Clarks Hill Lake

Laid-back reservoir offers trophy bass and open waters
Mistletoe State Park

Photograph by Jamey Guy

We knew we’d hit the big leagues when we pulled up to the roadside bait shack near Clarks Hill Lake. On its pegboard walls hung an eight-inch, purple, bug-eyed lure, so large it had a name, Jake. There were Styrofoam bobbers the size of baseballs, and a tank of two-pound trout—for bait. The back walls of William Sasser’s shop were plastered with snapshots of smiling anglers of all ages. An eight-by-ten of a guy in a ball cap and white tee holding a fifty-six-pound striped bass was taped to the bathroom door. “Oh yeah,” said Brad Sasser, who was minding the family shop. “That’s Vaughn Taylor.” As in PGA pro and 2006 Ryder Cup team player Vaughn Taylor. “He’s a really nice guy, lives right down the street.” Really?

Coming from Atlanta, Clarks Hill Lake seems buried deep in the middle of nowhere, but stripers don’t care that the address barely registers on TripAdvisor. Clarks Hill is widely considered one of the best bass fishing spots in Georgia, if not the nation. With nearly 1,200 miles of shoreline, it straddles the border with South Carolina and is one of the largest man-made lakes east of the Mississippi River. Completed in 1954, it is the southernmost of three U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes on the Savannah River, just below Hartwell and Russell. The lake was named after a nearby town, which in turn was named after Georgia Revolutionary War hero Elijah Clark. But in 1987, U.S. Senator Bob Dole tacked an amendment onto a foreign relations bill that renamed Clarks Hill after South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond. Georgia fired back two years later with a resolution reinstating the original moniker, so the reservoir continues today with both names, one federal and one
in Georgia.

Approaching from the east, you’d see the lake is not really that remote. It’s only about thirty minutes from Augusta, which is where visitors will find most of the closest restaurants. But the fresh seafood we were after was still swimming around in chilly, late-winter waters. Our family had rented a cottage at Mistletoe State Park, which turned out to be a log cabin with a deck overlooking the lake—furnished with sturdy rocking chairs perfect for swapping fish tales. The cabin’s woodsy aroma reminded me of my grandmother’s attic and Christmas trees, or maybe summer camp, and its pine walls, ceiling, and floors wrapped us in the homey equivalent of comfort food. I would’ve been content to hang there, maybe rent a canoe or read a book (a favorite waterfront activity that I’ve not managed to pass along to my offspring). Predictably, my sons were up before dawn to meet Brad, our guide for the day.

We drove across the dam to Clarks Hill Park, and that’s when we got our first glimpse of the reservoir’s vastness. The clear, jade-colored water shimmered blue in the far distance, almost like an ocean—an illusion compounded by migrating seagulls overhead. Later we would find freshwater clamshells along the banks at Mistletoe. But apart from the horizon, the shoreline was pure rural Georgia, red clay and pine trees for endless miles.

In the early-morning mist, Brad pulled our boat up to the dam and set out six poles with shiny minnows. Almost immediately, the tips started bobbing. The boys took turns pulling in fat, five- or six-pound striped hybrid bass, nearly tripping over each other in their haste to set the next hook. We caught eight fish in what seemed like thirty minutes, then our luck died. Too early in the season. No matter where we went, we barely caught a thing. At one point, the boys anxiously watched Brad’s sonar as a purple swoosh that indicated a trophy bass teased us by lingering directly beneath the boat before swimming away. “Call me Ishmael,” I joked to blank stares.

This article originally appeared in our June 2013 issue.