Driving over the Lake Murray dam in the summer months, it would be hard to escape the conclusion that there is something exciting going on in the world of striped bass fishing at the intake towers. Even on weekday afternoons it is rare to see less than 10 or 15 boats clustered around the towers with lines in the water, even as a much smaller number of boats is fishing the rest of the area around the dam. But while there are fish to be caught around the towers, that’s not the only way to catch striper in the summer on Lake Murray. Captain Brad Taylor guides full time for striped bass in the summer months on the lake, often running two trips a day, and he says that he hasn’t fished the towers in years!
For years Brad has been my source for periodic Lake Murray fishing reports which are posted each week on Angler’s Headquarters, and I have had the opportunity to catch fish with him several times. This summer I wanted to take some friends who were soon moving out-of-state on a fishing trip where they would be certain to catch fish and leave the state with a good fishing memory, and luckily Brad had an opening in late July. He was good enough to let me write this article and share some of his wealth of knowledge about how to catch striped bass from Lake Murray in the heat of summer.
Now owned and operated by Dominion Energy South Carolina, Lake Murray was built in the 1920s and 30s to provide hydroelectric power for Midlands residents. The approximately 48,000-acre lake with roughly 650 miles of shoreline lies just to the northwest of the capital city of Columbia in the four counties of Richland, Lexington, Saluda and Newberry. Today it is difficult to imagine the area without this important source of recreation for a region known as “Lake Murray Country.” The lake is oriented in an east-west direction, with the town of Lexington on the southern side of the lake and the town of Chapin on the northern side. To the west the lake is fed by the Big and Little Saluda Rivers, and on the east side of the lake is the Lake Murray Dam. Below the dam the Lower Saluda River is formed from the depths of Lake Murray and flows into the city of Columbia. The full-pool elevation of Lake Murray is 360 feet above sea level, and at the deepest points near the iconic intake towers the lake is approximately 190 feet deep at full pool.
Fishermen target Lake Murray’s populations of striped bass, largemouth bass, crappie, bream, catfish, and more. Unlike the other species, striped bass cannot reproduce naturally in Lake Murray and so they are entirely stocked (at fingerling size) by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. In terms of its forage base, Lake Murray has both gizzard and threadfin shad, but the baitfish that may have the most effect on striped bass (and some other predator species in the lake) are non-native blueback herring – which are like nutrient-rich candy to fish. This pelagic species is well known for roaming open water, and while striped bass will eat other fish (including bream, shad, white perch and more) much of their seasonal and even daily movements follow the herring.
Locating hot-water striped bass
In the late spring the herring will spawn in the shallows across Lake Murray, starting in the warmer backs of creeks and progressing to the main lake as it warms. For a period in the late spring, some of the most exciting fishing of the year is for striped bass and largemouth that have followed the spawning herring up shallow and are gorging on these baitfish. But after the herring spawn wraps up towards the end of May the baitfish head to deeper water, and Lake Murray striped bass follow them.
During the summer months striper generally get as deep as they will hold all year, and during July and until the latter part of August fish are generally grouped up in the lower section of the lake. Captain Brad says that most of the fish are from Shull Island down, but he is careful to point out that you can still catch fish in the deeper sections of creeks on the lower end of the lake. Still, he spends a great deal of his fishing time on the main lake within view of the dam. Schools of blueback herring are attracted to the dam, and striped bass relate to the humps and ridges off the dam and group up in the vicinity of the dam to feed.
Because of boat traffic patterns Brad spends more time fishing on the south side of the lake than the north side, but he points out that boat traffic does not necessarily hurt the fishing. Side to side rocking can be hard on bait as it gets pulled up and down in the water, but this year they caught fish literally in the middle of the Fourth of July boat parade! Brad says they booked three trips from people who said they had been in adjacent boats during the parade and after watching them catch fish wanted to give it a try.
I had assumed that the best fishing was early, late and at night in the summer, when it is cooler, but I was surprised to learn that that is not necessarily the case. About a week ago when we went the best fishing was in the middle of the day from about Noon to 3:00 – which is apparently not unusual. Brad explained that dissolved oxygen levels increase with sunshine, and so when the sun is high this can activate the bite and get fish to feeding.
In the morning fish do feed shallower, and they will move up ridges into less than 20 feet of water to eat. Then during the day they will move out to deeper water and feed close to the bottom in 50-70 feet of water. The day we fished most of our fish were on the bottom in 60-65 feet of water. They will also lie on the bottom at the same depth, and on certain days you can actually see mud on their bellies.
After dark there is another feeding cycle, and at night fish will suspend anywhere from 20-85 feet and roam. While Brad has seen fish as deep as 130 feet, it is rare because there is no bait (and not much oxygen) down there. Brad also notes that suspended fish are on the move and so they can be harder to catch, particularly with down-lining techniques. In the evening we located some massive schools, but they were moving so fast that it was almost impossible to get a bait in front of the fish.
My suspicion is that part of the reason so many anglers fish around the towers is a herd mentality, but also because unless you were going to fish the rock face of the dam (which goes on for miles and appears relatively featureless above the surface) there is little else in the extreme lower pool which is visible above the surface. And while there can be some sporadic schooling in the summer on cloudy mornings, as there was a few weeks ago, in general the fish are very deep. Electronics are essential for this type of fishing, and naturally Brad closely studied his state-of-the-art electronics during the entire trip. There is really nothing to see on the surface, and so in deciding where to fish it was all about what was on the screens.
Fishing in deep water during the summer it is mostly a down-rod/ down-line bite, and Brad generally fishes 4-6 rods at a time. He pairs fiberglass medium light Shakespeare Ugly Stiks that have plenty of give with Abu Garcia Ambassadeurs spooled with 15-pound monofilament. On the business end of the line he Carolina rigs a 2 ounce egg sinker, bead and swivel above three feet of 15-pound fluorocarbon leader. While he will fish circle hooks in other applications such as planer boards, the down-rod strikes are so aggressive that Brad uses a #2 kahle hook through the nose of the live blueback herring.
Even though it’s mainly a down-rod pattern, Brad does utilize a couple of rods out the back with cut bait. He sometimes finds that the biggest fish will be hooked this way a little away from the boat. Brad also has at least one rod rigged up with a giant Nichols Tackle Ben Parker Magnum Flutter Spoon. The day we fished we caught several nice ones on the spoon, but Brad would also use it to activate the fish. Sometimes it would appear from the electronics that the fish were just staring at our bait, but after Brad would start jigging and hook a fish the down-lines would light up too. After a couple of double and triple hook-ups I understood why Brad “only” fishes 6 down-rods at a time – even one fish at a time can provide plenty of excitement when it starts swimming towards the other lines!
To learn more or try it…
Since Lake Murray striped bass can not reproduce on their own, it is obviously a put-and-take fishery. The rest of the year there is a 21-inch minimum size limit, but from June 1 – September 30 the size limit disappears and you have to stop fishing after each angler catches five fish. Brad says that allowing people to keep the first five fish they catch recognizes the reality that very few fish that come out of deep water will survive, and even “fizzing” their swim bladders will not help in the summer heat. The day we went our group was very happy to take home a cooler full of delicious striped bass, which have already made for excellent fare on the grill.
Except for a period in September and October when he is guiding for alligators, for the last 15 years Captain Brad Taylor has been guiding full-time on Lake Murray, chiefly for striped bass and crappie. To find out how the fish are biting at any given time check out the regular AHQ Insider Lake Murray striper and crappie fishing reports on this site. With the purchase of even a pack of swivels anglers can read his full, updated reports each week. But the real fun is going out on his boat, learning from the master and catching a boat-load of striped bass with Captain Brad Taylor. You will not be disappointed. To book a trip he can be reached at 803-331-1354 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and be sure to check out his website at www.tayloroutdoors.com.