Photo by Ron Sinfelt
A little boy squeals with delight when his cork darts under. He snaps his rod upward with the efficiency of a bass pro setting the hook on tournament day. His dad quickly pulls his own offering out of the water and kneels beside his son, who is having as much fun as is humanly possible, with his line stretching out from a deeply bowed rod and racing from side to side.
Eventually the boy gets his fish to the surface, and his father is able to grab the line and swing a whopper bream to him. The man holds up a bluegill that his hand barely wraps around, so he and his boy can admire the thick-bodied fish, and then he unhooks it and slips it onto a stringer with half a dozen others that look just like it.
Twenty yards up the banks, a mother and two children are enjoying similar fun. A couple nearby a pair of boating anglers cast ultralight jigs over a bream bed and pull out hand-sized bream of their own.
They are called public fishing areas (PFAs), but the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, which owns and operates these eight great fishing destinations, contends that the initials also could stand for “perfect family areas.” The PFAs, which hold anywhere from a single medium-sized lake to dozens of small lakes, are intensively managed to provide the best possible fishing and the best possible access for family-friendly outings.
Pond fertilization, targeted stockings, habitat development and fish feeding are just some of the efforts regularly carried out to maximize fishing potential, especially for bluegills, shellcrackers (redear sunfish), channel catfish and largemouth bass. Bluegills and shellcrackers are part of the mix on virtually every pond and lake in the program, and most of the waters offer high-quality populations of both species.
“Picking the best bream fishing lakes is really difficult,” said Bert Deener, regional fisheries supervisor for Region IV, which contains four of the eight PFAs. “Most of them offer excellent fishing and access for boat-fishing and bank-fishing anglers alike.”
To maximize opportunities for all fishermen, PFAs are managed under special regulations. The areas are open seven days a week, sunup to sundown, although hours are limited on some lakes. Boats may be operated with trolling motors only, unless otherwise posted. Where signs state that outboards may be used, boats must operate at idle speed only.
The combined limit for bluegills, shellcrackers and other sunfish is 15 fish. In addition to a fishing license, anglers need a wildlife management area (WMA) stamp. However, if you possess a Sportsmans License or one-day fishing license, you do not have to have a WMA stamp. Additionally, a WMA stamp is not required to fish at the Rocky Mountain PFA.
During May the bluegills and shellcrackers are typically active and quite shallow. Often they are piled up on beds, creating legitimate opportunities for anglers to “limit out” on bream that average close to a pound. Others are scattered around the banks, holding along grassy edges, beside downed trees and around any other bit of cover they can find.
Anglers who just want to see their bobbers dance can do so virtually anywhere along the banks of most PFA ponds by dangling crickets a couple of feet beneath their corks and casting around any type of shallow cover. Fish that are scattered along the banks come in all sizes.
To specifically target large bream, anglers need to locate beds, usually on flats or in sandy basins, often in the backs of creeks or coves or in the upper ends of lakes. Shellcracker beds, generally speaking, will be a bit deeper than bluegill beds.
Bream beds have a sweet fishy smell, so their general locations often can be “sniffed out.” Once in an area, anglers often can see the depressions dug in the sand. At other times, the fish have to reveal themselves, and finding the beds begins with searching for fish with crickets or wigglers fished under corks or on split shot rigs.
Once anglers home in on the bream, they can stick with the same natural offerings they used to find the fish, cast ultra-light jigs and small in-line spinners, or pull out a fly rod. Flyfishermen do well using foam spiders or small popping bugs with nymphs fished as droppers a couple of feet behind the surface flies.
Let’s look at the individual PFAs and what they offer to bream fishermen.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN PFA
Located in northwest Georgia, Rocky Mountain PFA contains two lakes, covering a combined 559 acres. Antioch Lake, the larger of the two, at more than 350 acres, is open daily. Heath Lake is open only the first seven days of each month.
While both lakes offer good bluegill and shellcracker fishing, area manager Todd Binion gave the nod to Antioch as offering the best opportunities to the most anglers. Access is exceptional around the big lake, with boat ramps on two sides, six rock fishing jetties, a handicapped-accessible fishing pier and plenty of openings around the lakeshore.
Antioch also has a tremendous amount of brush in it, both in the form of marked fish attractors and in the Christmas trees sunk by anglers. Rocky Mountain PFA allows anglers to bring and sink their own trees each winter. Non-anglers in the area also donate trees, and fishermen can place those wherever they want to in the lake.
To reach Rocky Mountain from Rome, take U.S. Highway 27 north 10.4 miles and turn left on Sike Storey Road. Go 0.4 mile and turn left again on Big Texas Valley Road, and then drive 5.4 miles to the entrance.
As mentioned earlier, this is the only PFA where a wildlife management area stamp is not required.
Also the site of a Georgia WRD fish hatchery, McDuffie PFA offers 13 ponds of 1 to 30 acres, plus an education center and a primitive campground. The area is located 10 miles east of Thomson on the upper coastal plain.
Access to most ponds at McDuffie PFA is outstanding, as several are surrounded by mowed grass. The easy access, along with fine bluegill and shellcracker populations, makes this area ideal for family fishing trips. During May, the biggest concentrations of bream will be in the upper ends of the lakes, where the water is generally shallow.
To access McDuffie PFA from Thomson, drive south on State Route 17 and turn east onto U.S. 278. Drive 5.6 miles and turn right on Ellington
Airline Road. At 2.8 miles, turn right onto Fish Hatchery Road.
BIG LAZER CREEK WMA
Located somewhat off the beaten path 10 miles east of Talboton, the 195-acre lake at Big Lazer Creek PFA gets fairly light fishing pressure. It supports abundant bluegills, but shellcrackers are far more noteworthy in terms of the size of fish that anglers can expect to catch.
Most shellcrackers bed in the shallow upper end of the lake. While some beds can be cast to from the banks, the best access, without question, is by boat. Anglers may run outboards on the lake, but only at idle speed.
Shoreline anglers do enjoy easy access to plentiful bluegills, and a fishing pier and earthen dikes have cover sunk around them to hold fish within easy casting distance.
The lake is fertilized and limed as needed, and fish populations are carefully monitored to keep a good balance of healthy game fish.
To reach Big Lazer Creek from Talbotton, take U.S. 80 east four miles. Turn left on Po Biddy Road, go 6.4 miles and turn left onto Bunkman Road. The final turn is a left into the area’s unpaved drive.
MARBEN FARMS PFA
With 22 ponds ranging in size from 1 to 95 acres, Marben Farms PFA has something for everyone. All of the ponds that are open to public fishing offer at least good bream fishing, according to area manager Keith Weaver. In addition to varying in size, the ponds vary in the type of experience they offer, largely based on access. While some have boat ramps and are close to the main roads through the area, others require more driving on interior dirt roads to reach them, and a few are managed as “walk-in” lakes, with no parking lots right beside them.
The largest numbers of big bream tend to come from the area’s largest lakes — Fox, Shepherd, Marjorie and Bennett — simply due to the amount of quality habitat these lakes produce. However, Weaver noted that he personally likes some of the smaller, more remote lakes, such as Whitetail and Allen.
“I can go to one of those lakes with my son, and we’ll catch plenty of hand-sized bream and we may have the lake to ourselves,” he said.
Weaver pointed toward Fox Lake as Marben Farms’ hottest shellcracker lake. He noted that an island visible from the boat ramp has a sandy hole beside it that fills up with shellcracker beds during the spring.
“It’s not uncommon for fishermen to catch 1 1/2- to 2-pound shellcrackers from near that island during the spring,” he added.
While Weaver acknowledged that boaters enjoy the easiest access to most bream beds, bank-fishermen who are willing to walk can reach plenty of beds, especially around the backs of coves. May typically produces the best bream fishing of the year on Marben Farms.
To get to this fishing from Mansfield, drive south on SR 11 for 2.7 miles. Turn left on Marben Farms Road and follow the signs.
DODGE COUNTY PFA
When the shellcrackers get on their beds during spring at Dodge County PFA’s 104-acre lake, catches of 1- to 1 1/2-pound ‘crackers are not at all uncommon, according to Bert Deener. When the bluegills move up, anglers commonly catch 15-fish limits of fish that average 3/4 of a pound, with some legitimate 1-pounders in the mix.
The best beds are most easily accessible by boat. However, many are located on flats in the backs of coves and are within casting distance of the shoreline. A trail circles the lake and leads to multiple openings created specifically to provide fishing access.
A fishing pier also provides additional access. The pier has brush sunk around it and is a sure place for finding bluegill action, although not necessarily the lake’s biggest fish.
From Eastman, to reach Dodge County PFA, drive south on U.S. 23/341 for three miles. Turn left on County Road 49 and go another 0.6 mile to the PFA.
EVANS COUNTY PFA
“You can get on some beds of bluegills at Evans County where you will really catch some nice fish,” Deener pointed out. “You’ll catch some of the sort you can’t even wrap your hand around.”
Evans County PFA actually offers three different opportunities for bream fishermen, each unique in the experience it provides. In addition to the PFA’s “big lake,” which covers 84 acres, anglers can pick from a much smaller 8-acre lake on the back side of the PFA or from the plunge pool beneath the spillway of the big lake. The pool produces some very good bluegill fishing during the spring, according to Deener.
The big lake is actually a black-water fishery, although fertilization makes it much more fertile than a natural black-water system. It has an abundance of vegetation in the shallow upper end and standing timber on the main body. The lake’s dam provides great bank-fishing access, but there is also a walking trail surrounding the lake that connects fishing stations, plus a fishing pier. Both lakes have boat ramps on them.
The small lake supports a very strong largemouth population, which keeps bluegill numbers somewhat low. The result is that the bream that survive in the fertile waters tend to grow to large sizes. Hydrilla sometimes gets problematically thick on the small lake, limiting fishing access.
The WRD staff will be doing some work on the big lake at Evans County this year, which could cause the water to be down and limit access in places, Deener warned. He did not know the exact timeframe or what the impact of the work would be when this issue went to press.
To access Evans County PFA from Claxton, take U.S. 280 east 8.5 miles and turn right on Old Reidsville/Savannah Road. Drive one mile, turn left onto Old Sunbury Road and drive 0.3 mile to the PFA. The facility is on the left and is marked by a sign.
HUGH M. GILLIS PFA
The 109-acre lake at Hugh M. Gillis PFA is sort of like two lakes in one, as 15 acres in the upper end are contained in a separate upper pool and are accessible by a separate boat ramp. The pools are connected by a 6-foot culvert.
The upper pool has only recently been opened to public fishing as part of the PFA, so spring fishing has not been tested. However, it contains a lot of shallow water that Deener suspects will be the site of good spring bluegill fishing.
The lake is fairly new and is still in its new-lake boom, according to Deener. Bluegill and shellcracker populations are outstanding. The lake also has a great flier population, but the best fishing for that species occurs during winter. The lake is shallow overall and loaded with various types of structure and cover. Access is outstanding, with boat ramps on either pool, earthen piers, a fishing pier and cleared areas scattered around both lakes.
Automated fish feeders, which were put in the lake to enhance fish growth, provide a bonus for bream fishermen. Fish go nuts around the feeders
when they turn on, and there is almost always an abundance of bream in the vicinity of the feeders.
To reach the Gillis PFA from East Dublin, drive east on U.S. 80 for 10 miles and turn left on Keens Crossing Road. Drive 1.4 miles to the area entrance on the right.
Last but certainly not least, Paradise PFA’s more than 60 ponds come in every imaginable shape and size and cover a combined 525 acres. The three largest are Lake Patrick, at 112 acres; Lake Bobben, at 61 acres; and Lake Paradise, at 46 acres. The lakes are generally shallow, and most contain vegetation. Some have fishing piers and boat ramps while others are shore-accessible only. Virtually all offer at least good fishing for bluegills or shellcrackers.
Lake Patrick, the area’s largest, is extremely popular among bream fishermen and produces a lot of big fish, according to Deener. He also noted that Lake Paradise is known for producing really large shellcrackers.
“The whole area produces really good bream fishing, though. There’s so much there that it is difficult to choose,” he said.
Deener noted that Paradise also has excellent facilities overall for a family outing, including a very nice picnic area and primitive camping area.
To reach the area from Tifton, drive east on U.S. 82 for eight miles to Brookfield. Turn right on Whitley Road, travel 100 yards and take the first left onto Brookfield-Nashville Road. Drive 1.5 miles to the area entrance on the left.