- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 18, 2003

HARTWELL, Ga.

Even in the darkness of the predawn hour we saw it. There, on a poorly lit street, while we searched for a side road that would lead us to a gas station to meet our fishing guide, was the “Backstreet Bar-B-Q” sign. If you got close enough, there was a phone number that suggested you call 377-OINK.

Oh, yeah.

Here we were in the heart of the South — in a genteel little town hard by the shores of breathtakingly beautiful Lake Hartwell, where the fish were biting, we were told. Plus, there would be barbecued ribs and chopped, sauced pork before the day ended.

Does man need anything else to survive? I think not.

What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, almost to the day, the 56,000-acre lake in the northwest corner of Georgia (its eastern portion is shared with South Carolina) looked like a clay pit. The water levels were down much more than 12 feet; boat docks that then were supposed to float atop the lake’s surface were hanging on chains, suspended in midair. The terrible drought sucked the life from this part of the South for five years or more.

Businesses that depended on the lake’s recreational opportunities closed their doors. Shoreline building lot and home sales fell faster than Hartwell’s water levels.

But then the rains came — beautiful, life-giving rain. Month after month, the water rose and rose until the lake and the earth around it awakened from a deep sleep. The fishing guides in Hart County (and other jurisdictions that touch the lake) were all smiles because now Hartwell’s nickname, the Great Lake of the South, once again could be used without first wincing.

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Hart County native Mark Waller, 47, is a full-time fishing guide who knows the waterborne occupants of Lake Hartwell as well as an entire colony of great blue herons. He runs a 24-foot-long Carolina Skiff that likely is the most sensibly appointed guide boat we had ever seen.

The boat is roomy enough to hold a barn dance in, has a strong outboard motor on the back, a remote control electric trolling motor on the bow, two huge ice chests and a constantly aerated bait tank that brims with juvenile herring. The center console is bracketed by a veritable picket line of rods outfitted with finely crafted Ambassadeur Ultra Cast 6500 C3 reels.

Asked about the baitfish, Waller said, “I keep a number of rods ready that have artificial lures tied to the lines. They’re for people who want to throw a topwater lure to feeding fish, but I’ll make sure to bait three or four lines with lively herring and skip them behind the boat. I’ll move along slowly with the trolling motor. It makes no noise. The fish don’t spook as easy as they would with a gasoline outboard.”

The fish Waller talked about were rockfish, or as people outside the Middle Atlantic call them, stripers or striped bass. Waller’s lake is chockful of pure strain landlocked stripers and also tons of hybrid stripers — a crossbreed that is built like a football and fights as well as its full-blooded cousins but just doesn’t grow to the gargantuan sizes of the true rockfish. Besides the stripers, Hartwell is well known for its huge largemouth bass population and, of course, plenty of catfish and crappies.

We were after the striped battlers.

While Waller tied 2/0 Kayle hooks to 20-pound monofilament, then added a 4- or 5-inch-long herring to the peculiar rounded hook, he recalled his personal best during a guided trip.

“It was a 44-pound striper,” he said. “A lady angler caught it and, man, did we ever have our hands full that time.”

In the twilight, Waller watched the lines, pointing to little surface splashes here and there, moving the boat silently toward some of the tiny water ringlets by simply pressing a hand-held directional pad that sent electronic commands to the bow-mount motor. His boat sat in the mouth of the lake’s Gum Branch area in 40 feet of water. Some 20 feet under the boat, there were waterlogged trees — ideal habitat for the baitfish. The surface eruptions suddenly increased to the left of the boat, then to the right.

“They’re really on the feed now,” Waller said quietly. “Watch the rods.”

It was quite apparent that the predator fish had corralled a small school of baitfish, chased it to the surface, then moved in for a snack. Our herring would slither through the same spot.

Bang! The first rod on the starboard side received a violent strike, doubling over sharply. The rod was pulled from its holder, and the hook was set in a long, sweeping sideways motion. It turned out to be a butterball of a hybrid striper that was swiftly netted by Waller. The fish was put on ice, and Waller quickly baited the hook again with a fresh herring and released the line while the boat inched along.

Kaboom! Moments later the same rod went down again. A fight ensued, but the rockfish broke off just a foot or so away from being reached by the net.

Another strike occurred only two or three minutes after that. Again, a tough fight took place, but the striped bass won, shaking the hook scant feet from being netter.

During yet another takedown of the bait herring and the required sweeping hookset, a fat freshwater rockfish lost the fight and finally was netted. It was put on ice while I snatched up a spare rod outfitted with a surface plug — a Zara Spook that “walked” the surface in sharp left-right-left movements as the reel handle was turned. The lure went straight through a feeding frenzy of some of the striped fish, but they ignored the fake food. They did not, however, ignore a juicy, live baitfish.

Bingo! Down went the line again.

It was wonderful and if you’ve never spent a glorious day or a quiet Southern night fishing with a fellow like Waller, you’re missing a great deal of sporting fun. Call him at his Hartwell number, 706/376-4407.

cLook for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report every Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]washingtontimes.com.


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