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How to Catch Bass on Lake Wateree (and Beyond) in the Winter

  • by Jay

Following the third weekend in January, when several days of air temperatures in the 60s and even 70s had pushed surface temperatures in lakes statewide well above the 50 degree mark, it looked like it might be a short winter and spring might arrive early. At that point it appeared to be too late for an article about winter bass fishing on Lake Wateree, or any South Carolina lake frankly, and I prepared to move onto spring reporting. However, following multiple cold fronts, and with the coldest weather of winter looking like it’s coming in the next few days, I realized that it was not too late to offer a general guide to winter bass fishing on Lake Wateree. If winter is defined as the period when water temperatures are below 50 degrees on Lake Wateree (as Camden’s Dearal Rodgers defines it), then this is the perfect time for an article about winter bass fishing on Lake Wateree!

When I first interviewed tournament angler Dearal Rodgers about winter bass fishing on Lake Wateree he had recently been crowned 2009 FLW Co-Angler of the Year, and the following year he won the FLW Championship as a co-angler on Lake Lanier. Over the next few years Dearal would fish the FLW as a professional, suffer a serious fall during a building inspection that limited his fishing, and then finally be able get back on the Tour again as a co-angler in 2014. This year, however, Dearal is concentrating on South Carolina events, and his season is off to good start with a third place finish in the first BFL Savannah River Division Event on Lake Keowee. All told Dearal has won $135,861 fishing FLW tournaments.

Dearal has obviously had success in regional and national competition, but his expertise on Lake Wateree is the reason why I originally interviewed Dearal about winter bass fishing on that lake. I will not recite Dearal’s history on Lake Wateree, but particularly in CATT competition he has done very well (and won a lot of money) there. Always generous with this knowledge, he was good enough to share with me how he fishes the lake in the winter.

Dearal with two Lake Wateree hawks
Dearal with two Lake Wateree hawgs

Winter Pattern

In the winter Dearal mainly fishes for Lake Wateree bass in or near relatively shallow water, but it is important for there to be deep water nearby. Dearal’s favorite areas to target are steep banks. The banks need to be at least 45 degrees or steeper, and the best spots will have a shallow shelf that comes out from the bank for ten or twenty feet and then drops off sharply. Dearal likes to position his boat in 15-20 feet of water and then cast towards the bank into as little as one foot of water.

With crawfish mostly in hibernation at water temperatures below 50 degrees bass eat some bluegill in the winter, but Dearal believes the main winter bass forage on Wateree is shad. In the cold water shad are stressed and dying off, and they generally stay in deeper water where their location is predictable and they make easy prey for largemouth. Largemouth like to inhabit deep water proximate to shallow water in the winter because they do not have to go far to find bait, and because the deep water provides security. Meanwhile, the shallows allow the bass to move into warmer water on sunny days. Where there is a shallow shelf bass will swim along the ledge and look up at the shallower water. Bass will move vertically in the water column on sunny days, and when the shallows warm they will move onto shelves where possible. Note that these exposed fish will spook easily and so a quiet approach is necessary.

Not just any steep bank (ideally with a shelf) will do, though, and a hard, natural rock bottom is critical, probably because rocks heat up faster in the winter than do softer bottoms. Riprap banks are generally not effective to fish around because it is rare for riprap to extend more than a few feet below the waterline. The exception to this is that riprap extending into deep water can often be found around bridges, which are good places to fish in their own right. Bridges are usually found near deep water and located in areas where creeks narrow, bottle-necking forage and bass.

Another very important requirement for winter fishing spots is wind protection. While some anglers say that “the wind is your friend” much of the year, in the winter Dearal finds that is often not true on Lake Wateree. Wind brings cooler water and so bass look for a wind-protected bank. The bank can be protected because of a topographical feature such as an island that shields it, or because of the wind direction. Banks that receive the most direct sunlight will also be the first to warm up. In every creek there is a bank that the sun hits first, and then stays on the longest. That is where the biggest bass will be found.

Steep, rocky wind-protected banks with good sunlight are ideal winter habitat, but cover in these areas can concentrate fish. Submerged brushpiles or a downed tree that extends into deep water are good spots to work carefully, and Dearal reports that some of the best winter bass will be found around docks on these same banks.

On Lake Wateree the search for ideal winter conditions usually means that Dearal is fishing down the lake, from Beaver Creek to near the dam. Up the lake is generally too sandy, and better rocky banks are generally closer to the dam. He also doesn’t head very far up the major lower lake creeks.

In the 1980s Dearal read an article by the legendary Rick Clunn which described how the four-time Classic champion classifies lakes such as Lake Wateree. Clunn divides them into thirds, with the bottom third closest to the dam being section 1, the middle third being section 2 and the top third being section 3. Clunn then divides creeks the same way, with the third closest to the main lake being section 1, the middle third being section 2 and the top third being section 3.   Using Clunn’s classification system Dearal is usually fishing in main lake section 1, and within that creek section 1, during the winter.

Baits

With an understanding of where Dearal likes to fish during the winter on Lake Wateree, my next question was what lures he throws when temperatures are below 50 degrees. In general Dearal says there are four lures in his winter arsenal – a jig, spinnerbait, a crankbait, and a shakey head worm.

As with much of the year, a jig is Dearal’s primary, go-to lure in the winter on Lake Wateree, although he points out that you cannot expect a lot of bites on a jig. He has had days when a jig would produce 10 good fish, but getting three good jig bites from 4-6 pound fish is not a bad day.

Dearal likes to fish a large jig in ½ or ¾ ounce size that gets to the bottom fast. He also likes dark colors, such as black, or black and blue. Green pumpkin is also effective on Wateree all year. Dearal believes that in the winter the senses of largemouth bass, which are after all cold-blooded, become less acute because of the cold water. Their sense of smell is degraded, they lose mobility and their eyes are less perceptive. A black bait offers better visibility than a lighter color and is easier for the fish to see. Northern anglers love to fish black jigs, and Dearal has found they work especially well in the winter on Wateree.

While color is a consideration, water displacement/ movement and sound may actually be more important. Accordingly, Dearal fishes Buckeye Lures Mops Jigs which have a bulky presence and move a lot of water. They also have a built-in double rattle which appeals to another of the fish’s senses. He also always uses a trailer. While the Mop Jig is his jig of choice in shallower to medium-depth water and for flipping cover on Wateree, when Dearal is fishing deeper water or casting long distances he will often use the Buckeye Football Mop Jig. It has a lighter wire hook which can make for an easier hookset when anglers have a lot of line out and penetrating the fish’s mouth is more difficult. The main drawback to lighter wire hooks – that bass can throw them more easily – is less significant in the winter when bass are less likely to jump. The Football Mop Jig can also be advantageous around rocks where it is less likely to hang up. (Disclaimer – Dearal is sponsored by Buckeye, and our sister site SCFishingTackle.com sells Mop Jigs and Football Mop Jigs for $4.29. However, we wrote about their benefits before we ever sold them, and we started carrying them because Dearal recommended them. )

While jigs are good “target lures” for fishing specific spots, they are not as good for covering water. When Dearal is trying to cover open water he throws either a spinnerbait or a crankbait. If air temperatures have been cold for several days, without any real warming, Dearal will throw a white Buckeye Lures spinnerbait with a white skirt, white trailer and tandem willow blades. He crawls it very slowly along the bottom and notes that winter fish are not afraid of a big bait – in fact, they often prefer it. More often than not Dearal is throwing a 3/4 ounce spinnerbait, or bigger. (Buckeye Spinnerbaits are also available on SCFishingTackle.com, again because Dearal recommends them.)

If there has been a warming trend for a few days, Dearal finds that the fish will get more aggressive. In these conditions he likes to throw a Shad Rap and fishes with a relatively slow retrieve, stopping the lure often to let it suspend. It’s important to note that when you catch one winter fish in a spot you should continue to fish that area as there may be other fish nearby. Unlike warmer weather fish, which are more likely to be passing through when you catch them, cold weather bass are more likely to be hunkered down and stationary.

Conclusion

There is no way around the fact that under the wrong conditions winter can be a tough time to fish on Lake Wateree, especially if there has been a significant amount of rain and the water becomes heavily stained. Dearal finds that cold, muddy water presents the toughest conditions for catching fish, especially on Lake Wateree. Dearal recalls a February BFL tournament a few years back when the water rose three feet in the days immediately preceding the event and became muddy. Of the 150-boat field only sixbass were caught. A few weeks ago Wateree was like that again, if not to that extent. Very cold water can also be tough, and while Wateree winter temperatures typically bottom out at about 44 or 45 degrees, the lake can get as cold as 40 or 41. If this happens the bite will usually suffer.

Still, the winter can be an outstanding time to catch bass on Lake Wateree. In the late 2000s Dearal had one of his best-ever days on Lake Wateree, for any season, on February 13. Dearal had a buddy getting married the next day who wanted to go bass fishing before tying the knot, and the two of them wore the bass out in cold 43 degree water. An angler who understands the seasonal patterns can put together a very healthy sack – even under tough conditions. Interestingly, after the first edition of this article was written I got to see first-hand the general applicability of his winter techniques when Dearal applied many of these same methods to catch a big bag in a tournament on Lake Murray. A good fisherman may be an expert on one lake, but he can also apply his knowledge to catch them on other bodies of water, too.

Dearal with a nice Lake Wateree fish
Dearal with a nice Lake Wateree bass

As always, my thanks to Dearal Rodgers for his willingness to share his knowledge with SCFishingReport.com’s readers. To see the original comments to the first version of this article, and Dearal’s generous responses to reader questions, visit: http://messageboard.scfishingreport.com/viewtopic.php?f=373&t=3526.

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