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Spinnerbaits, Jigs & Plastics Catch April’s Oconee Bass

Mike Harris is no stranger to 20-lb. sacks in April.

Brad Gill | April 1, 2007

Last April, Mike Harris of Watkinsville was fishing an R&R tournament at Lake Oconee with his 16-year-old step-son, Travis Mulkey.

“It was the third tournament he ever fished; he’d didn’t catch a keeper in the first two,” said Mike.

On a windless morning, less than 30 minutes into fishing, the team had made a run into Richland Creek.

“Because it was first thing in the morning, I was throwing a spinnerbait,” said Mike. “Travis was throwing a Senko behind me. We were fishing those short pockets on the left side of Richland going up. That’s one of our deals in April — fishing inside the timber line going up Richland. When you’re running up the left side of Richland Creek, until you get to Reynold’s Plantation, to where the houses are, a lot of people don’t fish between the timber and bank. People don’t take the time to idle through that timber and fish the bank.”

Mike usually starts an April morning of fishing with a spinnerbait right on the banks in areas near and around rock, sand and pea-gravel, but a Senko, at least on a windless morning, is a powerful way to start, too.

“The best time to ever throw a Senko is when you have calm weather conditions — not a ripple on the water — and Travis was smart enough to know that,” said Mike. “He was dead-sticking a Senko. When there’s no wind blowing, that Senko falls horizontally and both ends of it wobble. That wobbling is the action you’re trying to impart. It’s very enticing to a bass.

“On a windy day the wind carries your line and drags your Senko, moving it sideways instead of falling horizontally. You lose that wobble.”

Dead-sticking the bait, Travis was letting it fall to the bottom before twitching the soft-plastic bait a few feet and repeating the process.

A few minutes later Mike pointed the boat into one of a series of protected, short pockets.

“For the bass spawn, I focus on northwestern-facing short pockets that have a few small secondary points and sand or pea-gravel in the back,” said Mike. “Chunk rock is a bonus for staging fish on those points. When you have three or four short pockets in a row, you are fishing much more efficiently. You can cover three or four short pockets and three or four points in one little area instead of fishing one big cove.”

Although Mike and Travis had started their tournament day in western short pockets between the mouth of Richland and Reynolds, Mike was already strategizing about his next move. One of his next stops would be the second big pocket below the Ritz Carlton on the west side.

“When you go into that pocket it splits — a short arm on the left and a long arm to the right. On the point that comes out and splits the arms is a huge gray house.”
Mike goes in the creek on the right.

“There’s four or five short pockets on the right that have little, shallow, tapering points coming off them,” said Mike. “They have sand in the back; they are text-book perfect places that I fish.”

Mike added that these particular short pockets have a bonus.

“Boat docks — the fish first move up on the points, stage back to the first boat dock and move on back to the back. Those pockets up there face the northwest, which means they are protected and warm quicker.”

Mike and Travis were approaching a hidden, 4 or 5 foot deep point in a short pocket, still looking for the first bite in last-year’s R&R tournament.

“Watch for hidden points on your electronics,” said Mike. “You can be fishing down a straight bank — you don’t see a defined point on the land — and your graph goes from 8 feet to 4 or 5 feet. It’s just a little underwater point.”

Travis made a cast with his Senko on just such an underwater point.

Thump!

“I heard him set the hook, and I said, ‘You got him?’ and he said ‘Yep, it feels like a 3- or 4-pounder.’

“She came up and tried to jump, and when she did I said ‘Oh my gosh Travis, don’t horse it, let the fish tire itself out — keep pressure on it.’

“Finally Travis got the fish into deeper water and played it to the top and rolled it into the net. He was extremely calm. I was shaking like a leaf when I pulled that fish up. I told Travis it may be a 10-pounder. That was one week after we did the cover shoot (this month’s GON cover), and I knew it was bigger than the fish I caught, which was 7 1/2 pounds.”

Russ Ferguson with R&R later weighed the big fish at 8.04 pounds. Mike and Travis won the tournament with a 20.89-lb. limit of largemouths. Mike also won April tournaments at Oconee in 2004 and 2003 — with 20-plus-lb. bags.

“I would break April into two categories from a strategy standpoint; first is the bass spawn, and second is the shad spawn,” said Mike. “The first half of April (around the full moon and once the water temps are consistently above 60 degrees) is the primary spawning period for bass on Oconee. I’ll throw a variety of baits based on weather and water conditions, but I’ve always got a spinnerbait, jig and a Senko handy.”

In April, if the wind is blowing Mike likes a spinnerbait.

“Each bait has a different skirt and/or blade presentation,” said Mike. “The fish may want a different skirt or blade combination today than they did yesterday, or they may want it faster today than they did yesterday.”

I asked Mike to give me examples of three spinnerbaits that have been effective in April. He likes a 1/4-oz. Buckeye spinnerbait with small, gold Colorado blades. Slow-roll this bait in dirty water, and try a chartreuse or chartreuse/white skirt. When the fish want a quicker retrieve, Mike slings a white, 3/8-oz. double willowleaf bait made by Sworming Hornet Lures. Later in the month, as the shad begin to spawn, Mike likes a white, 1/4-oz. Georgia Blade spinnerbait with one small Colorado and one small willowleaf blade. Mike likes a 7 foot medium-action Pflueger rod with a Pflueger Trion baitcaster (4.3:1 ratio), which is even more important when needing to slow-roll a blade.

“I throw a spinnerbait always first thing in the morning, right up on the banks,” said Mike. “A spawning fish will absolutely eat a spinnerbait to protect the bed. The bass bite a spinnerbait better when the wind is blowing.”

Mike doesn’t sight fish for bedded bass.

“When bass are on the beds, I can catch them when I’m looking at them, but it takes more time,” said Mike. “I take a more stealthy approach to catching spawning fish, trying to entice them to bite a spinnerbait by throwing in spawning areas and covering more water. I’ll throw it in the front of pockets on little secondary points and catch staging fish that are moving up and feeding, and then I’ll throw around those spawning pockets.”

Another big reason why Mike doesn’t waste time sight fishing for bedding bass is because he believes the bigger fish bed deeper.

“That fish Travis caught, while it was not in the back of a spawning pocket, I believe that fish was actually spawning because her tail was completely bloody, and she was oozing eggs,” said Mike. “She had a spot on that underwater point in four or five feet where she was doing her business.

“I think bigger fish don’t move all the way to the back of those real shallow spawning coves. I think the smaller fish do; you’ll get 3- and 5-pounders in water shallow enough where you can look at them, but the real big ones don’t do that. They’re like a big deer.”

Mike has a host of jigs handy, too, for fish that may be staging or spawning out deeper.

“A jig is always a big-fish bait, period,” he said. “I’ll throw it anywhere there’s rock or red clay leading into those spawning pockets, anywhere there could potentially be crawfish, which is rock and red clay. If you have an area like that that leads into a spawning cove that has pea-gravel and sand in the back of it, you got it.”

When I think jig fishing at Oconee, the first thing that comes to mind is pitching one way under a dock.

“I throw a jig differently than most people do,” said Mike. “When I’m fishing these prespawn and spawning areas, I’m making fairly long casts right up to the bank and just dragging it back like a Texas rig. I don’t have to be throwing it in a brushpile, although they are a bonus. I throw them on a 7 1/2 foot medium-heavy Pflueger rod with a Pflueger President 6.3:1.”

Mike likes a 3/8-oz. jig made by Oldham’s Lures out of Texas. He likes either a white or brown jig for clean water but switches to a black/blue jig when the water is dirty. Mike will pitch docks in these areas, but he prefers a Mann’s Stone Jig because the head is molded just right for pitching. On all his jigs, he likes Paca Chunks.

We’ve mentioned the Senko as an effective bait for prespawn and spawning fish, and Mike re-emphasizes, “When the wind don’t blow, throw the Senko!”

A Senko is not the only plastic bait Mike likes in April.

“Any time the bite is tough or I’m trying to fill out a limit, a jig-head worm is hard to beat,” said Mike. “I throw a 1/8-oz. shaky head made by Sworming Hornet, and I put a Zoom Finesse or Trick Worm on it.”

Mike said this finesse style of fishing used to receive little respect from power fishermen, but its effectiveness has gotten attention from the fishing community.

“It’s taken off in the last few years,” said Mike. “It used to be considered a sissy bait, but now people like Aaron Martens and Mike Iaconelli have mastered it. Iaconelli is so consistent because he has the ability to know when power fishing is working and when it’s not.”

Mike Harris throws the shaky head with 8-lb. line on a spinning reel. The light line allows him to feel the bait and the bite.

“I’ll just shake the rod tip two or three times and make it move 5 or 6 inches,” said Mike. “The bait is standing up, and the tail is fluttering. If I don’t get bit, I’ll raise my rod and move the bait 3 or 4 feet and then shake it again.”

Mike said he throws the bait into any spawn or prespawn area.

“You can throw it on the bank, in pockets and points, especially into brushpiles,” said Mike. “Typically what I’ll do with that bait is if I catch fish shallow earlier that day, and the fish quit biting, I’ll move out a bit deeper with the shaky head. In April the fish are not going to move out more than 6 or 8 feet deep. Typically, if they’re not hard on the bed, they’ll move out onto secondary points where they’re waiting to move up.”

Also in these same areas, Mike throws a Zoom Magnum Lizard.

“The bass will attack a lizard in the spring better than any other time of the year,” said Mike. “The Magnum Lizard will catch magnum bass. Throw it Texas or Carolina rigged, whichever you have more confidence in.”

Except for his shaky-head worm, Mike throws the majority of his plastics on a 7 foot medium Pflueger rod with a Pflueger President 6.3:1.

By the middle of April, Mike will be looking for flickering shad on rocks, as the shad spawn gets under way.

“For the shad spawn, I focus on main-lake seawalls with rock on them,” said Mike. “The first few hours of daylight are best. You will see the shad flickering right up on the banks during this time. Throw the spinnerbait right up on the bank, and slow-roll it back.”

Mike also likes to keep a buzzbait or Pop-R at close reach when the shad are up spawning.

“Make several casts with the spinnerbait, and switch up with a buzzbait or Pop-R in the same spots,” said Mike. “Cover as much water as you can during this period. Once the sun gets high and the shad move out, move out with them. Let your spinnerbait get into the 6 to 8 foot range, and yo-yo it occasionally. Also try a deeper-running crankbait like a Rapala DT6.”

In the last four years, Mike Harris has had three 20-lb. stringers while fishing tournaments at Oconee in April. This is the month he has confidence fishing the above-mentioned baits in prespawn and spawning areas. So, instead of getting bogged down trying to make a bedded bass bite, tie on a variety of spinnerbaits, jigs and plastics and really cover some water this month.

Who knows… the techniques Mike has shared may just land you on the GON cover.

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