Anchored up at one of Wayne Loyless’ honey holes for the white-bass run on the Oconee River, a jonboat idled past, and we were hailed with the customary greeting.
“Catchin’ anything?” the man in the front of the boat hollered over the drone of the outboard.
“A few,” was Wayne’s remarkably honest reply. We had been on the river all day, and it was about 3:30 p.m. before we caught our first fish. Now, at about 5 o’clock, the bite was beginning to pick up, just as Wayne said it would.
When we first put in at Dyars Pasture at about 9 a.m. on March 10, Wayne said we were a little early in the season for the white bass to be up the river in the huge numbers that would follow in late March and early April. The surface temperature on his depthfinder read a chilly 48 degrees, which validated his prediction. “Water temperature is everything. When it gets to be about 50 degrees, they’ll start moving up here, but it won’t start to really turn on until it gets to be about 56 to 60 degrees,” Wayne said. “It should warm up a little this afternoon. We’ll catch some. I heard there were a few caught yesterday.” Wayne said the white bass spend most of their lives in the lake, but every spring they run up the Oconee and Apalachee rivers in the millions to spawn. For three or four weeks, starting in late March and lasting through the middle of April, the Oconee River becomes clogged with white bass, which in turn clogs the river with boats full of anglers.
Most folks you’ll see on the river will be throwing an assortment of crappie jigs or bigger lead-head jigs with brightly colored grubs searching for the best fish-catching weight or color. In 20 years on the river, Wayne has learned to keep it simple. When he’s fishing for white bass, he throws just one lure — an inline spinner. More specifically, Wayne likes a Catch All spinner, which is packaged and marketed by a couple of different companies. Catch Alls, instead of having a blade attached to and offset from the body of the lure by a clevis like a Rooster Tail, are designed so the main wire runs directly through the blade. Off the shelf, they come in sizes from 1/8-oz. to 1/2-oz. Wayne uses a 1/4-oz. spinner, but he doesn’t buy them off the shelf. Because he uses so many, he mail-orders the parts and assembles his own. He makes them in gold and silver, and he also makes some with blades painted chartreuse or orange — silver and orange or chartreuse for clearer water, gold when the river is muddy. The Oconee always has a pretty good stain, but gold seems to work best when the river is more stained than usual, Wayne said.
Silver with a silver blade seemed to be the best-producing spinner the day we fished. After catching that first fish at about 3:30 p.m., we went on to boat 16 fish total, but most of them were small males, not the big egg-filled females that make for such nice filets. The first fish we caught was one of those small males, but we kept him anyway, because Wayne is a little superstitious.
“We always keep the first fish no matter what it is, unless the regulations say we can’t,” Wayne said. “It’s an ol’ wives tale.”
Whether or not it’s to keep that first fish from running back to tell the others, I can’t say, but that old wives tale seemed to hold true. By that time, the surface temperature had warmed to 51 degrees, and we started catching a few fish from each spot as we floated down the river. We had run up to the big “S” turn below the Hwy 15 bridge and were using the trolling motor — and occasionally the anchor — to slow us along likely looking holes and banks Wayne knows have held fish in the past.
Targeting spots where runoff or small tributaries create ditches in the river bottom, as well as eddies created by deadfalls or debris in the river, we side-armed the spinners up to the bank beneath the overhanging brush. This early in the run, the fish were still holding to the deeper holes, in 6 to 12 feet of water. Wherever we caught one fish, we usually caught another, and Wayne said to stick around if you start getting bites, because white bass will school up.
“They’ll be wherever they can find an eddy, where they can get out of that swift part of the river. Look for eddy water or where a spring run comes in. They’ll lay up where there’s trash, stumps or overhanging trees,” Wayne said. “Right now they’re in the deeper holes on the outside bends in the river. Look for the limb-lines. They’ll be marked with a piece of flagging tape or a can top. They’ll show you the deep spots.”
Skipping a lure under all the over- hanging vegetation on the Oconee can be a difficult task, and Wayne feels it’s best accomplished with an open-faced spinning reel. He fishes ultra-light gear spooled with 8-lb. test line.
“Most people like 4 or 6, but I like a little heavier line so I can turn ’em and still hear my drag sing sometimes,” Wayne said. “They’ll just knock the hound out of it. You better hold onto your rod because if you hook a good one you’ll think you hooked a log and it took off with a blast of dynamite.”
White bass, with the state record weighing in at a little heavier than 5 pounds and the average catch on the Oconee River consisting mostly of 1- to 1 1/2-pounders, are not known for their size, but they fight a lot harder than you’d think. I was repeatedly surprised when, after saying “this is a pretty good one,” I pulled up fish that must have weighed less than a half pound. On that trip we never hooked into a white bass that tested the 8-lb. line, but I grew suspicious that the heavy line was good for another reason, as well. Heavier line is always a good thing when your spinner is 8 feet over the water tangled in the branches of a tree. I didn’t bother to count the number of times Wayne had to push the boat up into the brush to retrieve a spinner.
“I haven’t done it yet, but usually we’ll bring the loppers on the first two or three trips to cut out some of that overhanging stuff around the good holes,” Wayne said. “I need to get out here with the loppers.”
The overhanging-brush issues will be alleviated some when the bite really turns on, though. Wayne said the fish will move in large numbers out of the deeper holes and onto the sand flats up and down the river when the water temperature reaches the mid to high 50s and the spawn begins in earnest.
“When they’re really spawning, you’ll catch ’em on the flats of the river. You’ll catch ’em everywhere just floating down the river,” he said. “Pull the spinner as fast as you can pull it up off the bottom to simulate a shad running through there. They’ll catch that flash and start following it. Sometimes they’ll just nose bump it, and you give a little jerk and get them. Those hooks are sharp, they don’t even need to eat it.”
When the fish move up, look to the inside bends of the river because they’ll be in 1 1/2 feet to 4 feet water, and they will be aggressive, smashing anything that passes in front of them. Wayne said he’s been in boats that catch 100 white bass on a trip, but he admitted a 25 or 30 fish day between two anglers is a good one.
The other thing that happens when the fish really start biting is the river fills with boats, and some of the good sand banks, especially the one in walking distance from the Hwy 15 bridge, will be covered in bank fishermen.
“When it really gets going, you’ll have to get to the ramp early or you’ll be waiting in line,” he said.
The good thing about so many boats on the river is you’ll also know where the fish are biting. When boats start stacking up on one sand bank, it’s a pretty good indication that the fish are there also.
With just a few boats on the river the day we fished, it was evident the bite had not really started yet, but we at least took home enough fish for the frying pan. They were delicious.
Still anchored at Wayne’s honey- hole, the jonboat continued past us upstream in search of fish and Wayne asked, “Y’all doing any good?”
The response, remarkably honest, was, “It sure is a nice day to be out.”
As the boat started to turn the bend in the river with chartreuse jigs dangling from the ends of the rods, I heard one of the men remark, “They’re fishing spinners.”
“Spinners?” the other one replied in surprise.
Boat access to the Oconee River can be found at the Hwy 15 ramp and at Dyars Pasture. Bank anglers can access the river at those places also. Wayne Loyless will take you fishing in his boat for a reasonable fee. Give him a call at (770) 787-1913. If he doesn’t answer, leave a message. He also guides wingshooters for ducks, GO quail, pheasant and chukar.