Oconee River Fixing To Load Up With White Bass
Daryl Gay previewed the action in the headwaters of Lake Oconee last spring so you’ll be ready now.
It’s breezy early in the day as Barry Hough and I motor up this northern section of the Oconee River, which has its origin just a few counties upstream. We’re an hour or so from Atlanta, depending, as always, on highway traffic. And it’s pretty much the same here on this gorgeous waterway. The locals have waited all winter for the late February/early March triggering of river residents’ spawning urge, when they begin schooling upstream in their thousands. The nearest boat ramp, Dyar Pasture, has seen little use during the cold and wind of winter.
But that is about to change.
From a half-dozen diehards a day tossing lures, the scenario switches, especially on weekends, to scrambling for a spot of water without another boat parked on it. The good thing is, there are miles of such spots upstream from Dyar.
For 30 years, the name of Lynn Lucas was well known in these parts around Greene County for the Lucas Catch All panfish lures he created and sold. Barry worked with him for two years—and wishes it had been longer.
“While working with Lynn the plan was for me to take the business over down the road, but he died unexpectedly and I just went ahead and did it for the family in March of 2021,” Barry said. “We have 10 different lure colors and two sizes, a five and a four, which is smaller. Most people use the fours for trout, the fives for crappie and white bass. Fives are the best sellers; the only difference, and it’s really marginal, is the size of the blade and the hook. We don’t use the fives on the river here, mainly because the whites just love those fours.”
And this is where the traffic jam starts. What you’re dealing with in March is an Oconee River progression procession! I personally saw it last spring in order to get you ready for what’s fixing to take place now.
“We begin fishing late February, usually,” Barry says. “The crappie start between the second and third week running up the river, but of course water temperature and weather dictate that, so you can never set an exact time and date. Typically, the white bass run begins the end of February or the first week of March. That’s when things really heat up.”
After that come the stripers. And did we mention the hybrids that tend to get mixed up in all of this?
“The crappie and the white bass are coming upriver to spawn, and what they’re looking for is a sandy bank to lay their eggs,” Barry says. “The fisherman needs to look for shallow holes, and it can be even a foot or two deep in the bottom, holes the fish can get in and lay their eggs and sit on them.
“We usually go upriver, because there are some serious shallows downriver. The river is being dredged right now, and a channel has been dredged through some of the shallows. But going downstream from Dyar you need a mudboat or something that likes really skinny water.”
Besides the holes, spawning fish also prefer to get out of the river current when possible. The sinuous Oconee provides dozens of sweeping curves that offer calmer water behind them—a perfect white bass hangout.
“There’s a place we call the Big Bend, about a mile and a half or 2 miles up the river, and it produces lots of fish. It has a large sandy decline, and they really like to hang out there. It’s the sharpest bend on the river, almost a 90-degree turn; you can’t miss it.”
Neither can other fishermen.
“During the week the crowd is not so bad, but on weekends when the whites are running, it can get blown out,” Barry said. “Just keep in mind that this is not the only spot on the river that holds fish, that there are more miles upstream. Folks need to use a little courtesy during these runs, too. Idle up the river, and don’t leave a big wake as you’re going by other fishermen. Some of those small boats don’t have a lot of freeboard. Many people running boats simply aren’t educated on the courtesy factor. Ease by anchored boats, don’t just fly by. Boat operators may think they’re going slow, but we call it plowing when the bow is up and the stern is sagging, leaving a huge wake behind. That makes for a rough ride when you’re anchored, and it also disturbs the hole the fish are in.”
The Lucas Catch All was specifically created for the stars of the show: the white bass. They’re not really large fish, so don’t get hung up on tackle specs. A good ultralight, 5-foot rod, light line up to 10-lb. mono and your choice of reels from a Zebco 33 up, and you’re in business. They’re great fish for kids, too, and light tackle makes for a more productive and fun day.
Having never pitched a Lucas lure, I was intrigued while pouring over various blade colors in the fours. That’s when I noticed the following printed on the package: For Best Results—Fish Slow.
That happens to be the most important lesson one can learn about fishing with spinners.
“With this lure you need to fish it as slow as you possibly can,” said Barry. “You want to feel the bump as the blade turns, feel it thumping as it winds slowly around the center wire attaching the blade to the hook. If you throw it out and spin it back fast, you’re not going to be nearly as productive as if it’s fished slowly.”
Think about it: it’s March; the water is cold; baitfish don’t scream across the top of it because their metabolism has been slowed down. And if the spinner doesn’t resemble a slow-moving baitfish, a white bass just ain’t interested! Nor is it going to expend an inordinate amount of energy chasing something that doesn’t look like an easy meal anyway.
“If I’m fishing for white bass, the most productive way I know is to throw the Catch All to the bank,” Barry says. “If you can throw it ON the bank without getting hung up, that’s best—then fish it slowly back to the boat. To the bank, slowly to the boat, repeat…”
Those colors mentioned include white, silver, chartreuse, gold and fluorescent orange, among others. Those were some that Barry happened to toss me a handful of. As we eased upstream, passing boat after boat, I at last decided on the silver blade—keeping a white one close at hand. Barry knows approximately everybody on this section of the Oconee, and finally found the group he was looking for—just as they hauled a couple of whites over the side. We passed and repassed info from trips over the last week, sharing who caught what where. A mite farther up, he dipped into a small bend and anchored.
I probably retrieved the first adrenalin-fueled cast too quickly, despite knowing better, but the second one did the trick. Over a section of limb-draped bank some 30 feet long, we filled my cooler’s order, then went exploring.
“From the ramp, you can go around 4 miles upstream, but most of our fishing is within 2 miles of Dyar. If the fishing is slow, sometimes we’ll run upstream just to see what’s going on.”
“Run” being a boating term only. Remember, it’s a RIVER!
“I’ve seen everything from center consoles to flatbottom jonboats here, but 4 feet is a good average depth to factor in before you decide to launch a boat. Of course, it is a river, so it can be up and down. If the water is up above 6 feet, you might as well stay home, because you’ll be wasting your time fishing. Ideal is between 3 and 4 feet; we usually target the 4-foot range. If it’s lower than 3, you need a flatbottom boat because of the stumps and rocks. And it changes every year.
“The biggest thing is to plan your trip. Get your info, see what the river level is and what the water temperature is. (Think upper 50s.) Those little details are what’s important for catching fish. They can change in a minute on a river; hey, it’s fishing. Be sure to dress warm, too. One day it might be in the 60s, the next may be 30s. You’re on the water which is already cooler, and if the wind gets up, it can be rough.”
We’ve focused on whites because they are the main attraction for the brief period (two to three weeks) of the spawning run, but they’re supported by a cast of thousands. The crappie usually start from middle to the end of March; white bass in March; and hybrids and stripers March and into April, following the shad run.
“You’ll catch a largemouth or catfish occasionally, but you’ll catch panfish mainly, because that’s what this lure is made for,” Barry said. “You can catch hybrids, too, but you can’t beat cutbait for hybrids. You’ll also catch a lot of catfish fishing for hybrids, mainly blues this time of year. Find a deep hole, drop cutbait into it, and you’ll get tired of catching blues. For stripers, any of the bends or right before a bend in a straightaway, where the water is just a little calm, is what you’re looking for. For the bigger fish you need cutbait; we use gizzard shad, which you can catch with a cast net. Back to the catfish, and blues especially, go up to where they’re dredging and find a hole, drop some cutbait and you’re on.”
Getting to Dyar Pasture is half the fun, and especially back before GPS. From Greensboro, take U.S. 278 west for 8 miles. A right turn onto Greshamville Road then another right onto Copeland Road will bring you just over 2 miles from the dirt road through a pasture to the Dyar Pasture Waterfowl Conservation Area.
“There are some back roads getting into Dyar Pasture, and you definitely need to stick to the speed limit because there are some hairpin turns and deer galore on those roads,” Barry warns. “It’s off the beaten path; you can primitive camp at the site, and it’s a nice area. I’ve never had an issue with losing anything there.”
The place is not fancy, but functional, providing access to the upstream runs of thousands of spawning fish. Check it out online for any info you might need during the helter-skelter month of March.
And should you need a Lucas Catch All or 10, The Happy Hooker in Winder has by far the largest selection.
“They have everything I make and some things I probably don’t even make anymore,” Barry laughed. “You can also find them at Franklin’s in Athens; Town N Country Farm & Pet Supply in Monticello; Sugar Creek Marina on Lake Oconee; or folks can just call me at 404.285.6540. We can work out shipping or any custom stuff, mixing and matching colors or hooks, on request. If they want any combo all they have to do is call me, and I’ll put it together for them, not a big deal.”
The rush to the spawning grounds is on. Hook up and join in. And remember to take good boating manners along.
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