Oconee & Sinclair In Winter

These twin reservoirs on the Oconee River offer some good winter bass prospects. But the places and patterns on the lakes do differ a bit! (January 2009)

The author shows off the kind of winter largemouths that docks on Lake Sinclair give up.
Photo courtesy of Ronnie Garrison.

Along its 170-mile course from its hilly beginnings north of Athens to the flatlands where it joins the Ocmulgee near Lumber City, the Oconee River passes through some beautiful country. But to bass fishermen, no stretch of the river is prettier than the 45 miles contained in Lake Oconee and Lake Sinclair.

Oconee and Sinclair offer some of the best bass fishing in Georgia, especially in the winter. Although the lakes are back to back on the river, the Oconee's Wallace Dam separating the two, they have many similarities, but are different in many ways. Those differences and similarities are important to the bass fishing on each.

Its 19,050 acres of water impounded in 1979, Lake Oconee is the newer of the two. It has 374 miles of shoreline covered with golf courses, expensive houses and docks. Areas of huge boulders will be found in parts of the lake, and natural rock is common. Shallow, sandy coves and clay points are found throughout the lake, as are big areas of standing timber.

Lake Sinclair is smaller -- 14,750 acres -- and older than Oconee. It has more long creek arms, and thus slightly more shoreline, 417 miles. Although work on Sinclair Dam was started in 1929, the Great Depression and World War II put a stop to construction, and the lake wasn't completed until 1953. Many sandy coves and shallow creeks with extensive grassbeds are present, but no standing timber. Some natural rock is in the lake, but you won't find the big boulders common at Oconee. Like Oconee, Sinclair is lined with docks.

Lake Sinclair has always had a 12-inch size limit on bass, but at Oconee, a slot limit from 11 to 14 inches is in force -- you can keep bass over or under those measurements. That was imposed in an effort to suppress the population of small bass, since Oconee is not a fertile lake. But fishermen seldom keep the smaller bass, so the slot limit may not be very effective. Both lakes have a 10-bass daily possession limit.

Water clarity is similar at both lakes, ranging from very muddy to slightly stained. The Oconee River feeding Lake Oconee is most likely to be muddy, while the Little River on Sinclair stays heavily stained year 'round. The clearest water on Sinclair usually is in Island and Rocky creeks near the dam, while on Oconee Richland Creek is usually the clearest. Sinclair also has Georgia Power's Harlee Branch Power Plant -- a steam-powered electric generating plant -- that warms areas of the lake, keeping winter water temperatures near it well above those found on Oconee.

At Oconee's Wallace Dam, the power generators were specially designed to work as pumps, too. During the day water runs through them from Lake Oconee into Sinclair, producing electricity. At night some of the generators are reversed, pumping water back upstream into Oconee. This pumpback operation creates unusual current patterns on both lakes and affects the bass fishing.

When power is being generated at Wallace Dam, current runs downstream through Lake Oconee and Lake Sinclair, but when water's being pumped back, the current flows upstream in both lakes. This water movement positions bass in different ways on structure and cover.

The pumpback operation keeps both lakes' waters at a fairly stable level. Oconee drops a foot or two during the day, and Sinclair rises by the same amount; then Sinclair drops a foot or two at night, and Oconee rises. But the water doesn't drop as drastically as do other Georgia lakes in the winter. Both lakes stay within a couple of feet of full pool most of the time.

In 2007, according to the Georgia Bass Chapter Federation Creel Census Report, Sinclair hosted 81 tournaments and Oconee 73, which were the second- and third-highest totals of all Georgia lakes. A lot of tournaments are held at the two because of the quality of their fishing. For Sinclair tournaments, the bass-per-angler-hour average was 2.91 -- the best in the state; at Oconee the figure was 1.88, which isn't an exceptionally high mark. But tournaments have an effective 14-inch size limit because of the slot limit that lowers the numbers of fish weighed in.

As for tournament-winning weights, Oconee's and Sinclair's identical 9.83-pound averages tie them for fourth-highest in the state; anglers plainly catch a lot of bass in tournaments on both lakes. Success rates reflect these good numbers, so you should be able to catch a good number of bass at either lake this winter.

According to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Sinclair has a lot of small bass in it, which should come as no surprise to anyone fishing there. The solid 2006 and 2007 year-classes of bass should dominate this winter. Since more than 90 percent of bass caught at Sinclair are released, the numbers should stay high and the size increase with time.


Water clarity is similar at both lakes, ranging from very muddy to slightly stained. The Oconee River feeding Lake Oconee is most likely to be muddy, while the Little River on Sinclair stays heavily stained year 'round.
 

At Oconee the bass population is stable, but the DNR is concerned that the numbers of small bass are hurting the lake. Unless bass fishermen start keeping the bass under the 11-inch slot limit, the quality of the fishery will suffer. That may be reflected in the fact the average big bass in tournaments at Oconee was only 3.68 pounds, compared to 4.20 pounds at Sinclair.

Right now, both lakes offer a wide variety of methods for catching bass. You can follow the same patterns at each, or specialize in patterns that work better at one lake or the other.

Fishing docks is a good winter pattern at both reservoirs. Find a dock near deep water and flip a jig-and-pig or curlytail worm to the pilings and brush around it; you should get bit.

At both lakes, pay attention to the current. Strong currents are not as good in the winter, but a slight current moving water under docks helps. The bass hold behind posts and brush, facing into the current waiting on food. Position your boat downstream of the cover, no matter which way it's flowing, and flip upstream to work your bait back in a natural action.

Crankbaits also work well around docks in both lakes. A No. 5 or 7 Shad Rap run by dock pilings should draw strikes from winter bass. Natural colors like shad or bla

ck-and-silver are good. Just as with the jig-and-pig, fish with the current. Run your crankbait at a slow, steady retrieve, going even slower when the water's colder.

At Oconee, the docks from Long Shoals Ramp up to the State Route 44 Bridge are good. Stay on main-lake areas whose docks are over deeper water and concentrate on outside posts and sunken brush this time of year. Work your jig-and-pig or worm slowly in the cold water, dropping it to the bottom and jiggling it in one spot by a post.

At Sinclair, the docks in Beaverdam Creek are good, since the discharge from the steam plant keeps the water warmer. Some current is almost always present here, too, as the discharge moves water even when no current's coming out of the dams. Also try the docks from Beaverdam Creek to the dam. If the water's muddy, go into Rocky and Island creeks and flip to docks in the clearer water there.

Targeting riprap is an excellent pattern at both lakes in the winter. A spinnerbait slow-rolled just over the rocks, ticking them as it eases along, is a smart choice. Fish it with the current. Crankbaits are also good. Use different sizes to reach different depths. For rocks 5 feet deep, cast a No. 5 Shad Rap, but go to a No. 8 size for rocks down to 10 feet. Fish all the lures with the current, reeling them down to the desired depth and then crank in slowly.

At Sinclair, you can usually find current around the rocks at the U.S. 441 bridges; the one in Beaverdam Creek has the added advantage of warmer water. Also check out the riprap around the steam plant outflow in that creek. The riprap at Crooked Creek can be good, and rocks around houses and docks on points on the main lake often hold fish, especially if the sun is warming them.

At Oconee, the bridges in Lick Creek area always are worth your while, as is the SR 44 bridge over the river. You can catch fish on the Interstate 20 riprap up the river, too.

Many of the houses on the main lake have riprap protecting their shoreline. Rocks in front of a seawall that drops into deep water are best. Current is the key; the bass bite much better when some water is moving across the rocks.

On the main lake at both Oconee and Sinclair are a lot of long points and humps good for jigging a spoon in cold water. Bass stack up in deep water and hold there all winter long. A shallow point or hump with a good drop on it is ideal for finding a school of bass. Most such structure is near creek and river channels.

Jigging a spoon works best in clearer water. You can locate schools of baitfish with bass under them with a good depthfinder, and then get right on top of the school and drop a spoon. Mark them with a buoy so you can stay on them. Drop the spoon down to the bottom, pop it up about 2 feet and let it fall back on a tight line. Vary the height you pop it up and the speed of the pop until you find what the bass want.

At both lakes, hard bottoms are best. Sand, clay or rock will hold more fish, so look for these types of bottom on the humps and points. Sometimes bass want cover like brushpiles, stumps or rocks, but at this time of year they're usually on slick bottoms on these points and humps.

At Oconee, the humps and points from the dam up to the mouth of Richland Creek are good. You can also find fish on up Richland Creek and up the Oconee River if the water is clear, but the best spots in the river are from Lick Creek downstream and in Richland Creek from Sandy Creek downstream. Look for the bass to be holding in 18 to 22 feet of water most days.

At Sinclair, the long points and humps from the mouth of Little River to the dam are good and there are some excellent points in both Rocky and Island creeks. If the main lake is heavily stained concentrate your efforts in the creeks. Bass tend to hold a little deeper in those areas at Sinclair, so look for them 18 to 25 feet down.

Even on the coldest days, some bass are shallow at both lakes. If the sun's shining, it warms the backs of coves and pockets, and bass feed in them. Find a short cove with a good channel running into it and with shallow flats in the back; the bass will be there, looking for something to eat. Crankbaits and spinnerbaits are good bets for catching them.

At Sinclair, look for shallow, flat pockets on the west side of the lake around Nancy Creek and down to the dam; it'll be helpful if a pocket has some grass. Throw a Rat-L-Trap or No. 5 Shad Rap up very shallow and work it back just fast enough to bump the bottom. Also, slow-roll a spinnerbait along the bottom. Hard sand or clay bottoms are best.

At Oconee, promising pockets run from the mouth of Lick Creek to the dam. A pocket that gets sun most of the day is better; grassbeds help, and although few are present at Oconee and the grass is dead, bass-attracting baitfish still feed around them. A spinnerbait worked along the bottom is an excellent bait for these bass.

Sinclair contains a lot more grass than does Oconee, and the pattern of fishing grassbeds works better there. Most of the coves and creeks from Crooked Creek to the dam on the Oconee River have some grassbeds in them. Fish a spinnerbait around them and let the bass tell you if they are holding in the grass or on the edge. Once you establish this pattern you can find similar places in most coves.

Standing timber can be a place to catch winter bass at Oconee, but not at Sinclair -- it doesn't have any. The timber that runs for a long way on both sides of the point between the Oconee River and Richland Creek, as well as the patches of timber in Double Branches, will be good. You're more likely to have current on the main-lake timber on the point than on the patches in the creek.

Several ways of fishing the timber will work. Bass sometimes suspend in the branches, and you can catch them on a crankbait or spinnerbait fished through the flooded wood. Make fairly short casts with either bait, getting them down to about 10 feet. Bounce the lure through the limbs and off the trunks of the trees. Vary the depth until you catch a bass, then concentrate on that depth.

Also, pay attention to the tree that the bass was holding on. Is it on the outside edge of the patch of timber, or on its inside edge? Or is it in the middle of the patch? If outside, concentrate other trees along the fringe; if inside, fish every tree.

You may also be able to tell what kind of tree it is, and whether it has underwater branches. An old cedar tree has more branches than most others. If you hit a lot of branches when you catch a bass, try to find other trees that have a lot of limbs.

If the fish don't want a bait moving through the trees, try dropping a jig-and-pig down the trunk. A light jig-and-pig with a twin curlytail trailer falls slowly and often draws a bite. Fish it on heavy line and set the hook hard if you see a twitch or jump in your line as your bait falls. If it stops falling before getting to the bottom, be ready to set the hook -- a bass has probably it.

Don't pass up jigging a spoon along the creek channels and

ditches in the timber, too. Bass often hold right on the bottom on the lip of the ditch by the tree. The best way to get to them is to drop a spoon down and jig it vertically.

Start at the back of the pockets of timber in Double Branches where the channel enters the trees and work deeper, or work the outside of the trees along the channel in Richland Creek. Any change in the bottom such as two ditches coming together, a big rock or a hump helps hold bass. When you find the best depth, concentrate on it.

Spend some time at Lake Oconee or Sinclair this winter. Even if you get cold, the bass will make it worth your time.

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