Captain Dave Willard maneuvers his big striper boat to a spot he knows
more by “feel” than by sight. The only sounds in the darkness are those
of the anchors splashing and the lap-lap of waves against the side of the boat. As soon as the double anchors are set, he methodically begins
hooking blueback herring through the nose and casting them out to the
edge of the glow cast by the boat’s bank of lights.
Now the boat is rimmed by baited hooks and the rods holders are waiting to be startled from their gentle sway by a hungry hybrid or striped bass. It’s 4 a.m. on J. Strom Thurmond lake, and Willard tells his fishing party that they have enough time to have a cup of coffee before the fish begin to strike. His guests’ eyes widen in surprise. Who is this guy, they ask, so sure of himself that he’d predict when the fish will bite?
But Willard knows. In 15 years of guiding for big stripers and their manmade cousins – stripers/white bass hybrids—he’s learned more than a little about the habits of these Savannah River lake fish. He knows that when the weather turns hot in the Southern summer, the best time to fish for stripers and hybrids is at night. And he knows what the fish are likely to do once he reaches a suitable fishing spot and sets out an array of baited rods.
Stripers must have places of refuge to get by in the summertime, and they prefer cool layers of water with adequate concentrations of dissolved oxygen, which form at various levels in Southern impoundments. Hybrids, a cross between a striped bass and a white bass created in a hatchery laboratory, are somewhat more heat tolerant, but they, too, concentrate in preferred areas during periods of seasonal stress.
“Last August, for instance, I was running most of my trips at 3 a.m.,” Willard said. “We’d get out and anchor down, and I’d tell everybody to relax with a cup of coffee before we start catching fish. They’d look at me like I was crazy, but in about 30 to 45 minutes the fish would come back in, and after the first rod would bend we’d catch fish consistently until about an hour after daylight.
“We’d start fishing at 4 a.m. and run through seven or eight dozen baits by 7:30 a.m.—and have a box full of fish,” he said.
Willard, who lives five minutes away from the lake, said the fish will move into the hotter water to feed, usually at night when things cool down somewhat. “They won’t stay, but they will come in and feed for a couple of hours.”
The key is to pick the right spot—over an underwater hump or a long point—and to have the baits waiting at the right depths when the fish move in, he said. The right pattern is critical to success.
“Stripers and hybrids are bottom feeders, so you have to have the baits at the depth where they are feeding. You can fish Little River Georgia and your buddy can fish in Soap Creek and both of you will catch fish at basically the same depth, because that’s the pattern they are on that particular night.”
Willard will position his boat where he can cast the baits out to various depths. The bait on the front rod may lie in 18 feet of water, the middle rod in 24 feet, one down the boat in 27 feet and the rear rod may be in 32 feet.
“Basically, I am trying to cover all the levels. Then, if we get a hot rod, I can pull the boat up on the double anchor rope to a position where we can fish all the rods at that level,” he said. “Some mornings we may pick up fish at all depths. They may come out of 60 feet of water up into 32 feet to feed, or may even run up to 18 or 20 feet chasing bait.”
Anytime a boat sets up and drops anchor, the procedure causes enough disturbance to spook the baitfish as well as any stripers or hybrids already on the scene. But once the boat is set and the baits are out, everything returns to normal beneath the surface, and the herring and shad will come back to where they were congregated before. Shortly after that, the stripers and hybrids will move up to feed. It takes about the length of time to enjoy one good cup of coffee, Willard said.
Over the next couple of hours there will be little time for coffee if Willard has picked the right hump and the fish are ready to eat. As night begins to ease away and the sky turns gray on the horizon, then pink to herald the arrival of the sun, Willard will check the box and count the hybrids and small to medium stripers that have taken their baits in the waning hours.
“Now it’s time for us to catch a big striper,” he says. “For some reason, if we catch a big striper when we are night-fishing, it will be right after daylight, after we have turned the lights off on the boat. But that’s after we’ve also been chumming the area half the night and that smell is there in the water,” he said.
Knowledgeable striper fishermen know that this time of year big stripers are more prone to take cut bait than live herring. When a striper does pick up a live herring, the striper’s stomach will often be filled with chunks of cut herring that have been tossed overboard during the night.
“It’s nice to have a box full of 4- to 6-pound hybrids and some small stripers and then put a 15- or 20-pound striper in there to top off the trip,” Willard said.
Some fishermen balk at the idea of getting up in the middle of the night to meet at some forlorn boat ramp on a lake, so Willard has another nighttime pattern that is also effective in the summertime—though it isn’t as effective as the early morning trips.
“If they don’t like the early morning schedule, I will take them out in the evening. Sometimes we will have a limit before dark, but we may fish on to 11 or 12 o’clock. The fish are really just starting to move on up the humps about midnight, so if I have to catch a limit I tell them we should go at 3 a.m.,” he said.
From a fisherman’s point of view, Lake Thurmond is primarily a hybrid lake. However, the lake does contain a large and viable striped bass population. (The state record of 55 pounds, 12 ounces, came from Thurmond’s headwaters.) Night-fishing is how most fishermen go after hybrids and stripers in the Savannah River Lakes between June and September. Mostly they can count on higher success rates and more comfortable fishing conditions then.