Lake Hartwell is one of the three large reservoirs on the Savannah River operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The 56,000-acre reservoir hosted the recent 2008 Bass Masters Classic. The lake provides a wide variety of fish habitats, ranging from rocky bluffs on the upper Tugaloo River arm to shallow cove pockets and sandy flats in the middle and lower sections of the lake. Boat access is available at many locations around the shoreline at boat ramps operated by the Corps of Engineers and State Parks.
Largemouth bass is the most popular fished-for species in Lake Hartwell. Hartwell’s popularity with both recreational and professional anglers is a testimony to the quality of its bass fishery.
A strong year-class of largemouth bass was produced in 2012; therefore, bass in the 16-inch size range will account for a big part of this year’s catch. Catch rates of bass over 3 lb will be typical for Lake Hartwell but recent sampling also detected a slight uptick in the number of largemouth bass weighing over 6 lb.
During the cold weather months, largemouth bass are drawn to creek channels, submerged timber and rocky banks because they attract shad and other baitfish. Live lining herring in the backs of creeks or floating a shiner under a cork around visible timber are excellent wintertime tactics. Crankbaits in shad patterns as well as spinner baits and flukes are good artificial lure choices for cold weather bass fishing.
During the springtime spawning period, cast soft-bodied jerk baits, spinner baits, and plastic lizards into shallow water around woody debris, rip-rap banks and boat docks located in backwater coves and pockets. Often times, bass will take live baits when pitched into their spawning beds.
In the summer months, bass key on shad and herring on main lake humps and points. One of the most productive summertime tactics is to cast noisy topwater lures near reef marker points on the lower end of the lake. Bass will often rush to the surface to take the bait.
The fall transition drives largemouth bass to feed aggressively on shad and herring in open water over the river channel as well as in creek channels. Cast to surface feeding bass with topwater plugs or troll for bass with live herring. Largemouths will also stack up in creek channels and rip-rap banks in the fall and winter months where spinnerbaits and crankbaits are most effective. Anglers may also want to drop shot finesse worms and pitch jigs into brushpiles and downed trees. Fishing with live shiners around visible structures is also an effective tactic.
Largemouth bass typically have a small home range, but within their home turf, they move back and forth between shallow and deep water. In the winter, largemouth bass often seek refuge in downed timber and along creek channels. In February and March, largemouths will search for slightly warmer water along shallow banks that contain rocks and fallen trees. Rip-rapped roadsides and bridge abutments are also great places to find largemouth bass during this time of year, especially on windy afternoons when baitfish are pushed close to the shore.
In the springtime, bass are spawning in shallow coves and creeks near visible structure. Gum Log, Eastanollee and Payne Creek arms seem to support the highest numbers of largemouth bass.
During the summer months, bass retreat to cooler water in the 20 to 40-ft depth range. The reef marker points between Tugaloo State Park and I-85 Bridge are a good starting point to fish. When the topwater bite is on, largemouths will race to the surface to attack schools of small herring and shad.
Fall weather brings about a dramatic transition that may slow down the bite. Small crankbaits and spinner baits fished in creek channels in the backs of the major coves on the lower end of the lake are popular fall tactics as well as bouncing Texas-rigged soft plastic worms along rocky points and around fallen trees. Lightwood Log Creek from Hart State Park to the back of the creek arm provides great places to fish for bass in the fall months.
The abundance of spotted bass has increased dramatically in Lake Hartwell over the past five years. Recent sampling by DNR indicated that spotted bass are now one of the most abundant sportfish in the lake. Fish in the 10 to 14-inch size range (1/2 to 1 1/2 lb) are common but a few spotted bass will top the scales over 3 lb.
Threadfin shad and blueback herring are the preferred prey of spotted bass in Lake Hartwell but they will also feed on small sunfish and crayfish when the opportunity arises. In the winter months, spotted bass can be caught in the deep creek channels by trolling live herring or casting toward visible structure with slow moving pig & jig combinations, big bladed spinnerbaits and wide profile crankbaits in herring color patterns.
Spotted bass spawn in April and May and can be caught using fast moving, shallow-running lures worked over rocky bottoms in 5 to 15-feet of water. Slow rolling big spinnerbaits is effective on windy days. The most consistent summertime pattern for spotted bass is to drop shot finesse worms into brushpiles on the lower lake. Anglers should also be on the lookout for fish feeding on the surface over humps and reef marker points. Cast into surface feeding bass with a Sammy, Zara Spook, or Fluke in herring color patterns.
In the fall months, casting crankbaits and bouncing soft plastics in crayfish patterns along rocky points are a sure bet. Small schools of bass will also be feeding on small herring and shad at the surface over the river channel. Always have an extra rod handy so that you can cast jerkbaits toward these feeding fish.
Spotted bass are much like their close relative, the redeye bass, in that both species prefer rocky habitats. Rip-rap bridge abutments, rocky points, and the face of the dam provide excellent places to fish for spotted bass all year. In DNR surveys, the highest number of spotted bass is found along the lengthy rip rap banks along the I-85 corridor.
In the spring and fall months, spotted bass will chase shad and herring in open water over the Savannah River channel in the early morning and evening.
Hybrid Bass and Striped Bass
The striped bass and hybrid bass fisheries of Lake Hartwell are maintained with annual stocking by both Georgia and South Carolina DNRs. The hybrid and striper populations have experienced some highs and lows over the last few years due to fall dissolved oxygen levels. This year, anglers can expect to catch a few less hybrid bass but most of the catch will be quality-sized fish weighing 4 to 6 lb. The abundance of striped bass is increasing but the striper fishery is dominated by relatively small fish weighing less than 8 lb.
Anglers should be aware of the legal limits for harvesting striped bass and hybrid bass. Up to 10 fish per day of either species can be harvested but only three fish of either species can be over 26-inches in total length.
Striped bass and hybrid bass feed almost exclusively on blueback herring but trophy-sized stripers will take large gizzard shad at certain times of the year. Wise anglers, therefore, use live herring or artificial herring imitations, like bucktail jigs and flukes, to catch fish throughout the year. The same bait and lure selections work all year, but the presentations, depths and locations change according to the season.
From March to May, cast white bucktail jigs and flukes along windblown points and creek channels with dingy-colored water. In the summer, downline live herring on points and humps adjacent to the river channel or troll herring using lead core line above the timber line. By mid-October, live line with herring in the backs of covers or cast topwater lures and bucktail jigs into breaking fish at the on the lower lake, especially when cloudy conditions are prevalent.
When water temperatures range from 55 to 70 degrees (F), hybrids will congregate on secondary points located in major cove arms. Stripers will also move onto shallow points and backwater creek channels in search of baitfish. Twenty-Six Mile Creek upstream of the Hurricane Creek boat ramp, Coneross Creek, and Martin Creek are great locations on the Seneca River arm in South Carolina. Lightwood Log Creek, Eastanollee Creek, Little Beaverdam Creek, and even in the Tugaloo River itself upstream from the Highway 123 Bridge are good locations on the Tugaloo River arm of the lake.
During warm weather months, stripers and hybrids migrate toward deep, cooler water near the dam. During daylight hours, fish will retreat to the safety below the submerged timber line. During twilight and dark, fish will more actively feed on adjacent points and humps. When the fall season arrives, fish will begin feeding on small herring and shad at the surface over the river channel and in the backs of coves.
Crappie fishing is very popular among Lake Hartwell anglers, especially during March and April. Skilled anglers also know that crappie stack up in small cove pockets during the cold winter months. Unfortunately, two consecutive years of low spawning success will create a significant decrease in the abundance of crappie in Lake Hartwell this year. Anglers can expect the bulk of their catch to range from 1/2 to 1 lb in weight. There are also a number of fish in the 7-inch size range, which is just under the legal limit for crappie in the South Carolina portion of Lake Hartwell.
Anglers who fish in the Georgia portion of Lake Hartwell may harvest 30 crappie per day and there is no minimum size limit. Anglers who fish in the South Carolina waters of Lake Hartwell may only harvest 20 crappie per day and all fish harvested from South Carolina waters must be at least 8-inches in total length.
When the water temperature reaches the mid-40s, anglers should fish for crappie in creek channels or in brush piles using either live bait or by trolling very slowly with small jigs. As the water starts to warm in March, crappie will congregate in 10 to 15 feet of water in creek channels and around submerged trees, bridge abutments, roadbeds and under boathouses that contain brush. Flipping live minnows and small crappie jigs into these structures is the best way to fish during the winter months.
When the water temperature reaches 65 degrees (F) around early April, crappie will move into 2-3 feet of water around visible submerged cover located in backwater coves. Fishing with small minnows, curly-tailed grubs and doll flies are proven spring tactics.
During the fall months, large numbers of crappie congregate in submerged timber in 30 feet of water.
The areas with the largest numbers of crappie on the Georgia side of the lake include Eastanollee Creek, Gum Log Creek, Shoal Creek and Lightwood Log Creek. In the spring, target visible structure in backwater areas. If you catch one crappie at a location, there will be plenty more in the same vicinity.
From late-February to early-April, walleye migrate into the Tugalo River headwaters of Lake Hartwell to spawn in the rocky areas from the Walker Creek boat ramp upstream to Yonah Dam. Walleye average 2 to 4 lb in size, but fish up to 10 lb have been collected by DNR from this area.
Shallow running lures, like Rapalas, jigs tipped with a curly-tailed grub and nightcrawlers are all effective baits for catching walleye on their spawning migration up the Tugalo River.
Anglers will find walleye from the Walker Creek boat ramp to Yonah Dam from late-February to early April. In other months, walleye cruise the expansive waters of Lake Hartwell and become very difficult to pinpoint. The points at the mouth of the Eastanollee Creek arm are a reliable area to catch walleye during October and November.
Boat ramp facilities for large fishing tournaments are located near the upper end of the lake at Tugaloo State Park and on the lower end at Gum Branch. The contact information for scheduling one of these facilities is:
Excellent bank fishing opportunities are available at most boat ramps but the Gum Branch Boat Ramp (Hart County), Tugaloo State Park (Franklin County) the Bruce Creek Day Use Facility (Stephens County) and Stephens County Park (Stephens County) are among the best locations to fish from shore.
Excellent trout fishing opportunities are available below Hartwell Dam in the Corps' day use area. GA-DNR constructed a large fishing pier for anglers to enjoy, and plenty of trout are stocked at the pier during the summer months.