The Undiscovered Ocmulgee Above Macon

The drought means bass, catfish, bream and crappie are stacked up in the deep holes in this 42-mile stretch.

Fall fishing can be fun and productive, but this year the climate has been throwing us some curves with unusually dry and warm weather. Much of Georgia has been in a serious drought, and the middle Georgia area is 13 inches down from normal rainfall. We probably won’t make up that rainfall anytime soon. In fact, the National Weather Service predicts that this La Niña, the flip side of the wetter El Niño pattern, may persist into February, bringing us warmer and dryer weather. Thus, our lakes and especially rivers, are at very low levels, and low water levels may persist into winter.

Normally, winter fishing is not something that most anglers consider, but perhaps this winter, especially on warm afternoons, it could be a great time to fish the Ocmulgee River.

The first week of November was mild and dry, so a good friend of mine, Bob Gray, of Jones County, and I went fishing on the Ocmulgee River. Bob, 68, is a retired Georgia Department of Corrections employee who served as chief probation officer of the Macon Judicial Circuit for many years.

Bob has fished the upper Ocmulgee for 30 years, but he now has even more time to enjoy his passion for catching bass in this large and beautiful section of the river. He said he catches largemouth, spotted, redeye and shoal bass in the stretch of the Ocmulgee River above Macon. Bob’s largest shoal bass to date is a 6-lb., 11-oz. fish, but he’s looking to top that one.

Bob says the fishing in this stretch of the river has been especially good lately with the water levels being abnormally low. He said the bass are being concentrated in the deeper pools of water in the river, and you couldn’t drag a lure through the deeper areas without getting bit.

He likes to use a kayak to glide around the Ocmulgee’s shoals, but on Nov. 3, we met up at his river cabin off Highway 87 and launched his 13-foot plastic-bodied jonboat. Although we used his cabin access, public access is readily available at Popes Ferry, Juliette and at a few more locations we will discuss later.

An aluminum boat will work on the river, but the plastic kayaks and boats glide better over the rocks. You should leave your big bass boat at home, said Bob. We also used an electric trolling motor, but a small gas motor can be used in some sections of the river. Just be very careful not to damage the prop on the rocks. The water was almost crystal clear, and some sandbars, shoals and many large granite boulders were exposed by the low water. The leaves were ablaze with color, and the upper Ocmulgee looked more like a large north Georgia stream than a flat and calm central Georgia river.

The upper Ocmulgee River is what I call the “undiscovered country” because it gets little press coverage and has very low fishing pressure, but the fishing success can be very good. Bob and I did not see another angler the whole time we were fishing. We had just launched Bob’s boat when we started catching and releasing beautiful shoal bass. They are strong fighters, and with glistening bright, green colors, they are a delight to bring to the net.

Bob likes to use an 8-inch Zoom worm in tequila-sunrise color with a 3/8-oz. bullet weight, which he works through the slow-water eddies behind the rock shoals. He was using a Shimano Calcutta baitcaster loaded with green, braided SpiderWire (6-lb. diameter and 20-lb. breaking strength). The line has good abrasion resistant around the rocks, and its lack of stretch means a good hookset in river fishing conditions.

I was using a Shimano Spirex 2500RG spinning reel loaded with the same 6-20 SpiderWire and a medium-action 6-foot Pflueger graphite rod. On the business end, I was casting a Bagley B2, a shallow-running plug in firetiger pattern. Other good lures are the Floating Rapala or a small Rattlin’ Rogue.

Our plan of attack on the river was to fish every deeper pocket of water, especially behind any rocky shoals we came across, and to fish around every piece of structure where a bass might be waiting in ambush mode. We were busy all day catching and releasing shoalies, spotted bass and a few largemouth.

We also brought along some big red worms and found the bream to be in a biting mood. We pulled in many bream, mostly bluegills and shellcrackers, up near the banks in calmer water. Bob kept a few of the larger bream for the frying pan. Bob highly recommends this type of adventure river fishing as loads of fun for not only the great fishing, but also for the great scenery.

The Ocmulgee River begins at the Lake Jackson dam. The river flows over gentle shoals and pools for the next 42 miles before it reaches Macon. The fishing pressure is very low due to limited access, but seven boating access points are detailed in a DNR pamphlet called “Guide To Fishing The Upper Ocmulgee River,” which you can view and download at www.georgiawildlife.com/sites/default/files/uploads/wildlife/fishing/pdfs/rivers/upper_ocmulgee_guide.pdf.

To orient yourself to this type of fishing, print out and study the DNR river guide map and the distances between the access points. It’s a good idea to visit one of the access points and fish a short distance either upstream or downstream and take out at the same ramp so you don’t risk getting stranded on the river at dark. A strong trolling motor with two batteries is a good idea, and make sure to have two paddles, your cell phone, drinking water and other emergency supplies. Try to fish with a buddy if possible.

The river access at East Juliette is good with a public boat ramp on the south and west side of the Juliette Bridge. From this point, you can fish several miles upstream.

There is a canoe launch in East Juliette off River Road, but you’ll need to carry your craft about 50 yards to the river. Right now, access here is difficult due to low water.

Other good upper Ocmulgee access points are the Jackson Dam boat ramp, the Wise Creek Recreation Area, the Highway 83 boat ramp and the Spring Street boat ramp in Macon, all of which are shown in the DNR pamphlet.

One of the better access points is Popes Ferry landing, just off Highway 87/23, which is owned by Monroe County. The end of ramp broke off a few years ago and has a steep drop-off, so use caution. According to Jeff Bishop, DNR’s Statewide Boat Ramp Coordinator, several improvements are now under way. He says plans are to move the ramp about 50 yards upstream with a new gravel parking lot, but progress depends on the river water levels, which are expected to rise in the winter months. He says it may be next fall before the work is completed.

Bishop says his co-workers, Timmy Scarboro, Jones Nelson and Thom Litts, are working to improve many boat ramps around the state. On a recent visit to Popes Ferry, I saw Kevin Bush, a heavy-equipment operator and avid outdoorsman, clearing out some trees to improve the boat ramp area.

The bass fishing on the upper Ocmulgee is very good if you do a little planning, have an adventurous spirit and are agile enough to navigate the gentle shoals. The bass population is dominated by the shoal bass, which averages 1 to 2 pounds, but fish in the 3- to 4-lb. size are fairly common. They were introduced into the river back in the 1970s and co-exist with the redeye and largemouth bass. Spotted bass are also now common in this section of the river. Redeyes are the smallest bass and usually are less than 12 inches in size.

Don’t be surprised to run across a few hybrid or striped bass escapees from Lake Jackson, along with some channel catfish, flathead catfish or crappie while fishing the upper Ocmulgee.

While Bob Gray says that some anglers dream of fishing the Yellowstone or Madison Rivers out West, the upper Ocmulgee has much to offer with its fine bass fishing, outstanding scenery and close accessibility. You owe it to yourself to plan a trip here soon.

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