As the big schools of Lake Oconee stripers and hybrids race to the dam this month in an effort to spawn, anglers will be waiting on them in boats with suspended bass minnows dangling below their fiberglass hulls. Oconee is a lake where water generation moves both ways, which means linesides don’t only go up the rivers in April, but many of them pile up in front of the dam. I recommend you load a youngster or three into a boat while the bite is good.
I had been wanting to do a GON fishing story with Capt. Mark Smith, of Greensboro, for a long time. This guy is about as generous as any fishing guide I’ve ever met, and it just encourages me to be around people like that. For a number of years, Mark has donated his boat, time and equipment to offer free fishing trips to kids and adult volunteers with Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), Truth In Nature and 30-30 Ministries. Why? The guy loves Jesus and people.
However, looking solely at Mark’s fishing resume, he guides year-round and certainly does know how to catch ’em, evident by his busy schedule and high percentage of repeat customers.
“I got into the guiding business to help fund my fishing habit. I really like to go down to the Gulf and saltwater fish, but now I’m so busy guiding that I don’t have much time to saltwater fish anymore,” Mark laughs.
My passion for saltwater fishing is another reason Mark and I connect. However, it’s his love for kids that has turned a business relationship into more of a Christian brotherhood.
Several months prior to our GON trip, I called Mark with a burden. As a volunteer chaplain with FCA for the Putnam County Middle School girls basketball team, I learned pretty quickly that most of the team had no real fishing experience. Some of these young ladies had never been fishing or been in a boat! I asked Mark if we could have some company on our GON fishing day, and knowing his generous nature, I wasn’t surprised when he told me that he’d have everything ready.
I met Mark, along with two of his buddies and fellow fishing guides—Jimmy Holmes and Doug Pulliam—and nine of the Putnam County War Eagle basketball ladies at Fish Tale Marina on March 17, and we headed south down the lake in search of hybrids and stripers. We made several stops on mid-lake community humps before ending up at the dam, where we spent more than half of our time. There were a dozen other boats in the area, and most were catching a few fish. Nobody was burning it up, but that will be changing in April. Our three boats ended up catching 30 to 40 fish, a day the girls will always remember, although Mark said the catch rate will get even better. The way we fished was simple, and that easy way to get your string stretched will continue throughout April at the Oconee dam. Go now!
“I fish store-bought bass minnows,” said Mark. “I usually get them at Sugar Creek Marina or Fish Tale Marina, and I prefer large bass minnows when I can get them. Once the shad spawn starts around the second week of April, hybrids and stripers start wanting live theadfins. I catch threadfins around the bridges and rip-rap banks before daylight with a castnet.”
Live baits are hooked through the bottom lip and out through the top lip using a No. 4 Gamakatsu octopus circle offset hook. Mark uses Cold Water Okuma reels with a line counter.
“That line counter takes all the guess work out of how deep my bait is,” said Mark. “I’ll watch my screen (Lowrance HDS12) and adjust bait depths based on where the fish are at.”
We fished for suspended linesides 25 to 30 feet deep mostly on downlines, but in April those same fish will come up in the water column to suspended depths between 2 to 20 feet, with 12 feet being a common depth to find the bite. As fish come up, those fish will begin to hit more weightless flatlines and planer boards.
“I’ll load my reels with 12-lb. Berkely Big Game, but I’ll use a 3- to 5-foot 100 percent fluorocarbon leader. I use 10-lb. Seaguar. The fish can’t see that fluorocarbon,” said Mark.
When fishing a downline, Mark connects his main line to his fluorocarbon leader with a pencil-style weight that has a swivel on each end. He drops the Carolina-style rigs below the boat using 7-foot Okuma Classic Pro GLT Striper Live-Bait Down Fishing Rods. He’ll use the same rod/reel setup for his flatlines and planer boards. All three of these rigs can be fished simultaneously on a “controlled drift.”
“The idea is to just keep yourself over the fish with baits in the water,” said Mark. “It’s not trolling but just using your trolling motor to drift around in a controlled manner once you locate an area of fish on your graph.”
After instruction from Mark, the girls learned that a bouncing rod tip meant a smaller fish, and several quick cranks of the reel handle with the rod still in the holder would allow the fish to set the hook on itself. Then, the rod could then be lifted out of the holder, and the fish reeled up.
“When a big fish takes it, the rod tip will be in the water,” said Mark.
Mark said he is in love with what he does for a living. He encourages anyone with a boat to get some bait and head to the dam this month, and he strongly encourages kids in the boat this month while the fishing is hot and easy.
“I’m so thankful God allows me to fish for a living,” said Mark. “I’m having so much fun, and I give him all the thanks and credit for it.”
Fish With Capt. Mark: A day on Lake Oconee with Capt. Mark Smith is certainly worth the ticket aboard his roomy, 24-foot Sea Pro center-console boat. Mark specializes in stripers, hybrids and crappie on Lake Oconee, but he also fishes Lanier and Clarks Hill.