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Fishing in Reel Time

Local guide uses industry’s newest tech to find Lake Oconee’s fish

Smith’s fishfinder tells him where the fish are hiding and how deep they’re swimming. Photo by Emily McClure

Story and photos by Emily McClure

Fishing has become a high-tech industry on Lake Oconee.

While most visitors imagine fishing on the lake as a way to escape technology, lazily casting out the side of the boat and communing with nature, professional fishing guides like Mark Smith of Reel Time Guide Service use a variety of electronic gadgets to help their customers have a great day out on the water.

“A lot of people, and I was one of them, used to think that you just go out on the lake and start fishing,” Smith said. “Well, fish have certain areas, depending on time of year, weather, everything, that they like.”

Smith, who fishes for striped bass, hybrid bass and crappie, uses a top-of-the-line Lowrance fishfinder that allows him to see everything in the water around him without once looking over the side of the boat. The dual screen displays an image of the underwater scene on either side of the boat, complete with all of the submerged tree branches and the fish swimming nearby.

Each fishing rod’s reel sports a depth counter to let the fisherman know exactly how far down he’s dropped his line. Photo by Emily McClure

The fishfinder uses sonar technology that can “see” through the water for up to 500 feet on each side of the boat. Beyond just locating fish, the unit also possesses GIS technology similar to the navigation systems in cars, allowing Smith to map the lake and save his favorite fishing spots. And, if he sees a particular fish on the screen that he knows he wants to catch, he can set that fish as a destination.

 “Electronics are probably the fastest-developing industry in fishing because they’re computers,” Smith said.

 Just like computers and smartphones, Lowrance frequently releases new versions of its fishfinders and issues software updates in between. Smith can even connect his smartphone to his fishfinder through bluetooth.

This umbrella rig lure is designed to mimic a school of bait fish. Photo by Emily McClure

Once the fishfinder has told Smith the best places in the lake for his guests to drop their lines, he measures how deep the fish are swimming. Because most fish’s eyes are on the top of their head and they feed upward, Smith instructs his customers to position their bait about one to two feet over the fish’s head.


So, the technology continues down to the fishing poles themselves. Each reel sports a depth counter that tells the fisherman how deep in the water his line is.

Even the bait is smarter. While Smith frequently uses live shad as bait, he also employs a variety of surprisingly lifelike lures in order to better trick the fish into biting. One of these, the umbrella rig, is composed of many smaller mullet lures connected by wire in order to mimic a school of shad.

 Smith has always loved to fish, but he wasn’t always a fishing guide. Back when he lived near Atlanta, in Conyers, he took off to Lake Lanier or Lake Jackson each weekend in his boat.

"I loved to striper fish; that’s what I did,” he said. “And I was always trying to find somebody to go with me to help offset the cost.”

As he prepared to retire from his 30-year ground mechanic career with Delta, Smith knew his retirement home had to be on the water. He and his wife found their dream home on Lake Oconee. He met a fishing guide one day while he was out testing the waters.

“He asked me, he said, ‘Do you ever think about guiding?’” Smith said. “And I said, ‘All the time.’”

Smith first began guiding on Lake Oconee part-time in 2008 but launched into it full-time just one week after fully retiring from Delta. He said at first, he wasn’t sure if he’d like having strangers on his boat, but he quickly discovered that he loved meeting new people and teaching them how to fish his home lake.

Reel Time customer Mark Holihan shows off the hybrid bass he caught on Lake Oconee. Photo by Emily McClure

Lake Oconee’s fishing guides have a friendly competition, he said, but they work together. If someone calls Smith and wants to book a fishing trip for a day he isn’t available, he’ll pass the customer along to another guide.

“This lake is very unique in that,” Smith said. “But it’s very competitive; don’t get me wrong on that. We like each other, but we also like to catch more fish than the other guy.”

Smith is the Ritz-Carlton Reynolds’ preferred fishing guide, which means that when a Ritz guest wants a guided fishing trip, he’s the first one to get the call.

Smith says the Ritz-Carlton allows him to meet people from all over the world, which is one of his favorite parts of the job. In just a two month period, he guided families from Russia, the Netherlands and England. He’s even had a few famous customers, like the president of Samsung.

About 30 percent of his business comes from the Ritz, while the rest comes through word-of-mouth referrals and internet searches.

Smith maintains his internet presence by writing a weekly Lake Oconee fishing report for He studies the water depth, clarity and temperature and recommends which baits and techniques to use.

 “Bass fishing is slow,” he wrote in his Jan. 26 report. “You will still need to match the color of your bait to the water color.”

Smith’s boat is equipped with a remote-control motor that allows him to drive it over to the dock to pick him up after launching.

As it turns out, the educational aspect is one of his favorite parts of guiding. In fact, on most trips, he doesn’t throw out any lines himself.           

“I don’t fish on a trip, as a general rule,” he said. “I’m busy baiting hooks, taking fish off, keeping them happy, finding the fish, and I found out I really enjoy doing that.”

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This story first appeared in Lake Country Boating 2019 magazine and is the property of Smith Communications, Inc. No portions of the story or photos may be copied or used without written consent from the publisher.


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