Bluegills and other panfish are readily available throughout the Peach State, but they are often ignored in our larger impoundments. Here's how to use that oversight to your advantage!
By Ronell Smith
In Georgia, the month of May is typically the signal that the shad spawn is in full bloom on most reservoirs, a period when largemouths, hybrids, spotted bass, stripers and white bass can be caught just about at will as they roam riprap and seawalls in search of an easy meal. But unbeknownst to many anglers, some of the best reservoir fishing during this time of the year isn't for bass at all. It's for panfish, including bluegills and shellcrackers.
Late April and early May are usually the periods when these fish storm the shallows, fan out beds and set up residence. Better yet, these species remain shallow for about two months as new spawning fish move in and others move off.
Reservoirs as a whole have a much-deserved reputation for not producing good populations of bream. That fact is largely owed to most large bodies of water having too many predator species to allow the fish to attain sufficient size or numbers, according to senior fisheries biologist Alfred Mauldin.
He said bream typically grow best where their only predators are largemouth bass. Where this is the case, it helps control the overall numbers of the smaller fish and thus aids in producing a healthy population of bream. This occurrence is more typical in small lakes and ponds where bream don't have to avoid predators such as hybrid bass, stripers and white bass or compete with prey species like threadfin shad and blueback herring.
"Reservoirs where bream do well are a rarity," Mauldin pointed out.
All our big lakes hold panfish, but Clarks Hill, Jackson and Blue Ridge are three of the best for catching some big ones. Photo by Ronell Smith
However, there are exceptions to the rule. For example, lakes Clarks Hill and Oconee may offer some of the best largemouth fishing in the state, but their respective bluegill and shellcracker populations are quite substantial. In fact, on Clarks Hill shellcrackers of more than 2 pounds are not at all uncommon, and fish weighing more than 1 pound are indeed quite common.
What's more, on reservoirs such as these the fish are largely ignored, with many anglers unknowingly passing over their beds as they chase largemouths and other species. But it does appear that more fishermen are learning their lesson.
Lincolnton resident Dale Turner has fished for shellcrackers for 30 years on Clarks Hill, boating literally hundreds of fish each year. He said that when he began going after these scrappy creatures, there were few fishermen doing the same. Now he has plenty of company.
"Back in those days, people thought bream fishing was only good in your small lakes and ponds," said Turner. "Now you don't have to worry about that; they're everywhere.
"People have now learned they are just as good on the big lakes," he went on.
Maybe that was inevitable, because the fish on these large lakes are not any more difficult to catch than they are on small ponds. All it usually takes to have a good day of angling is a small boat, a few boxes of worms or a carton of crickets, and a bream pole. There's no need for fancy rods and expensive reels. These fish aren't into appearances. What they are into, however, is mild temperatures, shallow water and well-placed bait.
Typically, if the water is a sufficiently warm 65 to 70 degrees, bluegills begin spawning around the first full moon in April. During this period, they can be found in hard-bottomed areas in water about 2 to 6 feet in depth, where they can be caught with everything from night crawlers and red worms to Beetle Spins and small jigs. Their cousins, the shellcrackers, usually spawn a little later and are typically found along hard-bottomed areas with a mussel bed nearby.
These locations are plentiful on large lakes. Several reservoirs offering excellent bream fishing from late spring through summer are Clarks Hill, Oconee, Jackson and Blue Ridge. Each of these bodies of water is different - some deeper, some clearer - but each produces excellent bream.
CLARKS HILL This 70,000-acre lake, situated in northeast Georgia, offers excellent shellcracker fishing beginning in late April and continuing through summer. With the lake's abundance of large creeks and plentiful structure in the way of standing timber, brushpiles and docks, the fish thrive quite well in Clarks Hill.
Turner's strategy for targeting shellcrackers on Clarks Hill is to begin searching the coves on the northwest section of the lake for the presence of the fish in late April. He trolls around the edges, looking for their distinct saucer-shaped beds near pebble-laden, sandy banks. During periods of low water, as was the case when Georgia was ravaged by drought leading up to last year, the beds are clearly visible. In high water, he relies on the smell given off by the high number of fish in a small area. The odor is a pungent, fishy odor.
"You can't hardly find a 2-mile stretch of bank that doesn't have shellcracker," he said. "And you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out."
When the water is low, he usually anchors off the shore a little way and throws pink worms fished on a 1/32-ounce jighead or No. 6 hook back to the nest, using a spinning real loaded with 6- to 8-pound-test line.
But when heavy rains swell the lake's waters, flooding brush and standing timber, Turner goes looking for the thickest cover he can find in water anywhere from 1 to 3 feet deep. Often this cover takes the form of buttonbush, which is prevalent throughout the lake. The fish orient to these flooded plants, and when they do, he knows how to catch them.
First, he works the edge of the plants, looking for fish on the outside that are waiting for an easy meal. If he finds no takers, though, Turner moves his boat right on top of the bushes and begins to fish for the panfish vertically.
Using a pink worm with a small split shot attached just above the hook, he lowers the bait into holes near the center of the plants.
"I've fished stuff so thick that you couldn't bring the hook out without a fish's mouth being on it," he said. "If the fish's mouth is around the hook, it's easier to get it out with him on it than just the hook by itself."
As the month progresses, continue to move farther north on Clarks Hill in search of bedding panfish, as those in the cooler, northern wat
ers typically spawn later. Turner said the shellcracker fishing on the lake remains good well into June. He recommended that anglers move around the lake until they find the fish.
LAKE OCONEE From spring through early summer, 19,000-acre Lake Oconee is largemouth central, as anglers from throughout the state visit the reservoir in search of bass. But the lake - situated in Greene, Morgan, Putnam and Hancock counties - yields a more than ample supply of fat bluegills as well.
Beginning about mid-April and continuing through June, these fish can easily be taken with crickets, jigs or worms placed alongside standing timber, riprap and seawalls.
Some of the best locations for catching these fish are within a stone's throw of the Sugar Creek Marina. For example, there is an excellent spot just on the southeast side of the State Route 144 bridge at the marina. Bear left under the bridge from the marina and follow the riprap until it ends under a large tree.
Bluegills, some as big as 1/2 pound, can usually be found here by the dozens. Their favorite bait seems to be a well-placed cricket, but just about any writhing organism will attract them.
Another excellent location is a cove on the southwest shore about 200 yards down the lake. There is standing timber to the left upon entering, and the water is about 1 to 4 feet deep along the edges at full pool. The bottom here is hard clay, but there are a number of areas along the edge where sand predominates. Bluegills can usually be found along the back of the cove and all along the eastern shore. Use light line and a cricket impaled on a No. 6 hook to get a quick limit here. The fish aren't massive, but they average about 1/4 pound to 1/3 pound.
There are plenty of excellent locations for catching bluegills all over Lake Oconee. Just look at a good topographical map and find coves with shallow water. Once on the water, seek out those areas with deep-water access, as the fish need an escape route, and plenty of cover in the way of blowdowns, stumps, weeds or rock.
LAKE JACKSON Unlike Oconee and Clarks Hill, Lake Jackson is more stained and significantly smaller, at only 4,750 acres. But situated between Butts, Jasper and Newton counties, this Middle Georgia impoundment offers excellent fishing for shellcrackers. Georgia's oldest major reservoir also features a variety of cover, such as blowdowns, docks and riprap.
For bluegills, look for small coves in the northern section of the lake along the Alcovy River. This area features usually stained water, myriad blowdowns and numerous seawalls. Here, the fish can be found in water 1 to 5 feet deep along the bank, where they can be taken with crickets, small jigs or worms.
Anglers can pull into just about any cove on the north end of the lake, head for the back of the cove, and then begin looking for signs of shellcrackers. Often the fish can't be seen, but their smell almost always gives them away.
"The beds smell like an overripe watermelon," said Covington resident and fishing guide John Copeland.
Copeland likes to work Rocky Creek, a small tributary off the Alcovy River that's known for producing big largemouths but which also holds plentiful shellcrackers. To get to this spot, head north from Berry's Marina at the State Route 212 crossing and veer right in to the creek off the main lake. There are numerous blowdowns along the left upon entering, but follow the creek back a few hundred yards and go left when it forks. This area is Rocky Creek.
Fat bluegills often make their beds in the shallow water at the back of this creek, which is where Copeland targets them, using a bream pole with a live worm on a No. 8 hook.
"Sometimes it's so shallow, I have to raise my big motor to get back in there," he said. "The area is almost like a big pool, with a lot of brush and blowdowns and a good firm bottom."
Anglers looking for similar spots need only head down the lake toward the dam, where creeks such as Lewis Neck, Pope Neck, Kitchen Neck and Leverette Neck offer good fishing. Follow any of these to the back and then look for shallow water and any available cover. It's highly likely the shellcrackers are nearby.
For information regarding John Copeland's guide service, contact him at (770) 787-0762.
BLUE RIDGE LAKE In the northwest section of the state, Blue Ridge Lake is the best reservoir for hooking up with a magnum bluegill or shellcracker. The 3,290-acre impoundment, which sits in Fannin County, offers beautiful, clear water and is as serene a fishing locale as there is in the state.
It's also an excellent location in which to wet a hook for panfish in summer, according to fisheries biologist Jim Hakala.
"You can get both bluegills and shellcrackers up to about 9 or 10 inches," he noted. "That's getting really close to a pound."
As far as reservoirs go, Hakala said Blue Ridge has to rank as one of the better lakes in the state for bluegills and shellcrackers.
Despite the lake being, as Hakala describes it, low in nutrients, the biologist added that numerous large panfish are taken during May and June in the upriver sections of the lake. Most of the anglers he talks to use crickets. However, it's just as likely that worms and Beetle Spins take their fair share as well.
According to Hakala, while the lake is ideal for big bluegills and shellcrackers, it's not noted for having large numbers of the fish.
"If your idea of good panfishing is going up there and catching 10 fish that are 9 or 10 inches in length, the lake is good," he explained. "If you're looking for size, Blue Ridge Lake is one of the better quality reservoirs in this quadrant of the state."
Any one of these four lakes is worth a Saturday morning trip. You may not be able to walk the edge of the water as you would a farm pond, but these lakes offer some fishing that is being ignored, for the most part, by anglers. They also offer the ideal location for young anglers to partake of an event that produces memories that last a lifetime.
When I first came upon the bream beds on Lake Oconee, it reminded me of the first time I ever encountered the creatures, in farm ponds. As a kid, I would dig a coffee can full of worms and head for the nearest body of water. The fish in those waters were largely unmolested save for the occasional raid by a big largemouth.
But I could catch fish as often as I wanted from one spot without ever having to crank a reel or change a hook.
There must have been 45 or 50 of the bream under that Lake Oconee tree, in less than a foot of water. So eager was I to get them that most of my casts were errant and I caught more stumps and limbs than fis
h. As if that wasn't enough, several buck bass eventually ruined my fishing by spooking the bream.
Even so, it was a treat just to see the fish there and know that I had them all to myself. Quite literally, they were there for the taking.
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