Winter is here and the weather looks consistent with lows below 30 and highs in the mid 40s forecast for the next week. Lake Lanier’s water level continues to hover right at full pool and is 1,071.22 feet, or .22 feet above a full pool of 1,071. Lake temperatures are in the mid to upper 40s. The lake is clear on main lake and in the mouths of the creeks, and stained in the backs of the creeks and rivers. The Chattahoochee River is clear below Buford Dam and the Army Corps of Engineers continues to pull water almost daily to keep lake levels in check. Check generation schedules before heading out to the river at 770-945-1466.
Bass fishing is about normal or a little above normal for this time of winter, and the bass are biting well for the most part. Usually anglers are fishing deeper from 35-55 feet during average winters, but the productive depths have been much shallower than normal from past years.
The main reason for this shallower bite is most likely due to the higher than normal lake levels this year. Traditionally, the Corps like to pull the lake down around five feet below full pool in anticipation of the spring rains, and lake levels have averaged even lower than that the past five years with the drought conditions that have plagued our region. This year Lanier has remained right around full pool for several months.
The good news is that dock owners have not had to raise and lower their docks much since fall, and these steady lake levels have also made for some consistent fishing. We have been targeting ditches and ledge drop-offs from 15-35 feet this past week, and jigs and finesse fishing have been a staple for catching bass this winter. I have kept two fishing outfits on deck at all times for over a month.
The first mainstay has been a medium-weight spinning outfit rigged with 5- to 8-pound Sunline Sniper Fluorocarbon tied to a Jig Head rigged worm or creature bait. I like using a 3/16 or 1/4-ounce Gamakatsu Alien Head rigged with a 4- to 7-inch straight tail worm, a Big Bites Flying Squirrel or Crawfish imitation. This medium weight set up allows anglers to get a bait down to the bottom quickly.
A quality line and rod help allow us to feel the subtle bottom contours and light bites that often occur in winter. This set up works well in ditch depressions and also on the deeper drop-offs around deep docks and steep rock walls. Your electronics will help locate the best areas, but I usually cast my lure out and stair-step it down the drops more than vertically, fishing directly above the fish while watching my Humminbird Graph.
The second setup consists of a heavier bait-casting rod and reel spooled with 12- to 14-pound Sunline Fluorocarbon with a Jig and Pig, or a heavier stand-up style jig head with a Flying Squirrel Creature Bait. These lures mimic the high-protein crayfish that bass target and are great choices for picking apart the rocky drop-offs that are close to shallow and deep water. Having access to shallow and deep water is key for winter fishing, as bass prefer to be able to move up and down without having to expend too much energy swimming long distances.
Other methods also work well during the more active feeding period and also when the Corps are pulling water. Anglers can look at wildlife activity charts and water release schedules to provide a better idea of the wildlife activity times, but we should also pay attention to the wildlife activity happening around us when we fish. If the squirrels are playing, the birds are chirping and you see other wildlife like deer, loons and herons, and of course fish schooling are all indicators that the fish may also be active.
You can often switch to a quicker method or even speed up your slow presentations to match the current activity levels. Good anglers can catch fish on a worm, but great anglers know when to make the subtle changes needed to trigger more bites.
On sunny, windy days, look for the jerk bait bite to start getting better. Cast a SPRO McStick or Smithwick Rogue around windy points, and also close to deeper docks with black floats that are warmed by the sun. This action will increase as late winter and early spring draw nearer.
Striper fishing has been hit or miss with the recent crazy weather, but more consistent weather patterns should help get stripers into a more reliable pattern. Much of the water in the back of the creeks, coves and rivers has some color to it from last week’s rains. Stained water will tend to warm quicker than the clearer main lake water, and this will often attract threadfin and gizzard shad. When shad school in these areas, you can expect that the stripers and other predator fish will not be far behind.
Start out early in the mornings before the sun gets high in the pockets and creeks off of main lake. Target areas where gulls, loons and kingfishers are present. Any time these aquatic birds are in the area, you can bet they will be feeding on the same forage that stripers target. Small trout, herring and store-bought medium minnows are great choices to bait your flatlines and planer board rigs with.
Use a standard line rigged with just a bait-style Gamakatsu Circle or Octopus hook tied to the end, and rig a baitfish hooked through the lips to provide a natural presentation. Some anglers also use a heavier main line with a small SPRO Swivel and attach a lighter fluorocarbon leader with one end tied to the swivel and the other end attached to the hook. As long as there is no weight, this set up is still considered to be a flat line. The swivel will allow you to use a smaller, less visible leader and will also prevent line twists.
You can add a planer board to increase the width of your spread. Planer boards also allow anglers to run your baits up close to the bank. You can also add a balloon about 15 feet above the hook on the flat lines directly behind your boat. This balloon/bobber set up will allow you to put your lines much farther behind the boat. Few things are more exciting to a live bait angler then seeing a balloon or planer board scream off across the surface as a big striper starts its run!
As the sun gets up higher in the sky or if you are unable to find shallow fish or areas with feeding gulls and loons, try switching over to a either a downline or consider trolling an umbrella rig. Your electronics are key tools for determining if the fish are deep and what areas and depths to target them. Side Imaging technology really helps anglers to cover water pretty quickly without having to spend time crisscrossing back and forth over an area. I can go to the menu on my Humminbird 998c and set my side imaging distance to 200 feet to the left and right of my boat. This allows me to scan a 400 foot wide area.
I can also see prominent bottom features like timber, brush, dock or bridge pilings and sunken boats. When my unit is tuned in properly, I can even see the schools of stripers and the clouds of bait that these fish are feeding on. I can then scroll over what I am targeting with the cursor and set a waypoint on an object, even if it is over 100 feet to either side of the boat.
If you prefer to target stripers with artificial lures than you have several options. No matter if you do or do not use live bait, it is always a good idea to keep a casting rod with a bucktail or other lure ready at all times. Stripers will often surface close to the boat, and you can cast to these fish at the same time you pull live bait off troll lures to get a few bonus bites throughout the day. A SPRO Bucktail rigged with or without a Jerk Shad, Cane Thumper or a Fluke is a great option for casting.
Trolling one or two umbrella rigs is a mainstay for many of the guides this time of year. Umbrella Rigs and their smaller cousins, the cast able Alabama Rig, mimics a whole school of baitfish on one line. These multi-lure rigs can contain 2-7 different lures on one pole and they can be extremely effective at catching fish. They very often out-produce other methods including live bait. Make sure to cast or troll your umbrella rigs at the same level or slightly above the depth where you mark fish on your electronics.
Crappie fishing is going to pick up very soon, but even in the coldest winter some very skilled crappie anglers can catch them well. Right now, the majority of crappie are schooled up in deep brush in the creeks. You can position your boat or fish below a dock directly over deeper brush piles. Electronics will help you to see the best areas and where the brush is located. Once a productive brush pile or tree is located, drop a small crappie jig or light-lined live crappie minnow down to the deeper brush piles. Work your jigs very slow in and around the brush and closely study the very light bites. Crappie in cold water will not venture far to chase a lure or minnow, but the good news is that when you find one you have usually found a whole school, so you can duplicate what worked to catch many more.
Trout fishing remains good and the trout will bite even in the colder weather. Small minnow imitators like a Rapala Countdown, Yosuri Pins Minnow or Rebel Minnow will all work well in winter. You can cast these out and retrieve them slowly or work them like a miniature jerkbait with a jerk-and-pause retrieve. On warmer afternoons we have seen some very small insect hatches with some trout rising to eat the tiny insects. Use small, dry flies and work them slowly on the surface around any insect hatches you see.
Bank Fishing: Trout fishing is usually pretty good in the winter and you do not have to have a boat or even get up at the break of day to have success. Some of the best action will happen on warmer afternoons. Cast minnow plugs, Spinners and dry or wet flies around the lower tail race below Buford Dam on down into the Atlanta area, or try getting away from it all up in the North Georgia mountains. Live bait-like worms, corn or salmon eggs can also work well where live bait fishing is permitted by local laws.
Eric Aldrich is an outdoor writer, marketing specialist and bass angler. Reports are based on personal experience and permission from a close network of friends. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at aldrichfishing.com.