When they’re moving water, the humps and ridges down by the dam on Lake Oconee can provide some seriously hot-and-heavy action on downlines. But sometimes the hybrids just don’t live up to their easy-to-catch reputation. That’s when lineside guide Doug Bowling pulls the ace out of his sleeve to consistently catch fish, even when they won’t hit live bait.
Using a technique he adapted from his winter job — putting clients on big stripers at Lanier — Doug downlines live gizzard shad when the celebrated Lake Oconee summer bite is on, but when the fish hunker down and get stubborn, he resorts to a different tactic. He pulls a miniature umbrella rig across those same humps and ridges where he’s spotted fish on the graph to pick up reaction strikes when nothing else seems to be working.
“I pull ’em up at Lanier for striped bass all the time,” Doug said. “Then Tommy came up with this smaller one a couple of years ago. We brought it out here and caught about 50 fish on it.”
The Tommy that Doug spoke of is Tommy Swinks of Lilburn who invented the Tri-Troller, a smaller version of the standard U-rig. In comparison to a typical U-rig, a frame which allows you to troll nine lures on the same line, the Tri-troller is smaller and holds just five lures. The rig imitates a small school of baitfish, and its smaller size is better suited to the comparatively shallow waters of Oconee because it can be trolled slowly without hanging up on the bottom as much as a heavier, deeper-running U-rig.
Doug and his first mate, his 12-year-old son, Daniel, showed me just how well the rig works on a slow day at Oconee in July. They picked me up with a bait tank full of small 4- to 5-inch gizzard shad, and they reported the summer bite had been strong in recent weeks. We were hoping they would pull some water at the dam, because moving water draws baitfish and linesides up onto the humps to feed, and that makes for an exciting day downlining.
“They’ve been pulling water early in the morning, then again about 11 or 12. They need the electricity, and it’s been that way pretty much every day,” Doug said as we idled under a bridge in Lick Creek where he nets his bait. “It’s like a difference between night and day. This lake’s always been that way. It pulls the baitfish up, and it pulls the fish up with them.”
We checked a couple of spots on the graph but ran all the way down to the dam basin before Doug spotted what he likes to see. The graph showed a few fish stacked up near the bottom on a ridge that came up to about 20 feet off the 65 or 70 foot deep main channel. As we idled down the ridge, which runs along the west side of the main river channel, Doug threw two buoys to mark where we had spotted fish on the graph, and we all got busy baiting up the downlines.
Doug typically puts out a spread of four downlines on medium/light-action Ugly Stiks using Shimano Tekota reels with line counters. He threads a 2-oz. egg sinker on 17-lb. test mono, then ties on a swivel and a 6-foot leader of 17-lb. fluorocarbon. He hooks his shad through the nostrils with a No. 2 Gamakatsu Octopus hook and uses the line counter to put his baits just off the bottom where he has marked fish. He staggers each of the baits by a few feet in the water column to find the depth the fish like.
“Son, when you get him (the bait) on there, drop him down fast. The surface temp is 85 degrees, and you want to get it through that quick,” Doug said to Daniel.
“If he hammers it, he’s hooked,” Doug continued, turning his attention to me. “You want to let that rod bury itself up under the boat.”
Well, Doug used the trolling motor to move the baits between his buoys, but none of the rods got hammered. The fish were there; they just didn’t seem to be interested in our downlines.
“I can usually pull through there with that Tri-Troller and get a reaction bite,” Doug said as we pulled up the downlines. “They see it coming through; they think it’s a school of bait and slam it. It’s a reaction bite. My trolling bite this summer has been really good.”
Doug’s tackle for trolling is a little heavier than his downline gear. He uses an Okuma Catalina reel paired with a medium-action Ugly Stik. The Tri-troller is baited with five bucktail jigs, all with pearl-colored, twist-tail trailers except one, which Doug uses with a chartreuse twist-tail grub. Three of the bucktail jigs are Hyper Striper jigs, which have a small nickel blade attached to the lead head. On the four outside arms of the rig, Doug ties on 1/2-oz. jigs with a 12-inch section of leader. The jig in the middle of the spread weighs 1 3/4 ounces. and is attached with a longer, 18-inch leader. He uses coated steel leaders out of the package but said monofilament or fluorocarbon work fine.
At idle speed, between 2.6 and 3 mph on his boat, Doug counted the U-rig out 118 feet, which he said would get it down to 17 or 18 feet.
“We’re trying to bump the bottom, see what’s here,” Doug said. “I use it as a fish finder… but it’s also a fish catcher.”
Sure enough, on the first pass down the ridge, the clicker on the reel started buzzing off line, and Daniel, who was sitting next to the rod munching on a bag of chips, threw his snack all over the back of the boat as he hurried to wrestle the rod out of the rodholder. And, it was quite a wrestling match. Even after he managed to get the rod in hand, cranking in 120 feet of line with an angry hybrid on the end is quite a battle.
“Pound-for-pound, I’d rather fight these hybrids than a striper. A hybrid will fight you to the death,” Doug said. “I hate it that they’re stocking fewer of them, because you can bring kids down here during the summer. You can keep ’em busy with hybrids, and they enjoy it. Stripers go so much deeper in the summertime, but you can come down here and pull these humps for these hybrids, and they’ll come up and feed.”
With a fishing guide for a dad, Daniel is no average kid when he gets on the water. He’s probably caught more linesides than most grown men, and his largest hybrid to date is an 11-pounder he caught on Oconee. That said, it is easy to see how he — or any angler who prefers steady action to the occasional big fish — prefers the sometimes hectic pace of hybrid fishing in comparison to the long hours logged seeking a trophy striper. On the other end of the spectrum, there are certainly a lot of anglers out there who enjoy fishing for that one big bite. As we heard from two other anglers on the lake while we were there, hybrid vs. striper stocking is a contentious issue.
During the 1980s, WRD stocked only stripers in Lake Oconee, and some of those fish grew into the 15- to 20-lb. range. However, in the 1990s, hybrids were introduced to the lake, and they were the sole linesides stocked there at a rate of 20 fish per acre until 2005. In 2005, because of the appearance of hybrids far downstream in the Altamaha River watershed, the stocking trend shifted back toward striped bass in the system, which includes Lake Oconee. Biologists are concerned hybrid bass, a sterile, cross-breed of white bass and striped bass, are escaping the impoundments in the drainage and competing with striper populations. Through striper stockings, WRD hopes to rebuild the population of stripers, a fish native to the Altamaha River watershed.
Since 2005 WRD has tried to maintain an equal ratio of stripers to hybrids on Lake Oconee, said Region III Fisheries Supervisor Ramon Martin. They try to stock 10 hybrids per acre and 10 stripers per acre.
“It’s been pretty constant,” Ramon said. “But it depends on our production at the hatchery. If we have a bad year with hybrids, we try to replace them with stripers, and vice-versa. Ideally, we try to maintain 10 for each as much as we can.”
At 19,050 acres, 10 fish per acre on Lake Oconee equals about 190,000 fish. Ramon said WRD tries to stock about that number of hybrids and stripers each year; however, 2007 was a bad year for hybrid production at the Richmond Hill Hatchery. Because of the shortage of hybrids, Lake Oconee received a stocking of 64,000 hybrid bass (about 3 fish per acre) and 318,000 striped bass (about 17 fish per acre) in 2007. Ramon said the 2008 stocking was back to about normal at 194,000 hybrids and about 180,000 stripers.
Doug and the other two hybrid fishermen we talked to on the lake agreed they have noticed that decrease in the 2007 year-class of hybrids, and they are not happy about it. Doug and the folks in the other boat said they prefer the fast action and harder fight of the hybrids, but Ramon would be quick to point out the stripers have not yet reached their potential trophy sizes.
That was witnessed by the striper I hauled in on the Tri-Troller. It weighed about 3 1/2 pounds and took one of the bucktails as we pulled the rig across a hump closer to the dam and across the basin near the east bank. It wasn’t a monster yet, but it appeared to be strong and healthy.
By late that afternoon, we had caught 19 fish, two of them stripers, all hard-fighting brutes between 3 and 6 pounds. All but one of the fish came on the trolling rig, but it was not because we didn’t try the live bait. We stopped at several humps in sight of the dam to try the downlines, especially when the little blinking red light on the dam indicated they were moving water, but the live-bait bite never did turn on. Each time we stopped to drop lines, Daniel got impatient. He was having more fun trolling and catching fish than sitting and waiting on a bite.
And, the trolling bite was pretty steady. The rod would bend to the water, and the clicker would sing every few times we passed over a hump where we had marked fish. On one pass, Daniel was battling a double hookup on the Tri-Troller, but by the time he got it to the boat there was only one fish on the line, and a bucktail was missing.
“It’s not that uncommon,” Doug said. “Ask Daniel about the quadruple he had on. It’s hard to get them all in. They go everywhere when you get more than one on, and a lot of times they’ll break off.”
Doug said it was a very slow day compared to what he’s used to, and attributed it to the lack of moving water. If they were pulling water at the dam, it wasn’t much because we didn’t notice any current at all.
One thing is for certain, it would have been a very slow day without the mini umbrella rig. A word of warning: if you decide to buy a Tri-Troller, be sure to also purchase a retrieval device. You want to fish it close to the bottom, and you are bound to get hung up on occasion. If you break off five bucktails and an umbrella rig every time you hang up, it can quickly turn into a very expensive fishing trip.
Tri-Trollers can be purchased at Bass Pro Shops, but if you prefer to let someone else do the trolling while you reel in the fish, give Doug a call at (678) 231-8277. He also guides for striped bass on Lanier.