Dragging the Skeg
A Shallow-Water Primer By Captain Dave Willard
A swirl of white water betrayed her presence as my baitfish leaped skyward in a futile attempt at escape. As the herring reached the summit of his leap and started down, I had covered the distance from the center console to the back rod holder. A tremendous explosion sent a column of water six feet high as the bait reentered the water; the rod bent double and the clicker on the Ambassador 6500C screamed! Over the years I had seen a lot of stripers “blow up” on my baits but never anything of this magnitude. My arms seemed to be paralyzed as I tried to pick up the rod. Finally I was able to get locked in and free the rod from the holder just in time to have the rod go straight and the clicker stop…
“Time to get up,” came a cheerful voice as my wife punched the button on our alarm clock. I had a bad case of striper fever and my dream (or nightmare) would haunt me all day. My hands were still shaking a few minutes later as I was handed a cup of coffee. “ Get up or you’ll be late,” she stated, not quite as cheerful this time.
It was early march and this time of year I eat, breathe and dream striper fishing. We had landed a 35- pounder a couple of days before and had missed some bigger fish, including one that would go close to 50 pounds that we actually had on top ready to net when the hook pulled loose.
Clarks Hill (or Lake Thurmond) has produced some big stripers over the past few years. Huge stripers seem to be able to survive the hot summer months and low oxygen levels only to reemerge in the winter months to terrorize many fishermen, including myself. Both stripers and hybrids are extremely shallow this time of year, and I spend most of my time chasing them in six feet of water or less. Shallow water warms more quickly and a few degrees on the high side of the thermometer can be the piscatorial equivalent of a hot tub at the local health club. It gets the blood pumping, raises the metabolism and increases the appetite.
The problem with shallow fish is that the fish are extremely spooky and will leave the country if they feel threatened. One ironclad way of not catching these fish is to let them know you are there, whether you do it by coming off plane too late, trolling with the big motor, or generally lacking finesse. Stealth is the key, along with the right bait or lure, and forget about marking fish on the graph.
I am a live bait specialist, so most of the methods I use incorporate the use of shad or herring, and of these two predominantly herring. The same approach will work for artificials, although I would have to say that live bait is more productive. Sure, I would like to fish topwater for breaking fish every day, but that’s not possible.
I sipped my second cup of coffee as I crossed Price’s Bridge on the Little River arm. It promised to be another day in paradise. The cold fronts that can kill early spring fishing had been swinging to the north. Not a cloud in the sky and with two clients (Phil and Fred, walleye fishermen from Toledo, Ohio) on board, I eased the 22-foot center console up on plane and headed toward a favorite rocky island within a hundred yards of the main river channel.
Want to catch rock fish? Look for the rocks! Simple, right? But why? The best I can tell, they were first called rock fish by the early settlers. The fish would move up the headwaters of the major river systems where their eggs would float downstream and hatch. They could be seen rubbing their heavy egg-laden bellies against the rocks. They still do, even in reservoirs where the eggs can’t hatch. The fish we catch this time of year are often rubbed raw! Hybrids are there also. Having never been socially accepted by either the striper or white bass family, hybrids have an outlaw mentality. If there is a fresh water fish that pound-for-pound will break more lines, pull more rods overboard or cut you wide open with razor sharp gill plates, I haven’t had the pleasure of catching it yet. They can also tolerate water that would turn a purebred striper belly-up.
We came off plane and I shut off the big motor and immediately started my Navigator trolling motor. “Impulse power, Scotty,” as we continued to close at a good clip.
I noticed a curious look on the faces of my clients and couldn’t help but smile. There is a list of most-asked questions guides answer. This one was high on the list and since I believe my third grade teacher was right and there are no stupid questions, I began to explain: the trolling motor mounts on top of the cavitation plate on the big motor. The controls are located anywhere one wants. In my case, on the console in front of me. I never have to leave the console to engage or disengage the trolling motor. Never have to raise and lower the motor shaft and when checking out deep water humps, I never have to take my eyes off the Fish Finder. When the boat is on plane, the electric motor is out of the water and creates little or no drag. This new concept in trolling motors has been a lifesaver for the larger boats that had trouble mounting the traditional motors off the bow.
“See the bait on top of the water close to the island?” I asked. The way the bait was popping the top very similar to tiny raindrops, I guessed they were threadfin shad. This is also a favorite island for blueback herring and I have seen several leap from the water escaping predator fish during the last couple of trips.
Knowledge of bait fish is essential. We use natural baits that the fish are feeding on. We have to know where they are at certain times of the year so we can catch them and how to keep them alive. It’s not enough just to have bait. One must have good bait. Another reason to know the habits of baitfish (even if one fishes with artificial baits or purchases live bait)—and this is a no-brainer-- is to know where the predator fish will be!
I finished my standard spiel on baitfish, opened the bait tank and slid a 1/0 Eagle Claw offset hook through the nose of a six-inch blueback herring and slipped the bait over the side. About six to eight feet from the bait, I placed a clip-on yellow cork and handed the rod to Phil.
‘Keep running the cork back until I tell you to stop,” I said.
On the other side of the boat, I repeated the procedure but used an orange cork and passed the rod to Fred. When both corks were approximately 125 feet and 150 feet respectively, the clickers were engaged and the rods placed in the rod holders. At this time, outriggers were swung into place and a free-line was placed at approximately 100 feet on each side. Sometimes I will use planer boards instead of outriggers and they work well. They are more labor intensive and since I am often fishing with people who aren’t used to fishing this way, I like to keep it as simple as possible. Another advantage to outriggers is that once the line is pulled loose from the rigger release, there is nothing but fish—no planer board!
Planer boards can be rigged to release completely free from the line but then the boards must be retrieved. Most of the time they are rigged to slide down the line to a barrel swivel located a few feet above the hook. There are several advantages to planer boards. First, they are relatively inexpensive when compared to outriggers. Second, they can be fished from small boats that might not handle outriggers comfortably. And third, the baits can be run a greater distance from the boat, covering angles of 45 to 60 degrees.
A good combination might be two corks straight back and two planer boards on each side, especially if you have a partner who can work his side of the boat. This would put six baits out. Be innovative and try different techniques until you find one that works best for you. Ben Peacock, a top fish producer with the Augusta Striper Club, often runs six planer boards even while fishing by himself. The idea is to get a spread and a combination of several techniques that may work fine at different times. Remember though, after hooking a fish, you have to land it. Too many lines can cause a terrible mess, not to mention a lost fish. Another factor would be how fast the fish are hitting—there are days when two rods straight back are all you can handle. I like those days!
I have come to know, through trial-and-error, which rocky points on the main lake are more likely to hold fish this time of year. If you aren’t experienced on Clarks Hill, the best approach for you is to start at the dam, head up little River, and hit every rocky point on the main lake all the way up to Raysville Marina. Use a run-and-gun approach, fishing around the ends of the points and moving on if you don’t get a hit. If you do, turn around and work that point until you stop getting hits. If you make it all the way up the river without hitting a good point, turn around and head back down the other shoreline. I have found that the prime rocky points for March are long and shallow, running far out toward the river channel before dropping off. Points that drop quickly and fast won’t hold many fish. The stripers like these long, shallow points, but they also like to be close to the channel and deep water in case they get into trouble.
We are now fishing with four baits out and easing into shallow water on a course that would run us parallel to the island and around the long rocky point that runs toward the river channel. We were covering 32-feet of shoreline: the left 12- foot outrigger, the left cork, eight more feet of boat, the second cork, and another 12- foot. outrigger. I repeated my instructions to Fred and Phil.
“Make sure you turn the reel handles and lock in since the rods are in free spool with only the clickers on.”
There are few sounds in the world more exciting than the scream of a well-built clicker. It is akin to the sound of a covey rise. It is the exhilarating sound of success, but it can also cause people to do crazy things. In the heat of combat with the clicker smoking, it is easy to forget to lock in. The result in a birds nest and a lost fish. Fred and Phil assured me that they would never do anything like that.
“Okay, that’s fine, just thought I would mention it.”
We were now in the strike zone. The depth finder showed six feet.
“You cork is gone!” screamed Fred, and Phil almost jumped out of his skin. After regaining the use of his legs he started toward his rod only to have me stop him.
“Don’t worry about the corks,” I told both of them. “They just help keep up with the lines, especially on a turn. The baits can pull them under at times.”
Phil asked, “How will we know when we have a nibble?”
No, he didn’t really say “nibble,” did he? Before I could answer, everything was made perfectly clear as if by divine intervention. The rod with the orange cork bent double and the clicker screamed.
“Fish on!” I shouted. “ Back right rod, your rod, Phil.”
As I was discovering, a fact that would be verified throughout the day, Phil had a built-in 30-second delay. Maybe another one of those genetic traits or possibly to much time in the city. If Phil had been a quail, he would still be sitting on the ground long after the covey had flushed.
“Lock it in, Phil. Pick it up, set the hook…”
I don’t know how much of this he actually heard. He was pale as a ghost and both pupils seemed to be blown. I wasn’t taking any chances so I spun the reel handle one time while the rod was still in the holder. Fred decided he would help Phil out and catch the fish himself, but Phil had now rejoined the living and resented this move. With four hands on the rod, a struggle ensued. Phil, in the market for saving face and with a superior position, snatched the rod away from Fred and in the commotion the hook was set.
“Fish on!” I repeated in an effort to smooth things over, and as the line whistled toward the channel side, I removed the right free-line to prevent any tangles.
Most of the time stripers run out and up toward the surface and hybrids will bulldog straight down. Since we were only in a few feet of water, it was hard to tell which species was on the line as they both are forced to stay shallow, and both smoke it toward deep water.
Our first fish of the day was a 6-½ lb. hybrid and after kudos and photos, we were resetting Phil’s line when Fred’s clicker went off. Fred was fairly fast for a guy who had just started striper fishing about 15 minutes earlier. He was on that rod like a cat, but Fred had one problem that I was unable to break during the entire day. His idea of setting the hook was to garb the rod and run to the front of the boat. After landing his first striper, a 12 pounder, he saw no need to improve his technique.
All lines back out and two fish in the boat with a battle-hardened crew, we were just rounding a point that had produced many fish in the last few days. I was a little close to shore and I heard the skeg grating across the rocks. As I went to raise the motor, all four rods bent double and the clickers screamed. Fred grabbed his rod and ran to the front of the boat. I was at the console with a rod in each hand and Phil was starting to move toward his rod that was threatening to snap off at the handle. Four fish on, three fishermen—man, I love this job!
I placed one rod back in the holder and landed a 4-lb. hybrid on the other. By this time Fred had a 6-lb. largemouth ready to net, and afterwards grabbed the rod that was still bent double in the rod holder. Phil’s fish had turned broadside 100 yards out of the river channel and he wasn’t gaining any line. I showed him how to raise his rod and then reel down as he lowered it. Fred had another 4-lb. class hybrid up to the boat, so I left Phil and netted Phil’s fish. When I returned, Phil had the fish on top at 50 yards and a fairly respectable dorsal fin was showing.
“Striper,” I told him, “and a good one. She’s whipped, all you have to do is pump her in, but pull easy.”
I was remembering the big striper that had pulled loose a couple of days before. As the fish got closer, Fred exclaimed “ It’s a monster!” which didn’t do anything for Phil’s nerves, and who by now was shaking pretty good. I could almost reach the fish and Phil raised the rod again, I slipped the net under and laid her in the floor.
“Good job, Phil,” I said, as I shook his hand.
The fish went 22 ¼ pounds, and after photos and a short revival time, swam off rather indignantly.
We had drifted off the island by the time I had all the gear straightened out and were now sitting in 30 feet of water. I decided to let this spot cool off for an hour or so and moved to another spot up the river. We continued on in this fashion for several more hours consistently putting fish in the boat, including a 9-lb. largemouth destined for immortality in Fred’s office.
“They don’t grow them that big up north,” was Fred’s only remark.
After only four hours on the water, we had a combination limit of stripers and hybrids and a couple of nice largemouths. As we headed toward the marina, Fred and Phil sat retelling the day’s events as if the other one hadn’t been there. They were good guys and I enjoyed fishing with them. I knew they would remember this day spent on a southern reservoir long after their return to Ohio.