Hugh M. Gillis PFA, Great Way To Beat Summer Crowds

This 106-acre lake is one of the author’s favorite lakes.

Daryl Gay | June 29, 2022

WRD Fisheries Region Supervisor Bert Deener with a Hugh M. Gillis PFA bass.

In case you haven’t noticed, the weather is as hot as it wants to be along about now. Welcome to July in Georgia. The heat puts a strain on almost everything—including fishing and fishermen. So when I headed out to slip around Hugh M. Gillis PFA for the first time this year a couple of weeks ago, it was obvious that an ace in the hole was required.

His name is Bert Deener, WRD Fisheries Regional Supervisor out of the Waycross office. And he knows this place.

The heart of Gillis PFA is a 109-acre lake, surrounded by 640 acres of pines and wiregrass that also offer deer and turkey hunting. But what draws the most interest are all those bass, crappie, bluegill, shellcracker and channel catfish. The place is easily accessible, just off Highway 80 east of Dublin some 15 miles: 580 Keens Crossing Road, Adrian, Ga., 31002. All the facilities are top-notch and include a double boat ramp, canoe access, fishing docks and berms, picnic sites and shelters, plus primitive campsites and a fishing cleaning station. Key to July fishing is the fact that the PFA is open 24 hours a day—as long as you’re fishing or camping. Check the DNR regs. 

Being on site enables one to get an early start—or late. As in after dark, when things cool down and fish become more active. And it’s crucial to know where to look for the particular fish you’re after. We’ll get to them all.

Perusing the info board next to the boat ramp, the first thing that caught my eye was a photo of an 11-lb. largemouth caught here 13 years ago! Can’t say I’m a purist, but I’ve never met a largemouth I didn’t like—especially one in double digits.

“There should be some really big bass in that lake,” Deener commented. “That record there was a fairly young fish, caught back when the lake was only five or six years old. I would be shocked if there’s not one in the teens in there. But we don’t get reports of them; Gillis has a lot of folks targeting other species.”

Here are the stats on what a “lot of folks” means: the last time a tally of total trips was made here, the number was 7,062, an average of 19 per day.

“But that’s the whole year,” Deener said. “You’re going to have more in the spring. If you have two people in your boat, that’s two trips, so you could half that. All of our areas went up in attendance during 2020 and COVID, but it’s gone back down since then.”

Point is, fishing pressure here is very light. I visited the lake four times during two weeks—and saw a total of three boats. On two days, there was neither a boat on the lake nor a vehicle in the parking lot. Son Dylan and I launched at daybreak one morning with no one else around and fished until nearly noon (and 95 degrees) seeing two other boats. Two guys in one, and an elderly couple in the other were all anchored and fishing for bream. Mid-morning, a lone fisherman walked out a berm to the left of the ramp, casting for bass. Saw him catch and release one before leaving after an hour or so. (That’s seven trips on the morning.) Everyone was gone by the time we loaded out.

Between the ramp and that berm is a large T-dock that also provides lake access for those without a boat. But they are mostly bream fishermen, and as Deener says, “If you beat the banks, you’re really not going to do well for bream this time of year. There are some big ones in there, and they’ll come in close to the bank when they’re bedding. But that’s mostly past by now.”

When you’re looking at the lake, especially at first glance, you may think it’s a cereal bowl. And there are indeed shallow flats all over it, especially when you enter any of the fingers off the main lake. From the ramp, look left first, then opposite end up toward the dam and turning to the left (or east) again. These two shallow up and flatten out quickly. But it’s what you DON’T see that’s important, and here’s where depthfinders pay for themselves. 

Gillis PFA is absolutely loaded with structure, including a creek channel, flooded timber, points, humps, an old construction road—the list goes on and on. Each in their turn will hold fish, especially the deeper water at this time of year. To top it all off, there are also artificial fish attractors in place.

Even if there’s not a fish finder handy, you can still target these areas by checking out DNR’s online profile of the lake. There are excellent photos and maps of the layout. Just remember that, especially in the July heat, you gotta get off that bank. Where to from there? Ask Bert.

“This is the time of year to key around schools of shad,” Deener says. “Stay with them during the summer; bass will be following them, and otherwise those bass will be suspended in cooler water in this heat.

“There’s a lot of standing timber there underwater, and a lot of times that’s where fish will be, suspended and hard to target. It’s a good numbers lake, and one way to find them is to beat every piece of structure you find. There are many, many little points and ditches, and the big borrow ditch down by the dam on the right. Work those points with a small finesse worm; pound the cover and structure with plastics, then follow the shad when you can with crankbaits, Rat-L-Traps or topwater plugs early in the morning.”

You can expect to find lots of fish-holding structure at Gillis PFA. These trees are obvious, but much of it is under the water.

Bass always have been and always will be cover-oriented fish. They’re going to be “next to” something. And there’s an awful lot of something here that you just can’t see.

“You gotta look for the structure, that’s all there is to it. There’s a really steep drop along the edge near the borrow ditch, and while there aren’t hefty drops right next to the bank, there are 5- to 7-foot areas a little farther out. It’s just a case of getting there early and finding those shad schools. The very upper end will hold fish only if the shad are breaking up there. All the way down at the other end on the left is an old railroad bed. There’s a 6-foot culvert there that comes in underneath it, and if you get a lot of rain around Gillis, there will be a good  flow of water coming in. That flow is a magnet for bass, but that’s about the only time it’s good to fish during the summer.”

We’re throwing a lot of information at you, but simplify it by thinking structure, then using the technique of your choice. If you must fish shallow, do it early with anything that resembles a shad. Think spinnerbait, or shallow-running Rapala. And as the sun catches you, ease out onto those drop-offs—again with a shad-imitating Rapala or other brand of crankbait. The hotter the deeper, so next go to soft plastics and slow down until finding the depth at which fish are suspending.

Or, if time and schedule permit, take a different tack…

Across the lake from the boat ramp is a shallow, sandy ridge running along the east side. It is covered with stumps and blowdowns. And then there are all those flats—which intrigued me right from the get-go. Areas include both ends of the lake, and especially—for me, at least—the finger that loops back to the east just before reaching the dam. My mind’s eye keeps conjuring up images of a 15-lb. largemouth slamming into a hapless black Jitterbug in the dead of night back there. It’s simple fishing: whirl it somewhere out there and reel it rhythmically back until the wobbling blurp is interrupted by the wham of a hungry bass.

July is prime time for night fishing, and before this month is over, I’m going to hit those flats. Tell you about it later.

They shallow up quickly and are also magical spots if you’re targeting spawning bluegill or shellcracker. But that time of year is past. There are some very nice specimens of both here, but they’ve now also dropped away from the heat of the shallows. Think 5 to 8 feet of water, looking for drop-offs, ledges and submerged timber or stumps. If you simply must be that bank-busting bream fisherman, you’re wasting your time in this heat. However, when it’s right, crickets and worms keep it simple, and “the lighter the tackle the more you’ll catch” is a technique proven over many a fish fry.

Along with the bass, crappie is another Deener favorite. He’s fished for them here for years.

“Right now, crappie are suspended in those trees,” he says. “I love long-line trolling, and this is a really good crappie lake for trolling when it’s cooler, but not now. Graph ’em to find ’em, then vertical fish with minnows. The thermocline will set up at about 10 feet this time of year, so look at 8 to 10 feet of water as a starting point.”

As you know, class, the thermocline is simply the layer between warmer surface water and cooler deep water below. Think sudden temperature change. Fish love it, and hang out there a heap.

There are some big crappie here. I’ve also done well with jigs and slow-rolling an 1/8-oz. Rooster Tail, any color as long as it’s white.

Deener relates that, “There’s not a tremendous population of catfish, but it’s reliable. Again, get offshore; you’re not going to catch them by beating the bank. One good spot to start is the creek channel, which runs the length of the lake. You can easily reach it by casting from the long T-dock or the berm to the left of the boat ramp, so even if you don’t have a boat that’s an option. Just lob out cutbait or worms on the bottom, and it will produce fish in any of the deeper areas of the lake.”

Keep in mind that this is a Public Fishing Area, with rules to go by for all. The rules for Gillis PFA are posted, but fish limits include 15 bream, five bass, five catfish and 30 crappie per angler per day. Bass between 16 and 24 inches can not be kept, and must be returned to the lake immediately. And don’t forget your license, even if it’s the one-day variety, available at any dealer or online.

Hugh M. Gillis PFA is truly a pristine spot, one of my favorites on the public fishing circuit. And, throughout the summer at least, a great place to beat the crowds.

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