This East Georgia impoundment is one of the state’s most popular bass fishing destinations. And there are plenty of reasons for that reputation!
By Jimmy Jacobs
My fishing partner Polly Dean cast her Norman Little N crankbait in gray and white shad pattern just beyond a corner post on the boat dock. A couple of turns of the reel handle and the lure halted, securely connected to the jaw of a largemouth bass.
We were fishing near the mouth of Lick Creek in what the locals call the mid-lake on Lake Oconee, figuratively in the shadows of the upscale lake house owned by Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The hookup mirrored the advice just offered by guide Roger McKee (www.lakeoconeesinclairprofessionalguideservices.com). He had noted that the fish this day seemed to be holding right against the dock pilings. It also confirmed one of his two best patterns for fishing Lake Oconee in the month May, a time when the bass often use the abundant docks as ambush points.
McKee is well worth listening to when he’s dispensing advice on fishing Lake Oconee. He has been fishing the impoundment for a quarter century and guiding other anglers for more than 15 years. He also has won more than 50 regional bass tournaments. He knows Lake Oconee and its bass well.
Lake Oconee is a 19,050-acre Georgia Power Company reservoir on the Oconee River. Located near Madison and Greensboro, it sits mainly in Greene County. As far as bass fishing is concerned, this lake has a lot going for it due to varied circumstances.
Oconee has not been exposed to the bane of spotted bass, which makes it basically a largemouth bass destination. Large impoundments across the state where spots have shown up have seen declines in largemouth populations. As the smaller spots move in, the average size of fish in the lakes goes down.
The lake also is fairly close to the metro Atlanta area, making for easy access to a large population of anglers. As a result, both recreational and club tournament anglers put the impoundment’s waters to good use in chasing bass.
Finally, the natural lay of the land around the lake and the way the reservoir is managed combine to produce a fishery that can be fairly predictable, something that continues deep into the summer months.
As to the operation of the lake, Oconee is a pump-storage hydropower facility. Water is released through the powerhouse at Wallace Dam to make electricity. That water enters Lake Sinclair, which is immediately downstream, but much of it then is pumped upstream back into Oconee.
With regard to topography, Oconee has a fairly narrow shape. It stretches for 25 miles along the old river channel and has a maximum depth of 100 feet. This configuration means that water traveling through the lake is confined in a way that provides more current than is found on most Peach State reservoirs.
The combination of the pump-back and shape of the lake results in a pretty strong current being pushed both up and down the lake at different periods. In fact, the water level can rise or fall by as much as 18 inches in a single 24-hour period. This man-made “tide” is one of the key factors in why Oconee is such a great bass lake. These currents tend to be more accommodating to feeding bass than slow-flowing impoundments, particularly in summer.
Anytime you make a cast for bass on Lake Oconee, particularly in open water situations, you stand the chance of having another species of fish take your lure. The ensuing battle often has anglers thinking they are about to break the lake record for largemouths.
That situation results because the WRD has an aggressive program of stocking hybrid and striped bass on this impoundment. The large population of forage provided by the gizzard and threadfin shad makes it necessary to load up the lake with predators to control baitfish.
Hybrids are most likely to take your lure, since the stripers in the lake seem to be caught more often on live baits rather than artificial lures. Gill net surveys have revealed the lake is loaded with hybrids in the 5- to 10-pound range.
On the other hand, the average striped bass is more likely to be only around 16 inches. Still, stripers of 8 to 10 pounds are caught, along with a rare fish topping 15 pounds.
These populations are the result of heavy stocking of 1-inch fingerlings each spring. Since 2012, more than 425,000 stripers have been added to the lake, while in excess of 1.3 million hybrids also have been released.
Now Lake Oconee has a good population of largemouth bass. The lake is fairly fertile, making it very productive for fish to grow. In fact, Georgia Wildlife Resources Division surveys have shown that the bass population is twice as large as that found in any other lake in the mid-state region.
The impoundment also is noted for having some of the most consistent, year-round bass action in Georgia. Surveys also show that fishermen targeting all species spend about a million angling days on the lake annually.
For a number of years the impoundment was managed using a slot limit of 11 to 14 inches. During those years the WRD encouraged anglers to harvest some of the smaller bass to keep the population balanced. However, beginning in September of 2014, the rules were changed. A minimum 14-inch size limit for bass now is in effect.
Part of the reason for the change is to allow fish to reach proportions in which they can prey on the abundant gizzard shad in the lake, thus keeping that population under control. The other main forage for largemouths is the smaller threadfin shad.
The other factor in the equation is to provide better quality bass for anglers to pursue. According to WRD creel surveys and electro-shocking in recent years, the efforts have proven successful. Largemouths in the 2- to 3-pound range are abundant in Lake Oconee, with some fish up in the 4- to 5-pound class.
According to McKee, placing in the money on a tournament on Oconee in the spring requires a five-fish average of 3 1/2 pounds.
McKee also noted that several bass in the 8- to 8 1/2-pound range show up each year. The lake record largemouth is a 12-pound, 14-ounce “hawg” taken by in 2012 by Bill Brantley.
Of course, most of the spawn takes place on Lake Oconee in March and April, but some bass still can be found on the bed in early May. If that is the case looking for sand and gravel areas in the very backs of coves can pay off.
More likely, however, anglers will be targeting post-spawn largemouths. Roger McKee’s first pattern for catching fish is to look for them on the points jutting out from either side of the spawning coves, in water about 7 feet deep. However, the bass are likely to be suspended at only 3 feet below the surface.
He starts by tossing buzzbaits, poppers or spinnerbaits to his quarry. As the sun gets on the water, he changes over to subsurface offerings. He also likes targeting boat docks, especially when water is up after being pumped back into the impoundment.
Early in the month, he tosses Yamamoto Senkos or other soft baits rigged wacky worm style. These are cast up under the docks. Later, as water temperatures reach 60 degrees, he casts square-billed crankbaits that can be bumped off the pilings.
When the water heats up into the 70-degree range, McKee switches over to Rapala Shad Rap lures. With all these baits he usually goes with more natural shad-finish colors.
Of course, regardless of tactics, it is hard to catch fish if anglers aren’t in the right location. A couple of spots that should be good for the early part of May are located on the east side of the reservoir, just upstream of Wallace Dam.
If fish are still in the spawning mode, the north shore of Double Creek is a good bet. Just a bit farther up this side of the reservoir is Rocky Creek. Look for the pea gravel and sand bottoms along the shore of both banks about halfway up the creek arm, as bass use these areas for bedding. Plastic worms and lizards in 4-inch sizes in pumpkinseed or watermelon colors are good bets.
If the spawn is completed, anglers need to turn attention to the nearby points, or head to some areas farther north on the impoundment. In the Sugar Creek arm on the west side of the lake, start off at the Park Mill Road (State Route 144) bridge. Target the riprap with vibrating crankbaits.
Another nearby option is to move up the creek arm to the standing timber along the eastern shore. Try casting buzzbaits or other topwater offerings among the trees in both May and June.
Similar action also can be found in the Apalachee River arm of Oconee. The riprap along the approaches to the Swords Bridge (on SR 149; Blue Springs Road) is another place for casting vibrating crankbaits. More places to hit include the standing timber located along both shores of the river.
Finally, be sure to hit the abundant boat docks located throughout the lower to mid-section of the reservoir.
Now boating access to Lake Oconee is very good. The U.S. Forest Service manages multi-lane, concrete boat ramps at its Swords Boat Ramp on the west side of the Apalachee River arm of the lake, as well as a similar facility at its Redlands Boat Ramp on the east side of the main Oconee River channel.
The Georgia Power Company has concrete boat ramps at its Lawrence Shoals, Long Shoals, Sugar Creek, Parks Ferry, Armor Bridge and Old Salem locations. Campgrounds, beaches and picnic areas are provided at the Lawrence Shoals, Parks Ferry and Old Salem areas as well.
Additionally, half a dozen commercial marinas are spread around the reservoir, offering boat ramps, rental boats, as well as bait and tackle shops. Access is not a problem.