The Oconee River is formed by the junction of the North Oconee and Middle Oconee Rivers south of Athens. A few miles downstream of this junction lies the only major hazard to boaters on the Oconee River, but it is a big one: Barnett Shoals Dam. This is a big dam, and GRF is unaware of any way to portage it. The dam backs up the river, creating a nice little lake for panfish, catfish, and bass. Below Barnett Shoals Dam, the Oconee flows unimpeded for about 18 miles before reaching the backwaters of Lake Oconee, one of Georgia’s premier fisheries.
The presence of Barnett Shoals Dam serves another useful purpose for fishermen: any fish heading upstream during the springtime must stop there. Crappie, white bass, and hybrids can be found massed below the dam (they usually arrive in that order) at certain times every spring. While some fish migrate all the way to the dam, most never make it that far, finding suitable spawning (with the hybrids it’s a false spawn) sites closer to the lake. The Oconee River lineside run absolutely packs the river with fish (and sometimes fishermen) and it is really hard not to catch fish when they’re turned on. White bass and hybrids will jump all over white curlytail jigs, diving crankbaits, lipless rattling crankbaits, and in-line spinners. These fish will congregate anywhere from sandbars, to deep bends to creek mouths. Sometimes they are simply scattered throughout the river seemingly at random. For live bait fishermen, crappie and whites love small minnows. Hybrids can be a bit more finicky sometimes, and local anglers have good success fishing cut shad on a Carolina-rig in the deeper parts of the main channel. If the line-sides are up the river, 100 fish in a day is relatively common.
While the spring linesides run garners the most attention, the Oconee River does contain other species of fish. The largemouth bass fishing is solid, and the river bass seem to run about twice as large on average as they do in Lake Oconee (about 2 pounds). The bass fishing is good year round, but really picks up in the late fall for some reason. One theory is that the later-than-normal fall turnover sends some lake bass up the river in search of more oxygen in the current. Oconee River bass are susceptible to the normal assortment of lures and methods, but many anglers like to use large lures due to the often muddy water and hefty bass.
Bream fishing on the Oconee River is fair. There are lots of bluegills and some redbreast, but they don’t seem to get very large. The channel catfishing, however, is excellent. Find a deep hole and put a gob of worms or chicken livers on the bottom and you usually don’t have to wait very long. Catfishing is a great option when other species turn off, as they often do when the river muddies after a good rain. One other species deserves mention because scientists thought it was extinct until a few years ago. The robust redhorse is a member of the sucker family (they look like carp) and one turned up on the Oconee a few years ago. Biologists estimate that between 1,000 and 3,000 now live in the river. Needless to say, don’t keep any robust redhorse you might catch unless you want to risk a trip to the federal pen!
The Oconee is a large river, averaging about 100 feet in width. There are not many access points, but two are paved boat ramps. The size of the river and it’s lack of any serious rapids makes the Oconee an ideal river for smaller motorized boats. GRF has even spotted a full-sized bass boat all the way up at the dam (probably not a great idea). The water almost always carries a good stain and is full of downed trees, making ultralight tackle impractical at times (though white bass can be really fun on light gear).
While most well-known for it’s white and hybrid run, the Oconee is a pretty good river at other times of the year and for other species. There is very little development on the Oconee and it receives scant fishing pressure most of the year. Still, if you only have the opportunity to visit the Oconee River, Georgia River Fishing would suggest you try to time the linesides run in March or April. Remember, when the dogwoods bloom it’s usually about time!