Few lakes in Georgia drew as much attention from trophy-bass hunters in the late 1990s as Lake Varner. The reason was very simple — the place was routinely producing huge fish, including the lake record at 15-lbs., 13-ozs. A decade later, it remains one of the premier destinations in the state if you want to tangle with a double-digit bass.
Part of the success of the lake is that anglers can’t use gas-powered boats on this water-supply lake, so it does not get as much pressure as many other waters. Thus, smaller boats with electric power are the norm. Specialized high-powered electric motors or multiple electric motors are what most serious Varner anglers use.
John Biagi, WRD fisheries chief, of Covington, has put in quite a bit of time on Varner. He is no stranger to catching big fish from the small lake, as his biggest bass was a 13-lb., 6-oz. trophy caught in 1998.
I put together a two-day trip in early March to fish with John and other friends at the lake. Before the trip, I had to get my jonboat “Varner-ready,” so I removed my 9.9-horsepower Mercury and gas tank from the boat and swapped it for a transom-mounted trolling motor and additional battery to assist my bow-mounted trolling motor in getting us around the 820-acre reservoir. I also snatched my two batteries from my saltwater boat to provide some back-up juice, if needed. I loaded up some live bait and a Suburban-full of lures and headed north from Waycross in the middle of the night. As the sun was peaking over the trees, John met me at a convenience store near the lake, and we headed to the ramp. We rendezvoused with friends Tony Beck and Chris Nelson at the ramp and headed out.
My thermometer recorded a 53-degree water temperature as we motored away. The forecast was for a balmy 80-degree air temperature with clouds and stiff winds from an approaching front. The wind kicked up to more than 15 miles per hour just before we launched and sustained at about 20 miles per hour with even stronger gusts all day. Fortunately, we were able to find some water that was protected enough to allow us to fish. Strong storms were forecasted to move in late in the day, so we kept an eye to the sky and called land-side friends to watch the radar for us.
At our blistering pace of about two or three miles per hour, we had plenty of time to talk about John’s big fish while we rode to a protected bay.
“That bank over there is where I caught my big one,” John said as he pointed to a bare dirt shoreline with rocks strewn along it. “I was fishing during the postspawn, and was trying a new technique for me, stroking a jig. The open water I was fishing didn’t produce anything by stroking it, so I made a couple casts just dragging it, as I usually did. She sucked in my black/blue jig, and it felt like I set the hook into a cinder block. She fought well, and in a couple minutes I lipped my biggest so far, a 13-lb., 6-oz. bass.”
The protected area we found provided a 12 to 15 foot deep channel with stump-strewn flats on either side that were 4 to 8 feet deep. John and I started at a shallow, sloping point, while Tony and Chris took the flat side of the cove. A quality fish came up and busted a shad on top as we were preparing our rods, so we were on point. John fished a sexy-shad-colored spinnerbait with silver blades, while I cast a prototype Bass Assassin Die Dapper swimbait in the waterboy color (watermelon-red and green flake). We also put a live bait out the back under a float as we eased along. The live bait outfit was a flipping stick rigged with 20-lb. test Vicious fluorocarbon. We skewered the live bait on a 5/0 Gamakatsu Shiner SE hook I customized with a wireguard.
We worked our way into the cove and had a few hits adjacent to the channel, but we did not hook-up for longer than a split-second. Tony hollered that Chris had lost a good one on a Rat-L-Trap off a stump toward the back. As we worked that direction, a big fish flushed our live bait, but John swung and missed. The water temperature was climbing after a several-week warm spell, so we had to fish the back of the cove. The water temperature was 56 degrees at that point. We worked the very back of the cove, alternating between spinnerbaits, jigs, and another prototype Assassin bait — a Fat Job Worm rigged on one of my 1/8-oz. custom-built wacky heads.
“I have gone against the grain when fishing jigs in that I use a shorter rod than most folks. I like a shorter 6 or 6 1/2-foot rod because it keeps me from hopping the jig too far at a time,” John shared.
We surmised that the fish were not in the backs of the coves after fishing some great-looking shallow cover without a bite on any of our offerings, so we headed back out where we had earlier activity.
Black clouds and swirling, extremely gusty winds were the norm at the mid-point of the day, but our land-based weather-watchers said the slow-moving front might allow us to fish the entire afternoon. We continued working the channel and adjacent flats with a few nice fish, but we caught nothing noteworthy until early afternoon. Chris made a long cast across the flat with a white swimbait and loaded his rod on a huge fish. After getting the behemoth in the boat, Tony called to us that Chris had a big fish. With the trolling motor on high, we cruised over to get a closer look. My eyes about popped out of my head when they hoisted Chris’ 11-lb., 0-oz. monster from the livewell! Chris acted as if he was still in shock, as he had never caught a double-digit bass before, and he skipped right over the 10-lb. mark to 11 pounds.
Chris showed us the swimbait he caught it on, and it was about 8 inches long, had a soft body and sported a diving lip like a crankbait. It was a shad imitation — white pearl with green holographic glitter.
“I bought it a couple years ago during the height of the swimbait craze, and I’m not sure exactly what it is,” he laughed.
After a bunch of high-fives and some photos, we went back to fishing. With the outline of that huge bass etched in my mind, it was hard to concentrate. We hooked up and lost some nice fish on a variety of lures and live bait, with Tony breaking off a huge fish at the boat before Chris could net it.
Working the flat adjacent to the channel, John lost a big fish that came unbuttoned from a live bait. The wind was howling, and we could tell that we did not have too long before the storms started, but the pre-front action was hot. We made a pass close to the shoreline to see if the fish had moved up, and they had. While casting a spinnerbait, John happened to look back at the float just in time to see a big wake pushing behind his live bait. He reeled his spinnerbait in and put his rod down as the fish engulfed his bait and headed for deep water. John got the flipping stick out of the rod holder and swept a strong hookset, driving the hook home. The fish powered to open water and rocketed skyward. There were several anxious minutes as the fish battled, but John was the victor this time. The big girl pulled the scales down to 8-lbs., 11-ozs. With the approaching storm, we quickly got off the water.
Early that next morning, we headed out again with John fishing out of my boat and Matt Thomas, our host the evening before, and Ted Will sharing a second boat. We headed to the same area as the day before because we knew there were big fish in the area.
That morning, I loaned Ted my wacky-worm outfit, a 6-foot medium action Pflueger spinning rod rigged with one of my wacky jig heads and a waterboy-colored Assassin Fat Job Worm. Shortly into the day, while fishing the same area Chris caught his lunker the day before, Ted set the hook into a solid fish on the wacky rig. After a strong, water-flailing battle, Matt lipped Ted’s 8-lb., 0-oz. bass. Of course, photos ensued, and then Ted released the bass.
We stayed mostly around the channel, figuring the bass pulled off with the passing cold front, and we were rewarded with several huge blowups on live bait. However, we were unable to get the right timing to get a hookset into any of the mammoths. The lure bite died once the sun blasted through the bluebird sky, but it was a beautiful day to be on the water. Late in the afternoon, Matt landed our only other noteworthy bass, a 7-lb., 8-oz. bass. Matt’s fish ate a live bait fished off a nothing-looking clay point.
The cold front definitely slowed the number of bites we got, but we still managed some quality fish behind the front. On the slow trek back to the ramp, we reflected on our successes, as well as our missed lunkers during the two-day trip. We actually missed and lost more big fish than we landed.
Hydrilla has gotten a stronghold on Varner over the last few years, but we had to go hunting it by dredging the bottom with a jighead to even see the first tuft of it during our March trip. The harsh winter weather knocked it back significantly, but it will be back with the warm weather.
During April, expect the bass to be spawning near shoreline cover and feeding up in the backs of the various creek arms. As the hydrilla starts growing, I cannot help but believe that an Assassin Die Dapper swimbait worked through the salad would get munched by both prespawn and postspawn bass. Shad patterns and watermelon variations would be the ticket. The green-moon color is almost exactly the same color as Chris’ swimbait that fooled the 11-pounder. Remember that Chris’s 11-pounder is still in the lake chowing on shad and getting bigger.
There are special rules and regulations to keep in mind when you fish at Lake Varner. There is a $10 parking fee for vehicles towing boats if you do not have Walton or Newton county tags. Additionally, the launching facility is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. from April through October. Check the entrance sign for current open and closed times.
When the editors asked me to do this series of articles on catching 10-lb. bass, I laughed and said, “You can’t just go out and catch a 10-pounder.”
Well, with the fantastic anglers I fished with on the three great bodies of water, we actually did catch an 11-pounder in just four days of fishing. Day one was at Fort Stewart, day two was on Ocmulgee PFA, and I spent two days fishing Varner. Along with that 11-pounder, we had a 9-lb., 8-oz. bass and three others heavier than 8 pounds. What an awesome 10-pound Tour!
Whether you fish Fort Stewart ponds, Ocmulgee PFA, Lake Varner or somewhere else in Georgia, there are lots of double-digit fish available here in our great state. You can catch them on artificials or live bait, but the whole key is to spend time on the water and… Go Fish Georgia!
Editor’s Note: You may obtain a catalog containing the custom hooks and jigheads the author mentions in the article, as well as many of his other custom lures, by calling him at (912) 287-1604.