Oconee River Striped Bass

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The author boated a 30-lb. striper, his best, below Dublin.

The striped bass come and go throughout the year, up and down south and middle Georgia’s river corridors. As the spawning urge kicks in March-April, they begin to range from the Altamaha’s brackish estuary up the Ohoopee, Ocmulgee and Oconee rivers. When the spawn is over, it’s time to seek out cooler waters.

Most fishermen never catch a glimpse, but should you be lazily pitching crickets and hear something beyond the boat that sounds like a boulder splashing by… likely a striper. There are many cold-water springs and other areas where the river water runs a little cooler, and when the air temps climb toward triple digits, the movement toward them begins en masse. Later, in September/October, as the weather cools, they’ll head once more toward the sea.

It’s all a matter of timing.

That’s what I’m thinking a couple of weeks before my first striper trip of the summer. Obviously, there’s a lot that goes on with hunters and fishermen in our great state, but June/July striper fishing on the rivers is one of my very favorite pastimes. Ironically, most trips it is a totally peaceful outing—with little or no cooperation from the fish. But it’s that one bite that just might come along that keeps me going back.

In addition to the timing aspect, fishing partner Steve Brown and I know that the Oconee River needs to get down to 6 or so feet before conditions are what we’re looking for. Problem is, we’ve had 23 straight days of May and June rain at my Dublin home, and the river looks like frothy cappuccino. There’s no way of knowing if the fish are even here yet, but while I’m still on pins and needles, the rain finally stops, the Oconee plummets to just over 4 feet, and on June 12, we launch about 15 miles south of town.

The first order of business is to catch bait—the same menu stripers have been dining from en route. Medium-size bream top my list, but you can also use eels if you care to deal with the aggravation. Stripers love ’em.

Old hands will tell you that if it’s easy to catch bait, it will be tough to catch stripers, and that it goes both ways. On this afternoon, we start up a couple of creek mouths, as usual, but don’t get a nibble from the bream. Eventually, we find bream on the shoreline rocks and manage a half-dozen or so. They go into a homemade livewell: a 5-gallon bucket of river water with a battery-operated aerator clipped to its side. We had put the boat in about 5 p.m., and the afternoon is waning, so it’s time to head to one of the nearby springs.

Looking back at locating those baitfish, I recall that everywhere on the Oconee was mud on top of mud. All that rain had resulted in slick, gooey, black river slop at its worst. The only spots along the banks not badly stained and oozing mud were underneath the rocks. For what it’s worth, that cleaner water was where we found bream.

The outfit is simple enough: an old spin-cast Zebco Hawg Seeker outfit loaded with Stren 30-lb. mono and a 7-foot heavy-action rod. A 2-oz. egg sinker is held in place by a split-shot 12 to 15 inches above a 4/0 Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp O’Shaughnessy hook. The split-shot is below the sinker, allowing it to slide up the line out of the way in case of a fight but hold the bait in place waiting for a bite.

Impale the bream up high with the hook just under the spine, and toss it in the general area of where cooler water meets warmer water. I’ve seen bream stay lively for hours hooked this way.

From there, we wait.

For less than five minutes.

Truly, never in all my years of river striper fishing has it happened this quickly this early in the year. The rod tip bounced a couple of times—a sure sign that the bait didn’t like what it was seeing and wanted out of there—before going straight down. Stripers can be finicky, and we’ll usually free-spool and let the fish move off to be sure the bait is fully engulfed before setting the hook. When that’s done, you’re on your own.

A keeper-striped bass must be 22 inches or longer, and the daily limit is two fish. Measure your largemouth mounts on the wall, and you’ll see what 22 inches looks like. And that’s a minimum!

One of the most beautiful sounds in this type of fishing is screaming drag; I’d dreamed about it for a month. And you never know; this could literally be a 5-pounder or a 60-pounder.

Following a couple 50-yard trips down the river and back, turned out to be a 15-pounder. And that’ll keep.

Let’s shift gears for a moment and take a look at a second method, mostly because of that two-fish limit.

The author with a 30-lb. Oconee River striper that bit a live bream and stripped out 125 yards of line and made several other long runs before being boated.

When you’re in water less than 10 feet—and we were anchored on a mud bar in about 6—using a stocky baitcasting outfit and tossing a Rebel Jointed Minnow, the old “broke back,” can be deadly at times and useless at others. Early in the year is better; the fish seem to get educated as summer rolls on. But on this trip, at least every other cast found a Rebel getting smashed. These tend to be smaller fish, if you consider 6- to 10-lb. stripers small. They can easily be unhooked and put back unharmed. Conversely, if a larger specimen swallows a bream and is stuck deep, you’re likely going to be taking him home anyway.

In the couple hours before darkness set in, we easily managed a four-fish limit and released a half-dozen more. Steve worked one which looked to be larger than mine for about 10 minutes, and it hit a Rebel. The lure has three sets of trebles, and he actually felt one set come loose during the fight but another one grab. In the end, that one pulled loose also, and the fish was off.

We also had one that we both believed bit off more than he could chew. The fish came up on top wallowing with a hand-sized bream bait in its mouth. I had two rods set out behind the boat—and grabbed the wrong one. Before realizing the error and snatching up the right one, the bait was spit out…

That is a fantastic day on the water under most circumstances, but if this was a kid’s last day of school for the summer, the next was to be Christmas.

When fishing a very limited time frame made even smaller by water and weather conditions, you just gotta get ’em while they’re there. Too, I’m perfectly fine with a two-fish limit and releasing double-digit stripers. Because the true joy of this type of fishing is setting the hook and watching line go whistling downriver, reel drag whining in protest. These are true trophy fish, and chasing them is downright addicting. I knew Steve was haunted by the one that slipped the Rebel, but neither of us thought he was changing addresses just yet. Thing to do is just go right back the next day and see.

The weather, we knew, was iffy. Thunderstorms blow up nowhere faster than on a river. But I’ve been wet before…

Caught enough bream in the exact same places, off a couple rocks recognized from the previous day. Anchored back in place, sat and waited. A little longer this time. Nervously watching some nasty clouds and wind whipping the trees. My heaviest rod was set out a little farther downstream than usual, and the bait on it appeared to be amped up to the max. The rod would bounce and stop, bounce and stop, then settle. Finally came a steady trickle of line…

Free-spooling, the fish was allowed to move toward a rockpile below us for about 10 seconds. At that point I reeled snug and slammed the hook home. In the first three seconds it was obvious that I’d never hooked into a freshwater fish as strong as this one.

With no need for words between us, Steve immediately jumped up and grabbed the big net. In his excitement, he began coaching me like the final minute of a tied Super Bowl, but all I could do was keep the line tight, hook in place and hold on. The only thought I consciously remember was “redfish, redfish, redfish.” That is exactly what this felt like, although one won’t be seeing any bull reds 100 miles up a freshwater river. The first run was approximately 125 yards downriver. And I laboriously worked him back. The second was a hundred. I could see shoulders amid thrashing on the surface but couldn’t tell much about true size.

He went back down, and I actually felt the huge tail—later measured at exactly 12 inches from tip to tip—kicking up mud as he dirtied the water.

There is no manhandling a fish like this on the type tackle described. From beginning to end, I don’t ever remember an instant where drag was not slipping or whining. These fish know nothing but tractor-pull brute force, and the key was keeping that hook snugly in place until one of us wore out. As he was finally worked up to the back left side of the boat—and naturally that’s where the anchor was—the rod was extended to its max length, just enough to work him around it. All the time expecting a final all-out run when he saw the boat, I eased him toward the net—where we got our first good look.

“There’s my first 30-pounder,” was the initial thought.

All Steve was saying was something about a hoss…

When he was at last in the boat, all I could think of was the finest striper fisherman the Oconee ever knew: the late Kelly Ward. I was fortunate enough to fish with Kelly and interview him for GON a few years ago. I smiled thinking about how he would have chuckled and told me that this fish was just a little less than half the size of his state record…

But the nail-biting battle with this one was plenty for me—at least for the moment.

It just takes an old spin-cast Zebco Hawg Seeker loaded with Stren 30-lb. mono and a 7-foot heavy-action rod to load the tailgate.

Minutes later, I got a call from son Dylan telling me that we’d better get off the river, that a major thunderstorm was right on top of us. So, after just hauling in the fish you’ve been so stoked about for a couple of months, you’re supposed to just pack up and leave?

Well, the kid was right!

I’ve seen quite a few, but this was the worst storm I’ve ever waited out. We pulled the boat up on the bank, lightning popping like crazy overhead, and slipped and slid up under some low trees. Rain seemed to be pouring out of a washtub for the next hour, but with thunder rumbling in all directions and lightning constantly going off, we were in no way climbing back into that aluminum boat. I’ve been drier swimming in the ocean.

All but the rain eventually passed, and it lessened to a sprinkle. The Oconee was stirred again though, and the fish shut off. We couldn’t get it out of our minds what could have been. Steve put a double-digit fish in the cooler before mine, and had several catch-and-release specimens on the Rebel, not wanting to cash in his final chips without another brute if we could come up with one. As I’ve seen happen so many times before, the fish suddenly turned wildly on just before that storm hit. If we could have just one more hour…

Guess we’ll just have to go back.

One of the more interesting things about this trip was finding a tag on my fish. Calling DNR, a wealth of information named Ben Ballard from the Richmond Hill office, was gracious enough to fill me in on its history.

“The fish was tagged on Nov. 30, 2006,” Ballard related. “At that time it was 6 pounds, 23.77 inches long.”

Which, ironically enough, would have made it a keeper a dozen years ago.

“We tagged it while doing standardized sampling (shocking), and this is the only time we’ve ever seen it again. At times, fishermen will catch a tagged fish, get the number off of it and release it, so we may see it more than once. But evidently this is the first time this one has been caught.”

The 12-year-old tag on this fish had become so blackened and crusted that I had to soak it overnight and scrub it before even being able to read the numbers. It exactly resembled a small brown stick protruding from the bass’s lower left side when in reality it is a yellowish/orange-colored, coated-copper wire-type tag.

“It was tagged in the south Altamaha area in the estuary where Cathead Creek, Darien River, Champney River and Butler River all empty. We sampled 48 striped bass that year and tagged 21.”

So as far as I know, there could be 20 more just like him out there. But after 12 years, we return to the matter of timing. July will undoubtedly feature some of the hottest days of the year, good for striper fishing. On the other hand, the Oconee tends to drop to 2 feet or less and stay there unless we get a lot of upstream rain. Thunderstorms are one thing; tearing the bottom out of a boat on a stump or rockpile is a whole ‘nother conversation.

These fish are eating machines, and they’re always on the move for cooler water—around 75 degrees if they can find it—and food. Fresh flowing water such as creeks, springs, waterfalls or fast runs around rockpiles or outside river bends are likely spots to check. You’ll be looking 4 feet or deeper, and when the Oconee typically falls out to 2 feet or less readings at Dublin in July and August, these spots will become more obvious as you head downstream.

Freshwater springs flowing into the river often give themselves away simply by coloration. Sky-blue water mixing with the tea-colored Oconee is a dead giveaway, as is dipping a toe in it to check temperature. Prime spots to home in on are swift runs below shoals or rockpiles, especially deeper holes carved out over eons of river flow. Stripers always have somewhere to go, but they’ll rest up and feed in these areas that feature water just a few degrees cooler than what surrounds it.

River fishermen are accustomed to figuring out these ingredients and places over time, although it doesn’t always pan out like our trips did. Maybe a slow, tough go at times, but on those special days when you’re easing back up to the ramp with a two-fish limit weighing 50 or more hard-earned pounds, I think you’ll find it’s worth it.

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