Midstate Winter Bass
October 04, 2010
Even during winter's chill, some major Peach State lakes continue to bring the bassin'. And in Middle Georgia, you just can't beat these three reservoirs! (January 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
The Chinese proverb says: It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. It's also better to bundle up and go fishing than to curse the cold and -- not. If you just sit around complaining about how it's freezing out there, you're going to miss out on some highly agreeable angling.
Besides, you never have to be cold while fishing nowadays, no matter what the weather's like. A good snowmobile suit, insulated underwear, snow boots, a stocking cap and a hood can keep you comfortable even amid the worst that a Georgia winter has to offer. Add some chemical handwarmers in strategic places, or even a propane heater, and you can get all the way to toasty.
The best thing, however, for warming you up at this time of year is catching bass. Hook a hawg and you'll forget about the plunging mercury; limit out on 3-pounders and it might as well be a spring day. And so you don't catch much -- who'd rather sit around the house?
Cold weather does affect bass, but since they still have to take in some calories, you can as usual catch them by offering them something that looks in the circumstances like an easy meal. Largemouths and spots are cold-blooded, so they slow down, and don't eat as much -- but they do eat. Adjust your methods and use the right lures, and you can get them to bite.
There are just as many ways to catch bass in January as there are in June, but one thing you must do: Slow down. Bass are less likely to chase a fast-moving lure at this time of year. Also: In cold water they often prefer a small bait to something big. But if you fish your lures correctly you can catch them from the shallows out to the deepest structure.
Three lakes in the middle of our state -- Jackson, Oconee and Sinclair -- are focal points for high-end winter bass action right now. In terms of that action, all have some things in common, but each boasts its own special qualities, too.
Bobby Ferris, who grew up in Monticello, went to college in Milledgeville, and during those years fished with the Baldwin Backlashers Bass Club, which paid regular visits to the three lakes we're reviewing. Ferris' post-collegiate career has involved working for two electric membership corporations in the Middle Georgia area, and he consequently continues to do a lot of angling in this part of the state.
Ferris now fishes with the Flint River Bass Club, where he won seven of 12 tournaments in 2004, and the Spalding County Sportsman Club, both in Griffin. He also enters some pot tournaments at the region's various lakes, whose waters he knows well. Further, he sold boats part-time at Piedmont Outdoors in Covington, which, in addition to his affiliation with the Sports Center in Perry, landed him a spot on Team Triton. Bottom line: When it comes to midstate winter bassing, Bobby Ferris is worth listening to.
I joined the Spalding County Sportsman Club in 1974. The second tournament I fished was held at Sinclair, the third at Jackson. Four years later I joined the Flint River Bass Club. Oconee wasn't even around back then: I watched it being built.
Both clubs often wet lines at the three lakes, and we almost always fish them in the winter. Last year I placed first in both clubs' point standings, and so have learned some notably effective patterns for winter fishing at the Middle Georgia trio.
As Bobby Ferris and I usually fish in different places on these lakes, we can between the two of us put together a pretty thorough look at the January bass action at each.
One of our oldest lakes, Jackson has changed over the years. Its days of fostering large numbers of big bass would appear to be over, as illegal stocking of spotted bass has resulted in anglers catching more but smaller bass there. But you can still take some high-quality largemouths at Jackson, and the spots have an upside: The aggressive interlopers provide plenty of diversion.
By January the bass have pulled out of coves and set up on main-lake points. Rocky points are Ferris' preferred places for finding them at this point in the year, since rocks both retain heat and afford the bass hiding places. Rocks, which can range in size from chunks to boulders, can be found all over the lake, and any rock area can hold bass. At 4,750 acres, Jackson is small enough for January weather and angling conditions to be uniform over most of the lake.
Ferris' favorite points are those in the outside bends of the old creek and river channels. He looks for bass holding on them in about 6 feet of water and feeding at that depth. According to him, the colder the weather, the better the fishing is on these points. A sunny day that warms the rocks, and sees some current moving, is the best of times for this.
Rig one rod with a crankbait and another with a jig-and-pig, and you'll have what you need to catch winter bass at this old impoundment. Ferris likes the Rapala DT6 and No. 5 Shad Rap, or the small Bomber Fat Free Shad for point-fishing at Jackson. He throws crankbaits on the points for more active fish, making several casts across the point from different angles.
When clarity's high, choose a shad-colored bait; in stained-to-muddy water, go with a bright color. Tennessee shad, natural shad and silver-and-black are appropriate clear-water colors; chartreuse plugs with orange bellies, and firetiger and crawfish colors generally, are smart picks for murky conditions.
If inactive bass won't hit a crankbait, Ferris throws an OL-Nelle jig with a Zoom Super Chunk on it and works it slowly in the rocks. In clear water he picks a green pumpkin jig and trailer; in stained water he goes with a black jig and trailer. He dips his jigs in JJ's Magic clear dip, which imparts a pungent garlic scent.
At Jackson, Ferris fishes crankbaits on 12- to 15-pound Berkley Trilene Big Game line; his jigs are tied to 25-pound Big Game line. Taking a big largemouth or spot is always a possibility at Jackson, and the water's usually stained enough for you to get away with heavier line.
In the winter I'll fish deeper here, often jigging a spoon or a Mann's Little George on long points. Ride the points from the bridge in Tussahaw Creek to the dam and up the Alcovy River to the State Route 212 bridge; watch for shad schools, which are often suspended about halfway down out over 16 to 20 feet of water.
If your depthfinder indicates fish on the bottom under the shad, stop and drop a line. Even if you don't see your quarry, the presence of shad will s
uggest that bass are likely to be there. Drop a Hopkins Shorty spoon or a Little George down and repeatedly hop it a foot off the bottom; you'll find out presently if any bass are in the vicinity.
If you see bass, but they won't hit, try dead-sticking the spoon or George on the bottom. Let it lie there, and barely slide it along the bottom; don't raise it off the lake floor. This is a pattern that's paid off over the years.
I like a short rod, 5 1/2 feet, with a fairly light tip but lots of backbone. A fast-taper rod allows you to jig the spoon or George easily and to feel it as you do, but you need the backbone for setting the hook and controlling the fish. For most of my jigging I spool an Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5500c with 15-pound P-Line.
Setting this impoundment apart from all other Georgia lakes are the heated water dumped into Beaverdam Creek by Georgia Power's Harlee Branch generating plant, which warms the lake in that area, and the water pumped back upstream into Lake Oconee, which can cause the current in Sinclair to flow either upstream or down on most days. Both of these factors substantially influence the bassing.
That warm water is so important at Sinclair in the winter that Ferris always fishes within about a mile of the mouth of Beaverdam Creek at that time of year. You'll find him in Beaverdam, just inside the mouth of Rooty Creek, or on the Little River arm up to the U.S. Highway 441 bridge. The water temperature in this whole area is raised by the discharge.
At Sinclair, Ferris fishes crankbaits on seawalls and docks in shallow water. He stays on the main creek and river runs, not heading way back into coves but rather sticking with main and secondary points. He'll be looking for the active bait -- and for the bass feeding on that forage.
His favorite crankbaits are small: a No. 5 Shad Rap, or the DT6 or 100 Series Bandit lures. In clear water he goes with Gable green or natural shad, but opts for firetiger if the water's more stained. He uses 12-pound line spooled on a Shimano Calcutta baitcasting reel on a 6-foot rod unless he's throwing the Shad Rap under docks, in which case he switches to a spinning outfit and lighter line.
If some current's moving in either direction, the fishing's the better for it, as the moving water positions the bass on the docks and seawalls. Ferris looks for eddies in which bass can hold out of the current and ambush baitfish going with the flow, and then runs a crankbait slowly with the current through the area.
If a string of several warm days comes along, Ferris fishes old, dead grassbeds. The dead grass holds heat that draws in bass-attracting shad. A spinnerbait run through the grass draws strikes from those bass.
Jigging spoons work well at Sinclair, too. They tend to do better in clearer water, so I often head to Island Creek or Rocky Creek near the dam and fish points in those feeders. Long, tapering points are optimal sites. Watch for shad down in 15 to 18 feet of water and jig under them.
If shad are near brush, try it, too. You hang up some, true -- but you can usually free a spoon by shaking it up and down to work it loose. (Be aware that a Little George won't come free so easily.) Even when it won't move far to chase a moving lure, a bass holding in brush will eat a spoon that's right in its face.
On featureless stretches of bottom, the Little George is hard to beat. I like a 1/2-ounce George in silver with a silver blade. I drop it to the lake floor, tighten my line with my rod tip about a foot over the surface, and then jig the lure up and down 1 to 2 feet. Move it steadily, not with a jerking motion; you can feel the blade spin as it rises and falls. Set the hook if the blade stops turning. Most bites come as the bait falls, so also set the hook if the bait doesn't go back down as far as it should. Keeping your rod tip down near the water allows you to set the hook better when a fish hits.
Completed in the 1980s and so one of our newer lakes, Oconee has become one of our most popular bass fishing venues, with lots of high-quality bass. The slot limit allowing the harvest of fish of 6 to 11 inches long and those more than 14 inches long has helped to improve the average size of Oconee's bass -- which would be even better if anglers would only keep more of the smaller fish.
Since the upper end of Oconee can muddy up fast, and as the lower lake takes in colder water when the pumpback system's running, Ferris concentrates his winter angling near Brantley's Marina in the mouth of Lick Creek and the river around it. That area is the most stable on the lake, and the bass there are easier to pattern and to catch consistently.
Most of this area of the lake is lined with houses, all of which feature seawalls. You can see rocks at the waterline of many of the walls, and rocks are on most others that you can't see. In winter those rocks are Ferris' targets at Oconee, as they offer fish both warmth and shelter.
Seawalls with deeper water around them -- especially on main and secondary points -- are the best. Ferris casts to these with a No. 7 Shad Rap. For this fishing he also picks the jointed version of the lure, because it's made of hard plastic, runs a little deeper and has a rattle. He fishes the crawfish pattern, since these critters that are just about the favorite food of bass call the riprap home.
Again using the baitcaster with 12-pound line, Ferris tries to bump the rocks as he works the bait across the structure. If you regularly catch bass very shallow on rocks, concentrate on making casts right to the bank. If the fish seem to be hitting out on the base of the rocks, make parallel casts to keep your plug in that area longer.
A warming trend at Oconee pulls bass shallow faster than is the case at Sinclair. A few warm days, especially toward the end of the month, will see shad move to the very backs of short main-lake pockets. If it's been warm, check the pockets: If you see shad activity, try fishing there. Afternoons after the sun has had all day to warm the water are usually best for this.
Throw a spinnerbait on the sandy flats in the backs of coves. You may catch bass, hybrids, crappie and even catfish that are back in there eating the shad. You can catch some big bass on this pattern.
Ferris turns to an OL-Nelle white-and-chartreuse spinnerbait with on silver and one gold blade for most water conditions. If the water temperature is 55 degrees or warmer in these pockets, the shad will be there.
At Oconee, I usually head for the dam area at this time of year and look for shad on main-lake points. Many of those points have brushpiles on them, and the current moves shad across the points. Bass wait in the brush -- or even on clean bottoms -- to ambush them.
Get right on top of the brush and jig straight up and down. Sometimes bass want a spoon that moves in one place repeatedly. Don't give up until you've jigged it up and down dozens of times. Try to hit the same place on the bottom, holding your boat in one spot and watching your depth
finder. With a transducer on the trolling motor, you can often see the fish straight under you and thus stay on them.
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Give these three lakes a try this month. Fish the patterns in the areas mentioned and you'll probably catch some bass. Feeling the fight of one of those fish on your line is much more fun than sitting at home watching somebody else catch them on TV!
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