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Lanier’s Magnum Spotted Bass on the Drops

December tactics for one of the nation's premier spotted bass lakes.

Don Baldwin | December 1, 2008

Lee Hartley of Buford loves winter bass fishing, especially on Lake Lanier north of Atlanta. The crowds are gone, the lake is peaceful and the spots are predictable and plentiful.

“I think the winter is the best season to catch big bass on Lanier,” said Lee. “Especially now, the lake is so far down the fish are relatively concentrated and the amount of available structure is reduced, so locating fish is easier than when the lake is at full pool.”

Lee has been fishing Lanier regularly for more than 30 years and is well acquainted with the bass habitat and habits on this deep, clear lake.

Lee is also a tournament fisherman on the BASS Southern and Central tours, as well as the HD Marine team trail. As co-owner of Boating Atlanta in Buford, he also hosts an annual tournament series and fishes many charity events, especially in support of kids.

I fished with Lee in mid November and asked him to show GON readers how to approach the lake in December and January.

“In December the water temperature should have cooled to the mid to upper 50s,” said Lee. “At that level, the fish will still be fairly active but moving back out of the creeks toward the main lake where most of them will spend the winter.”

With this in mind, Lee targets the mouths of creeks and coves in December. He usually begins at the primary and secondary points on the entrance to a creek and also works the first or second boat dock on the way in.

“Bass look for vertical structure in the winter,” said Lee. “A creek ledge or steep drop on a point will give the fish a lot of freedom to move up and down without expending a lot of energy.”

Bass tend to change depths with weather changes. A few days of cold weather will usually send them deeper and tighter to the structure, while a few bright warm days will generally bring them closer to the surface. A sharp drop in bottom structure makes that an easy thing for the fish to do.

We fished Big Creek when we fished together.

“This creek has just about every kind of structure you need for winter fishing in a relatively small area,” said Lee. “There are roadbeds with steep drops on the sides, creek-channel ledges and plenty of boat docks that hold fish.”

Lee said a bass angler could spend a whole day moving from location to location within the mouth of the creek, have a lot of success and burn very little fuel.

While points and ledges are some of Lee’s favorite areas to fish, his first choices are usually boat docks and marinas. Lee doesn’t focus on just any dock, however, he looks for very specific conditions whether he is fishing isolated docks or slips in large marinas.

“In December I like to fish in 20 to 40 feet of water,” said Lee. “If the dock is much more shallow than that, I’ll find a deeper one.”

Lee thoroughly works both sides of a dock as well as the ends and the center if there isn’t a boat in it. He looks for docks with stabilizing poles driven into the lake floor. These poles secure floating pontoons. He said metal poles absorb heat and transfer it to the water surrounding the pole. Just a few degrees of temperature change can cause fish to stay close to the pole. Lee makes several casts to stabilizing poles before working the rest of the dock.

He prefers docks that have black plastic covering on the pontoons rather than the bare styrofoam. Again, the black plastic tends to absorb heat and slightly elevates the temperature of the surrounding water. The same goes for docks with metal roofs; Lee will pick those every time over an uncovered dock.

Working docks is an art. In the winter, Lee fishes docks almost exclusively with jigs and shaky-head worms.

“I keep things simple,” said Lee. “The jig is a great big-fish bait, and the shaky head will catch bass when they won’t bite anything else.”

He added that the shaky head will generally produce smaller fish, but he has taken some real chunks on it.

Natural colors are key for both baits. For jigs, Lee likes root beer, green pumpkin or brown most of the time. When working a shaky head, he threads on a Zoom Trick Worm in green pumpkin or scuppernong.

Regardless of which soft plastic he is fishing, he always colors 1/4 to 1 inch of the bait’s tail with chartreuse dye from J.J.’s Magic. He said the flash of color gives a little more attraction, and the scent makes the bass hold on to the bait longer.

Lee’s jig of choice is a 1/4- to 3/8-oz. Tru-Tungsten model. He adds a twin-tail trailer, in a matching color, to the jig to give the bait bulk and to control the fall. He likes the bait to fall slowly, which is why he likes the lighter jigs. The jig is fished on a casting outfit spooled with 10- to 12-lb. test fluorocarbon line.

The 1/4-oz. shaky head is fished on an open-faced spinning reel spooled with 6- to 8-lb. line. Lee chooses the Trick Worm over the more-popular finesse worm because he believes bass see plenty of finesse worms, and the Trick Worm offers something a little different.

Thread the worm on the head, making sure the worm is straight. Any crooks or bunching of the worm on the head will change the action and make the worm look less natural. If the fish aren’t hitting, he’ll sometimes bite off about an inch of the worm’s head.

When fishing docks and slips, presentation is extremely important. It takes practice to skip a jig or worm 20 feet between a boat and the pontoons without hitting anything. There are cables, ropes, boat fenders, cross braces and lots of other paraphernalia around the docks, and placing a bait in the strike zone can be quite a challenge. But, if you get the knack of this technique, it can really pay off.

It didn’t take long for Lee to wrestle a fat 4-pounder through a narrow piece of dock and back to the boat on our trip. At first I had a little trouble getting my bait where it needed to be but soon got better and landed a few nice fish of my own.

The key to the skip is to get the rod tip close to the water and swing the bait just over the surface with force. When done properly, the bait will skip 20 or more feet, placing it well under the dock.

The other trick is putting the worm into some pretty tight places. If your aim is a little off the mark, the bait will skip into the boat in the slip. The noise created when the lead head hits metal will shut down the fish, according to Lee. If he hits metal on a skip, he reels up and moves to the next dock.

“I think the clank caused when a bait hits a pontoon is a dead giveaway,” said Lee. “I have never caught a bass after making that noise, so now I just move on and come back later.”

Moving into a marina, Lee kept his eye on the electronics. He was looking for troughs or ditches at the proper depth to select the best slips to fish.

“These marinas are huge, and not all slips will produce,” said Lee. “Even though we are fishing under surface cover, I still look for changes in bottom structure in water between 20 and 40 feet to concentrate the fish.”

While looking for these changes in contour, Lee said he may fish only one or two slips along a marina dock containing a dozen or more.

Lee fishes the shaky head by shaking it in one place on the bottom before moving it forward with a pull of the rod tip, letting it settle down, and then beginning the shaking process again. Bites are often subtle, and you may just feel something “a little different” as you move the line.

“Hooksets are free,” advises Lee.

He recommends you set quickly if you feel anything at all.

Lee fishes the jig with a lift-and-drop method and every so often pops the jig off the bottom. He said the sudden abrupt movement of the jig will often trigger a strike.

After landing some excellent fish around docks, we moved out and fished some other vertical structure in the area. We picked up fish on a roadbed and a secondary point. While these fish were in water slightly less than 20 feet deep, we were on the lake in mid November, and the water temperature was still in the low 60s.

Lee also likes to target standing timber. He said with the lake as far down as it is, some of the standing timber that was much too deep to hold bass at full pool is now right in the zone. Fish timber stands that top out at the 20- to 40-foot level. Work the edges of these stands on the bank side with the jig or shaky head. Hold on to the rod; there are often really big fish hanging out around the edges of timber stands.

Lee said the timber is just a different type of vertical structure allowing the fish protection and easy vertical movement with changing weather conditions.

Other good locations to check are the center of pockets near the mouths of creeks, said Lee. This will usually be the deepest water in the area without getting into the main-lake basin, and there will sometimes be a creek channel running through the middle. When fishing pockets like this, Lee watches his electronics for bait suspended in the pocket.

He says bass will almost always be present if there are balls of bait in the area. Vertical presentation over the bait balls will generally produce strikes — lots of them. The shaky head is a good choice, as is a jigging spoon. Dropping either lure down into the bait and working it in a jigging or shaking motion is a good way to get your string stretched.

Another productive method when fishing over bait is to cast the jigging spoon well out from the boat and swim it back through the bait. Lee uses this method often as it widens the strike zone and can help find actively feeding fish that are not positioned directly under the boat.

For his winter outings, Lee primarily fishes the upper section of the lake from about Flowery Branch to just below Gainesville Marina. Since the lake is more narrow in this area, he believes it offers more of the type of structure he likes this time of year.

Regardless of what section of the lake you fish, he recommends you find a small area that has several good choices of vertical structure, and stick with it. There are plenty of fish to be had in small sections that have the right bottom conditions at the proper depth. The fish tend to run in bunches this time of year, and if you catch one you will likely catch others of similar size.

Follow Lee’s advice, and get out on Lanier this month. There are some monster spots in the lake, and this is one of the best times of year to boat your trophy.

Go by and see Lee at Boating Atlanta on Buford Highway. He is always glad to talk with anglers and give them the latest scoop, but you’d better call first. This time of year he is very likely to be on the water looking for a trophy spot or two of his own. Lee can be reached at (770) 945-0316.

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