Oconee Bass On The April Rocks

The shad spawn this month sends Lake Oconee’s bass on a feeding frenzy, and the miles of seawall and bridge rip-rap are prime habitat for spawning shad.

Tony Couch | April 2, 2002

Since Lake Oconee first filled with water in 1979, I’ve seen a lot of changes take place on this middle Georgia lake, some good, some not so good. I’ve been guiding on Lake Oconee since 1980 and watched as the changes slowly took place.

In the early 1980s, Lake Oconee was a lake with miles of unspoiled shoreline dotted with submerged bushes and grassbeds. In the spring, virtually any lure you wanted to cast would catch bass during the very early years of the lake.

By the mid to late 80s, the grass and bushes were all gone and little or no shoreline cover was left. A few docks were present, but not enough to be a consistent pattern. The best springtime pattern then was a spinnerbait cast to the fallen trees that had washed up to the shoreline behind the standing timber. A Carolina-rigged watermelon seed Zoom Centipede or lizard cast on the sand and pea-gravel secondary points and pockets was a guaranteed method for success.

During the 1990s the lake started and continues the trend to what it is today, a shoreline covered with docks and miles of seawalls. With each new wrinkle in the lake’s shoreline appearance, fishermen have had to adapt and make the necessary changes to consistently be successful. Now, after this brief history lesson, I’m going to tell you my favorite methods for catching springtime bass in the new millennium on Lake Oconee.

Of all the different methods and patterns that will catch bass here in the spring, my favorite pattern is fishing the rocks. Any time is a good time to fish the rocks in April, but my favorite is when the shad spawn is in full swing. During this period you can experience the fastest fishing action of the entire year.

There are three key factors that are a must to be successful during the shad spawn. The two most obvious are of course the rocks and the presence of shad. The third factor is the most overlooked by anglers, but it is an absolute must to catch bass — shade. For consistent catches, you must have all three elements working together.

When you find all three elements together, it won’t take you long to realize that all rocks are not created equal, and that some are a lot better than others. The ones near deep water are much better than those in shallow flats. The reason for this is because shad are basically open-water fish schooling over deeper water and going to the nearest shoreline rocks to spawn during the early-morning hours.

Tony Couch, of Buckhead, fishes the FLW and BASS professional circuits, but he got his start at Lake Oconee almost 20 years ago when the lake was first filled. Tony still guides on Oconee, and he says April is one of the best months for catching big numbers of fish.

There are a number of baits that will catch bass during the shad spawn. Small jerkbaits and shallow-running square-billed crankbaits like the Bandit 100 Series work well. Topwater baits like Zara Spooks, Pop Rs, Dying Flutters, Tiny Torpedoes and buzzbaits work well at times. Often a bubblegum-colored Zoom Trick Worm rigged weightless and twitched slowly around the edge of the rocks will help weed out the white bass and hybrids, so you catch mostly largemouths. However, my two favorite baits for the shad spawn are a Zoom Fat Albert grub in the glimmer-blue color and a tandem-bladed spinnerbait.

The Fat Albert grub is a bait that is not used as much by local anglers and will often catch plenty of fish right behind other boats fishing more traditional baits. I like to use a 1/8- or 3/16-oz. jig head on 10-lb. test line with the grub threaded on the hook so that the point of the hook is exposed. A pumping action will produce fish, but a slow, steady retrieve usually works better and you won’t hang up as much. Cast the grub up tight on the rocks and get the bait moving quickly so you don’t get hung up. Once you get the grub moving, slow the retreive down — and hold on. Most light colors will work, but glimmer blue is my favorite.

The most consistent and common bait used during the shad spawn on Lake Oconee is the spinnerbait. Most any type of color or blade combinations will work. The trick is to cast so that your bait hits right at the water’s edge, then get the bait moving as soon as it hits so it doesn’t get hung up. Be ready because the fish will sometimes hit the instant the bait begins to move.

Normally I like a tandem willowleaf spinnerbait during the shad spawn over the traditional Colorado blades. I prefer 4 1/2 gold and a 4 1/2 nickel willowleaf combination because it seems to work in all water conditions, from muddy to clear. If you watch the tandem willowleaf coming through the water, you can easily see why it seems to work better. It more closely resembles the threadfin shad and attracts more shad to your bait than other types of bladed spinnerbaits.

There are three basic skirt colors I like to use. I prefer chartreuse in dirty water conditions, a white/chartreuse combination in stained water and white in clear water. Usually I add a Zoom split-tailed trailer to my bait and try to mix up the colors. For instance, I use a chartreuse trailer on a white skirt and a white or pearl trailer on a chartreuse skirt. If I’m getting a lot of short strikes, I’ll add a trailer hook. If the short strikes continue, I’ll remove the trailer and keep the trailer hook.

I like to throw a 1/4- to 3/8-oz. spinnerbait. I don’t fish any spinnerbaits heavier than the 3/8-oz. this time of year. You need a light spinnerbait because you’re fishing it in shallow rocks, and you have to fish it slow or the shad won’t follow your bait. The heavier spinnerbaits get hung up too much fishing it that slow. If shad are not following your bait, you’re either fishing it too fast or there are not any shad present.

I use a high-speed level wind reel — a Shimano Chronarch — to get the bait moving quickly and for better casting accuracy, and I use a medium/heavy action 6-foot casting rod. The rocks are rough on your line, so I use 20-lb. test original Stren or the new Stren Catfish line. Both are very abrasion resistant and work well in the rocks.

Usually you know if you’re on a hot stretch of rocks because you’ll see shad skittering along the edge of the rocks. You’ll also see bass, hybrids, white bass and catfish knocking shad out of the water and up on the bank. If you don’t see the feeding frenzy, look for shad slowly moving up and down the bank. If you can’t find either, don’t give up hope. If you know you’re in a good location, make a dozen or so casts with your spinnerbait and do a slow, steady retrieve all the way back to the boat. If shad are present, you will feel them hitting your blades or see them swimming around your blades as you bring it to your rod tip. If you find the shad present, give the spot a few minutes. If no shad are there, move on to the next available rock bank.

The most obvious areas to fish are the bridge rip-raps. These areas have consistently been producing fish for years on Lake Oconee. You’ll see lots of boats fishing these rip-raps, but don’t be afraid to get in line with other boats. The shad and bass are constantly moving back and forth up the bank. Soon after one wave of shad leave another wave will appear, bringing a new batch of largemouths and hybrids with them.

Some of the best rocks to fish are those that you can’t see. By that I mean the many miles of seawalls on the lake. Most of the seawalls are wood, but they have rocks along the base for extra support. Not all will have rocks at the base, but most of the wooden seawalls do. Many of these will hold just as many fish as the bridge rip-raps without the crowd of boats and bank fishermen. Again, stay on the shady seawalls, fish slow and concentrate on the ones near deep water. Chances are you’ll find a productive stretch all to yourself.

The only negative aspect to this type of fishing is it doesn’t last long. Once the sunshine hits the rocks, the shad begin to back off and gradually move out to open water. This usually happens around 7:30 to 8:00 a.m. each morning. Once this happens you have two choices. First, slow down and fish the bait all the way back to the boat. Slowing down lets the bait get deeper, and you catch the fish out closer to the boat before they scatter completely away from the rocks. Your second choice is to move to a new shady area.

Using a little common sense will help you catch more fish later into the morning. Knowing that the sun rises in the east, it peaks over the eastern tree line and covers the west shoreline first. Thus the fishing is normally over on the west side by 8:00 a.m., but the east side will remain shaded for another one to two hours depending on how steep the bank is and the height of the trees there. So I normally start on the west side and move across the lake once the sun comes up.

A good morning of fishing will usually produce 20 to 40 fish. When I say fish, that’s what I mean — not just largemouth bass. During the shad spawn, you don’t know what species you’ll catch next. As a general rule your creel will consist of one-third largemouths, one-third hybrids and one-third white bass, with an occasional catfish or crappie thrown in. To me, it’s all fun no matter what kind of fish are biting.

When the shad spawn this month on Lake Oconee, they will be up on the miles and miles of rip-rap seawalls. The spawning baitfish attract hungry white bass and hybrids in addition to largemouth.

If you’re in a bass tournament and don’t want to wade through the whites and hybrids to get your largemouths, try switching to a more largemouth-oriented bait like a Zoom Trick Worm or a buzzbait. These lures will cut down on your number of strikes, but should increase your percentage of largemouths.

Me, I think I’ll just suffer my way through the arm-jarring strikes of the whites and hybrids and take my largemouths as they come. It’s a great way to start a beautiful April morning on Lake Oconee.

Editor’s Note: When he is not fishing a tournament, Tony Couch guides on lakes Oconee and Sinclair. For information about a guided trip, Tony can be reached at (706) 342-0194.

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