Lake Burton's Giant Spotted Bass

This North Georgia mountain reservoir has come alive with outsized spotted bass, including a new state record. Let's have a closer look at what's going on there. (January 2006)

Wayne Holland of Blairsville hoists his new state-record spotted bass he took from Lake Burton.
Photo courtesy of Wayne Holland

What can a bass fisherman appreciate more than a limit of five spotted bass topping 25 pounds in total weight? How about one of those bass tipping the scales at more than 8 pounds and landing in the state-record book? And it didn't hurt that the fisherman made those catches of a monster bass on a trout fishing trip!

Wayne Holland of Blairsville was out for a day of fishing for brown trout at Lake Burton with his regular Wednesday angling partner, Frank Wright of Blue Ridge, when the action occurred.

"Those five bass -- and a few others -- looked like brothers, actually more like twins, and that limit of spots would have been the heaviest tournament stringer of spots I ever weighed," said the veteran tournament bass angler. Among those fish that day was the new state-record spotted bass, an 8-pound, 2-ounce pig of a bass.

Oddly, that particular day was given over to trout fishing, Holland admitted. Any other day, he would have been looking for the schools of blueback herrings that he and many other northeast Georgia bass anglers say account for the trend of unusually large spotted bass caught over the last several years at Lake Burton.

"Frank and I have been fishing together a long time. That day, we planned to fish for the big brown trout that are growing fat on the herrings in Lake Burton, so we were working around the open water of the lake, looking for the trout," Holland said.

No stranger to fishing this area, Holland is a part-time guide for the Upper-Hi Fly Shop and Outfitters in Hiawasee.

When he's focused on bass fishing in late winter and early spring on Lake Burton, he usually locates the prolific herrings around structure. But the brown trout stocked by the Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources are open-water fish that are released in Lake Burton to control the growing population of herring.

Those herring are suspected of impacting the annual recruitment of largemouth bass. Fisheries biologists from the WRD say the prolific and predacious herrings grow to about 15 inches long and occupy the same portions of the lake when and where largemouths spawn. The herring feed on both plankton and small fish, including largemouth bass. As a result, largemouth numbers are in decline at Burton, and in some years, no recruitment of largemouths takes place.

The blueback herring were introduced illegally to Lake Burton and many other reservoirs in Georgia.

Fisheries biologist Anthony Raburn at the Lake Burton Fish Hatchery, adjacent to Moccasin Creek State Park on the lake's west side, says survey data revealed that the herring first appeared in Burton in 1993. He suspects anglers introduced the fish in 1990.

"And I'd guess that Holland's state-record spot was born at about the time the bluebacks were introduced," Raburn speculated, accounting for the fish's enormous size, which is less than a pound and a half off the world-record mark for spotted bass.

A 9-pound, 9-ounce brute caught in 1996 at Pine Flat Reservoir in California holds the world record.

Holland's record-book spot was caught on a Sworming Hornet Fish Head Spin, a relatively new drop-type lure that sports a willow-leaf spinner on jig heads of different weights and colors. The 1/4-ounce model he chose that day was tipped with a soft-plastic fluke-style trailer. He won't say what color pattern he used that day, but there's no secret to how this drop bait is fished.

"We saw a pile of bluebacks suddenly dart around, so I picked up the lure and threw it into the bait. I just let it drop through the bait, and at about 7 or 8 feet down, the line went limp and I set the hook," Holland recalled.

Fortunately, the big spot was hooked in deep, open water.

"I've caught a lot of big spots in my life around structure, but this fish was out in 40 feet of water," he said.

Is deep water the ticket for catching Lake Burton's trophy spots?

"Not necessarily," Holland said. "In early spring, everybody seems to go looking at deep water. Sure, big spots might be holding in deep water in February and March, but I do just the opposite. Instead of starting out in 30 feet of water, I start out in 3 to 4 feet on gravel beds on the north shores, those facing south and that have sand and rock on them. The big fish are rogues, and they travel in and out of shallow water looking for bait, especially on the points. One February, I pulled up on an old roadbed on a point, where the average depth was 4 feet. We caught four fish there that probably weighed a total of 15 pounds.

"That time of year, spots do what bass do. They eat, and that one was among a bunch of spots that were eating blueback herrings."

A lot of the points on Lake Burton also hold brush, where baitfish gather in the relative safety of the tangles of yard cuttings and Christmas trees that anglers use to create the piles. Virtually none of the brushpiles are obvious, but they are often found in the vicinity of the ends of long, shallow points and humps that are marked by shallow-water hazard buoys and poles.

"These points usually act as avenues from deep to shallow water for spots," Holland said. "You need to look for areas where the spots are going to spawn and where they have opportunity to move on and off those areas until the water temperature reaches the mark for spawning. A lot of the points on Lake Burton are very close to deep water, and they hold the right combination of rocks, gravel and sand that spots prefer for their spawning beds. I frequently find spawning spots on the points in about 6 feet of water, which drops quickly into 15 feet or more of water."

Holland has found that spots begin staging off spawning beds when the surface-water temperature reaches above 50 degrees. The temperature can range as high as 60 degrees when the fish are feeding most actively, but just a small change in temperature can kick spots into active feeding patterns that aren't too hard to figure out.

"At 52 to 54 degrees, spots begin to move onto the spawning areas," he notes. "Two to 3 degrees' change is often enough of a variation to make fish active. It does

n't have to be a dramatic warm-up, like 10 degrees or so. When the fish warm up just a little bit, they're looking to eat, and they're not looking for little bitty baitfish. I think that's why they key on the bluebacks."

Three to four years ago, Holland realized blueback herring had grown into Burton's dominant baitfish. He and Wright frequently found swirling schools of thousands of herrings when they fished together, and the big spots they began catching around the same time seemed to confirm that fact.

The growth rate for spotted bass just seemed to explode, he added. "And when we would hook a spot that was feeding on herring, other fish swimming with the hooked fish would try to get the lure out of the mouth of the hooked fish!"

"Certainly, Lake Burton's spotted bass shifted their diet to the blueback herring," Raburn confirmed. "As a result, we have seen an increase in the longevity of the spots, their growth rate and the size of their population. More food in the form of these massive schools of bluebacks simply means better living conditions for the spotted bass, which in Lake Burton live 10 to 12 years.

"Combine their long life with the food resource bluebacks provide, and I think you'll find the lake is a really good candidate to produce trophy spots, and there's probably a lot of them," the biologist said. "I'm not at all surprised that a fish like Holland's record-book spot was caught at Lake Burton."

But Raburn is among those fisheries biologists who find that bluebacks are contributing to the decline of largemouth bass at Burton and other North Georgia impoundments. Contrary to what many anglers believe, Raburn says, largemouths spawn ahead of the spotted bass, when the water temperature is in the low- to mid-60s. Spots prefer to spawn in water around 72 degrees, some two to three weeks after largemouth bass. Blueback herrings are in the shallows by the thousands spawning at the same time largemouth fry hatch. Because of the coincidence of the timing of their spawning periods, the herrings feed on largemouth bass fry. Within a week or so, the bluebacks react to warming water temperatures and move offshore into open water near the surface, foraging on plankton before they eventually move into the area of the thermocline.

"Bluebacks simply don't prey on Burton's spotted bass fry," Raburn said. "Spots spawn a little later than bluebacks, and they spawn a little deeper. It's a matter of a week or two and 10 feet of water."

That's one reason spotted bass feed on bluebacks. Spots have always keyed on open-water baitfish species, explained WRD fisheries biologist Reggie Weaver, who monitors Lake Lanier's fishery, which is also heavy on herring and spotted bass. "Spawned-out bluebacks are abundant in 4- to 6-inch lengths in open water where spots are still staging for the spawn, and their slender profile makes them easy for a spotted bass to eat in sizes relatively larger than other baitfish, such as sunfish."

That's why the majority of Holland's lure choices for Burton's big spots are matched to the herrings. Slab-sided like all members of the herring family, the blueback is noticeably more slender than its cousins. Its body is silvery in appearance and coarsely scaled, and it sports a black spot just to the back of the gill plate. Large jerkbaits -- both hard and soft -- imitate the bluebacks well and account for many of Holland's springtime trophy spots at Burton. Four- to 6-inch flukes are among his jerkbait arsenal in colors such as white, pearl and Tennessee Shad. Deep-diving crankbaits and hard suspending jerkbaits in chartreuse-and-blue, chartreuse-and-white and blue-and-white combinations, as well as pearl, bone and something Holland calls "albino shad," are other choices.

Holland rips or jumps his lures, whether he's chosen a fluke or a hard lure.

"Somewhere along the water column, I'm likely to find the suspended fish, and they usually hit the bait when it stops," he said.

The angler also slow-rolls spinnerbaits. These may be as heavy as 1/2 ounce in springtime, fished in water as deep as 30 feet, but he also uses them in shallow water where spots eventually spawn.

When the lakes' surface waters warm to near 58 degrees, spots are very active, he points out. That's when a steady retrieve with a blue-and-chartreuse spinnerbait on long points of gravel and alongside boat docks in 3 to 8 feet of water can fool big spots that are cruising between shallow and deep water.

Holland's record-book spotted bass has shined a spotlight upon Lake Burton, but the Rabun County reservoir does not stand alone among Georgia reservoirs where spotted bass are prospering. Other North Georgia reservoirs that hold populations of large spotted bass include Carters, Lanier, Russell, Rabun, Hartwell, Chatuge and Nottely.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see a world-record spot caught in a Georgia lake in 2006," Holland said.

He might be someone to listen to with regard to big spots. Last year, Holland also caught the largest spotted bass recorded at Lake Chatuge. He boated that 7-pound, 1-ounce trophy just one week after his Burton brute!

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