Ocmulgee Bass With A River Legend
"Bird Dog" Walker keeps it simple when fishing the Ocmulgee River in the summer.
“He’s right in the middle,” said Keith “Bird Dog” Walker, of Douglas, as his Bang-O-Lure landed softly between the crumbled pillars of an old bridge at the water’s edge. A short pull, just enough for the rear propeller to whir and spit, caused the water to boil up underneath it. Then a splash, and his lure was gone with taut line creating a graphite rainbow over the water.
“Right where he was supposed to be,” added Bird Dog as he swung a chunky 3-lb. Ocmulgee River largemouth into the boat.
We had just put in at the ramp on Barr’s Bluff, a beautiful willow-lined slough running over a half mile from the main run of the lower Ocmulgee River. Dropping the trolling motor at the ramp, we had only gone 80 yards toward the back of the slough, where the day before Bird Dog had caught 47 slab crappie and bream.
According to Bird Dog and other locals, the Ocmulgee this year is the best its been in 20 years. He chose this landing as it keeps good water depth year-round and has some black water coming into it.
I was very fortunate to have Bird Dog as my guide. He hadn’t bass fished in more than eight years; however, he’s a local legend in these parts. He won well over 200 bass tournaments since he started in the mid 70s, with the majority being on the Ocmulgee and Altamaha rivers, sometimes making entire sweeps on trail series and club tournaments.
He agreed to help me on this article after I told him it would be a challenge since a recent tournament with several seasoned river anglers was won with only 3 pounds. Part of the problem was the river was still high and had started falling rapidly. An unstable river disorients and scatters the fish.
“Could you get me five?” I asked.
“Just sit in the back and take notes,” he said.
Partly, I think he said that because I bent his trolling motor the previous week while chasing redbreasts on the Satilla.
Emerging from Lake Jackson and running below the fall line for 241 miles, the Ocmulgee joins the Oconee River, where it forms the mighty Altamaha River. Its spinning waters twist and turn through some of the prettiest longleaf pine forests and mile-deep swamp floodplains Georgia has to offer. Around every bend is another breathtaking scene that makes you want to get out of the boat. The word “Okmulgee” comes from the Lower Creek Indians meaning, “where water boils up.” Hey, that just happened 80 yards from the boat ramp! You reckon those old boys whittled topwater plugs back then?
I had a missed strike at the end of the slough where it disappeared into the flooded willows. As my Big Bite Bait’s Top Toad made it back to the boat with a missing leg, Bird Dog slung the Bang-O-Lure and coaxed the culprit to hit again. A 12-incher. So much for my, “That looked like a pretty good ’un!”
The Ocmulgee has a 14-inch minimum length rule. You’ll release a lot of 1 1/2-to 2-lb. fish.
“It may be tough today; the river fell a foot since last night,” said Bird Dog. “Most of the bass will probably pull out to the river or near the mouths (of sloughs). This (Barr’s Bluff) is a good lake year-round, anyhow, because of the depth it keeps. There will always be a few that stay year-round.”
We started working out of the slough toward the river on the right bank. With all the overhanging willow limbs lining the banks, I picked up my rod rigged with a 1/0 Gamakatsu and slid on a bubblegum Zoom Trick Worm, after noting Bird Dog slinging another 13-incher in the boat.
“These Trick Worms won tournaments up here for about seven years,” said Bird Dog. Halfway out, just past a private ramp, my line sang and took off for deeper water. After cutting a Z in the muddy water, I slung keeper No. 2 in the boat, another 3-pounder.
Arriving at the main river, we pulled out into the current positioning the nose of the boat upriver. With the 50-lb. Motorguide doing its job holding the boat in the strong current, Bird Dog started fishing an eddy pocket created by some rip-rap at the slough’s mouth. A couple of casts and a fat 12-incher appeared on the end of his citrus-shad Bomber 6A crankbait.
“Let’s move upriver to the next (oxbow) lake. It should be perfect there now since the river fell. The bass that were way back in the willows will pull back closer to the edges now.”
On the way I questioned him about patterns.
“Patterns? Worms, crankbaits, topwater, that’s the pattern. People try to get too scientific,” said Bird Dog.
I realized then, maybe I need to quit trying to over-think and just fish.
The river levels will determine where you fish. Arriving at the narrow mouth of the lake, we stopped out in the current of the river as it is customary to fish before entering. A slough mouth is a perfect ambush point as bass will be cocked and ready in the slack water where it meets the current, waiting for prey to sweep by. In the river itself, there will be at least a couple eddy pockets present, created by logjams, fallen trees or an inset section of bank.
“There’s a shelf right at the mouth where it drops off into the river,” said Bird Dog. “We tied to a limb here once and caught 17-lbs., 10-ozs. in a tournament. There’ll be one there.”
His first cast with the Bomber put a 13-inch 1 1/2-pounder in the boat. About 50 yards in, Bird Dog lost a good keeper in the middle of some willow trees that hit a 3/16-oz. weighted Zoom watermelon/orange lizard. It’s amazing how he could make such short casts into those willow openings without backlashing, sometimes slinging it in at eye level with limbs only a few feet from his face. Several times throughout the day, he would ask, “Did you see where it went?”
“Back there somewhere,” I would say.
Keeper No. 3, at 2 pounds, soon arrived with Bird Dog’s Zoom twin-tail worm wadded up in its mouth. Going to a Texas-rigged worm myself, I soon landed its twin, keeper No. 4, on a 6-inch black Fiddler Worm with a 1/8-oz. weight.
Arriving back at the narrow entrance, we worked from the current back in. Bird Dog fished a submerged log with the twin tail. After a few casts, he thought he was hung on the log and pulled straight to break it. Then the ‘log’ started moving. Keeper No. 5, 2 1/2 lbs. Good lake. What’s the name of it? I asked.
“My Hole,” he said.
I left it at that.
Easing out into the river, I asked about sandbar fishing in the river, a relative unknown technique that only a few seasoned veterans utilize with any success. Interestingly, I learned Bird Dog helped pioneer the method back in the 70s.
“You want to find a sandbar on a sharp bend, ease up from downriver and fish up to where the water is just rippling over the sand,” said Bird Dog.
I asked him about lure selection.
“Crankbait, crankbait, crankbait! But, do follow up with a worm before leaving. You want just enough weight for it to sweep along the bottom slowly with the current.”
The first sandbar up from “My Hole” was a perfect setup to try out the technique. We lined up the boat and cranked the breakline, which is where the current meets the slack water and/or eddying water. Crank this line as you work up to the point of the sandbar. Also, make random casts to the sides as you move up. Sometimes when they are not feeding, they’ll bunch up in a little wad in the dead water off to the side, he explained. The sweet spot should be that first little drop behind the rippling water on the sandbar. Work shallow- to medium-diving crankbaits, such as Bomber 4A-6As and Bagley Killer BIIs, and finish up with a worm on a 3/16-oz. sinker. Grid-cast out to the stronger current in the main run, which they will pull out to at times, especially if a snag is present. For this application, have another rod rigged with a 3/8- to 1/2-oz. sinker.
Also, the banks behind some of the larger sandbars will lead into sloughs. Even if the water is receded out of the slough, the deeper banks leading into it can be good. Fish them thoroughly as fish will migrate back and forth to feed on the sandbars and the main river.
After about 30 casts each with a Bomber 4A and twin-tail worm, he got a strike, pulling up keeper No. 6, a 2 1/2-pounder.
“You sure aggravated him into biting,” I said.
Bird Dog replied, “No, he was aggravating me until he bit. I knew one had to be there. That’s where he’s supposed to be.”
The second sandbar we fished I caught the seventh keeper, a 2 1/4-pounder. It was positioned just behind the rippling sand and bit a firetiger Rebel Deep Wee-R. On the next sandbar, Bird Dog added another chunky 13-incher.
“What do you want next?” asked Bird Dog.
“A kicker,” I said.
Running upriver a few bends, we pulled behind a sandbar which led into a picturesque slough with dark, rooty banks, which grew out from the tall cypresses and tupelos lining it. He pulled out a Bang-O-Lure. About three casts later, sploosh. The fight was on!
I actually had time to reel in and get the digital camera in video mode. A fat 4-lb. Ocmulgee football was in the boat. After feeling the thumb and index that thousands of fish before it had felt, keeper No. 8 was released to fight another day. It was topwater, 11:20 a.m., and the sun shining bright. My kind of river. Better than your typical reservoir, having to rush around before the sun hits the water.
With our worn-out backs aching, we decided to call it a day.
We fished the slough back at Barr’s Bluff a few more minutes. We caught a couple more shorties. Bird Dog heard splashing in the willows on the other side of the slough. After each splash, Bird Dog would go on point. When the third splash sprayed baitfish, he 90-degreed the boat. On the first cast with a bubblegum, he stopped that 12-incher from menacing anymore little minnows. Nearing the ramp and the last cast of the day, he skipped the bubblegum against a willow trunk lying horizontally in the water. A swirl and under the tree it went. No time to turn it. By the time the rod bent double, snap! I bet that was a good ’un!
The Lord surely blessed us with a successful morning. With the river level falling, we still managed to boat eight keepers — with our best five going 14 to 15 pounds — and six shorties in just four hours. And with someone who hasn’t picked up a baitcaster in eight years. Dadgum.
“Whatcha doing next week?” I asked.
“Mullet fishing,” he said.
Here are some things to consider when fishing the river this summer. It will usually be low, thus you’ll be more prone to run upon sandbars and hit snags. Flat-bottom jonboats in the 14- to 16-foot range and 70 hp or less rule then. Also, you will need a strong trolling motor, at least 45 pounds, if you want to fish all the river has to offer. When it drops another foot or two, most of the bass will be in the main river. If you don’t like fishing the current, the types of areas we fished will still be good, such as the sandbars and back banks, slough mouths and the deeper lakes.
In the main river, use heavier lead on your plastics, up to a 1/2-oz. Pitch, flip and cast into all the nasty stuff. Fish the banks and on out into the deeper water until you determine the depth they are using. Hit all the eddy pockets in the irregular shoreline and behind the logjams as they create ambush and resting points. The bass may be tight to the banks or at the end of timber lying in the deeper water, suspended or near the bottom. If the river happens to be unseasonably high, such as 7.0 or higher, Bird Dog suggested the sandbars as they are a good choice at all water levels, high or low.
He favors high water with a slow rise. Carolina rigs with long leaders and white- or shad-colored crankbaits also do well in the sand. Also, for the main river, never leave home without several Bomber 6A crankbaits in firetiger, which has always been a hot lure.
If the water level gets 4.0 or lower and stable, the river will be right for a fantasy float trip from one landing to another, throwing topwater all the way. The bite should really be on then. Buzzbaits, Devil’s Horses, Bang-O-Lures and other prop baits will do well along the endless scenario of lure-chunking targets in this river paradise.
Keep an eye out for those narrow entrances into those hidden lakes, too. Horse Creek WMA is located along the Ocmulgee’s shoreline, so plan a combo trip adding hogs and squirrels to your list as Aug. 15 arrives. Camp on a sandbar. Catch a few mullet or bream. Set out a few limb-lines.
For a map and boat ramp locater, go to www.gofishgeorgia.com, where you can also link for current river levels.
For a guided fishing trip on the Ocmulgee, call Keith “Bird Dog” Walker at (912) 384-0750. Come and enjoy the Ocmulgee, an outdoorsman’s dream where bass make the water boil.
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