Along its 170 mile course the Oconee River passes through some beautiful country, from its hilly beginnings north of Athens to the flatlands where is joins the Ocmulgee River near Lumber City. But to bass fishermen none of the river is it prettier than the 45 miles contained in Lake Oconee and Lake Sinclair.
Oconee and Sinclair offer some of the best bass fishing in Georgia, especially in the winter. Although the lakes are back to back with the Oconee dam separating the two, and have many similarities, they are different in many ways. Those differences and similarities are important to the bass fishing on each.
Lake Oconee is the newer of the two and its 19,050 acres of water was dammed in 1979. It has 374 miles of shoreline covered with golf courses, expensive houses and docks. There are areas of huge boulders in parts of the lake and natural rock is common. Shallow sandy coves and clay points are found throughout the lake as are big areas of standing timber.
Lake Sinclair is smaller and older than Oconee, with 14,750 acres of water. It has more long creeks so it has slightly more shoreline with 417 miles. Although work on the dam was started in 1929 the Great Depression and World War II stopped it and it was not completed until 1953. There are many sandy coves and shallow creeks with extensive grassbeds, but no standing timber. Some natural rock is in the lake but you won’t find the big boulders common at Oconee. Like Oconee, it is lined with docks.
Lake Sinclair has always had a 12 inch size limit on bass but at Oconee there is a slot limit from 11 to 14 inches, meaning you can keep bass over or under that length. That was done to try to keep down the population of small bass since Oconee is not a fertile lake, but fishermen seldom keep the smaller bass so the slot limit may not be very effective. Both lakes have a ten bass daily possession limit.
Water clarity is similar on both lakes and ranges from very muddy to slightly stained. The upper Oconee River at Oconee is most likely to be muddy while Little River on Sinclair stays heavily stained year round. The clearest water on Sinclair will usually be in Island and Rocky Creeks near the dam and Richland Creek on Oconee is usually the clearest. Sinclair also has a steam power plant that warms areas of the lake, keeping winter temperatures well above those at Oconee in some sections.
At the Oconee Dam the power generators were specially designed to work as pumps, too. During the day water runs through them from Lake Oconee into Lake Sinclair, producing electricity. At night some of the generators are reversed, pumping water from Sinclair back into Oconee. This pump-back operation creates unusual current patterns on both lakes and affects the bass fishing.
When power is being generated at the Oconee dam current runs downstream through Lake Oconee and Lake Sinclair. But when water is being pumped back the current flows upstream in both lakes. This current positions bass in different ways on structure and cover.
The pump-back operation does keep both lakes at a fairly stable water level. Oconee will drop a foot or two during the day and Sinclair will rise the same amount, then Sinclair will drop a foot or two at night while Oconee rises. But the water does not show the drastic drops found on other Georgia lakes in the winter, with both lakes staying within a couple of feet of full pool most of the time.
According to the Georgia Bass Chapter Federation Creel Census Report, in 2007 Sinclair had 81 tournaments and Oconee 73, the second and third highest totals of any Georgia lake. A lot of tournaments are held on the two lakes because fishing is good on them. On Sinclair 2.91 bass per man hour of tournament fishing were weighed in, the highest in the state. At Oconee it was 1.88, not real high but tournaments have an effective 14 inch size limit that lowers the numbers weighed in.
For tournament winning weights Oconee and Sinclair had identical 9.83 pounds, tied for fourth highest in the state. So bass fishermen catch a lot of bass in tournaments on both lakes. The numbers are good and success rates reflect this, meaning you should catch a good number of bass on either lake this winter.
The Georgia DNR says Sinclair has a lot of small bass in it, no surprise to anyone fishing it, and the good 2006 and 2007 year class bass should dominate this winter. Since over 90 percent of bass caught at Sinclair are usually released the numbers should stay high and the size increase with time.
At Oconee the bass population is stable but the DNR is concerned that the numbers of small bass will hurt the lake. Unless bass fishermen start keeping the small bass under the 11 inch slot limit the quality will suffer. That may be reflected in the fact the average big bass in tournaments at Oconee was only 3.68 pounds, compared to 4.20 pounds at Sinclair.
There are a lot of ways to catch bass on both lakes right now. You can follow the same patterns on each or specialize on patterns that work best on one lake or the other.
Fishing docks is a good winter pattern on both lakes. Find a dock near deep water and flip a jig and pig or curly tail worm to the pilings and brush around it and you should get bit. On both lakes pay attention to the current. Strong currents are not as good in the winter but a slight current moving water under docks helps. The bass will hold behind post and brush, facing into the current waiting on food. Position your boat downstream of the current, no matter which way it is flowing, and flip upstream, working your bait back in a natural action.
Crankbaits also work well around docks in both lakes. A #5 or #7 Shadrap run by dock pilings will draw strikes from winter bass. Natural colors like shad or black and silver are good. Just like with the jig and pig, fish with the current. Run your crankbait at a slow, steady retrieve, going slower in colder water.
On Oconee the docks from Long Shoals Ramp up to the Highway 44 Bridge are good. Stay on main lake areas where the docks are deeper and concentrate on outside posts and brush this time of year. Work your jig and pig or worm slowly in the cold water, dropping it to the bottom and jiggling it in one spot by a post.
At Sinclair the docks in Beaverdam Creek are good since the warm discharge from the steam plant keeps the water warmer. There is almost always some current here, too. The discharge from the steam plant moves water even when there is no current from the dams. Also try the docks from Beaverdam Creek to the dam. If the water is muddy go into Rocky and Island Creeks and flip docks in clearer water.
Riprap is excellent on both lakes in the winter. A spinnerbait slow rolled just over the rocks, ticking them as it eases along, it a good choice. Fish it with the current. Crankbaits are also good. Use different sizes to reach different depths. For five-foot deep rocks cast a #5 Shadrap but go to a #8 Shadrap for rocks down to ten feet. Fish all sizes with the current, reel them down to the desired depths then crank them in slowly.
At Sinclair there is almost always current around the rocks at the Highway 441 Bridges and the one in Beaverdam Creek has the added advantage of warmer water. Also check out the riprap around the steam plant outflow in that creek. The riprap at Crooked Creek can be good and riprap around houses and docks on points on the main lake often holds fish, especially if the sun is warming it.
On Oconee the bridges in Lick Creek area always good as is the Highway 44 Bridge over the river. You can catch fish on the I-20 riprap up the river, too. Many of the houses on the main lake have riprap protecting their shoreline. Riprap in front of a seawall that drops into deep water is best. Current is the key and the bass bite much better when some water is moving across the rocks.
Both Oconee and Sinclair have a lot of long points and humps on the main lake that are good places to jig a spoon in cold water. Bass stack up in deep water and hold there all winter long A shallow point or hump with a good drop on it is an ideal place to find a school of bass. Most are near creek and river channels.
Jigging a spoon works best in clearer water. You can locate schools of baitfish with bass under them with a good depthfinder then get right on top of the school and drop a spoon. Mark them with a buoy to you can stay on them. Drop the spoon down to the bottom, pop it up about two feet and let fall back on a tight line. Vary the height you pop it up and the speed of the pop until you find what the bass want.
In both lakes hard bottoms are best. Sand, clay or rock hold more fish so look for these type bottoms no the humps and points. Sometimes bass want cover like a brush pile, stumps or rocks but usually they will be on slick bottoms this time of year on these points and humps.
On Oconee the humps and points from the dam up to the mouth of Richland Creek are good. You can also find fish on up Richland Creek and up the Oconee River if the water is clear but the best spots in the River will be from Lick Creek downstream and in Richland Creek from Sandy Creek downstream. Look for the bass to be holding in 18 to 22 feet of water most days.
At Sinclair the long points and humps from the mouth of Little River to the dam are good and there are some excellent points in both Rocky and Island Creeks. If the main lake is heavily stained concentrate your efforts in the creeks. Bass tend to hold a little deeper in those areas at Sinclair so look for them 18 to 25 feet deep.
Even on the coldest days some bass will be shallow in both lakes. If the sun is shining it will warm the backs of coves and pockets and bass will feed in them. Find a short cove with a good channel running into it, with shallow flats in the back, and the bass will be there looking for something to eat. Crankbaits and spinnerbaits are good bets to catch them.
On Sinclair look for shallow flat pockets on the west side of the lake around Nancy Creek to the dam. Some grass in them helps. Throw a Rat-L-Trap or #5 Shadrap up very shallow and work it back just fast enough to bump the bottom. Also slow roll a spinnerbait along the bottom. Hard sand or clay bottoms are best.
On Oconee there are good pockets from the mouth of Lick Creek to the dam. A pocket that gets sun most of the day is better and grassbeds helps, although there is not a lot of it on Oconee. Although the grass will be dead baitfish still feed on it and they attract bass. A spinnerbait worked along the bottom is an excellent bait for these bass.
Sinclair has a lot more grass than Oconee and the pattern of fishing grass is better there. Most of the coves and creeks from Crooked Creek to the dam on the Oconee River have some grass beds in them. Fish a spinnerbait around them and let the bass tell you if they are holding in the grass or on the edge. Once you establish this pattern you can find similar places in most coves.
Standing timber can be a place to catch winter bass at Oconee but Sinclair does not have it. The timber that runs for a long way on both sides of the point between the Oconee River and Richland Creek as well as the patches of timber in Double Branches are good. You are more likely to have current on the main lake timber on the point than in the patches in the creek.
There are several ways to fish the timber. Bass sometimes suspend in the branches and you can catch them on a crankbait or spinnerbait fished through them. Make fairly short cast with either bait and get them down to about ten feet deep. Bounce them through the limbs and off the trunks of the trees. Vary the depth until you catch a bass then concentrate on that depth.
Also pay attention to which tree the bass hits. Is it on the outside edge of the patch of timber or on the inside edge. Or is it in the middle of the patch. If on the edges concentrate on them but if inside the timber fish every tree.
You may also be able to tell what kind of tree it is and whether it has underwater branches. An old cedar tree will have more branches than most others. If you are hitting a lot of branches when you catch a bass try to find trees that have a lot of them to fish.
If the fish don’t want a bait moving through the trees, try dropping a jig and pig down the trunk. A light jig and pig with a twin curly tail trailer will fall slowly and draw a bite. Fish it on heavy line and set the hook hard if you see a twitch or jump in your line as your bait falls. If it stops falling before getting to the bottom be ready to set the hook, a bass probably has it.
Don’t pass up jigging a spoon along the creek channels and ditches in the timber, too. Bass will often hold right on the bottom on the lip of the ditch by the tree. The best way to get to them is to drop a spoon down and jig it vertically.
Start at the back of the pockets of timber in Double Branches where the channel enters the trees and work deeper, or work the outside of the trees along the channel in Richland Creek. Any change in the bottom, like two ditches coming together, a big rock or a hump, will help hold bass. When you find the best depth concentrate on it.
Spend some time on Lake Oconee or Sinclair this winter. Even if you are cold, the bass will make it worth your time.