Couch feels Oconee's pull

Couch feels Oconee's pull

May 6th, 2010 by Dan Cook in Sports - Outdoors

Outdoor Chattanooga's Whitewater Kids Club kayak campers enjoy a day on the water during last year's camp. Contributed photo

Outdoor Chattanooga's Whitewater Kids Club kayak campers enjoy...

EATONTON, Ga. - This peaceful and historic Putnam County town is well-known as the home of authors Joel Chandler Harris and Alice Walker.

That's a special attraction for literary types.

But there's also a prime reason for fishermen to visit - Lake Oconee, a 19,050-acre reservoir fed by the virtually pollution-free Oconee and Appalachee rivers, along with several creeks.

Guide Tony Couch could write his own book about angling trips on the Oconee. Among his clients have been presidents George and George W. Bush and baseball star Mickey Mantle. Couch has pulled a couple of 10-pound largemouths from the lake.

He has qualified five times for the FLW All-American national championship and has competed four times in the FLW Championship. His 10-pound, 9-ounce bass was the largest caught in the All-American. He has won South Carolina tournaments in both the former Red Man tour and the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society.

He became friends with a number of Chattanooga-area anglers while fishing the old Hungry Fisherman circuit, which included annual stops at Lake Chickamauga.

But Lake Oconee was his subject, and his classroom, during the recent annual meeting of the Georgia Outdoor Writers Association at The Lodge on the Oconee.

"When you can find shad, that's when they're easiest to catch," Tony said as two GOWA guests fished for bass with him. "Everything is gorging on (the shad). If you find them, you're going to find a variety of stuff. But as soon as the sun gets up, that will stop. We'll switch to fishing strictly around the docks and sea walls."

A canal links Oconee to Lake Sinclair. Water is manipulated between the two in the power-making process, and that presents a special challenge. Although each reservoir has only about a two-foot fluctuation, it's difficult to predict the level of either before launching into it.

"They pump it back and forth out of these two lakes," Couch said. "When this one's high, that one's low."

Water levels are determined by the Southern Company in Birmingham, Ala. That's a blanket organization for several power systems, including Georgia Power. The completion of Wallace Dam in 1980, opening Lake Oconee, added a 321,300-kilowatt capacity that virtually doubled the strength of Georgia Power's hydro generating system.

Today, the "pulling" of water - when bass scurry to underwater points in anticipation of grabbing minnows and downstream floating food - depends on when electricity is needed. Fishing is a side attraction to the process, though it's especially enjoyable when conditions are right.

Anglers also have no control over weather situations, and Couch said the unusual cold of this past winter altered crappie and bass fishing.

"Under normal conditions, (good) crappie angling starts at the end of December and goes into January," he said. "This year, it started at the end of February. Everything was late this year. The water was colder than it has ever been. These fish didn't know how to react. They had never seen it that cold.

"They bit right up to New Year's Day, but from New Year's Day until the end of February, you could hardly beg a bite."