Call it a case of lost-and-found. The bottom of Lake Hartwell lost a lot of what would’ve been bass-friendly habitat during its construction, but
Call it a case of lost-and-found. The bottom of Lake Hartwell lost a lot of what would’ve been bass-friendly habitat during its construction, but much of it has been replaced, thanks in large part to all the people raising cane over the issue (foreshadowing pun intended).
While standing timber remains in some of Hartwell’s deeper areas, much of the woody structure that bass favor was cleared prior to impoundment. For several years, state fisheries technicians, as well as private anglers, have planted various fish-attracting structures that provide habitat and surface area for aquatic insects, zooplankton, algae and other plant life that attach to the attractor and provide food for the baitfish that bass seek.
Shelter, ambush, shade in shallower spots and warmth in cold times — all provide worthy benefits derived from structures such as discarded Christmas trees, low-profile brush and PVC forms. All have their merits, but top billing goes to Hartwell’s most iconic structures — its many “cane piles.”
Will this ubiquitous manmade habitat favored by Carolina anglers (and bass) play into the 2022 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk? The answer is maybe.
Actually made of golden bamboo — Phyllostachys aurea, aka “fish pole bamboo” — cane piles offer tall vertical fish habitat with a leafy canopy and hollow “internodal” segments providing natural buoyancy. Technically a type of grass, bamboo is stronger and more resilient than Christmas trees and less costly than PVC.
South Carolina Department of Natural Resources biologist Dan Rankin describes golden bamboo as non-native invasive species that’s difficult to control, once established. That means anglers can harvest as much as they want, provided state and private property rights are respected.
“It’s pretty prevalent around (the state),” said South Carolina’s Brandon Cobb, who won the 2019 Bassmaster Elite Series on Hartwell. “If you have any type of swampy area, there’s a good chance there’s a bamboo patch, and if there is, there’s a lot of it.
“The reason people like to use bamboo is that it’s easy to bundle. You can put a bunch of it in a boat, and it’s easy to transport. You wrap it in a tarp and you can put 100 stalks in a bundle.”
Cane pile planting
Having planted dozens of cane piles, mostly during his time as a Clemson University student, Cobb summarized the process and particulars.
Placement: Cane piles are generally set in 18 to 25 feet. Most are set in logical areas along seasonal migration routes, as well as prominent offshore structure.
“Over the years, I have had some that are in prime areas that keep fish on them just because of where they are,” Cobb said. “If they’re in a really, really good area, they’ll keep fish even when they do deteriorate.
“It’s gotten to the point that, with so many people putting them out, anywhere you can imagine there being a cane pile, there probably is.”
Height: “Generally, when you put out a cane pile on any blueback herring lake, whether it’s Hartwell, Murray or Clarks Hill, you want the tops to reach 6 to 8 feet below the surface,” Cobb said. “You cut the can height to fit the depth.
“Cane is always (attractive) year-round, but it’s predominantly for topwater fishing in the hot weather months, so you want it close enough so the fish can see your bait over the top. That 6- to 8-foot range is the height from which they will easily come to the surface to eat your bait.”
Golden bamboo can reach heights of 70 feet, and Cobb says he has taken advantage of this length.
“I’ve made some cane piles as tall as 40 to 50 feet and put them in 45 to 55 feet of water, but it’s more of a pain (to handle cane piles of this height),” he said. “You can get just as much productivity from the shallower ones, and they’re easier to handle.”
Timing: As long as wind and waves cooperate, there’s really no right or wrong time to plant cane piles. However, Cobb notes an element of urgency.
“When you cut fresh bamboo, you have to go place it in the lake within 24 hours because it’s like grass — it wilts,” he said. “A clean, green, bushy cane pile will get fish on it almost immediately if you drop it into the right depth range.”
Density: Cobb’s general rule of thumb is that you really can’t have too many bamboo stalks in a bundle, as long as they fit into the container.
“It’s actually kind of deceiving as you’re putting it out, because you’ll look at it in the yard when you put six to eight stalks together, and you’ll think ‘Man, that’s a big cane pile,’” he said. “But then when you get it down in the water and side scan it, you’re like, ‘That’s not much of a cane pile.’
“It takes at least 10-plus stalks to make a cane pile with any type of substance to it because it’s really nothing but leaves. Also, they don’t last a long time. After one season, they’re really just poles down there.”
Anchoring: A bucket plus concrete plus bamboo — that’s the standard cane pile recipe. Some opt for milk crates strapped with cinder blocks.
“The good thing about bamboo is it’s buoyant, so you don’t have to do much to make a cane pile stand up,” Cobb said.
Mobility: A properly set cane pile will hold its position, but Cobb notes an optional accessory that allows for seasonal adjustments.
“You see a lot of people putting plastic bottles in the tops of their cane piles, but the main reason for that is not necessarily to make them stand up,” he said. “With the lake level varying, a lot of locals put their cane piles out and when the lake drops 6 feet, they might be sticking out of the water.
“When the water drops, or if it comes up, they’ll hook that bundle (by the floating rope) and drag it wherever they want it. With all the Savannah River lakes, you never know. At the start of the summer, they could be 6 feet high and by the end of the summer, they could be 6 feet low.”
So, will cane piles play a significant role in the Classic?
“That time of year, I probably will fish a few cane piles just because I like the places, but it’s not what you’ll see in the summer through fall where people will run 100 cane piles a day,” Cobb said. “It would highly surprise me if that is anybody’s specific game plan.”
Defending Classic champ Hank Cherry agrees but notes that these structures may still play a secondary role.
“Cane piles are probably a misunderstood creature, but they can be very effective when the herring are (schooling over top),” Cherry said. “When that’s going on, there’s no better way to catch bass.
“A good cane pile’s good while it’s green; it creates a canopy. But you don’t necessarily have to fish in or on top of the cane pile to catch fish. Everybody tries to target the actual cane pile, but anyone who has used forward facing sonar, they can see that fish use it like a home base — it’s just a stopping point for bass.”
As Cherry points out, cane piles don’t always see the 24/7 bass occupancy of a well-placed brush pile. For the Classic’s timing, these structures could play more of a prespawn staging role. And while the upper reaches host the warm-season action, working a drop shot or shaky head around the bases could tempt a fat one awaiting the spawning signal.