Lake Jackson is one of the oldest reservoirs in the mid-state area, while Lake Oconee is a veritable youngster. They both produce some good bass angling, but the action is different on each impoundment.
By Jeff Samsel
"I remember when . . ."
That's how a lot of talk about Lake Jackson begins. The reminiscences, which often relate to things that occurred when someone was still a boy, could be about fishing mishaps or memorable weather. However, many include the statement "That's still the biggest bass I've ever seen." No other mid-state lake - and maybe no other Georgia lake - has more lore surrounding it among longtime Atlanta-area bass fishermen than Lake Jackson, despite the fact that this impoundment covers only 4,750 acres.
Jackson's reputation stems from a couple of different factors. First, it is a very old lake. Built in 1910, Jackson provided a new type of bass-fishing opportunity for many old-time river fishermen when it was constructed. Quite simply, a lot of fishermen have logged a lot of hours on this lake.
As significantly, Lake Jackson used to be an outstanding trophy bass lake. Over the years, its waters have produced countless double-digit-weight largemouths, and the lake record stands at 14 pounds, 7 ounces.
Spotted bass are just beginning to show up in the waters of Lake Jackson. Photo by Ken Duke
Lake Jackson impounds the waters of the Alcovy, South and Yellow rivers where they join at the head of the Ocmulgee River and is located about 45 miles southeast of Atlanta. It is no longer the trophy bass factory that it once was. However, it remains a great place for finding good fishing for decent-sized largemouths, with a few spotted bass thrown in as a bonus. Jackson also remains one of the most popular lakes in the central part of the state, both because of its proximity to the Atlanta metropolitan area and because of its time-earned angling reputation.
Less than 30 miles from Lake Jackson, almost directly to the east, another Middle Georgia impoundment has gained significant popularity among fishermen as well. Lake Oconee, which impounds the Oconee River, likewise serves up fast black bass action. While Oconee doesn't get as crowded as Lake Jackson, it has also developed into a favored destination of many Atlanta-area bass fishermen.
Unlike Jackson, Lake Oconee is quite large - 19,050 acres. On the other hand, however, Lake Oconee remains narrow in almost all places because its acreage is spread over several creek and river arms.
The two lakes differ notably in the fact that Lake Oconee is a good bit younger, having been built in 1979. Because Oconee is newer, its structure and abundant woody cover remain largely intact, giving bass plenty of places to hide in and fishermen plenty of patterns to play with. Many of the trees that were left standing when the lake was impounded are now broken off at water level, but their trunks remain intact, and their tops cover the lake bottom around them.
Lake Jackson's original creek channels are largely silted in and much of its natural cover has deteriorated over the years. That said, some channels on the lower end of the lake are still surprisingly well defined, and biologists and fishermen have added enormous quantities of woody cover to the bottom of Lake Jackson in the form of brushpiles. Around the banks, which are heavily developed, bass relate to boat docks, seawalls and other manmade cover.
Despite their differences, lakes Jackson and Oconee also have a fair amount in common. Largely because of their locations, they have similar topography. Both lakes have Piedmont characteristics, with a mix of steep and sloped banks, and both have a lot of development along those banks. In addition, both lakes are very fertile and support a big biomass of fish. Shad abound in both Jackson and Oconee, providing plenty of food for the bass.
Another common denominator between Jackson and Oconee is that today the lakes are better places in which to catch numbers of bass rather than lunkers. That acknowledged, both lakes do produce some heavyweights from time to time.
Oconee actually could be an outstanding trophy largemouth lake, biologists believe, and it is beginning to produce more large fish than in the past. Its biggest problem, ironically, is having too many bass. Largemouths make up an unusually large percentage of the biomass, but too much of the total weight of bass is made up of abundant small fish. If Oconee had fewer small fish, the bass that remained would grow faster and create a better fishery, biologists contend.
For that reason, Lake Oconee is managed with a slot limit, which allows no harvest of fish between 11 and 14 inches. The idea is that fish that make it into the slot will grow quickly. However, that will only work if anglers keep a fair amount of fish under 11 inches. The Georgia Wildlife Resources Division has been trying to convey that message for several years, and those efforts are finally beginning to have some impact. Anglers are keeping more small fish, based on recent creel surveys, and the result has been improved overall size structures.
Recent electroshocking surveys have revealed that fish less than 11 inches long make up 40 percent of the largemouth bass population in Lake Oconee. Not too many years ago, up to 70 percent of all the bass in the lake were less than 11 inches long.
Adversely, Lake Jackson's size structure has been stable in recent years. Largemouths average between 3/4 pound and 1 pound, but about half the bass in the population are more than 15 inches long. While the real giants are less common than they once were, the population is well balanced and fish in a good range of sizes are well represented.
In addition to largemouths, Lake Jackson supports a good spotted bass population. Spots currently make up about 25 percent of the black bass population, and their prevalence is increasing. The first spotted bass found in biologists' shocking surveys didn't show up until 1998, so their numbers have increased quite quickly. Spotted bass only average 9 or 10 inches in length in Lake Jackson. Approximately 15 percent of the spotted bass in the lake are more than 15 inches long.
FISHING LAKE JACKSON Four major streams feed Lake Jackson: Tussahaw Creek and the South, Yellow and Alcovy rivers. The tributaries join forces to form the Ocmulgee River beneath the lake's impounded waters. Its waters, which range from milky green to Georgia-clay red, contingent upon recent days' rainfall, are mostly shallow.
Finding spawning shad is the key to finding bass this time of year on Lake Jackson, according to Aaron Batson, an active tournament angler who has fished Lake Jackson all his li
fe. He is also a part-time guide on lakes Jackson and Oconee.
"Once you find spawning shad in early May, catching bass is easy," he stated.
Batson, who fishes Jackson two or three times a week through the warm months, pointed toward rocky banks as the main places in which to look for spawning shad. He looks for shad around rocks and then fishes around the shad with spinnerbaits and buzzbaits.
"The most important lure in my tackle box this month would be a spinnerbait. A 1/4-ounce white spinnerbait with double silver willow-leaf blades is best during May. You can work it at various depths, and it resembles a shad perfectly," Batson said.
Batson also downsizes the approach with some of his offerings, turning to 1/4-ounce crankbaits and soft-plastic jerkbaits, because spotted bass are apt to be using the same areas. Spotted bass favor rocky banks anyway, so when shad spawn, it gives those areas double appeal to spotted bass.
As the month progresses, some bass start moving toward summer holes, but they won't have committed to the deeper water. Therefore, Batson spends a lot of time fishing secondary points, which connect shallow areas up in the creeks to deeper water.
Batson pointed toward the 8- to 12-foot range as being important late in the spring. He looks for rockpiles or brushpiles off the ends of points in that depth range and fishes them either with a medium-running crankbait or a finesse worm on a Carolina rig.
At any time during May, Batson will be on the lake and ready to fish before it starts getting light.
"The biggest mistake that fishermen make is that they don't get out on the water early enough," he said. "The fishing is best early, right at daybreak. It can be fast and furious for about one hour; however, it dies off quickly once the sun gets on the water."
Beginning around the end of May, the last light of the day is also a favored time for many Lake Jackson regulars. Once Memorial Day passes and the daytime crowds start to really thicken, many serious fishermen largely abandon daylight angling on Jackson.
At night, many fishermen rely on either soft plastics or "night" spinnerbaits, with oversized single Colorado blade configurations. Other anglers focus on docks that stay lit during the night and fish with jerkbaits or other fast-moving lures.
FISHING LAKE OCONEE Lake Oconee is like five distinctively different lakes in one, according to Jerry Whitlock, who, along with Batson, is co-author of How to Catch Largemouth Bass on Lake Oconee . . . All Year Round. Whitlock lives on Oconee part time and fishes it several days a week throughout the year.
The first section he considers is north of Interstate 20, up the Oconee and Apalachee rivers, where current makes things much more like river fishing. The second is the Sugar Creek/Lick Creek area, which he said is usually the first area of the lake to get stained.
The third section is the middle main body, from the mouth of Lick Creek to Reynolds Plantation. He noted that this section has some long gradual points and bends in the river and a deeper main channel. However, it also gets more recreational boating traffic than waters up the headwaters of the creeks and rivers.
The fourth section is the lower main lake, which has clearer water than other sections and more shoreline in a natural state. The final section is the Richland Creek arm, including Sandy Creek, Rocky Creek and Double Branches. The water is generally clear on this side, he pointed out, and is usually a bit cooler.
While two of the five major areas are made up of creek arms, they are completely different form one another.
"Each area is like fishing a different lake," Whitlock argued. "Some parts are clear while at the same time the other areas are stained to muddy. You must adapt to the changes as you move from one area to another - different lures, different colors, different presentations."
Understanding how the various sections differ and knowing the character of each also helps a fisherman find the type of conditions he is looking for. For example, when heavy rains have muddied the lake enough to make fishing tough, anglers who know the impoundment well move to the far lower end or head up the Richland Creek side in search of clearer water.
During the first part of May, Whitlock looks for bass along the shores of shallow coves in the major creeks. Docks are critical in the coves, he said, pointing out that Lake Oconee has more than 3,500 docks around it. He ties on a white spinnerbait and works from dock to dock in a cove, casting past every dock support.
"On a good day, you can catch a couple dozen fish doing that," he noted.
Whitlock also looks for post-spawn bass moving from the creeks toward the main lake this time of year and fishes break lines or any cover that the bass might stage on.
"Look for any subtle change or break line, like grass, reeds, stickups or fallen trees, along these cuts and coves," he said. "A lure that imitates a small baitfish will get the action."
As the month progresses, Whitlock turns increasingly to points and looks farther out on them in search of the fish. He fishes carefully around any type of dropoff or any cover he can find. In addition, he relies heavily on the first-light topwater bite this time of year.
"The strategy is to get on the water as early as you can," he said. "The topwater bite will only last a short time - from half an hour to one hour, depending on where you fish. The sun will hit the water first on the west side. As the direct light hits the water, move to the east side, which will be shaded longer."
The shad spawn can also be an important factor on Oconee, Batson pointed out. Oconee has very limited amounts of natural rock around its banks, so the shad spawn primarily around riprap, which there is a lot of.
Because of the shad spawn, Batson throws minnow-imitating topwater lures around riprap during May.
"Work the baits early in the day along the riprap for some explosive action," he said.
A final distinctive thing about Lake Oconee, one that can affect the fishing any time of the year, is that it is part of a pump-back power generation system. Water is released through the turbines at Oconee's Wallace Dam during peak hours of electric power needs. Then, during low demand periods, water is pumped back upstream from Lake Sinclair into Oconee to be run through the turbines again.
From a fisherman's perspective, the effect is a tidal-water-type fishery. The whole lake regularly fluctuates a couple of feet, based on dam operations, and currents can flow in either direction in the lake. That affects how fis
h position themselves to cover and structure because they like to face upcurrent and hold behind things that provide ambush points.
BEFORE YOU GO For information on guided fishing trips on Oconee or Jackson with Aaron Batson or Jerry Whitlock, or to order a copy of Catching Largemouth Bass on Lake Oconee . . . All Year Round, visit www.fishoconee.com on the Internet.
The Web site also provides more information about Lake Oconee and includes a weekly fishing report, provided by Batson and Whitlock.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Georgia Sportsman