Georgia Big Sticks: Q&A with Ronnie Garrison
Ronnie Garrison, one of the South’s great outdoor writers, with two fours and a five plus that were part of a 17.98 bag he caught at a January club tournament on Sinclair.
If you are reading this, chances are you have at least one or two Georgia Outdoor News‘ “Fishin’ Map of the Month” maps stashed away somewhere–and you’ve loaded a few of those coordinates into your GPS. Well, this year marks the 21st year that Georgia Outdoor News writer Ronnie Garrison has been bringing us that series of articles. Ronnie, who lives in Griffin and is also the outdoor editor and columnist for the Griffin Daily News, has given us all plenty of great spots to check out in our favorite lakes over the last two decades. He also is the Freshwater Fishing Expert on about.com.
But Ronnie is not only a great writer–he’s also a Georgia Big Stick, having won the points championship in two different bass clubs more than 20 times in the last 30 years. He’s won club tournaments all over–and even fished the Red Man series (the predecessor to the current BFL tournaments) for a couple of years. We thought we’d check in with the guy, who, like Johnny Cash, has “been everywhere, man”. He not only does the Fishin’ Map of the Month series for GON, but also for Alabama Outdoor News (AON), which is run by the same folks. And he’s written for Georgia Sportsman magazine for many years. So he’s fished most of the lakes in the Southeast–and all the major ones in Georgia and Alabama.
Ronnie is not only respected by anglers statewide (including those in his three bass clubs), his editor had great things to say about him. GON Editor Daryl Kirby said “Ronnie Garrison is widely recognized as one of the top bass-fishing writers in Georgia and Alabama, two of the premier states in the country for great fishing and great fishermen. Ronnie is a great example what we look for in a writer for Georgia Outdoor News and Alabama Outdoor Newsmagazines—he’s a very good fisherman. When Ronnie gets in the boat with a local expert to produce an article, that angler realizes quickly that Ronnie isn’t just a writer, he can fish. His bass-club results over the years are impressive.”
Ronnie has fished with the best of them, including big name pros like Boyd Duckett, Randall Tharp, Scott Canterbury and Matt Herren. And, he’s also fished with a number of Georgia Big Sticks, including tournament pros Kip Carter, who made the All American tournament again this year and former University of Georgia fisherman Byron Kenney, who won this year’s BFL Bulldog Division event on Lake Lanier, and whose family also lives in Griffin.
We caught up with Ronnie just before this month’s issue of GON came out.
GBS: Ronnie, I think most fisherman in Georgia have some of your Fishin’ Map of the Month features in their notes about different lakes. We know you’ve provided some great articles over the years for Georgia Outdoor News, so tell us a little bit about your background.
Garrison: I grew up in McDuffie County, near Dearing, Georgia—not the one on the coast (Darien). It’s near Thompson. My mother and grandmother loved to fish and I can remember dragging a cane pole fishing when I was just little. My Dad never cared too much for it, but my mother and grandmother were a big influence—they loved it. Momma had five brothers—and those five uncles really got me into bass fishing. I remember the first bass I ever caught. I was fishing in a spillway below a pond. I was using a cane pole and a cork and that cork went under and I was used to a catfish pulling down and all of a sudden a bass jumped out of the water. I’m telling you, that bass hooked me better than I ever hooked him!
GBS: A lot of ‘first fish’ come from spillways of small lakes.
Garrison: We fished a lot of local ponds—five or six farm ponds that I could walk to or ride my bike to. I remember one special Christmas when my one wish was for a bicycle basket big enough to hold my tackle box. I had one of those old Old Pal style big tackle boxes.
GBS: So you went from a cane pole to some bass gear early?
Garrison: I can remember putting my Mitchell 300 and spinning rod across the handle bars and riding to the ponds to fish. That 300 was much better to use for bass fishing.
GBS: It’s still a classic! So, how did you get to Griffin, Georgia?
Garrison: I ended up at the University of Georgia and graduated in 1972. I didn’t do much fishing during those four years—there were other things on my mind (laughing). I had hoped to be a pilot in the Air Force but my vision wasn’t good enough, so my wife and I went home and qualified to be teachers. We found a couple of job openings in Griffin and moved there in the summer of 1972.
My parents joined Raysville Boat Club when I was 16 and I did a lot of skiing in high school and college. Once I got out of college I rigged up a platform on the front of that ski boat—and I stood up there at the trolling motor. We would fish at Clarks Hill.
I met my wife on a blind date at Georgia and invited her to go water skiing with me over at Clarks Hill. We skied and also got out the rods and reels and she enjoyed fishing.
GBS: I bet that was the clincher!
Garrison: We’re still married 45 years later. My Mom and my wife Linda have only fussed at me once in my life about going fishing and that was one year at Thanksgiving. We always stayed at our place at Clarks Hill and fished and we’d always go to Momma’s house for Thanksgiving. But this time she decided we’d eat at our place out at the lake and she told me to be sure to be back in time for Thanksgiving dinner. All the family was going to be there. At 12:05 p.m. that day I landed a 7 pound, one ounce largemouth on a Shadrap and I remember looking at my wife and thinking I sure am glad Momma planned dinner and not lunch (laughing). Along about 4 that afternoon it turns out she meant “mid-day dinner” not evening dinner. The only thing colder than the cold turkey sandwich was the cold stares they gave to me across the table.
GBS: I guess that 7 pounder helped to ease the pain some. When a crankbait bite is on, it’s hard to put the rod down.
Garrison: Back then, you could catch a lot of big fish that time of year in Clarks Hill.
GBS: So you taught school in Griffin?
Garrison: Yes, I taught 7th grade for eight years in Spaulding County and then I went into administration. I was Director of Transportation and Attendance in Pike County schools for 14 years and then my last seven years I was principal of the alternative school in Griffin.
GBS: What was that like?
Garrison: The bus job was hectic, there were parents and kids complaining. But the alternative school is the one where kids were sent when they had trouble in the county school systems. It was the first discipline that many of them had ever had. One of my friends at the gun club called me “warden” back in those days (laughing).
GBS: How did the kids respond?
Garrison: We had success stories—some left after one semester and others did not want to leave. But in one case we had a football player that did something stupid—maybe a fight at school or something—and he came to our school and we did some anger management things with him and he went back to his school and ended up getting a football scholarship. I like to think we helped him along the way.
GBS: That’s such a positive thing, to help a kid turn his life around. And we really need great teachers now.
Garrison: I couldn’t do it again; I’ll tell you that.
GBS: How did you get started in tournament fishing?
Garrison: My wife and I bought our first bass boat in 1974—it was a 14 foot Arrow Glass with a 70 horse Evinrude on it—and that was one of the nicest bass boats back then. I had joined the Spaulding County Sportsman Club and I had the second biggest motor in the club. Within two years, I had the smallest motor in the club. I’m still fishing in the Sportsman Club some 42 years later this month. I haven’t missed many tournaments in that club. And in ’77 I joined the Flint River Bass Club and I’m still with it, too. And I’ve joined another club this year called the Potato Creek Club.
GBS: Did you ever think about giving the pro tournaments a try?
Garrison: I made the state team that went to the regionals. Our Georgia team won it one year at Kentucky Lake and I came in second place overall and was also second place on the Georgia team. In those days, the winner went to the Classic, and I missed going to the Classic in 1984 by one two-pound bass!
I came back and signed up for the Red Man, fished it for two years and decided I’d better just stick with club fishing. In the Sportsman Club I’ve won the points championship 24 times and in the Flint River Club I’ve won it 21 times (since they started keeping points). For the last 15 to 20 years I’ve tried to find younger guys who wanted to go but didn’t have the money so I’d invite them along.
GBS: That’s terrific—
Garrison: Well, their enthusiasm wears off on me, too. I sometimes get a little tired but then their enthusiasm sort of fires me up.
GBS: Now we’ve got high school bass clubs and college scholarships that are being offered.
Garrison: I have some mixed feelings about that. I think it’s fantastic what it’s doing for some of the kids but I worry about the hype that the younger kids get into. There are a few pros whose public personae are not great role models.
GBS: Yes, a lot of the kids want to be like ‘Ike—but I suppose the upside of that is that there are a lot more kids interested in fishing as a result of Iconelli’s public personality. Of course, there are great young anglers who are totally dedicated to fishing and they’re a pleasure to be with.
One of them is Byron Kenny, a former UGA fisherman, who is a classy young man and a great talent—
Garrison: Yes, he (Byron) is from Griffin. I did a Map of the Month article with him when he was a senior at UGA. I’ve done several articles on the college clubs—including this month’s article on Justin Singleton, president of the Georgia College and State University fishing team. He and his team were at one point rated number one in the country—and he was great to fish with.
GBS: So how did you get into Georgia Outdoor News?
Garrison: I always wanted to be a writer. I loved to read growing up. Loved the outdoors. I got a friend of mine who offered to sponsor an outdoor column in the Griffin Daily News back in 1997 and that’s how I got started. And I’m still doing that column today.
GBS: That’s a great way to break-in. Writing about what you love to do.
Garrison: Yes, and there were two guys on that state team in 1983, Carl Logan and Les Aker, who were really great bass fishermen. Carl is still fishing. They were both writing for Georgia Sportsman in those days and I told them how much I enjoyed reading their articles. I didn’t realize it until then, but they had remembered me saying how much I’d like to write for a magazine. So, in 1988 I got a call from Steve Burch [Georgia Outdoor Newspublisher and recent inductee into the Georgia Hunting and Fishing Hall of Fame] asking me to write an article for GON—and then in the early nineties I came out with the idea for the Fishin’ Map of the Month article that would help the everyday angler. It’s now been 21 years.
GBS: It’s the first thing I turn to in GON. You always give such specific details.
Garrison: The very first one I did was on Jackson Lake with a local guide. That article came out and two or three months later, a picture was sent in to GON of a 12-year-old girl holding up a 12-pound bass. She told them she read that article and got her Daddy to take her to one of the holes and she caught that bass right there.
GBS: That’s got to make you feel good. It’s great that those guys you take share that information.
Garrison: Well, I’ve found that most good fishermen know about fishing memories or a specific hole; instead, they go find patterns. The whole idea behind those articles is for somebody who wants to go to the lake and wants to go there and give you a start. But I’ve won a lot of club tournaments going back to places that have produced, so it does work.
I was down at Eufaula for a Top Six Sunday afternoon for a draw. The next morning my partner and I were sitting there in the dark and we were talking about where we were going to fish. Well, he pulled a folder out of his tackle box and he had cut out several old Map of the Month articles and was holding a flashlight. And I put the flashlight on my name—and he reads my name and looked over at me and back down at the article and said, “Well, damn, that’s you!”. Unfortunately, we fished a lot of the places but it wasn’t the right pattern during that event.
GBS: So I guess that Clarks Hill is your favorite lake in Georgia?
Garrison: Clarks Hill is my favorite just because of my history there in Georgia. My favorite lake in the world is Lake Martin in Alabama. I started fishing it in 1975 with my club. Now all three clubs go over there the second weekend in October we have a three-day tournament over there. We always catch a lot of fish and I’m beginning to catch a lot of those big spots.
GBS: I’ve heard it’s a lot like Lanier.
Garrison: It’s like Lanier, except you catch a lot more fish at Martin.
GBS: So you’ve fished a lot of the Alabama lakes?
Garrison: You know GON started the Alabama Outdoor News and I do my article every month for that magazine also, which has allowed me to fish about every lake in Alabama. You know, it’s strange that Georgia hardly has anybody ever in the Classic, but Alabama, especially in recent times, always seems to have more anglers than any other state. I’ve gotten to fish with a lot of the top fishermen, including Boyd Duckett, Scott Canterbury, Randall Tharp and Matt Herren. I think I did articles on five of the Classic contenders.
GBS: What were those guys like to fish with?
Garrison: Well, they want the article to be good but they were all nice guys. They’ve tried to help me out. To give you an example, I did an article on Boyd Duckett of Demopolis the year after he won the Classic. I was shocked he would be willing to do the article since Alabama Outdoor News was not a really well-known publication at the time. But he worked so hard that day trying to help me catch those fish, explaining what he was doing and how he was doing it. He caught 33 keepers that day and I caught four, doing exactly the same thing.
GBS: Do you think they feel bites we don’t feel?
Garrison: I think they have a sixth sense about it. I don’t know what it is. I’ve been in the boat with them. They fish the same places the same way. But there’s something different. I’ve compared it to baseball. Everyone can play baseball but no matter how hard you practice you’re probably never going to make it to the major leagues. Those that make it have some sort of special talent—even if you work at it—you can’t attain it. They are born with it. I have some flashes of insight every now and then—but sometimes it’s just experience and time on the water that gives you a little flash. We get it once and a while and they get it all the time.
Randall Tharp was another great guy. I remember the first [Bassmaster] Classic over in Birmingham the day before and I was walking around trying to do some interviews. Some of the pros were gearing up for the next morning and they didn’t want to talk to the press because they had fishing on their mind. When I walked up to Tharp’s boat, he was relaxed and had his feet propped up and was enjoying life.
GBS: What’s the best fishing advice you ever got?
Garrison: I think the biggest thing that those guys have is confidence in what they are doing. Don’t listen to dock talk. Don’t go crazy with things you’re not used to fishing. Fish what you feel most comfortable doing—and what you have the most confidence in.
I messed up when I fished the Red Man [tournament trail] and I’d listen to the dock fishermen and they would say throw a buzz bait and I hadn’t thrown a buzz bait much back then. Then I went back to fishing what I liked to fish and did a lot better. I think confidence is about 80% of catching fish. Those top pros just know that they are going to catch those fish. They have the confidence of sticking with a bait and sticking with a pattern that they found in practice. They don’t give up or get too frustrated.
GBS: I think it was Aaron Martens or maybe Brent Ehrler who once talked about the need to hit the erase button on your memories when you go back to a tournament lake. It’s hard to do, especially when you’ve done well before and the bite is tough.
Garrison: Yes, they say don’t fish ‘memories’. Although sometimes I think those memories give you that insight.
GBS: And they also give you incentive. You’re not going to think about the day you zeroed. You’re going to think about the day you’ve figured out what they were doing.
Garrison: That’s right. But like many people, I’ve won club tournaments on the same lakes that I’ve zeroed on.
GBS: How would you describe your strengths are as a fisherman?
Garrison: A big part of the last ten years I’ve thrown slower moving baits a lot. My arthritis is pretty bad in my hands. Throwing a spook or a big crank bait is out of the question. I throw a jig and pig a lot more than anything else now. That way I can sit down and work it slowly—I can’t really stand all day in a tournament anymore. I like taking the time to pick apart an area—knowing where to cast. Sometime it varies. From November through March I throw a crankbait almost constantly—I had 18 pounds on Sinclair in January and caught them all on a DT6 that day. Of course, a week or two later, I fished another club tournament and caught one fish that weighed two pounds (laughing)!
GBS: You don’t ever know.
Garrison: I remember fishing Guntersville one year and was fishing the ledges out there—I call it combat fishing. You’re casting around 10 other boats. The young guy with me said he heard that the dock bite was on—and you don’t normally hear about people fishing docks at Guntersville. Anyway, we went into a little creek and I caught three keepers off the first five docks we fished. We went back there on tournament day and I had 17 pounds on a jig and pig off docks—which was something no one else was doing. I caught three four-pounders on three docks right in a row off the right front corner post.
GBS: That’s an unusual pattern but you obviously found something nobody else did.
Garrison: That’s what you have to do sometimes. It wasn’t a traditional way to fish Guntersville but it was a great pattern.
GBS: How do you set your schedule for your GON articles?
Garrison: Usually in September we set the Map of the Month schedule and they [the editors] plan other articles around that schedule. That way I know in advance. The first thing I do is to ask Daryl [Kirby, GON editor] if he has anyone in mind. But most of the time, I look at tournament results and I’ll get in touch with them. Or I’ll find a good local person that someone has recommended. The last 3 or 4 years I’ve used a lot of high school and college kids and I occasionally use a pro fisherman and you have work around their schedule because from February through June they are traveling all the time. I don’t use a lot of guides in the articles because it might create a conflict with other guides who advertise in GON. Some of the best ones are the great club fishermen—and they enjoy it. The pros are trying to get their sponsors noticed—and I don’t say you have to use this certain kind of rod or reel–but the college kids and club fisherman really like getting their names in the magazine.
GBS: Who do you are some of the top tournament pros in Georgia?
Garrison: Patrick Bone is one of the really good fisherman right now. My editor at GON called and said we need a cover shot of a four-pound spot at Lanier so I called Patrick and he was getting ready to leave for a tournament. But he spent half a day out there with me and caught a five-pound spot and I got my cover shot and he was very generous with his time. I did an article with Kip Carter on Jackson and, of course, he grew up on the lake. He’s won a lot on that lake and he’s one of the top tournament fisherman in Georgia. I’ll tell you who else is excellent is Mike Morris—he’s made the state team more than any other fisherman. Besides being a great fisherman he always takes the time to show me how he fishes.
I fished once at Eufaula with a great ledge fishermen and he took me to a place and said ‘this is my tournament hole. I don’t want you to write about it.’ He told me to cast about three feet to the left of where he had just cast. Well, we doubled up—both with four pounders. He told me not to show anything in the background so people couldn’t figure out where we were. I told him you couldn’t hit the bank with a 30.06 rifle, so there’s no way anyone’s going to figure this out. Years later, I was with Jackie Thompson, and he took me to the same place out in the middle of the lake and I thought ‘man, this is exactly the place I had doubled up with my partner years ago and he said it was his private hole’. Jackie said “man, this is one of the top community holes on the lake” (laughing).
GBS: Just goes to show there are few secrets when it comes to good spots.
Garrison: People will go get their GPS coordinates and make five or six casts and then they leave because they’re not setting up on it the right way. If I mention there’s a little rock pile somewhere and they don’t take the time to find the rock pile—they probably won’t catch the fish there. Most weekend anglers don’t really have the patience to figure out a place.
GBS: What do you see less experienced fishermen do that are common mistakes?
Garrison: I think the best advice is to fish the current conditions. Don’t always rely on those memories. If you’re fishing after a cold front, your fish aren’t going to be in the same position as they were last year. As for co-anglers, I see co-anglers cast the exact same place I do and I throw a crankbait—it’s unlikely that the fish are going to hit a crankbait that the co-angler throws. You’ve got to fish a different bait from the back—and try to cover a little different water.
GBS: Yes, that happens a lot.
Garrison: Sunday at my club tournament. The guy in the back wanted one of my Texas
rigged lizards. I told him I’d even dip it in J.J.’s Magic, which I’ve always used. But that guy threw that lizard behind me in every spot I did—and I tried to tell him cast another 20 feet away, because those fish are not going to swim 20 feet to eat my lizard and you’ll do better. Still, he ended up with only one fish, and he used what I was using.
GBS: What are some good memories from being on the water with so many good fishermen.
Garrison: One of the nicest things I had said about me came from Scott Montgomery, the owner of Big Bite Baits. We were on Lake Eufaula and he said, ‘You know, I’ve taken a lot of writers out on the lake doing these articles and you’re one of the first ones that actually knew what he was doing and knew how to fish.” I think because I’ve been a bass fisherman most of my life—it helps me ask better questions.
GBS: Well, since you fished early on with your wife, she’s obviously a good fisherman.
Garrison: I’ll tell you something about fishing with my wife Linda. She’s a really good bass fisherman and she and I used to fish together constantly. But she said I got too serious when I got into club fishing so we don’t fish quite as much as we used to. The first summer we got married I said I wanted a 12-pound bass to mount. We were having dinner with my family the first summer we were married and my Daddy said ‘If you catch a 12-pounder I will have it mounted for you.” And my wife said “What about me?”. And Daddy said “If you catch an 8-pounder I’ll have it mounted for you.” Well, we were out there trolling Hellbenders and she got one weighing 8.10—and it’s still on the wall here at the house.
GBS: Ronnie, that’s a great one to end on. Thanks for your time!
Garrison: You’re welcome.