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Slow-Rollin’ Spinnerbaits at Oconee

With GON's 2005 Team Power Ranking Champs. The Nicolais

Brad Gill | April 7, 2006

Robert Nicolai set the hook on his third Lake Oconee keeper in only seven minutes of fishing. He turned around and shook his head.
“Something told me this is where they’d be today,” he said.

It was a little after 4:30 p.m., and we had been in the boat since daylight. The weather was perfect for January, 70 degrees and sunny.

There are several patterns that’ll work this month on Oconee. However, finding that pattern could prove tough, especially now.

“On this lake in February you really have to stay on fish to do good in these tournaments,” said Robert. “They can move quick with the usual cold fronts and rain.”

Robert and his son, Daniel, both from Loganville, were GON’s 2005 Team Power Ranking champions. They ran away with the competition earning 63 points, 11 points ahead of second place. Their points came fishing the R&R and Berry’s trails. They were the 2005 Berry’s Anglers of the Year.
Robert’s tournament career started in 1985, but he quit for personal reasons in 1991. He started back last year after Daniel bought a boat, and they’re now enjoying time on the water together.

“Tournament fishing is so addictive. Your adrenalin gets up, it just gets in your blood,” said Robert.

Daniel Nicolai smiles with an Oconee 5-pounder that hit a spinnerbait on Sunday, January 15. Daniel fished with his dad, Robert, and the pair’s best five would have gone about 14 pounds. Right: They hold four of their five keepers.

Along with fishing R&R and Berry’s, the Nicolais are fishing HD Marine this season, where a win in any one of those tournaments puts you in a new Skeeter bass boat.

Robert was able to take me fishing on Thursday, January 12. Daniel was unable to make the trip due to work obligations, however, I did spend a few minutes taking photos of Daniel three days later on Sunday, January 15.

On that fun Sunday, he and Robert managed a five-fish limit that weighed 14 pounds, with their best being a 5-pounder. Both anglers were able to contribute to the article, but most of my discussions were with Robert on our fishing trip. We met at Sugar Creek.

“Rocks can be real good this time of year,” said Robert.
We started fishing the northwest corner of the Sugar Creek rip-rap. The water temperature was 48 degrees.

“Most of our fishing this time of year is done with a spinnerbait,” said Robert. “Most guys are throwing the crankbait this time of year.”

A No. 5 Shad Rap or a Little Earl on Oconee in February are pretty solid little baits. However, our Team Power Ranking champs, who had three 2005 wins on Oconee, say a spinnerbait is their winning February bait.
“Some guys throw the spinnerbait this early, but we’re throwing a pretty big bait, and we’re always switching colors and blade sizes until we figure out what the fish want.”

I asked Robert to nail down a pretty consistent spinnerbait to help y’all get started picking the right bait.

“A 1/2- or 3/8-oz. double willowleaf with either No. 5 or No. 6 and 3 1/2 blades.”

Sometimes they want the gold blade in the front, sometimes in the back. You just have to keep playing.

“Ninety percent of the time the skirt is chartreuse and white,” said Robert. “If we go to Richland where it’s clear we may throw mostly white with streaks of red.”

The Nicolais use All-Star rods, either six- or 6 1/2-foot sticks, and they use Shimano Calcutta and Quantum Energy reels. They like 15-lb. Trilene Berkley Big Game saltwater line.

“When you’re fishing this time of year it’s critical to slow-roll the spinnerbait,” said Robert. “You’ll also want to pause the bait some.”
At 8:15 we were on the southwest corner of the Sugar Creek rip-rap. I was using a 3/8-oz. spinnerbait with a chartreuse/white skirt. It had a white No. 5 willowleaf blade and a chartreuse No. 3 1/2 willowleaf blade. I chunked the bait five feet off the rip-rap in three feet of water and went to reel. My line felt heavy. Could be, I thought.

WHAM, I laid into our first fish of the day, a bass that went two pounds.
As we continued fishing down the bridge I asked Robert what he looks for when fishing rip-rap this time of year.

“You’ll have brush on some of them, and those are good places that hold fish,” said Robert. “Look for any contour changes along the rocks, too.”

After leaving Sugar Creek, we fished the Hwy 44 bridge and the two bridges in Lick Creek, but we didn’t get a bite. At noon we went north to fish blowdowns. We cut the motor above I-20. Robert likes fishing blowdowns from I-20 to the Indian Mounds, concentrating on the trees in the outside bends of the river channel where you can find deep water nearby. He’ll use a smaller-size spinnerbait to catch fish in blowdowns,
“When we fish blowdowns, we like a 1/4- or 5/16-oz. bait with a No. 4 Indiana blade and a No. 3 Colorado.”

Robert said the smaller bait allows him to pull through the limbs easier and keep the bait in the tree longer. The fish could be on any part of the tree, so make sure you roll it all the way out. A lot of times in February you’ll find the bite on the very end of the tree.

Robert pointed to a tree on the bank and showed me how far it came out. I bet it was 80 feet from the bank in over 20 feet of water. If you fish a new blowdown, take the time to really slow-roll your blade out, feeling for pieces of the tree.

“I should fish the jig more in the trees, but I just don’t,” said Robert.
Robert admits that he hates to slow his fishing down to jig speed, even though he believes it’s a good bait.

When Daniel fishes blowdowns he’ll follow up a spinnerbait with a worm.

“I like the Edge Speed Fall worm in junebug,” said Daniel. “I’ll use a clip-on weight. I’ll throw it in the middle of the tree and just kind of pop-and-twitch it back. Fishing the worm just lets me double-check behind Pop.”

With no bites in the blowdowns, Robert and I sat in the bottom of the boat and looked at a map of Oconee. He pointed to an area just west of where Beaverdam and Town creeks come together. There’s a deep-water pocket that comes in from the south.

“I like to find places where two creeks come together,” said Robert. “These places are good when the creeks have deep water on back from the mouth.”

Robert said when you find 15 to 20 feet of water going back into a pocket, before it starts to come up shallow, it’s a great area to find fish any time of year. With deep, fresh water Robert said the fish have everything they need. On warmer days, they can just pull right up and feed. These areas also allow fish to live where they don’t have to deal with cold, nasty water being generated back and forth from the dam.

We stopped at the Swords rip-rap to try our luck on the rocks again.
“Another thing I like to throw on these bridges is a Rat-L-Trap,” said Robert. “I like the bigger, 3/4-oz. Rat-L-Trap, because I can fish it deeper out in front of the rip-rap.”

Robert handed me two Rat-L-Traps, one that was 20 years old and one he just bought. I shook both baits, and the older bait had a much deeper rattling sound to it.

“I’m not sure why but over the years the pitch gets deeper,” said Robert. “Maybe when they get older the chamber in the bait gets a little bigger from wear? I have better luck on those older baits.”

Robert takes a Rat-L-Trap right out of the package and scrapes all the paint off the top and the underside of the bait. Then he’ll make several scratches down the side of the bait.

“A shad’s belly is white,” said Robert. “When I do this it gives the bait a combination look. It’s not just a silver flash.”

Robert likes to doctor up blue/chrome and chartreuse-bandit colored Rat-L-Traps.

We never got bit on a Rat-L-Trap at the rip-rap, but Robert put a 2-pounder in the boat that bit a spinnerbait at the Swords bridge at 1:10 p.m. We fished a while longer but couldn’t get bit again. After eight hours of fishing we were pretty confused as to what the fish were doing. My goodness, it was 70 degrees. Fish should have been hammering it.

We headed back down the lake and went into one of Robert’s favorite double-creek areas. We started throwing spinnerbaits about halfway back in the pocket where the 15-foot water stopped. As we neared the back of the pocket we noticed flickering bait, and we saw several bigger fish swirl near the bank.

“The back is full of stumps,” said Robert.

He picked up a rod with a 1/2-oz. Rat-L-Trap attached to it.
“Too shallow for the 3/4-oz.,” he said.
Five minutes later, at 4:30 p.m., Robert set the hook and put a 14-inch fish in the boat.
“He nailed it,” Robert said.

Interesting, I thought. That fish was in three feet of water, 300 yards from 15 feet of water.

At 4:33 p.m., he set the hook again, this time a little farther back in the pocket. The fish was a good 15-inch keeper.

“You think they went shallow today?” I asked.
He didn’t say a word.

At 4:37 p.m., another fish bit.

“Something told me this is where they’d be today,” he said. “They went shallow. I told you fish stay in these places year round. They just pulled back here with this warm weather.”

To be consistent on Oconee this time of year, it pays to stay on the lake. Before we fished it had been weeks since Robert had been on the lake. It took us a day to eliminate some stuff and put together a pattern.

“We should have eliminated water quicker, but I was hung up thinking they’d be on those rocks,” said Robert.

The one staple that the Nicolais will swear by in February is that slow-rolling a spinnerbait somewhere on that lake will consistently get you bit. Just plan on taking a few days to find out exactly where.

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