When I pulled up to Broyle’s Landing for a day of Lake Hartwell bass fishing with Captain Brad Fowler the June sun was already high in the sky, and it was starting to get hot. When we launched a little after 8:00 it had been light for more than two hours, and I was pretty sure we would be fishing deeper water. Sure enough our first spot was a good 300 yards from the bank. What I didn’t realize, though, was that we would be working lures within 6 inches of the surface, and I was not expecting it when Brad handed me a swimbait. I had never caught fish on top so late in the morning on a hot summer day. Brad positioned us off a deep, underwater point and told me to burn the bait across the surface. To demonstrate he sent a long cast across the point, and we were both surprised when a healthy bass grabbed his bait on that first cast. Brad fought the fish to the boat and then released it, and I quickly realized that there was something to this style of fishing.
Pendleton’s Brad Fowler grew up fishing on Lake Hartwell, and both his parents and grandparents live on the lake. When it came time for college Brad didn’t want to leave the area, and so he attended Clemson. After graduating from Clemson Brad eventually started an electrical contracting business, and owning that business gives Brad the flexibility to run a largemouth and spotted bass guiding service on Lake Hartwell and Lake Keowee. He also fishes local and national tournaments, including the FLW Series as a professional in 2008, and along with his partner Brock Taylor, Brad has had success in tournaments statewide. Out of 168 boaters Brad is currently in 5th place, and within striking distance of 1st, in the 2010 FLW Bass Fishing League Savannah River Division. Through the FLW, BFL and Fish the Fall trails Brad fishes tournaments around the state and country, but Lake Hartwell is still his home and favorite lake. I was lucky enough to have Brad show me how he catches bass in the summer on Hartwell.
As on many South Carolina lakes, in late spring on Lake Hartwell the blueback herring bite is king. After the bass spawn their energy is depleted and they are often malnourished, not having focused on eating for some time, but through the blueback herring spawn nature provides them with abundant, easy food. Usually an open water, offshore species, during their spawn blueback herring come shallow to lay their eggs. On Lake Hartwell Brad says that they frequently spawn on red clay points, and the bass hunt in packs and gorge on the bluebacks. On many lakes Brad says that bass have to travel a long way from their spawning grounds to areas where they feed on bluebacks, and then from those areas to their summer habitat, but on Lake Hartwell Captain Brad says that spawning grounds, areas for feeding on spawning herring and then summer feeding grounds are close together.
Lake Hartwell has a plentiful population of largemouth and spotted bass, and there are different patterns on which anglers will be catching fish in the summer after the herring spawn ends. For the first hour or two in the morning some anglers will be throwing buzzbaits and other topwater lures around docks and shallow bank grass. Subsurface, a few fish can be caught in those areas all day long during the summer, because on Lake Hartwell there are some resident fish which will always be found shallow. Other resident fish will always be found deep, the year round. The only exception to this may be during the spawn, when even the deep fish move shallow. However, Brad notes that many of the striper guides claim that huge 8-10 pound bass frequently spawn on offshore structure such as humps and shoals.
Brad is not a bank fishermen by preference, and so come summer he will not be targeting the bass that remain in shallow water, either early in the morning or later in the day. He will sometimes be fishing within 200 yards of the shallow water fishermen, but his boat will be 200 yards out from them. To someone unfamiliar with Lake Hartwell, and on the surface, the areas that Brad fishes in the summer just look like plain, open water. However, under the surface the areas he targets all have significant depth changes, and many of his favorite spots feature sharp drops. They include points, humps (which frequently rise off underwater points) and shoals. Typical water depths that Brad targets range from 25-50 feet, although our first fish of the day was caught over an underwater point in “only” 15 feet of water.
Lake Hartwell is covered in submerged timber, which is one reason the lake was so dangerous to run when the water was down, and many of the fish Brad targets are relating to timber. Over the course of the day they will frequently move back and forth between timber and points. Brush piles can also cause fish to congregate, and on one particular point Brad and I had a large school of spots follow our baits back to the boat. Brad speculated that there was probably a brushpile nearby, and after searching for a few minutes we found it.
The bass that Brad targets are suspended in the middle or upper part of the water column over deep water, and so they are usually related to herring or threadfin shad. At that depth range they are not feeding on bream and crawfish. The bass he catches include a mix of largemouth and spots (with plenty of hybrids and striper thrown in), but the two black bass species behave differently from differently. The largemouth are more likely to hang around one location and wait for the baitfish to come to them, while the spots roam from place to place and are frequently “here today, gone tomorrow.”
Brad uses several different lures to catch largemouth and spots suspended out over offshore depth changes. While he says it might be possible to pick up a few fish in the middle of the water column on crankbaits or off the bottom on Carolina rigs, the lures he uses are worked on or just below the surface. These include hard swimbaits, flukes, soft swimbaits such as Money Minnows on a weighted head, and Spooks, generally in natural “bait” colors. He works these baits about as fast they can be reeled across the surface, and says it’s okay if they pop out of the water every now and then. You don’t want the fish to have too long to examine the bait and realize it’s artificial, and so you hope for the lure to trigger a reaction strike. Brad fishes his baits on 17 pound test line, and at the speed he rips the bait across the surface has never encountered problems with the stout line scaring off fish.
It’s fairly well known that for this type of fishing “the wind is your friend.” The wind activates the bait fish and gets them moving around, and in turns it makes the bass feed. A breeze also breaks up the surface and camouflages the bait somewhat, making bass more likely to hit. Brad still fishes the same way on calm days, but he finds that many more fish will follow the bait back to the boat without striking. One adjustment that Brad makes depending on the bite is that he upsizes or downsizes his lures depending on how the fish are feeding. If they are biting very well he might move to larger model bait, but if they are hesitant to strike he might try a smaller bait.
Since he is looking for aggressive fish, in a tournament Brad works each spot very quickly. In a tournament he will usually only make 5 casts off a point if he doesn’t get bit, and he often won’t even put down the trolling motor. The first several fish that Brad and I caught all came on the first cast over a particular piece of underwater structure. Brad also points out that it is very important to make your casts as long as possible so as to get the bait as far away from the boat as possible.
As alluded to earlier this pattern generally kicks into gear shortly after the herring finish spawning, and Lake Hartwell bass will pull back from the shallow red clay points where they were gorging on bluebacks and suspend over deeper water only a few hundred yards away. It generally begins when water temperatures reach the upper 70s, and the bite continues until temperatures fall below that same mark – probably late September. While Brad and I did most of our fishing around the Andersonville Island area, he tells me that the lower part of the lake near the dam is an even more popular area to fish the suspended pattern. This is especially true late in the summer when boat traffic gets heavy, particularly above the lower lake. (It is worth mentioning that fishing for suspended bass is often better during week than on weekends, because of traffic.) Another advantage to the lower end of the lake is that there are more points to fish, although Brad also says that the depth changes on the lower end are more gradual. Accordingly, to target the appropriate depth you have to fish farther offshore. Finally, many people also believe that the lower end has more big bass than the rest of the lake.
There are upsides and downsides to fishing for suspended fish in a tournament situation. The downside is that very big fish are more likely to be shallow or lurking on the bottom than feeding on the top. A fat old bass may not want to spend its time swimming around and chasing herring or shad on the surface. However, the quality of fish is more consistent fishing for suspended fish over deep water than beating the bank or fishing on the bottom. You may not have as good a chance at a 6 or 7 pounder, but it’s a good way to fill a sack with 3 ½ to 4 ½ pound bass.
The day Brad and I fished together was typical, hot June day, and by early afternoon the wind had died down to an occasional late breeze. I thought the catching was probably done for the day. However, when we caught two fish within five minutes of each other just after 1:00 p.m. it confirmed that, on Lake Hartwell, suspended bass can be caught on top throughout the day even in the heat of summer.
Anytime you want to try out a new body of water, fish for a new species or explore a different technique, hiring a guide is a cost effective way to do so. (I personally believe that unless you fish every week or more, between the cost and inconvenience of a boat, its upkeep, property taxes, gas and tackle, going out with a guide is more cost effective than owning and fishing out of your own boat – not to mention that the likelihood of success is higher.) While it would certainly be possible to try to fish the way that Brad showed me without getting in the boat with him first, since you are not fishing visible cover and structure, having a guide show you around first would be even more beneficial than usual. With Hartwell’s already healthy bass fishery on the upswing after a couple of strong spawns, now through the beginning of October is a great time to try out this pattern with Captain Brad and get ready to catch bass on Lake Hartwell for the next couple of years.
For more information about Brad Fowler’s guide service check out http://www.fowlerfishing.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org, private message him on here to “FowlerFishing” or call Brad at 864-934-5813.