Bear Creek Is Open At Last!

Stocked with famed F1 bass and then locked up, Bear Creek is now open.

Nick Carter | April 27, 2010

Despite Bear Creek’s reputation as a small-fish lake, Randall Kirkpatrick, of Douglasville, catches big fish by swinging for the fence and forgoing the patterns that catch numbers.

When Jackson County’s Bear Creek Reservoir was built in 2001 and stocked with F1 bass and plenty of forage, the intent was to open and manage the 505-acre lake as a trophy-bass fishery. Nearly a decade later in September 2009, the lake’s new boat ramp finally opened for business, and aggressive bass are open for business as well.

Randall Kirkpatrick, of Douglasville, a full-time guide on Georgia’s electric-motor-only lakes, was excited about the prospect of a new small-lake opportunity. Though anglers are still trying to figure Bear Creek out, and it doesn’t have the reputation of the famed small lakes for big fish like Varner or Horton, Bear Creek features very high catch rates, and those big girls are in there. You just have to know how to target them.

“Everybody knows you can come out here and catch numbers of fish, and they’re aggressive,” said Randall. “But some people know; I’ve already seen a 12 and a 13 out of here.”

DNR Fisheries Biologist Nick Jamison backed up Randall’s statement about the numbers. He said the Oconee River Basin Water Authority kills off algae with chemical treatments to serve the reservoir’s first purpose as a water supply. This equates to low productivity and lots of small bass.

“The fish are slow growing, generally speaking,” Nick said. “From our sampling, we see fish stockpiling down there in the 12- to 14-inch range.”

In their most-recent shocking efforts, only 4 percent of the bass fell into the 16- to 22-inch slot limit, which means to grow some bigger fish, anglers need to keep their 10-fish limit on the lower end of the slot.

“In sampling, we’re seeing a lot of 10- to 12-inch fish with hook marks in them,” said Nick, “which is kind of frustrating in a lake that needs so much harvest. But some people will never learn to keep a largemouth bass.”

Randall points out a bed. In Bear Creek’s clear water, it’s possible to see straight to the bottom and spot beds, even 7 or 8 feet deep. DNR Fisheries Biologist Nick Jamison said the lake is so clear that it has more in common with a mountain lake like Nottely than it does with other Piedmont lakes.

Also, Nick said the stocking of F1s, a fast-growing and aggressive crossbreed between northern- and Florida-strain bass, didn’t take very well. Only 20 percent of sampled fish consisted of F1s.

Between the low productivity and the lack of harvest caused by almost a decade of extremely limited fishing, Bear Creek seems to be a management failure in its design as a trophy fishery. But it’s a great place to go if you just want to catch a bunch of fish.

Hold on a minute… back up. What was Randall talking about when he said there are some people who “know?”

As was evident in a day on the water with Randall, the toads are in there. You just have to know how to catch them. You most likely won’t luck into a fish weighing more than a couple of pounds fishing regular postspawn patterns this month. At Bear Creek, you’ll have to go big-fish hunting.

Both Randall and Nick said Bear Creek’s big fish in the 10- to 13-lb. range are most likely holdovers from farm ponds that were flooded during the lake’s construction. To give the F1s a clean slate to start from, an attempt was made to poison the resident bass when the lake was flooded, but apparently it didn’t work. The population consists mostly of native northern-strain largemouths. The silver lining is those holdovers are the big fish in the lake right now.

On the day we fished in April, Randall and I started out running points early, fishing for prespawn fish with big, hard-plastic jerkbaits and green-pumpkin finesse worms on shaky heads. We caught a handful of fish on the lower end of the slot limit quickly. They all appeared to be fat and healthy.

This month, there should also be some fast action going on, only most of the fish will be in a postspawn pattern. It’ll be time to break out the topwater baits for some fun and explosive fishing. The buck bass guarding fry should massacre a Pop-R or a topwater frog shallow in the pockets and on the spawning flats. Also, look to the flat points or in the channels just off the spawning areas, and you should be able to catch all the fish you want. A Senko, fluke or spinnerbait should get hit.

However, it became very evident very quickly that Randall was not interested in catching a bunch of small fish. I should have known from the moment I stepped onto his jonboat. Other than two rods rigged with a jerkbait and a shaky head — which I’m guessing were only for a quick demonstration — Randall’s rods were heavy casting tackle all weighted down with big swimbaits, jigs and 30-lb. test line.

Lure selection is simple for Randall this time of year. When he’s big-fish hunting, he’ll either fish a white swim jig for bedded fish or a swimbait around bluegill beds.

“There should be a real good topwater bite going on,” he said. “But during the first couple of weeks of May, there should still be some spawners on the beds. And also, where you’ve got good bluegill beds, that’s where the swimbait bite will come in.”

Once Randall spotted the first bedded female, fishing for small fish was over. He saw her shallow on the bed in a flat pocket just off the main lake. With another boat of anglers watching, he went to work. As he dragged a 1/4-oz. white swim jig with a fluke trailer and some silver flake into and through the bed over and over, he explained himself.

“The guy I used to fish with and I decided we’d do nothing but fish for big fish. And so we spent three or four months just trying to figure out what it would take,” he said. “When they’re on the beds, you’re looking for fish with a dark, almost black back. Once they drop their eggs, they get that real dark back, and that’s when they get real aggressive. If she’s got that light-green color, like a lima bean, don’t even fool with her. She’s not ready.”

Randall buzzes the banks in likely spawning areas with his trolling motor almost at full tilt. Wearing good polarized glasses, he’ll look for the fish. Once he spots a big female, he’ll either note the location of the bed mentally or throw out a marker buoy. If they spook, it doesn’t bother him. A fish that’s ready to be caught will return.

This month, with the water temperatures warming into the mid 70s, the spawning fish will be bedded deeper out to the 7- or 8-foot range. But in Bear Creek’s clear water, you’ll still be able to see them when there’s not a lot of wind and the surface is slick.

“The secret is to have that bait moving toward her. If it’s moving away from her, it’s rewarding her for what she’s already doing,” he said as he again swam the jig to the lip of the bed and killed it. He gave it a couple of hops and reeled it in. “People will tell you there’s a sweet spot. But I think it’s more about keeping it moving toward the bed so she feels it’s threatened.”

On the next cast, Randall’s line went taut and began swimming sideways. Caught up in the moment and thinking he wasn’t paying attention, I almost hollered for him to set the hook.

“I don’t care what anybody tells you. Do not catch the male,” he said. “That’s what’s holding her on there. Do not put him in the livewell. Let him spit it out, and she’ll sometimes take it.”

Sure enough, Randall’s line went slack when the male dropped the jig, and a second or two later she had it. He set the hook and winched her to the net with his heavy line. She was a fat, 6- or 7-pounder, and the watching anglers applauded.

“What do we owe ya’ for the show?” one of them hollered.

Randall likes his white jig for bedded fish, but if he comes upon a tough one or it’s too windy to sight fish the deep beds, he’ll break out a 5-inch Mattlures Hard Bluegill swimbait. At more than $50 per lure, they’re pricey, but Randall said it’s the closest thing he’s ever found to the “magic bait” for bedded bass. It’s also tough to lose one when you’re fishing 30-lb. test. He’ll either inch it up and let it settle nose down into beds he can see, or if he can’t see the beds, he’ll swim it through areas he thinks might hold bedding fish.

But the first couple of weeks of May will be the tail-end of the bass spawn on Bear Creek, and Randall has another plan for postspawn. He’ll still be sight-fishing, only he’ll resort to looking for spawning bluegills.

“When I’m tournament fishing this time of year, I’ll spend a practice day looking for the bluegill beds. Then I’ll spend the next day casting out in front of them,” Randall said. “Get yourself a milk run of bluegill beds. Once you catch a fish and disturb the area, go to another one. You can come back later, and it’ll reset.”

With it’s realism, the Mattlure Hard Bluegill is Randall’s favorite option for fishing bluegill beds, but you can go with a less-expensive, soft-plastic swimbait, also. Mattlures makes a cheaper soft-plastic bluegill, as do Storm and other companies. You can also catch fish around bluegill beds on bagged soft-plastic swimbaits, flukes, Chatterbaits or spinnerbaits.

“Most of the fish on this bite will be 4 or 5 pounds or bigger,” Randall said. “They’re going to be on that first little drop out, and those bluegills will just stay there, so they’re easy pickings for those bass.

“The normal thing that’ll set them off is to swim it in there real slow, then kick it just like it’s trying to get away. The secret is to make it look just like a real bluegill trying to dart away.”

Randall lands a standard-size Bear Creek largemouth.

Randall said to get your boat right up on the bank and parallel the front edge of the bed with your bait. Use the bank or any structure to make the bass think it’ll be able to trap the bait for an easy meal.

“If they don’t think they can trap it, a lot of times they’ll just leave it alone,” Randall said.

Of course, putting yourself where the big fish are is absolutely necessary to a big-fish bite, especially at a place like Bear Creek, where there are not a lot of them. To find the best big-fish areas for fishing bass or bluegill beds, look for the sharpest, deepest drops on the lake. On small lakes like Bear Creek, there’s not a whole lot of water to cover, so finding the big drop-offs shouldn’t be too difficult with a decent depthfinder or a topo map.

“The best big-fish structure comes on those big drops,” Randall said, “anywhere they can suspend out deep and run in for an easy meal.”

Also, don’t forget about those flooded farm ponds. There are a few at Bear Creek, and the old holdovers fat from the introduction of fresh forage will no doubt be hanging around their old haunts.

To book a guided trip with Randall, call (770) 362-0942. Be sure to ask him about his hand-made swimbait, the High Power Herring. For more information on Bear Creek, go to <> or call (706) 983-1701.

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