March 1, 2014 by David A. Brown
Nestled at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains in South Carolina's northwest corner, Oconee County, takes its name from the Cherokee word for "Land Beside the Water." Colloquially, and appropriately known as the Mountain Lakes region, the county boasts a quartet of major water bodies: Jocassee, Keowee, Tugaloo and the host waters for the second Walmart FLW Tour stop of the 2014 season - Lake Hartwell.
Abounding with largemouth and spotted bass, Hartwell also boasts hardy populations of striped bass, hybrid bass, black crappie, bream, trout and stocked walleye. Only the black bass will interest FLW Tour competitors, but it's the environment in which these fish roam that most anglers appreciate.
"It makes it good for tournament fisherman because it's a big lake and it spreads the field out," said Oklahoma pro Jason Christie, who claimed his first Tour win on Hartwell in 2011. "It doesn't look that big on the map, but there's lots of creeks and place to get away so you don't have to fish on top of other people. There's a lot of fishable water."
A look at the lake
Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1955 and 1963, Lake Hartwell owes its existence to the namesake dam on the Savannah River, which flows from the union of the Tugaloo and Seneca rivers. Extending 49 miles up the Tugaloo and 45 miles up the Seneca at normal pool elevation, Hartwell Lake comprises nearly 56,000 acres of water with a shoreline of 962 miles. The entire Hartwell "Project" contains 76,450 acres of land and water.
Full pool elevation is 660 feet and the lake averages 657.5 feet, with a maximum depth of 180 feet behind the dam. Impoundment began in February 1961, with full pool reached on March 12, 1962.
Located in two states (Georgia and South Carolina), Hartwell touches 6 counties (Georgia's Hart, Franklin, and Stephens; South Carolina's Anderson, Oconee, and Pickens). The Hartwell Project initially authorized for hydropower, flood control, and navigation; with recreation, water quality, water supply, and fish and wildlife management later added to its priorities.
Interstate 85 bisects Hartwell Lake and makes the area easily accessible to visitors. Each year, millions of people utilize the many public parks, marinas, and campgrounds conveniently located around the lake to pursue a variety of outdoor recreational experiences - making Hartwell one of the most visited Corps lakes in the nation
A pro's perspective
With the lake spreading out considerably in the lower end, there's more habitat diversity (including the dam) in that region. Nevertheless, Christie said the river arms hold plenty of opportunity, as well. Prespawners will stage on main lake points and other structure but during the spawn, the backs of creeks and protected pockets are where you want to be.
As for bait selection, Christie likes a medium-diving crankbait like a Bomber BD-6 for mining the prespawn spots, while the usual assortment of worms, lizards, tubes and creature baits will do the trick for bed fish. Christie also notes that Hartwell's abundance of docks beckons the flipped, pitched or skipped jig, along with the subtle wiggle of a shaky head worm presentation.
"Day in and day out, I think a topwater will always produce after the spawn because of the blueback herring in the lake," Christie said. "And it's not just an early morning and late in the evening deal on Hartwell. A topwater like a One Knocker Spook will catch fish all day long. I think most of those fish only go shallow to spawn and they spend the rest of their time chasing blueback herring."
According to the Oconee Historical Society: During the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, Oconee continued to rely heavily upon agriculture as a means of subsistence and income. The rich soil of the county's many river valleys and its moderate climate enabled the production of many crops, including corn, cotton, tobacco, and apples.
Railroad access to the area increased after Reconstruction and the towns of Seneca and Westminster were founded in 1874 and 1875 along new railroad lines. Railroads connected Oconee to the wider world and enabled the growth of the textile industry in the area. Oconee's first textile mill, the Courtenay Manufacturing Company, and the mill village of Newry were built in 1894. Numerous textile mills in Seneca, Walhalla, and Westminster provided jobs for thousands of Oconee residents throughout the 20th century.
Following World War II, Oconee County witnessed many changes. The construction of I-85 along the southern portion of the county boosted industry by allowing quick access to nearby hubs like Atlanta and Charlotte. In 1962 the Hartwell Dam and Lake Project was completed and Oconee began to flourish as a recreational destination. A decade later the construction of the Oconee Nuclear Station by Duke Power created lakes Jocassee and Keowee, along with more jobs and recreational opportunities.
Clean mountain air, verdant landscapes and a cozy sense of seclusion enshroud the Mountain Lakes region and encourage exploration. At the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Sumter National Forest along the county's western edge offers boundless opportunities for the nature lovers. Here, bears, bobcats, wild turkeys and a host of furry and feathered inhabitants beckon binoculars and telephoto lenses.
Oconee County also boasts the federally-designated Wild and Scenic Chattooga - site of the movie Deliverance. And in November, 2014, National Geographic included the astounding Jocassee Gorges in its prestigious compilation, "50 of the World's Last Great Places - Destination of a Lifetime."
Elsewhere, the county contains more than 150 waterfalls with well-marked trails accessing 29 of them.
Fun for the entire family
Before or after rewarding days on the lake, anglers and their families will enjoy the invigoration of a hike or bike ride through the Mountain Lake's region. Adventurous souls may also challenge the rushing rivers on white water rafting, canoeing or kayaking excursions, while zip lines and various tours offer different views of this unforgettable area. For a variety of outdoor activities, try Nantahala Outdoor Center or Wild Water Rafting.
While in town, visit the Campus of Clemson University - which partnered with the Mountain Lakes Convention and Visitors Bureau to host the Tour event. Welcoming visitors, the campus is home to the South Carolina Botanical Garden, where museums and historic homes complement the family-friendly trails and paths through floral opulence.
For a fun look at the many ways electricity is created, visit World of Energy Oconee Nuclear Station. Guests find hands-on exhibits, computer games and guided tours, along with nature trails and picnic grounds at the Lake Keowee overlook.
Elsewhere, Seneca's Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A nice place for casual strolls, the district includes many historic homes, the Lunny Museum and the Blue Ridge Arts Center, housed in the city's oldest church structure (1882). Also in the historic district, a nice stretch of shops awaits in Ram Cat Alley - so named for the hordes of cats that once hung around the many meat and fish markets in the early 1900's.
To the northwest, the Oconee Heritage Center in Walhalla makes its home in the historic Tobacco Warehouse (1892) and features exhibits, festivals and educational programs highlighting the region's history of Native Americans, Immigration, Railroads, New Deal Programs, Textile Mills, Agriculture. The facility's premier attraction is the "Chatooga Canoe," a 32 1/2-foot dugout vessel carbon dated to the late 1700's.
Gotta try this
At mealtime, locals like:
Walhalla Steakhouse (Walhalla) - Despite the name, this place is all about southern comfort food like the famous fried chicken. The steak house is located at 316 E. Main Street in Walhalla, S.C. (864) 638-3311.
Brasstown Creek Gathering Place (Westminster) - Get there early for killer barbecue; demand is high and they often sell out of popular items early. Location: 70 Brasstown Rd, Westminster, S.C. (864) 647-2458.
Sardis Den (Clemson) - Humble exterior, but this popular sports hangout is well known for its baby back ribs. Location: 520 Old Greenville Hwy #2, Clemson, S.C. (864)654-RIBS (7427).
Pixie and Bills (Clemson) - Classy upscale dining with lots of antique decor and waterfront access. Location: 1058 Tiger Boulevard, Clemons, S.C. (864) 654-1210.
Calhoun Corners (Clemson) - Located in the historic red brick building of the original train depot, this endearing landmark offers everything from prime rib to shrimp and grits. Location: 103 Clemson Street, Clemson, S.C. (864) 654-7490.
For more visitor information, go to scmountainlakes.com.