Mid-State Catfish Hotspots

When anglers talk about lakes Jackson, Oconee and Sinclair, catfish are rarely the topic of conversation. With the quality of catfishing these waters offer, maybe fishermen should pay more attention!

By Ronnell Smith

On this balmy summer evening, Jack Ahlberg motored his boat past the standing timber near the U.S. Forest Service's Redlands Recreation Area on Lake Oconee, and looked down intently at his sonar screens.

The arches hovering over the river channel, where the water dropped precipitously from 12 to 24 feet, were proof that a number of his quarry, catfish, were in the area.

Ahlberg, a Watkinsville resident and avid catfisherman, situated his 19-foot johnboat on the upstream side of the dropoff and then cast a Carolina-rigged dead shad out onto the edge of the channel.

It wasn't long before a 4-pound channel catfish took the slack out of his line, providing all the reminder he needed of why fishing for the whiskered one is so viscerally appealing

"I fish because I love it," he said. "I fish for catfish because it's fun."

That sentiment is echoed by men and women throughout the state. To these dedicated souls, nothing quite lights the fires of their engines as does the sight of a bucket-mouthed flathead, a barrel-chested blue or a svelte channel cat flailing at the end of their lines.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

In the Peach State, three lakes located within two hours of Atlanta, and less than an hour apart, offer some excellent catfishing throughout the summer months.

Those lakes - Jackson, Oconee and Sinclair - are well known for producing largemouth and hybrid bass or crappie, but in truth each offers an enviable array of catfish as well.

For example, each of these lakes has produced flatheads in excess of 30 pounds, with Oconee producing the brutes surpassing 50 pounds.

"In a few years, I think Oconee is going to be just like Santee Cooper," said Larry Mashburn, a noted Lake Oconee catfisherman, referring to South Carolina's world-class catfish reservoirs.

So why don't these lake's catfish get more attention? It could be that many people don't know about the size and number of catfish available in these waters.

Whatever the reason, these reservoirs offer some hot catfish action beginning in May, when the flotillas of shad show up throughout the lakes, and continues through fall.

Mention lakes Oconee and Sinclair to most anglers, and images of catching catfish are not likely conjured up. But unbeknownst to all but a few anglers, both bodies of water contain what may be some of the best, most consistent catfishing in the state, with an abundance of bullheads, channels, blues, flatheads and white catfish.

It's a secret, however, that Scott Robinson, the state's senior fisheries biologist for Lake Oconee, would just as soon not keep.

"I think it's a really underutilized resource," said Robinson.

Oconee and Sinclair are actually sister lakes separated by Wallace Dam. Situated in Greene, Morgan, Putnam and Hancock counties, Lake Oconee's waters span some 19,000 acres. The lake, created and owned by the Georgia Power Company, exists primarily as a means of producing electricity.

The company operates a pumpback storage system in conjunction with 15,000-acre Lake Sinclair, which results in water being released each day from Oconee into Sinclair, then later pumped back into Oconee.

Though the schedule for this activity varies, local catfishermen know that a properly timed trip to one of these lakes can lead to some dead-on catfish action.

In May, Ahlberg likes to arrive on Oconee at daylight. After launching at Redlands, which is situated along the Oconee River arm of lake, he sets about looking for structure, such as river channel ledges and scour holes, or cover, including standing timber or blowdowns.

He knows that any of these areas are likely to hold forage such as shad, and provide an ideal feeding ground for channels, blues and flatheads.

"The name of the game with catfishing, just as it is with bass or anything else, is you fish the structure," Ahlberg said. "You've got to be where they are, not where they aren't."

Many times, when he arrives on the lake, the water is being pulled down into Sinclair or pumped back into Oconee. This creates a current, which can activate the catfish to anticipate an easy meal.

With the current in play, Ahlberg prefers to find standing timber or blowdowns in 12 to 15 feet of water near a river channel. If, while studying his graph, he sees shad or fish present, he drops anchor on the upstream side of the dropoff and then casts his bait into the current.

"I fish on the upstream side, the thinking being that the fish are going to come out of the deeper water to feed," Ahlberg noted.

According to Robinson, the catfish population throughout the lake is doing quite well, owing largely to the fact that the constantly flowing water aids the lake's fertility. The lake, he said, also maintains ample forage species, namely threadfin and gizzard shad.

The channels and white cats are the most abundant species and are found all over the lake, whereas blues and flatheads are most concentrated in the lake's upper reaches, specifically the arms of the Apalachee and Oconee rivers.

"For numbers, the lake ranks as one of the best in the state," he said.

Lake Sinclair, located in the Middle Georgia counties of Putnam, Baldwin and Hancock, is no slouch either when it come to catfish. The lake boasts a healthy population of channels in the 3/4- to 3-pound range and bullheads of about 1/2 pound, said Steve Schleiger, senior fisheries biologist for the lake. Unlike Oconee, however, he said the lake has fewer flatheads and blues and its white catfish have not done very well, with an average size of less than 1 pound.

Still, the lake's water quality and heated discharge from Georgia Power's coal-fired Plant Harlee Branch combine to make good habitat for catfish, Schleiger said.

No one has to convince Richard Dostie of Sinclair's catfish-producing qualities. He has lived on and fished the lake for the past 15 years, catching more than his fair share of

channel cats during that span.

According to Dostie, catfish are easy to locate all over the lake, but he lists the areas near docks as the easiest locations in which to target them. His favorite summer strategy, however, is to find a fairly narrow, winding creek with water roughly 6 to 8 feet deep. He then proceeds to anchor and cast flat-tailed earthworms into the channel.

He uses a Carolina rig to get his bait down to the fish. But unlike most fishermen, he prefers to go with a 1/4-ounce egg sinker, adding that the lighter weight allows the current to keep the bait off the bottom and right in the face of aggressively feeding catfish.

"If they are there, they are going to bite," he said, referring to the channel cats he so frequently catches in Rooty and Murder creeks. "They'll be stacked up in there."

During the month of May, shad are spawning all over the lakes. These creatures, usually visible throughout the day, can be found writhing near any hard surface, be it riprap, standing timber or wooden sea walls. Even when the schools aren't visible, a quick glance at the depthfinder can give away their location.

Like the current, these floating smorgasbords are a harbinger of good catfishing.

"If I'm fishing an area with no shad, I'm wasting my time," said Ahlberg. "I want the odds in my favor. I still may not catch any fish, but at least I know the odds are increased."

When Ahlberg fishes the standing timber, his rig consists primarily of a baitcaster spooled with 14-pound-test and tipped with a threadfin shad hooked length-wise beginning at the eye on a 1/0 Kahle hook. He also uses a Carolina rig, but he adjusts the length of the leader from 18 to 36 inches, depending on the amount of cover present.

Ahlberg, who has caught channels, blues and flatheads up to 15 pounds from the Oconee River, said this rig works well, even around the abundant snags.

When you're going after catfish, broken line, straightened hooks and rods bent like buggy whips are par for the course. Fishing among constant hazards such as blowdowns, rocks and stumps demands a stiff rod and stout line. Most anglers choose a baitcaster featuring a 7-foot medium-heavy- to heavy-action fiberglass rod and spooled with 15- to 30-pound monofilament.

The long rod ensures more-reliable hooksets in deep water, while the thicker-diameter lines are able to absorb abrasion from underwater debris without losing too much of their strength.

Lake Jackson, the smallest lake of the trio, is situated in Middle Georgia spanning parts of Butts, Jasper and Newton counties.

The 4,750-acre reservoir, which is fed by the South, Yellow and Alcovy rivers, along with Tussahaw Creek, provides a wealth of habitat for catfish but receives very little pressure from anglers chasing cats.

That's unfortunate, since, according to senior fisheries biologist Keith Weaver, the lake hosts an impressive selection of channels and bullheads, with the former averaging better than 4 pounds. He said flatheads and blues haven't shown up in any samples, but he doesn't doubt their presence in the lake.

Idus Johnson, who has lived on Jackson for 32 years, has caught dozens of catfish from the Alcovy River, which runs right behind his Newton County home.

Using nightcrawlers and hunks of cut bait, he has taken blues up to 25 pounds, numerous channel cats over 5 pounds, and flatheads topping the 30-pound mark.

He most often looks for the fish on a long, shallow flat, which extends from a spring-fed creek behind his home, then drops into the river channel. In May, the cats often move up from the narrow 20-foot-deep river channel and congregate in the cool water of the creek.

Several years back, Johnson and his wife, Mary, were fishing this area, when he had about all he could stand of the seemingly small fish that were constantly stealing his bait.

"I told my wife, 'I'm going to snatch its teeth out the next time he does that,' " said Johnson.

A few minutes later, the fish bit again.

"When I jerked, it felt like a log. It didn't move. I reached down and grabbed the line to break it, and it just took off," he recalled.

Turns out that "small" fish was what appeared to be a 35- to 40-pound flathead, its tail folding on the ground as Johnson held it waist-high.

In fact, nice-sized catfish can be found all over Jackson, a lake with very well defined creek channels, several stumpbeds and - thanks to area bass fishermen - hundreds of brushpiles.

Unlike Oconee and Sinclair, however, where the pumpback system provides an imprimatur for fish to feed, Jackson's dam was shuttered years ago, so about the only current is found in the upper ends of the rivers.

It is here, in these shallow, flowing waters, that the blues and flatheads can most often be found, many times in as little as 2 feet of water near stumps, blowdowns, channel ledges and the brush in front of docks.

The best strategy on the main lake, where fish are more likely to be scattered, is to find sharp bends in the river channels, then study the sonar for the presence of brush, shad or fish along the bottom.

If either of these is present, drop anchor just outside the channel bend and present bait such as nightcrawlers or shad on a three-way rig.

The rig, which consists of a three-way swivel tied to the of the line, then a leader affixed to a 3/4- to 1-ounce bell sinker off one loop and a leader with a hook on the other, keeps the bait off the bottom. What's more, this setup can also be used as a drift rig when searching for scattered catfish.

Also look for fish near the convergence of rivers, where the cats may be found orienting to a deep hole. Long main-lake points, humps and flats should also not be overlooked.

John Copeland, who guides for catfish on Oconee and Jackson, seeks out similar areas on each lake in the early morning during summer.

He said catfish frequently move onto these flats to feed on shad and other forage, then as the sun comes up fall back to deeper water.

Typically, at daylight he anchors his boat in 6 to 8 feet of water on a flat that stair-steps down into a river channel.

He then fan-casts five or six baitcasters on both sides of the boat, using shad, red worms or shrimp as bait.

There's little question the fish will be in these areas. But you may have to move around to find them.

"If you're not catching anything or

only catching small fish," he said, "move out to deeper water."

Contrary to popular myth, in the heat of the summer some of the best action for catfish is often in relatively shallow water that is 4 to 12 feet deep. That's because when the water temperature hits the mid-70s, usually around mid-May, catfish begin searching for hard-bottomed areas in which to spawn. During this period the fish are relatively easy to target near docks and riprap, and can be taken with a vast array of baits.

One of the most consistent of these baits is shad. Anglers like Ahlberg catch dozens of threadfin shad in cast nets before each excursion, then fish them live by hooking them through the nostrils or use them as cut bait or hook them lengthwise through the body beginning at the eye.

Other popular baits include nightcrawlers, shrimp, prepared stink baits and live bream (which, according to the Wildlife Resources Division, must be caught using a hook).

The key is to experiment, all the while understanding that blues, channels, whites, bullheads and even the live-bait-loving flatheads can be consistently taken on any number of baits.

"A lot of people mistakenly believe that big catfish eat only fish," said Schleiger. "They eat just about anything they can get a hold of."

One reason Copeland likes to keep several baits at hand is that frequently catfish bite one bait for a while and then shut down until another offering arrives. Other times, however, the creatures seem to want everything all at once.

One bait that deserves a try during the summer is chicken liver. A staple of catfish anglers for years, liver has virtually no equal in the summer months, when the water temperature begins to climb and the presence of current comes even more into play.

The warm water has the effect of pushing the fish deeper during the daylight hours, where they hang tight to stumps and brush. However, as the blood from the liver disperses throughout a broad area in the current, the olfactory-sensitive cats can be drawn in from quite a distance away.

With catfishing, just as with chasing any fish, there are no absolutes. What works today on this or that lake might be futile in attempting to unlock a catfish's jaws tomorrow or the next day.

As a general rule, though, it's hard to go wrong by targeting cover such as rocks, stumps and standing timber.

"If they've got a choice between lying against that log or out here in the open, they are going to lie next to that log," Ahlberg concluded with a hand gesture.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ronnell Smith is a staff writer for the Athens Banner Herald newspaper. He is a resident of Loganville and an avid angler. This is his first contribution to Georgia Sportsman.



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