May Hybrids On Lakes Oconee And Sinclair

Oconee and Sinclair are only separated by a dam, but they are worlds apart when it comes to hybrids. Here's how they stack up.

Don Baldwin | April 7, 2006

They fight better than they eat… and they eat good! The hybrid bass has become one of the favorite freshwater game fish in Georgia waters. This fish, which is a cross between white and striped bass, is an excellent fighter, pound for pound, and can also provide some good table fare.

The Georgia WRD Fisheries Section has been stocking Georgia lakes with this species for well over 15 years, and the results, for the most part, have been very good. Initially this cross-breed was the product of white bass males and striper females. But for the past 10 years or so, due to a shortage of striper females, the “reciprocal hybrid” using white bass females and striper males has been used.

Fry are produced annually at the Richmond Hill Hatchery and moved to various holding sites around the state until they become about 1-inch fingerlings and are then released into area lakes in the spring.

Two middle Georgia lakes, Oconee and Sinclair, are stocked with comparable numbers of hybrids, but the fishing differs significantly on these  neighboring reservoirs.

Lake Oconee offers some great fishing for hybrid bass. Here’s Oconee legend Tony Couch with a sample of what this middle Georgia reservoir can produce.

During the second week of April, I had the opportunity to fish Lake Oconee with hybrid enthusiast Morris Smith. Morris, 28, of Milledgeville, fishes Oconee or Sinclair whenever he can get away from his duties as a firefighter on the Milledgeville Fire Department. I met Morris and his brother Joey at the Long Shoals ramp at about 6:00 a.m. on a Monday morning.

“We’re going to take a short run down to the dam,” said Morris. “We should be able to pick up a few nice fish along the barrel line.”

Morris launches at Long Shoals rather that Lawrence Shoals, which is actually much closer to the dam, because the Lawrence Shoals ramp doesn’t open until 7:00 a.m. He said if you don’t get to the barrel line at first light, then boats are likely to be on the best spots. Morris said that the best fishing time is usually between daylight and 10:30 a.m.
We pulled up to the barrel line on the west side of the dam and anchored at a spot about 25 barrels from the shoreline.

“There is a long point coming out from the bank, and we’ve been catching good strings of fish averaging about four pounds in 17- to 25-feet of water,” said Morris.

Once the boat settled into place in the current, we dropped live shad overboard on a simple Carolina-rig and let them go to the bottom. The rig consisted of a 3/4-oz. to 1-oz. weight (depending on the amount of current), a bead and swivel, and about a 3-foot leader terminated with a No. 1 bronze or Aberdeen bait hook. Morris uses baitcasting reels like the Garcia 5500 or 6500 strung with 17-lb. Berkeley Trilene.

We baited the rig with threadfin shad that Morris had caught in Lake Sinclair earlier that morning. Morris explained that he only uses threadfin shad, rejecting the gizzard shad, and he is also particular about the size — a minimum of two inches and no more than four inches long. He prefers to catch his bait on Sinclair, since it is so much easier to catch them there than on Oconee.

“I catch my bait in Beaverdam Creek right in front of the new High Grove Harbour Marina,” said Morris. “There are so many shad there that I can usually catch enough for a day of fishing with two casts of the net. If I tried to catch bait on Oconee, I’d be spending a lot more of my time catching bait.”

Morris keeps his bait lively with a round shad tank that is well aerated. Round tanks are a must for shad, otherwise they’ll bunch up in the corners and die pretty quickly. He fills his tank with water from where he catches the bait and adds two handfuls of rock salt. He feels that no other chemicals or ice are necessary, and we didn’t have any trouble with shad dying throughout the day.

Morris hooks the shad through the back just below the dorsal fin. “That gives the shad more freedom to swim, and they seem to last longer,” said Morris. He emphasized that if you hook the shad through the dark stripe on the back the bait will stay on the hook better than if you get the hook farther down into the soft body.

“I always start out with live shad on the bottom,” says Morris. “Some days they seem to want the live bait and sometimes cut bait. If we don’t get a hit on the live shad in a little bit, we’ll pull one up and put on a piece of cut shad. Then we’ll use which ever one is bit first.”

Morris has been fishing this spot on the barrel line at the Oconee Dam and using this method for about the last five years. Over that time he has observed what works best and refined his technique.

“We used to move around with the trolling motor over the point, but we found that if we anchor and stay on the spot it works best for us.” Sometimes the fish won’t hit on the bottom but will attack the shad if it is suspended about 10 feet under the boat. More often than not, however, the bottom is the best place to be.

One hazard in this type of fishing is that the small catfish that also inhabit the area can be a bit of a nuisance. If they are around, you’ll spend a lot of time re-baiting the hook, so make sure you have plenty of shad when you start out. Of course there are some very large catfish in that area as well. If the hybrids aren’t biting, the catfish at the barrel line can provide some fun.

It didn’t take long for us to begin to have some action. We had our first hybrid in the boat within the hour — a feisty 3-pounder. We had been concerned that fishing might prove to be tough on that day since it had rained for several of the previous days and the lake was a bit stained. We had two other nice hybrid runs that morning, one of which broke off, but that was about it — other than the small catfish, which were plentiful. We saw several nice 4- to 5-lb. fish caught in a couple of the other boats, but in Morris’s view it was a very slow day. As a comparison, on the previous Thursday, before the rain came in, one of Morris’s fishing partners boated 17 hybrids of about five pounds apiece. And all of that before 10:00 a.m.

Another option for Oconee hybrids this time of year is to fish up the river. Hybrid bass make a spawning run each spring. According to Bubba Mauldin, a WRD senior fisheries biologist, this generally occurs just behind the white bass run, so some of the hybrids are up the river now. The hybrids also follow closely the spawn of the threadfin shad on the lake and attack the concentration of shad while they spawn. One particularly good place to catch hybrids in these conditions on Oconee is along the Hwy 44 rip-rap. This stretch of rock always attracts a large collection of spawning shad and therefore concentrations of hybrids.

Parallel cast the rip-rap with a Rat-L-Trap — 1/2-oz. chrome/blue or chrome/black is hard to beat. Also a diving crankbait like a Model A Bomber is another good choice. Fish as close to the rocks as you can because the shad and hybrids will be holding tight.

Once the spawn is over the hybrids will head back downstream in large numbers and the action at the barrel line should pick back up.

Even though Morris lives in Milledgeville and Sinclair is actually closer for him, he prefers to fish Oconee. “I catch more fish on Oconee, and they are larger on average.”

Morris’s largest hybrid on Oconee is 12-lbs., 3-oz., while his largest on Sinclair is just over four pounds.
Bubba says that there are statistics that tend to support Morris’s theory that Oconee is better for hybrids than Sinclair. While the shocking samples in both lakes indicate that the recruitment rate (or survival rate of the fingerlings) is down in both lakes the last few years, Oconee is producing better than Sinclair. Bubba says that one factor is the amount of nutrients available in the lake to support the fish population. In each study, Oconee was much more nutrient-rich than Sinclair.

“It is a simple matter of the upstream lake trapping most of the nutrients above the dam and the downstream reservoir suffering the consequences,” Bubba said.

Steve Schleiger is the WRD fisheries biologist responsible for Sinclair, and he said his data shows that the hybrids on Sinclair are in general smaller than the average you will find on other similar Georgia reservoirs. Steve feels that the hybrids simply don’t survive as long on Sinclair as they do on other reservoirs. Interestingly, Sinclair is stocked at a high rate, much above the state averages and even higher than Oconee in many years.

“We don’t think it is a forage problem. There are plenty of baitfish in [Sinclair],”  Steve said.

Although only a theory, Steve believes that among other factors such as “non-point runoff,” general runoff not coming from a specific source, an elevated water temperature on Sinclair because of Plant Harley-Branch is a factor in the hybrid survival and growth rate on the lake.

It should be noted that Georgia Power is sensitive to this issue and has added a cooling tower in recent years to help address the issue of hotwater discharge from the plant.

“Hybrid are temperature-sensitive fish,” says Steve, “and the elevated temperature may in fact simply be shortening their life span, not allowing the fish to fully mature and get up to the sizes we see in other lakes like Oconee and West Point.”

In addition, Steve says that the dissolved-oxygen count is lower on Sinclair than other lakes in the area. At often lower than 5mg per liter (the layman’s translation is that it isn’t good), Steve feels that this could very likely be effecting fish survival.

At Lake Oconee, where the hybrid fishing is much better, Morris says that he starts fishing his down-line pattern in early February and will continue to do so through May or early June. While the action might slow down a little, you are still likely to catch a nice mess of fat hybrids into the summer.

As the water temperature warms in late June and July, Morris says that the topwater action will heat up on Oconee at first light and just before dark. Big schools of hybrids chasing bait on the surface is a source for some real excitement, and if they blow up next to your boat, it usually doesn’t matter much what you throw at them.

Head out to Oconee this month and give the hybrids a try. If you get one of these hefty fighters on the line, you’ll be coming back for more.

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