Summertime Catfish Memories at Oconee

Guide Chad Smith uses the now famous Santee drift to catch catfish in his backyard on Lake Oconee.

John Trussell | July 3, 2015

The rod sticking off the back of the boat started to gently wave as though a fish might be messing with the bait, and guide Chad Smith urged patience and said, “Wait for it. Wait for it.”

Within a few seconds, the rod doubled down in a deep bend, and a big catfish was on! I have caught more than my share of good fish in years’ past, so now it was time for my grandson, Jack Trussell, to step up to the rod and do battle with the big fish.

Jack, who is 7 years old, lives in Bonaire with parents Brandon and Jennifer. Jack has been fishing many times before, but he was out for a really big fish today. He held on tightly and cranked the reel handle as though nothing else mattered in the world, and slowly the catfish began to work toward the boat. A few strong runs and the squealing of the reel drag let us all know this was a pretty good fish, and the smile on Jack’s face let us know he was one happy young angler.

Chad got out the net and scooped up the 8-lb. blue catfish, and Jack was all grins and full of excitement. Jack had just caught the biggest fish of his life! This is what making great childhood memories are all about.

In a short, four-hour fishing trip, the author, his grandson Jack Trussell (pictured) and guide Chad Smith (pictured) put 12 catfish in the boat while making some great memories. The summertime morning bite is good up until about 11 a.m.

Chad repeats this wonderful experience for anglers on a frequent basis and normally runs about 300 trips on Oconee and Sinclair every year. He is only 27 years old but has been a full-time guide for eight years and has accumulated a huge amount of fishing experience by hard work and success on the water. Chad has three young kids of his own and knows how important it is to provide good learning experiences for children. Book learning is wonderful, but learning about hunting and fishing is best taught at the hands of loving relatives who can provide meaningful outdoor adventures.

For catfishing, Chad does not use grandpa’s chunk-out-the-bait-and-wait method. He wants to put more and bigger fish in the boat and practices the Santee Cooper drift, a slow-trolling method for big cats. You may have heard about this fishing method, and it will work on just about any reservoir in Georgia. The basics are pretty simple, and he uses a modified Carolina-type bass rig for catfish.

Chad runs four Okuma baitcaster reels, matched with firm, 7-foot Shakespeare Ugly Stiks rods off the back of his 20-foot Smoker Craft pontoon boat that is very roomy and comfortable with a new shade roof, an important asset for summertime fishing. The reels are loaded with 25-lb. Gamma line.

Just above the main swivel he uses a barrel swivel to connect a 1-oz. slinky or snake weight. A plastic bead separates the two swivels. Chad prefers the slinky weight over a regular bullet weight because it’s not as likely to snag on obstructions on the bottom. These weights can be bought from major retailers, Amazon or on eBay. You can even make your own with parachute line, 00 buckshot-size weights and a little imagination.

Jack Trussell, 7, caught the biggest fish of his life with Chad Smith Guide Service. Here Grandpa John Trussell holds up the fish, 7- and 8-pounders, while Jack enjoys the moment.

Below the swivel he uses 3-4 feet of 20-lb. test that ends with an 8/0 Owner circle hook, connected with a snell knot. A very important part of the rig is a 1.5-inch cigar cork that free floats on the leader line to dangle the bait just off the bottom.


Chad likes to catch fresh shad every morning because a fresh blood scent trail is very attractive to a hungry catfish. He likes cutbait made from shad and will filet the larger baits into strips. Smaller baits are cut into 1-inch chucks and threaded onto a hook. But for bigger flatheads, he’ll use small, live bream hooked through the nose.

An important part of the fishing method is the trolling speed. Go too fast, said Chad, and a catfish won’t be willing or able to chase down the bait. Going too slow is not as bad but will cut down on the water area that you’ll be able to cover during a fishing trip. He likes to set the speed on his Minn Kota trolling motor at about 1 mph, and if the breeze kicks up, he might just drift. It’s important to keep all the baits about 30 yards behind the boat, and when a fish hits, he keep moving so the fish won’t tangle the lines.

After we had put a few nice catfish in the boat, Chad decided to try another nearby location, and Jack could not help but notice that he was driving a boat that had steering wheel attached to it. He was fascinated by the mechanics of the boat and said to Chad, “Can I help you drive?” Chad, with a dad’s intuition, sensed this was a learning and adventure moment, and he said, “Sure, hop on up.” So with four hands on the steering wheel, we were on our way. Jack was grinning from ear to ear, like he had just won $1,000! (Keep in mind that kids must be 16 years old to operate a boat alone).

Chad Smith uses a Santee Cooper style rig for slow trolling for Oconee catfish. Critical parts are the slinky weight to avoid snags, the small cigar cork to keep the bait off the bottom and an 8/0 Owner circle hook. Bait is a slice of gizzard shad.

I could not help but think back to 1987 when the Georgia Outdoor Writers Association held a meeting at Highland Marina. We had a fish fry, and there was a young man frying fish for us that I happened to notice behind the counter. He was an aspiring singer, and later he sang a few songs for the group. That young man was Alan Jackson, of Newnan, and later he would write and sing the song “Drive” about the wonderful memories he has from when his father the first time he let him drive the boat. Thanks Alan for that great song and so many more!

But where can you start catching Oconee catfish? We started about one-quarter mile south of the Highway 44 bridge in the main lake and got the boat about 100 yards off the east shoreline where the water was 17-22 feet deep. We trolled north toward the rip-rap at the bridge. With his Humminbird Onix depthfinder, he frequently pointed out larger catfish just below the ridge line into deeper water.

After we caught a few fish, we moved over to the west side of the lake, staying about 100 yards off the west bank and trolled toward the bridge.

A large gizzard shad filet gives off good scent, and it stays on the hook well.

We also fished the second cove north of the Hwy 44 bridge on the east bank that goes back into Reynolds Plantation. In there, we caught a couple of good cats before we quit fishing at about 11 a.m. Chad said the cats shut down in the summertime about noon, but some activity happens the last two hours of daylight. For summertime catfish anglers, Chad pointed out some more good locations to try.

1) Just southeast of the Parks Mill bridge in Sugar Creek there is a small island on the left. Fish between the island and the main shore and the small cove just past the island. Chad said this is a sandy-bottom area that holds lots of small to medium catfish. Use raw shrimp, chicken livers or pink worms on the bottom.

2) Looking at the Lake Oconee map, about one-quarter mile south of the I-20 bridge, find an underwater point that comes out off the west bank and shows a 15-foot-deep point that drops into the old river channel. This a great area to drop a bait or troll, said Chad.

3) On the map, find where Sugar Creek runs into the Oconee River and follow the old river bed north about 1 mile, and you’ll see a large submerged island on the east side of the river channel. Water here is 15 feet deep surrounded by deeper water and a good catfish spot, said Chad.

4) Easy to find is the main-lake point at Old Salem Park. Locate the fish-attractor site off this point, and troll between it, the point and the old river channel for a good hookup.

Chad’s customers regularly catch catfish in the 20-lb. range, and 30 to 40-plus pounders come to the boat, too! For rod-and-reel anglers, the current Oconee GON lake record for blue catfish is 47-lbs., 5.1-ozs, while the flathead record is 45-lbs., 12-ozs.

To contact Chad Smith Guide Service, call (706) 207-2411 or go to He also guides for linesides, bass and crappie.

Take a kid catfishing this summer at Lake Oconee, and make some great memories!

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