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Lake Hartwell Fishing Report - June 17, 2021

Lake Hartwell continued to fish really strongly this past week as the summer patterns being set up. The only noticeable change from last week's report has been the shallow bite has seemed to tail off over most of the lake. The water temp has been in the 83-85 range and the water level is right at the full pool mark of 660.

Over the last several weeks and months I have had countless calls asking how the striper fishery on Hartwell is doing. I thought I’d give my opinion on how our lake is doing health-wise and where we stand overall in terms of our striper and hybrid populations. Keep in mind, this is just the ramblings of a fishing guide and nothing more. There has been a lot of talk about our fishery with the majority being more negative than positive. Let's break things up into two parts, water quality, and fish populations.

Water Quality

Water quality has been a major issue really for the last eight or nine years on Hartwell. Our major fish kills the last several years have been due entirely to poor water quality the last part of the summer in August and September. While it’s easy for us the look at the summer heat as the main culprit, it’s mostly due to increasing rainfall. There are two periods of heavy rain that are detrimental to the water quality of our lake, late spring (May-June) and summer (July- September) that cause most of our water issues. When the lake is full and we get heavy periods of rain that covers the entire region and floods the watershed, it replaces the higher quality cooler wintertime water with warmer less suitable water. Think of it this way, right now with the lake at full pool every drop of water that enters our system has to be taken out. With the intakes from the dam being in the mid 90ft depth, the water that is released is what entered our system mostly in the winter and early spring. This water is much cooler and holds oxygen far better than the warmer water temps. The summer rains affect the system the same way with one distinct added danger: when you get heavy summer rains, it not only replaces better water with lower quality, but also brings oxygen loss due to decay. When you get summer rains it washes in nutrients and sediment that causes algae blooms. When these algae bloom die off and the sediment settles on the top of the thermocline, due to its increased density, as they decay it sucks oxygen out of the water from the top layers of the thermocline. This, coupled with the water release being at the bottom of the thermocline, acts like a vise squeezing Hartwell’s suitable habit that supports our summer striper and hybrid populations.

This is what happened in 2018 and the fish didn’t adjust in time and we had a pretty major fish kill, especially in our fish over 10 pounds. In the last two years, the water quality has been even worse than that of 2018, however, the fish seemed to find a way to survive. We noticed the fish the last two summers spreading out and hanging at the very top of the thermocline in that 30-40ft range. They would, what I call, "yo-yo" for the last few weeks of August and most of September. Fish would swim above the thermocline and oxygenate their bloodstream and then swim deeper to cooler water and temperature and regulate. Once they needed a “breath” they’d swim back up and oxygenate again. This caused tremendous stress on the fish and caused a major decline in feeding activity. Coupled with the fish being spread out over the entire lake, the last two summers were probably the toughest fishing Hartwell has ever seen. To have fish in August and September way up both river arms was unheard of until 2019 and 2020. This year is setting up more favorable so far with a more normal rain pattern than seen in the last few years. Hopefully, we will continue this throughout the summer and our fish will get back to being able to summer in the lower end of the lake. While the only real solution, from a human standpoint, for the water quality issue being oxygen-lined getting installed. It is highly unlikely with the costs of building and maintaining such a project that we will ever see one on Hartwell.

Fish Populations

The striper and hybrid populations are definitely not where they have been in years past, but after talking with our biologists and looking at things overall, I don’t feel we are too far off. Last year's stocking due to COVID restrictions was dismal, with the single saving grace being the Georgia DNR stocking close to 800k hybrid fingerlings into Hartwell. We had nearly zero stripers stocked by either SC or GA in 2020 and we will undoubtedly see the effect of this in the next year or two. However, the recruitment rate of the hybrids seems to be fantastic. These fish are in that 3/4 to one pound range right now and are extremely plentiful throughout the lake. They seem to be extremely healthy as well. These fish are our future and we need to protect them however we can. Typically these fish stay schooled together and while occasionally you can weed through some smaller fish and catch a few better fish, it's been my experience when you find these yearling fish that’s mostly what’s in that area. I suggest if you start catching these fish move out and try to find something that pulls a little more drag. We can’t forget what we do now as anglers affects us later as well. I’ve emailed both biologists for GA and SC about this year’s stocking rates, but have yet to get a response. Such as government goes. :-) As soon as I hear back from them, I’ll definitely let you guys know. To put some of this in perspective for y’all, I looked back in my books and looked at my averages over the last few years. In 2017 I averaged 28.4 fish per trip, 2018 it was 26.2, 2019 it was 22.3, and in 2020 it was 19.2. So far this year I’m at 26.7 fish per trip with a majority being 3-8 pounds. So we are right there in that pre-2018 fish kill range. Now if only we can maintain this average throughout the summer. Only time will tell and the end of the summer will be the real test.

Our fish so far this year appear to be very healthy and in more normal patterns than that of the previous two years. Are the big fish days over on Hartwell? The answer: ABSOLUTELY NOT! It may take a few years to begin to see the trophy fish return, but rest assured, it will happen. Hopefully, some of my ramblings have helped restore your confidence in our fishery.

Good Luck and Great Fishing!

Capt. Nathan Key


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