possible Captain Steve handles the herring as quickly as he can when he hooks them through the side of the mouth.
So that he doesn’t blow through too many baits, when Captain Steve is trying out an area where he believes fish may be he will usually put two down lines out. Once fish are located he will put up to four rods out – fishing with more than four rods is difficult when they are all vertical and fishing very deep. The day we went out I don’t recall ever getting more than three rods out at once because the action was simply too fast. By the time we were putting the third rod in the water the fish were usually taking one of the first two, and much of the time we only fished with two rods. Any day you run out of bait catching fish is a good day, and we caught between fifteen and twenty striper and hybrids in the four to ten pound range. I also had my line broken by a couple of probably larger fish which pulled me down into the trees.
Catching so many good-sized fish vertically over very deep water is a unique experience. When fighting a fish Captain Steve instructs people to pump the rod and then reel up the slack, while keeping the line tight, so that the pressure doesn’t come off of the hook. With the exception of one fish which took the hook too deep and went in the cooler all of the striper and hybrids we caught were released healthy into the lake. Because they have to go back into deep water Captain Steve showed me the technique for “shooting” fish back into the water by giving them a head start downward.
However, pulling fish up from deep water it was inevitable that some of them would have trouble getting back down to 60 or 70 feet of water without help. Two of the bigger fish we caught floated on the surface when we tried to release them and so Captain Steve showed me the technique for using a sharp point to prick a fish’s swim bladder and allow it to get back down to the bottom. Coming up to the surface a striper’s swim bladder fills up with air and so letting it out sounded like forcing air out of basketball. Post-surgery we watched both healthy fish begin the swim back down to the depth from which they had come.
Striper and hybrids will not remain in the big water of the main lake indefinitely and as the lake turns over and winter approaches they will head up the lake and into the two main arms of Lake Hartwell – the Tugaloo and Seneca Creek. In the winter Captain Steve likes to fish Martin’s Creek and the Coneross area, and winter and early spring are a prime time for catching big fish. Gizzard shad and trout both make good baits, and in the spring cut bait is also popular.
I asked Captain Steve about eating Lake Hartwell striped bass because of the PCBs in the lake and personally he doesn’t mind eating them occasionally as long as they don’t become a dietary staple. He points out that people put a lot of other things in their bodies which aren’t healthy in excess either: beer, hormone- and antibiotic-fed beef, and farm-raised seafood. Captain Steve believes moderation is the key, as with most things.
Captain Steve Pietrykowski is a friendly, enthusiastic guide who enjoys teaching clients and doesn’t mind sharing his spots. He is also a student of outdoor sports. Alongside fishing his other passion is hunting, particularly bow and arrow deer hunting, and he spends significant time thinking about fish and deer and how to be more effective in their pursuit. Captain Steve believes that he has a lot left to learn about Lake Hartwell, and if he’s not in the woods looking for the deer of a lifetime odds are good that he will be on Lake Hartwell or Lake Jocassee learning to think more and more like a fish. I recommend that you call and schedule a trip to go with him.