Lake Oconee Wintertime Spoon Fishing For Linesides
Capt. Doug Nelms says this is the time of the year when hybrids and striped bass can be caught vertically jigging spoons.
From the time I was old enough to crawl into a plywood boat on the Ocmulgee River, there’s one thing I was taught NOT to do: make noise.
So why is this striper guide constantly rapping on the floor of his Ranger with the rubber-tipped butt end of a sawed-off walking cane?
Because he’s learned that this little trick draws predators with fins in to take a look-see at just what’s going on; there may even be a free, easy meal in it for them. Bumping and thumping tidbits like these—which 99% of the fishermen I’ve known would never do—are what set apart the best of the best when it comes to guides.
While we’re slinging a hammer, pushing a shovel or manning a desk, they’re out there on the lake gleaning fish info like a masters’ class. Every day. On lakes spanning tens of thousands of acres. Searching out a particular species of fish during a specific time of year. And finally, educating what many times are novice fishermen on how to get that fish to the boat.
Meet Capt. Doug Nelms. His BigFishHeads Guide Service can be reached at 770.354.0300 and put you on whatever it is you’re seeking to fight with on Lake Oconee, but striped bass are at the top of his list. In fact, Doug is a regular GON Fishing Reports contributor and has helped put countless GON readers on fish over the years.
I’ve fished with Doug before and enjoyed every minute of it. Even the day when we fished for crappie after what seemed like a month of rain turned the lake into chocolate milk.
Caught ’em, too.
If you’re thinking of booking a guided trip, know that your host’s personality—or lack thereof—will go a long way toward making for a pleasant day. But you’re not forking over hard-earned cash for a half-day or all-day comedy routine; let’s go catch some fish.
It’s brisk—low 40s at 8:30 a.m.—as we whisk out of the Armor Bridge ramp (off Brown’s Ford Road in Greensboro.) It’s the second week of December, and my goal is to set you up for the striper bite starting in January and going forward. I had it all planned out in my head: we’d be dropping live bait and waiting for them to do their thing.
Nope. Doug envisions a more productive scenario…
“I’ve found over the years here that I can catch as many or more stripers jigging spoons than using live bait,” he says. “Once you’ve found the fish, it’s quicker to simply drop the spoon to them. I’m going to allow it to fall to the bottom, then jig it up and down, never letting it rest. It needs to resemble a crippled baitfish trying to escape, and a fluttering spoon does just that. The largest striper I’ve caught on Oconee, a 19-pounder, was caught doing just what we’re doing today: jigging a spoon in January. Occasionally when we’re right on top of them, we’ll reel through the school, but mostly we’ll be jigging. ”
We’ll come back to the spoon, but first we need to find the fish.
“In January, I’ll fish the mouth of Rocky Creek, the Great Waters boat house flat and the mouth of Sandy Creek across from the Ritz Carlton. There’s also what we call the East Bank hump, in sight of the dam, and also the humps where the two rock islands are. The main thing is you really don’t want to go any farther north than Great Waters, then south to the dam.”
The two rock islands are, well, rock islands; you’ll know them when you see them, but they are at the confluence of Richland Creek and the Oconee River. Great Waters is a no-brainer: look for the golf course. We never ran more than 20 minutes from Armor Bridge, so you’re in a fairly concentrated area.
If you want it further narrowed down… find the birds.
“You’ll really be looking for the seagulls hard,” Doug said. “They typically begin coming in around December or the first of the year in numbers, and they’ll pinpoint the baitfish schools and the stripers hunting that bait. In January, we will be chasing birds a little more. They’ll be showing up more and more, looking for the same baitfish that the stripers are looking for.”
The birds are half of the initial equation, on top of the water; the other half is equally important: humps and flats underneath.
And this is where good electronics come in. They’re an absolute must for a guide.
The big console-mounted Humminbird depthfinder is easily readable as we roll down the lake at 45 mph. It is constantly rolling up water depths and all manner of structure underneath. The bottom varies from mid 60s to over 80 feet, contours and shapes popping up everywhere. The base background screen color is a solid medium blue with red lines trailing in all directions. These are routes Doug’s boat has taken in past trips, immediately visible and clearly marked. (They can be added or deleted at will.) I also begin noticing areas of shading in lighter blue, then to almost silver.
The boat slows.
Then, from 85 feet, a large hump appears, rising up to 35 feet below the boat. Bingo! You can see the school of fish, too.
“The LakeMaster chart system from Humminbird is the best system out there right now,” Doug said. “With it, I can adjust the depth to different color shades onscreen, so that I don’t have to look at numbers. If I’m zipping down the lake and see the lighter shades coming up, I can just stop right there and fish without having to get out my glasses and get down on the numbers. There are several shades you can adjust to so that you can personalize it however you want. I’ve found humps that I didn’t even know existed on this lake, and they all have the potential to hold fish that I may have gone right on past without the LakeMaster.”
There are fish on top of the hump, and fish below, at the 85-foot depth. We’re not concerned with the second group.
“You very seldom get a fish to bite at that depth,” Doug says. “Birds and humps are what you want. I’m checking out 30 to 40 feet of water over 80 to 90 feet depths. That’s where the depthfinder comes into its own.”
So there they are; let’s catch ‘em.
Spoon fishing is about as complicated as falling out of bed. We’re using baitcasters, simply free-spooling and allowing the lure to go to the bottom, then either wrist-flipping or forearm-raising it slowly upward before allowing it to fall. Don’t let it stop and sit, and don’t lose contact with the feel; fish may strike on the way up or down. That fish may be a striper, hybrid, white bass, largemouth, crappie, catfish or any other freeloader in the immediate vicinity.
The spoons are 7/8-oz. Hopkins or War Eagle. There are differences.
“Most fishermen are familiar with the Hopkins spoon, but they are pretty expensive, and I don’t like the hooks at all. They also don’t have a split ring to stop line twist, so there are two modifications you have to make right out of the box,” Doug said. “The War Eagle jigging spoon is the best spoon with the best hooks and a ring already in place. Nor are they as expensive. Sugar Creek Marina carries all the War Eagles, and they’re always in stock. I prefer silver or white on sunny days, gold or other colors on cloudy days. I’ll stay on spoons until the end of March. The fish will pick their favorite colors.”
With the trolling motor down and slowly circling the school, Doug fishes one side of the boat with me on the other. His white spoon catches several stripers while my silver one doesn’t attract a bite. As soon as I switch, that changes. This lake is packed with fish, and my plan is to relieve it of quite a few. Over the next couple of hours, that is well taken care of with stripers, hybrids and some impressive crappie.
With the same spoon.
“DNR carries on a shocking program and also is in constant contact with the guides who are out here every day, so they’re very well versed on populations,” Doug said. “They’ve hit it just right now. They’re putting hundreds of thousands of stripers in here every year, so there’s never a bad day as far as fishing goes. We’re dropping these spoons down to 35 or 40 feet, but stripers will also blow up baitfish on top at times. When that happens, I’ll throw a 3-inch pearl color Sassy Shad—solid pearl, not the one with the black back—or a 5-inch pearl fluke, with a 1/4- to 3/8-oz. weight. Just throw it out there into that school and hang on.”
I mentioned guide personality earlier, and you won’t find a better guy than Doug Nelms. Before we left, we eased over an old grist mill—the Humminbird transmitted live photos of it—as well as a stone house that was flooded when Oconee was formed. You can still see arches where windows were in place long ago.
Over the course of the morning, the sun never showed itself and temps struggled to reach 50. But my cooler requirements were well-filled before noon, so we did a little sightseeing as Doug educated me on Oconee, its inhabitants and surroundings. So I was off the boat, mission accomplished, in less than the four hours a half-day charter usually comprises.
Not so for a group two days later. Learn a little more about this guide…
“I had a group of four guys out on the (Dec.) ninth for a half-day trip, and by noon we had eight fish in the boat,” Doug said. “The guys had put up a good bit of money, and I wasn’t nearly satisfied with the morning showing. So when the half-day was up, I asked them did they have anything to do and they said ‘No.’ I told them we were starting all over at that point. We ran back out and caught 44 stripers on that same hump you and I fished a couple of days before, same spoons, same method. Looks like it changed to an afternoon bite all of a sudden, but that’s fishing. I can’t always do that, but it happened that all of us had an open afternoon, and I couldn’t rest with that morning effort. I’ll tell you, though, that the first part of the morning we caught seven largemouths and I guarantee you the five biggest would have got us a check in any bass tournament.”
January through March is prime time for spoon fishing stripers on Lake Oconee. Doug Nelms and his fellow guides at BigFishHeads can get you hooked up. Check them out at https://bigfishheads.com.https://bigfishheads.com
Other Articles You Might Enjoy