Mixed Bag On Hartwell Lake

Discovering the tactics for cool-weather striped and hybrid bass

On The Fly Freshwater

Featured photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

March 2023

By Polly Dean

Located on the border of South Carolina and Georgia, Hartwell Lake is a reservoir offering plenty of opportunity for those that enjoy recreation on the water. Additionally, it provides a variety of fish species that will keep any angler entertained, even those that desire to target them with the fly rod.

The On The Fly South crew was spending a couple days of the water with Captain Cefus McRae. He and his wife Beth built their home on the shores of this lake and the captain fishes it often. Cefus is best known as the host of the television show Nuts and Bolts of Fishing. He is a man of down-home southern charm, that has a passion for the outdoors. With an infectious personality, he shares his love for fishing with an emphasis on the how-to portion of where to fish and how to better your chances of catching an array of species, whether they reside in freshwater or the salt.

Captain Cefus McRae and On The Fly South Editor Jimmy Jacobs with a good Hartwell striper that fell for Jimmy’s fly. Photo by Polly Dean.

Cefus is familiar with the long rod, but fishes and guides his customers using conventional tackle and gear. In Hartwell, he knows where the fish tend to be, how deep they are, and what they’re feeding on. Using his Simrad Fish Reveal fishfinder, he was able to pinpoint the bait and what was feeding on them. It was up to us to figure out what fly would “match the hatch” and how to entice one or more of the fish species to dine on our offerings.

Since striped and hybrid bass are residents of this lake, and they can grow to a hefty size, they were of particular interest to us and we geared up for such an encounter. But honestly, we were just as excited with any fish that took our fly. As it turned out, there were a variety of species that did come out to play.

This largemouth was another species that got in on the action. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

Hartwell Lake didn’t disappoint and the knowledge of our guide on this reservoir served us well. Cefus kept us on the fish. Though our flies were placed generally in the physical range of our targeted species, which that day was eight feet or deeper, we occasionally had trouble convincing them to nibble on the artificial fur and feathers. Fortunately, we had come prepared with a bit of fly-fishing knowledge from additional source.

We happened to have run into Lake Lanier striper fly-fishing guide Henry Cowen at the Atlanta Fly Fishing Show a few days prior. We picked Henry’s brain a bit for his expert advice, before heading out with Cefus on Hartwell. Cefus had already mentioned to me that Hartwell Lake fishes similar to Lake Lanier and that the striped bass bite somewhat mirrors that of the other lake.

Cefus had also informed me that the fish were feeding on threadfin shad. The bait was small – less than 2 inches or so. Henry Cowen had the perfect fly in mind and gave me a couple of what he had designed and named the “Somethin’ Else.” As is often the case with Henry, there is a good story that accompanies his fly pattern.

The fly was given the name in jest, because of the response he received from another guide while out on the water at Lanier. When the “catching” had reached a lull for Henry’s boat, but he noticed the other guy was still bring fish to his boat, Henry asked him, “What are they feeding on, bucktails?”

“Somethin’ else,” was the other guide’s reply. Once Henry created his very successful pattern, he gave it the name as a jab at the tight-lipped guide.

At first glance, the Somethin’ Else just appears to be a small Clouser Minnow. However, according to Henry, the secret is its “breathability” as well as the magic juju (Fluro Fiber in fluorescent pink).

The Somethin’ Else and the treadfiin shad it immitates. Photo courtesy of Henry Cowen.

According to Henry, “You need some characteristic that will make this fly stand out from the hundreds of bait fish that are also in the vicinity.” Henry also explained that the key to working this fly is to make a couple of short, quick strips, followed by a three-second pause. You get the strike nearly every time on the pause, as the fly is free falling.

Another tip that Henry had given me was to be sure to use a sinking line in these conditions when the fish tended to be in 10 to 20 feet of water. He did add that it was best if the fly could get down deep faster. The challenging part to me, was the combination of keeping my fly in the zone which was 8- to 20-feet deep and keeping the fly moving, or stripping it.

In hindsight, I didn’t make my pauses long enough, which should have been 3- to 5-seconds, or even longer – but instead my strip, strip, pause motion was with too short of a pause. My lack of success, probably due to that fact, had me changing flies to other colors from time to time. My go-to fly when all else fails (mainly due to a confidence factor), is a Clouser Minnow in the electric chicken color scheme. When I tied on that fly, it did bring me some success in fooling a good-sized hybrid bass.

The author with the chunky hybrid bass she finally fooled. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

The combination of Henry Cowen’s advice and Capt. Cefus McRae’s local knowledge Hartwell Lake added up to a good day on the water. By the time we headed in, our flies had put hybrid, largemouth and striped bass in the boat. When Cefus marked some thick schools of crappie under one highway bridge, we even added a slab for a bonus bend in our rod.

Even teh crappie were not immune to the flies! Photo by Polly Dean.

Henry Cowen touts his  Somethin’ Else as having been successful from “California to Texas and Arkansas to Pennsylvania, and everywhere in between. It is a simple design, yet incredibly effective.”

The Somethin’ Else is available from Umpqua Feather Merchants.

Check out the Nuts and Bolts of Fishing website for details on watching the adventures of Capt. Cefus McRae and his angling buddy, Buck the Wonder Dog, on FOX Sports, CarbonTV, SmartTV, Amazon Fire, ROKU or GooglePlay. 

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