Since late summer bass fishing on Clarks Hill/ Lake Thurmond has been tough, and the trend has continued this winter. As far back as September tournament-winning sacks were light, and in the FLW Series Clarks Hill Event this fall ten pounds a day was enough to finish in second place. Theories abound about the reasons for the slow bite, and some people are even blaming the lake’s striper population for eating too many bass. However, lingering effects of the drought and oxygen problems probably have more to do with the fishery’s health than anything else.
While the fishery may in fact be down, Clarks Hill Guide Dale Gibbs still believes that good numbers of fish are available. The same people who believe that the lake is devoid of bass this fall and winter will be surprised when the fishing is good in March, April and May, as it was last year. The obvious conclusion is that bass are there, and since they must eat to survive they should be catchable. Fishermen just need to modify their techniques. Hoping to learn more I caught up with Captain Dale Gibbs and received a tutorial in winter bass fishing on Clarks Hill.
Bass fishermen like to fish obvious cover and structure, and on many lakes that works just fine. However, like Hartwell and Russell to the north along the Savannah River Chain, and Lake Murray to the east, Clarks Hill today is a blueback herring lake, and the best fish may be related to herring (a marine, open-water school fish) as opposed to cover. Instead of throwing at stumps bass fishermen need to target suspended fish, which is generally much more difficult, especially for largemouth bass fishermen not used to fishing open water. Appropriately, Captain Dale’s winter techniques are geared more towards finding bait schools and less towards fishing obvious cover.
In the winter Captain Dale spends a substantial amount of time on the lower end of the lake, which he calls the “clear end.” On the Savannah River arm of Clarks Hill this includes the area below Dordon Creek, and on the Georgia arm of the lake this is the area below the Highway 17 bridge.
While some fish will be caught around riprap and natural rocks, creek channels (or “ditches” as they are often called on Clarks Hill) are the most important structure that bass relate to in the winter. As I saw while striper fishing with Captain Steve Pietrykowski on the lower end of Lake Hartwell, bait and predators use creek channels to move around the same way the people use highways. Ditches are even more important in the winter because they are deeper and hence warmer than the surrounding areas, and even a small temperature differential is enough to attract fish. Closer to the shore Captain Dale says there is more likely to have been significant silting in the old creek channel so the ditch may only drop 2 or 3 feet down, while further away from the bank ditches are likely to be 7 or 8 feet deeper.
Bait schools and largemouth bass can be found anywhere in the ditches, but Captain Dale especially likes areas where points meet ditches. Another productive spot can be where a creek channel runs through a flat. While these are good areas to prospect, the determinative factor in whether to fish an area should be the presence or absence of bait schools on your graph.
Bass can be caught around both schools of threadfin shad and blueback herring, but Captain Dale believes that 100% of the time the best fish will be orienting to blueback herring. So strong is a largemouth bass’ preference for herring that if it is following a school of 20,000 shad, and a school of 1000 blueback herring swim by, the bass will change course and follow the school of herring. Unfortunately it is difficult to tell whether the fish you see on the graph are herring or shad, and for all practical purposes the only way to know for sure what bait you are seeing is to catch a bass and see what it regurgitates. However, one reasonably good indicator is that if a bait school appears as an extremely large cloud on the graph it is more likely to be threadfin shad. Captain Dale notes that on sunny days bait may be up or down the water column but the schools will generally be very tight, while on cloudy days they will scatter out.
With all that being said, if Captain Dale has historically been successful in an area he will still sometimes fish it even if his sonar and side imaging don’t show bait. There is still some old timber on the bottom in creek drains, and it is possible that fish are holding so tight to the cover or the bottom that they are hard to see on his graph. But if he has historically caught fish in an area and sees bait on the graph he will definitely stop to fish.
Captain Dale says that 20-30 feet is generally considered deep water by most people, but he will go as deep as 40, 50 or 60 feet. One memorable bass came on a jigging spoon in 57 feet of water. A typical pattern for fishing a ditch is to start out in 35 or 40 feet of water at the mouth of a cove with a creek channel running through it and then fish all the way to the back of the cove. Sometimes his boat will push the bait school along the ditch in front of it, and sometimes the fish will even come to the surface in the back of the cove and take a floating fluke – in the middle of winter. Captain Dale says that Clarks Hill is one of the best topwater lakes in the Southeast, and he has caught fish there on a Zara Spook during every month of the year. Schooling activity is possible all winter long and is most likely in the first two or three hours of the day, when Captain Dale finds the bite is generally better even during the winter.
While a slowly worked Zara Spook can at times be part of Captain Dale’s winter arsenal, more common lures for him to throw are a Zoom Super Fluke on a Buckeye Lures Jighead, a jigging spoon/ blade bait and a Buckeye Lures Mop Jig.
The success of the Zoom Super Fluke on Clarks Hill is no secret, and Captain Dale likes to fish the baits on a ¼ ounce Buckeye Lures jighead. His favorite color is Pearl White, and he fishes the bait by casting and then hopping it 3-4 feet off the bottom. In a recent BassMaster magazine Jason Williamson discussed fishing this lure on Clarks Hill.
Another bait Captain Dale likes to fish, particularly when it is very cold, is a jigging spoon or blade bait. Again he likes the Buckeye Lures Jiggin’ Blade, in silver, gold or white, and instead of casting he fishes the bait vertically. Captain Dale will also fish a Hopkins Spoon the same way.
The third bait which Captain Dale fishes extensively in the winter (and all year) on Clarks Hill is a Buckeye Lures Mop Jig. As is their reputation he finds that the biggest bass often come on jigs, and in the spring it is not uncommon for Captain Dale to catch several decent fish around cover on a spinnerbait and then pull out a big female when he casts a jig into the same area. During the winter he finds that bass react particularly well to the bulky mop jig, and because it has a rubber skirt instead of a silicone one the skirt blouses out nicely. If Captain Dale is fishing in more than 20 feet of water he will usually throw a big football headed jig in ¾ or 1 ounce sizes. He fishes the brown jig most often, and 90% of the time he pairs it with a Zoom Super Chunk in green pumpkin.
Fishing Up the Lake
While Captain Dale traditionally spends most of his time in the winter fishing on the lower end of the lake, the last two or three years he has found good fish all year at the top of the lake. The upper lake receives water from the bottom of Lake Russell Dam, and just as this inflow is relatively cold during summer, during the winter the inflow is relatively warm.
The northern part of the lake is far more riverine than the lower lake, and it has less ditches than the lower lake. Instead of fishing in the creek channels Captain Dale spends his time at the top of the lake fishing the edges of timber and deeper rockpiles. His favorite winter lure for this end of the lake is the mop jig, but medium to deep running crankbaits can also produce.
Most of the bass in Clarks Hill are largemouth bass, but there is also a small population of spotted bass, especially in the northern part of the lake. In a Stren Series Event in 2008 Captain Dale says the tournament was won on spotted bass after an angler found schooling fishing in the top of the lake. For now he only catches 3 or 4 spotted bass each year, but he predicts that in five years the numbers are likely to be much larger.
A Look Ahead
Captain Dale says that after water temperatures hit 52 to 55 degrees, between about mid-February and mid-March fish will be in pre-spawn mode. They will still relate to ditches but will particularly gravitate to ditches with adjacent feeding flats. The best ditches will have hydrilla, and fish will sometimes bury themselves in the grass and then come out to feed. Through March, April and May Captain Dale predicts that fishing will be strong on Clarks Hill, and anglers will see that there are solid numbers of bass on Clarks Hill.
No one, including Captain Dale Gibbs, pretends that bass fishing has not been tough for some time on Clarks Hill. However, by fishing in the places bass really are – instead of where fishermen want them to be – and by using the techniques and lures discussed here, your chances of finding them are much better. If you would like to learn more, and see Captain Dale pattern fish on the water, schedule a guided trip on Clarks Hill. Captain Dale Gibbs can be reached at 706-288-7510, or by email sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My thanks to Captain Dale Gibbs for being willing to share so much valuable information.