“Some great fishing is about to happen here…”
Allen Carter’s voice was full of excitement as he surveyed Big Sem’ s waist-high grass and the multitude of minnows, lake shiners, bream of several varieties and bass moving in and out of its root systems. He was continually pointing to some slight shudder of stem as a fish moved below the surface, causing even the slightest of ripples. Occasionally, the scent of bedding fish would waft over the pontoon boat, and he would stand like an almost- there pointer, desperately seeking the exact spot its quarry is hiding in.
Allen and I were hunting some of Lake Seminole’ s most sought-after inhabitants, the big redear sunfish, or shellcrackers, that in the words of Jack Wingate, “Somebody’ s down here looking for all the time.”
There are absolute worlds of shellcrackers in Lake Seminole, and I very much doubt if there are any two people on the planet who know anywhere near as much about them or the lake itself than Wingate and Carter. Both are legends, and not just locally. When it comes to both fishing and history surrounding Seminole, to list Jack’ s credentials would take much more space than this magazine allows. Let’s boil it down to this: he owned and operated Lunker Lodge, now Wingate’ s Lodge, three days shy of 43 years, was instrumental in the foundation-building of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society and remains a dear friend of Ray Scott, and has likely caught and guided fishermen to more fish than any half-dozen other guides going.
Except maybe Allen Carter.
Allen has known little else than hunting and fishing in his lifetime. He has guided on Big Sem for decades and has fished the BASS trail and conducted seminars on all types of fishing around the country. He lives on the lake and loves it, knowing it like his own front yard. The stories of the fish he’ s caught here over those many years would fill a very large book, also.
When GON asked for a Seminole shellcracker story, the original plan was to go out with Jack. When it comes to all-around nice folks in the world of fishing, I happen to rank Jack Wingate and Forrest Wood as 1 and 1A at the top. So for an opportunity like that, I’d almost walk the 190 miles from my front door in Dublin to Jack’s, near Faceville, south of Bainbridge. But all those years on the lake under south Georgia’ s broiling sun haven’t been kind to the favorite of fishermen across the country, and he’s facing another round of skin cancer surgery. We’ll come back to Jack in a bit, but for now, let’ s go fishing with the guide he selected for me, Allen Carter. Allen reminds me of another Wingate- picked guide of many years ago, the late Odell Johnson. Maybe it’ s the water, but this place seems to turn out some of the greatest guys going.
Mere minutes into our trip, I found myself fascinated by Allen and the way he absolutely immersed himself into his work. It’ s almost as if he became a part of the lake. Fishermen know what it means to notice all the little things that go on around you, but I sincerely doubt that you’ve ever seen anyone like Allen. It all comes from an upbringing in the woods and on the water, commercially hunting and fishing as far back as he can remember. His knowledge of the lake and all in and around it is vast, and if he can’t put you on the fish, there just aren’t fish there.
Going back to Allen’s opening statement, consider that a fine omen for you, our readers. Something IS going to happen, and it is likely happening as you read this. As the two of us checked area after area of the lake for bedding shellcrackers, we located and did our best to catch the little red- eared monsters by the hundreds. W e ended up landing only a couple. But what we saw and what we caught are very different things. Never before have I stood on a boat and watched 3-lb. shellcrackers swim underneath as unconcerned as if we didn’t exist. But bite?
As we fished on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, the fish were just beginning to gather. We were early — maybe a couple of days, maybe a week. But these shellcrackers aren’t like what you typically fish for in a pond, the three days before and three days after the full moon gatherers. I’ll let Allen tell you about just one of the beds he’s seen — this time last year — and how to go about locating and catching these souped-up sunfish.
“There was one other fella that used to fish with me all the time, and we got on a bed near Jack’s house last April,” he recalls. “When bluegills bed in open water, it will look like a honeycomb, with the rounded-out holes on the lake bottom stacked one on top of the other. But picture a bed shaped like a fallen log 50-feet wide and 50-yards long, and you’ll get an idea of what this shellcracker bed looked like. We fished it and took along some clients for three weeks and caught nearly 2,000 fish off that one bed. Almost all of them ranged between one-and-a- half and three pounds. I don’t know of anywhere else you can catch that kind and size of shellcrackers.”
If you’re new to the 38,000 acres of this lake, let’s narrow the locating process down to the northeast corner of the Flint River fork. Now look for water three to four feet in depth. Seminole will almost certainly be clear, as in tap-water clear, in April. We had to pass up a large stained area to hunt up the right look, and even that was dingier than normal. As Allen commented, “Right now, you can see the sand on the bottom; next month, you can see individual grains of sand.”
What about the grass, you ask? Well, so did I.
We were surrounded by thousands of coots all day, as well as flocks of canvasbacks. These, Allen said, have grazed away at the lake’s vegetation, clearing vast areas of sand bars. These will be a great place to start hunting, and the most critical single item you will need will be a pair of polarized sunglasses. Remember the clarity of water, and that you can actually tell the larger roosters from the smaller females, whether the males have turned black on top, signifying that they’ re in breeding mode, and even many times see the fish inhale the bait.
All this is assuming that the fish are on the sandbar flats in open water. If so, your rig of choice may well be a light or ultralight spinning outfit with 6-lb. test line, a pair of BB shot and a long-shanked light wire hook. But be prepared to experiment.
For instance, Allen prefers fishing with 12-foot fiberglass poles, and while during the bedding frenzy a matter of two tiny weights won’t matter a whit. On the day we fished he was forced to remove both cork and weight and free-fall a wiggler to draw bites.
Then, too, the fish very well may be back in the tall grass. In this case, the pole is about the only way to go, as it can be used to lift over the vegetation and drop the wiggler into the pot- holes the fish are using. Forget the 6- lb. line in this case.
“I’ll bet a man there’s no way he’ll pull a shellcracker up out of this grass on the initial bite,” Allen chuckles. “That big rooster shellcracker is going to make at least one or two circles or wild dashes before you can get him clear of the grass. There are times when I’ll even use 20-lb. test line on these poles.”
When searching out beds in the grass, Allen is not exactly what you would call a finesse fisherman. In fact, he’ll bull his pontoon boat right through the grass and make a path just to see what, if anything, moves out ahead of the boat.
“If you catch a scent of a bed and you can’t locate it, the fish may well be back in this grass. They may also be a half-mile away if the wind is blowing steadily, and you just have to keep looking. But if they’re bedding and active, it will be well worth any time and effort you take to get to them.
“And even if you spook them, shellcrackers will come right back to the bed. Bluegills may not, but a shell- cracker will.”
The fish we found were just get- ting ready to go on the beds but were still in transition. The first week of April should see frenzied action. As Jack Wingate relates, “There are times when you’ll see 40 to 50 boats fishing an area the size of my parking lot, and everybody will be catching fish.”
Spinning rigs, fiberglass poles, cane poles — anything with a wiggler attached will catch shellcrackers on Seminole, and very large ones at that. There’s a shellcracker tournament scheduled the first week of this month, and Jack says it may well take a five- fish weight of nearly 15 pounds to win it. And from what Allen and I saw, that’s certainly no stretch. I remember in particular in the cut leading out of Wingate’s landing into the lake proper, less than 500 yards from the front door of the lodge, a group of six roosters that would have easily weighed better than a dozen pounds. They were five feet from the boat, in four feet of water. I could almost have dipped them up in the net, but they wouldn’t touch a wiggler!
Those fish were constantly on the move, and Allen has already predicted where they will bed — the same place as last year and the year before that… Jack Wingate, too, will know where to look, and he wants you to come down to Big Sem and catch fish. In bunches. Unless you live in south- west Georgia, this big, peaceful lake is a long ways from anywhere, but it’s worth the trip just to eat one of Wingate’s biscuits and hear him tell a tale or 20. For now, though, the shell- crackers are the stars of the show, and will remain so through at least June. Full-moon periods in April and May should see full stringers and 50-fish limits, but the great catches are in no wise limited to those few days, as mentioned earlier.
And while this was a shellcracker trip, I would be remiss not to mention the bass we saw. And caught. Which, with Allen Carter is pretty much the same thing. Sight fishing is his specialty, and he’s quick to point out that it’s not the same thing as bed fishing. He pointed out two fish and walked me through his basics of catching them. I landed both, a total of about 14 pounds of largemouth, and then lost a third that was at least 10 pounds in a night- mare grassbed. But that is only what I caught and hung. We must have seen 50 bass up to a dozen pounds bedding and cruising the clear water. A great number of these fish could have been caught had we been bass fishing or had the time to put in on them. Simply said, I’ve never seen bass of this quality and number in any lake, anywhere. Period.
And one other little item about quality and number…
Several years ago, a 500-lb. alligator I helped catch alive and by hand was pictured was on this magazine’s cover. Thought that was a big gator until I saw one at Seminole that Allen said was approaching 20 feet. I’ve never seen a 20-foot alligator, but then neither have I ever seen anything like this monster. Obviously, we didn’t get close enough to measure the big old boy, but his middle was larger than a 55-gallon drum. I won’t ever hazard a guess what he would weigh, but if there’s any way to get in on hunting this one reptile, I’ll be there. But until then, I’ll settle for a big bed of biting shellcrackers.