Fighting With Oconee Stripers And Hybrids Down South

In April, many anglers go as far up Lake Oconee as they possibly can. Lonnie Smith does just the opposite.

“This is a pretty good fish,” said Lonnie, grinning and hanging on to a rod bowing sharply toward the water. Whatever was hooked up on the other end of the line surged again, and the rod tip arced even farther as line spooled off the reel.

“I love it,” said Lonnie. “These hybrids will try to take the rod away from you.”

For more than 20 years, Lonnie Smith, of Haddock, has been making his annual spring pilgrimage to Lake Oconee to catch fat hybrids on the buoy line at the dam, and our trip was off to a good start. Twenty minutes after beginning to troll, Lonnie slipped his net under a tremendously fat hybrid.

“It will go at least eight,” he guessed, as he held the silvery fish up for pictures. “Maybe more.”

Several hours later, the fish weighed 8-lbs., 15-ozs. on digital scales.

Like the April white-bass run up the Oconee River above Lake Oconee, the annual congregation of hybrids — and now striped bass — at the buoy line at the dam is an annual fishing event on the lake. Lonnie has been bringing family and friends here to catch big hybrids since the late 1980s. The draw is simple: big, hard-fighting fish, and good numbers of them.

Generally, what you can expect are 4- to 6-lb. hybrids trying to break your rod with an 8-pounder or better thrown in among every 20 or so fish. But the buoy line has a history of producing even bigger fish.

In 1997, Lonnie boated a bulging-fat hybrid that weighed 15-lbs., 4-ozs. The fish would have become the new Lake Oconee lake-record hybrid if he had certified the weight. (The current Oconee lake-record hybrid, caught in 1991, weighed 14-lbs., 4-ozs.)

Four years ago he caught 12-lb., 2-oz. and 12-lb., 4-oz. hybrids back to back.

Lonnie grew up fishing for bass and crappie at Sinclair. Then he got his first taste of hybrid fishing and became addicted to catching lots of big fish.

“A friend of mine, Tracy Bolt, brought me up here, and I caught a 7 3/4-lb. hybrid,” said Lonnie. “It was an adrenaline rush to catch a fish that big.”

Lonnie was also drawn by the numbers of big fish.

One day two years ago, he boated 32 hybrids that weighed a total of 176 pounds. Another trip several years ago saw 39 fish that weighed 150 pounds.

“I have 20-fish days every year,” he said.

On March 6, Lonnie and I put in at the Long Shoals ramp and made the run down the lake to the point at the eastern end of the buoy line that stretches across the lake in front of the dam. (The Lawrence Shoals ramp across from the dam opened in mid March).

Lonnie’s 21 1/2-foot Fish Master center-console is set up to troll for hybrids like a super-sized spider rig you see for catching crappie. He covers the water trolling with 14 rods. Two banks of rodholders on the left and right in the bow of the boat hold three rods apiece. Two more sets of rodholders in the stern on either side of the motor direct three rods each out the back of the boat, and single rodholders on the rail on the left and right even with the center-console seat hold the final pair of rods.

The rods Lonnie fishes from the front of the boat are equipped with baitcasters spooled with 10-lb. line leading to a 1-oz. trolling lead. Lonnie uses green line to make the line harder for the fish to see in water that is usually clear.

From the weight he ties on a 3-foot leader of 10-lb. test and then ties on a 1/8-oz. Hal-Fly. The final touch is a medium shiner hooked upward through the lips to dress the Hal-Fly.

The ideal-sized shiner is about 2 or 2 1/2-inches long.

“When you catch fish that are spitting up bait, that’s about the size they are eating,” said Lonnie.

Shad of the same size work well, too, he said.

The six spinning rods fished out of the back of the boat, spooled with 6-lb. line, were rigged with shiner-dressed 1/8-oz. Hal-Flys but no additional weights.

Some of Lonnie’s favorite Hal-Fly color combos include white/green/white, red/white/white, red/yellow/yellow, black/white and black/green/black-green.

“Some days the color matters,” said Lonnie. “You have to be diligent about putting out different colors each day. They don’t always hit what they hit yesterday.”

While we had several color combos out, white/green/white was the top-producing color of the day.

Lonnie pulls about 20 feet of line out on the downline rods; the back-of-the-boat lines are cast out to trail the boat at a depth of 6 or 8 feet. Is there high potential for tangled lines? You bet, but that’s just part of the deal, says Lonnie.

Occasionally he will hook a fish that is determined to go ripping and running in circles around the boat collecting and knotting up other lines. When it happens, Lonnie boats the fish, cuts the lines and re-rigs. The time spent dealing with tangled line is worth it, he says.

“If we only had two lines in the water, how many fish do you think we would catch?” he asked. “I’d rather have more lines in the water and take the chance of snarled lines.”

We trolled slowly across the bay parallel to and 50 yards from the buoy line with our rainbow-colored swarm of shiner-tipped jigs trailing the boat.

“You want to troll just fast enough to control the boat,” said Lonnie. “It is sort of like deer hunting in that you have to put in your time, but on a good day you can expect about two fish an hour. The fish seem to hit in spurts, but with a 5-lb. average you can catch a mess of fish.

“Hybrids are bad to hit twice,” he said. “They will hit the bait but not take it, and then come back and eat it. You don’t have to set the hook; the fish will do that for you, but you have to wait until the rod loads up before you grab it.”

Lonnie likes to be on the buoy line when Georgia Power is pumping water in either direction. Moving water, he says, seems to stimulate the fish to feed.

“Generating water and the fish biting isn’t always a strong correlation,” he said. “Some days it seems to work, other days it doesn’t, but I still like to see moving water.”

As we paralleled the buoy line, waves pushed by a light breeze slapped the front of the boat. A light wind is a good thing, says Lonnie.

“You want a little breeze and a chop on the water to break up the light,” said Lonnie. “I think it breaks up the shadow of the boat, so it doesn’t spook the fish.”

At the western end of the buoy line is a Georgia Power Co. boat house. In front of the boat house a relatively shallow flat extends out under the buoy line. It’s a popular area of the buoy line to fish. As we turned off the buoy line, one of the rods near me was hit but no hookup. Then the rod next to it bent to the water. I grabbed that rod — and took my time playing a fish in. Feeling the powerful runs and hanging on to the rod while a big fish pulls is the best part of fishing. Eventually, Lonnie netted the 5-lb., 1-oz. fish.

We missed at least 10 strikes. A rod would bounce without a hookup, and when the line was reeled in the shiner would be scaled from its dorsal fin to its tail.

“The water is still a little cold, and the fish aren’t real aggressive,” said Lonnie. “As the water warms up, they will get more aggressive. Short strikes can also be your bait size. A large shiner is too big.”

Another jarring strike at mid-morning jerked a rod tip backward but also resulted in no hookup. When the Hal-Fly was reeled in, the hook had been straightened.

“I didn’t check the drag,” said Lonnie. “You want your drag set pretty loose. If you have good line and your drag set properly, you aren’t going to lose fish — in 80 or 90 feet of water they aren’t going to hang you up.”

Lonnie sometimes breaks out his ultra-light rods to add to the challenge. He trolls shiner-tipped jigs on ultra-lights spooled with 6-lb. test line out the back of the boat.

“Every year we will have an epic battle on ultra-light,” said Lonnie. “It’s a lot of fun playing a 6-lb. fish on a little ultra-light, but you have to be ready to chase them with the trolling motor. I have been spooled more than once.”

Early in the day is probably the best fishing time, but on overcast days the bite holds up all day. As a case in point, at 11 a.m. we doubled on a 3-lb. striper and a 3-lb. hybrid just off the first point on the west bank of the dam where a big metal pipe stands up from a concrete pad point.

Striped bass are an increasing percentage of the catch at the buoy line. Throughout the 1990s and until 2005, WRD Fisheries had stocked only hybrids in Oconee and at a rate of 20 fish per acre. Beginning in 2005, the stocking switched to 10 hybrids and 10 striped bass per acre. That equates to approximately 190,000 of each species stocked each year. The introduction of stripers and the reduction of hybrids is part of an attempt to reduce the number of hybrids escaping impoundments into the Altamaha River drainage where they compete with native striped bass.

As stripers replace hybrids in the fishery, Lonnie expects the number of fish caught to drop, but he is looking forward to the average size climbing.

“It’s going to be fun when you can expect to catch fish in the teens,” he said.

Fish begin congregating near the dam in late February, drawn by the current, and will remain in the area until late April, said Lonnie.

As the fishing improves into late March and early April, word gets around.

“I have counted as many as 50 boats out here,” said Lonnie.

Because of the crowds, Saturdays can be the worst days to fish. Some anglers will tie up to the buoy line and fish live bait straight down. Other boats line up for the trolling parade down the buoy line.

While most anglers are inclined to trolling loops along the buoy line, it’s not the only place where you can expect to catch hybrids. The long point at the eastern end is excellent, said Lonnie, especially when there is a stiff wind coming across the lake or when water is being pumped back. Both events push water and baitfish across the point. The water column is compressed going over the point which pushes the bait into a smaller area. The hybrids lurk on the up-lake side of the point waiting to ambush the bait. And if you hit a day when the boat traffic is exceptionally thick on the buoy line, Lonnie has also caught hybrids in March and April by trolling right up the river channel to the confluence of Richland Creek.

Over the years, Lonnie said he has brought 20 or so people to the buoy line who have caught their biggest-ever fish from his boat. It is also a great place to bring kids.

“Can you imagine if a kid had caught that 8-pounder?” he said. “He’d be ruined.”

You might recall the name Lonnie Smith as the centerpiece of the Backyard BBQ Blast cooking contest at GON’s Outdoor Blast in August at the Macon Coliseum. Lonnie works as an engineer for First Quality Retail Group in Macon. During his free time, he is either fishing, hunting or competing in barbecue cook-offs. During the late spring and summer, he enters cooking competitions across the Southeast. And wins. He has qualified for the world championship in Memphis three times, and he has competed in the national championship in Washington, D.C. twice.

Lonnie is owner of Bubba Grills where he makes and markets high-quality barbecue grills and smokers. Visit him at <www.bubbagrills.net>.

Hybrids are excellent on a plate flanked by hush puppies, cole slaw and a glass of ice tea, says Lonnie. First, you must prepare the hybrid properly, which means trimming away the blood line located just under the skin. Second, if you are going to pan fry the fillets, cut them horizontally into thin fillets. Then batter them in a mixture of one-third flour and two/thirds corn meal. Fry the fillets until they are are crisp but not overdone.

If you prefer grilled fish, Lonnie said to try this: Put a whole fillet in an aluminum-foil boat after rubbing the down side with kosher salt. Then douse the fish with Italian dressing, a sprinkle of cracked black pepper and a small amount of cayenne pepper.

“Get your grill hot —about 425 to 450,” said Lonnie. “Then set your fillet in the aluminum boat on the grill. Don’t flip the meat. As soon as it sticks to the aluminum, it’s done. It usually takes six to eight minutes to cook.”

We reeled in our 14 lines at 1 p.m. after boating six hybrids and three stripers. We missed at least 10 short strikes. On a day early in the season, our best five weighed 25-lbs., 14-ozs.

The hybrid bite is on at the Lake Oconee buoy line right now. Bring some 1/8-oz. Hal-Flys, a bucket of medium shiners and be ready for a fun day having your line stretched by big flashy fish.

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