Peach State

Peach State

From the mountains to the coast, Georgia is a

"hawg" heaven for bass fishermen. Let's take a closer look

at some of the best places for that fishing this year.

John Pethel of Danielsville is hoisting the kind of bass that can take the rod out of your hand on Clarks Hill. Photo by Ronell Smith.

When it comes to bass fishing, Georgia can hold its own with any state in the country. Whether it is size or numbers of fish anglers want, Georgia has them.

In fact, no matter where you live in the state, it’s a good bet that great bass fishing is less than an hour away. For example, anglers in the northwest can catch lots of medium-sized smallmouths from Blue Ridge Lake, a small mountain reservoir nestled in the historic Blue Ridge Mountains. Anglers in the extreme southwest portion of the state can just as easily access Steve Bell Lake, a 104-acre reservoir that is part of the Dodge County Public Fishing Area.

The state is ripe with opportunities, and March is the ideal month to begin taking advantage of them. Typically, this month brings about the pre-spawn period, a time when large females begin their move to spawn. But before they do storm the shoreline, these fish are aggressive and hungry. Put a jerkbait, crankbait, spinnerbait or Texas-rigged lizard in their faces, and hold on.

“They’ll take the rod out of your hand,” said John Pethel, a Daniels-ville angler who uses crankbaits this month for largemouths on Clarks Hill Lake.

Though there are great lakes found throughout the state, several stand out when it comes to catching both size and numbers of bass. Those lakes are Blue Ridge, Clarks Hill, Varner, Walter F. George and Steve Bell.

Whether you are able to visit one or all of them, the fishing should be dynamite.

LAKE BLUE RIDGE

Though only 3,290 acres in size, Blue Ridge Lake is as picturesque as they come. The reservoir, ensconced in the northwest portion of the state among the Blue Ridge Mountains, is surrounded by rolling hills, which provide an awesome backdrop to the lake’s deep, crystal clear water.

But for anglers, it is the smallmouth bass they want more than the scenery. The fish are plentiful here.

In our deep, clear mountain reservoirs, finding the fish is often the biggest problem, and Blue Ridge is no different. There are, in some cases, hundreds of feet of water, and even the water against the shoreline can be 8 to 10 feet in depth. You do not have to go far, or deep for that matter, to catch smallmouths on the lake, according to Ed Howard. A resident of Mineral Bluff, Howard knows the lake about as well as anyone, fishing it often and with great success. He said the key to catching fish on the lake is actually as simple as getting to the point.

The Blue Ridge is lined with myriad rocky points, and those are where you should concentrate your efforts. Beginning this month, Howard looks for the fish to be along the shorelines, where they feed in advance of the spawn. He targets the fish along the points by throwing small, flat crankbaits right up against the shoreline and then reeling back in a slow, constant fashion. He said a good day on this lake yields 10 to 15 smallies, with weights up to more than 3 pounds.

To increase the likelihood of a good catch, Howard added, anglers should stick to fishing in the late evening or on days when there is lots of cloud cover.

“Smallmouth don’t like bright, sunny days,” Howard explained. “But late in the evening on cloudy days, you can work on them.”

Look for the fish to remain near the points as spring wears on. These fish typically spawn on the rocks and then back off to deeper water for the late-spring and summer months. Therefore, later in year, just back the boat farther from the shore and fish deeper. The exact depth varies, but look for the fish in 12 to 30 feet of water, where they can be tempted with plastic worms on a drop-shot or Texas rig. Small jigs worked slowly over the bottom can also be effective.

CLARKS HILL LAKE

If it is big fish you are after, Clarks Hill, also known as J. Strom Thurmond Reservoir, is the place to be. Even before the water warms this month, big bass can easily be found in many of the shallow pockets that dot the 71,000-acre lake’s shoreline.

Part of the Savannah River chain of lakes, Clarks Hill is located in northeast Georgia, with portions of the impoundment being shared with South Carolina. For years known as a very good fishery, the lake was impacted by the drought in the late 1990s, a fact that led to the body of water being down as much as 15 feet. The fishing apparently was not hurt during this period, as the lake still brims with 3- to 4-pound bass.

Now, however, with the lake at full pool for two years, the largemouths are easily accessible, and they should be biting well this month, said John Pethel.

On a typical day in spring, Pethel launches his boat at the Dorn Sport Fishing and Boating complex, located on the South Carolina side of the lake, and then proceeds to fish the Savannah River arm. He looks for main-lake pockets having sandy bottoms and deep-water access nearby. When he finds such a spot, he has just the bait for the occasion.

“I run a Fat Free Shad in crawdad or a Bomber 7A in firetiger or shad color through the area,” he said. “As the water warms up, those fish move up shallow to feed.”

“March is a good month

for both size and numbers on Lake Varner.”

Other baits to keep tied on in the spring are spinnerbaits and Carolina-rigged plastic worms. The spinnerbait in 3/8-ounce size is for throwing around wood cover, Pethel said. The Carolina rig is an awesome bait to use as the fish move into and out of the creeks, where they stage pre-spawn and post-spawn on main-lake points. Use 6-inch black lizards to entice these bass.

As spring turns to summer, Clarks Hill becomes bass fishing central. In early summer, large numbers of big bass can be caught in the shallow areas between the islands that are all over the lake. The large females move into these areas, pushing shad to the top and creating plenty of opportunity for anglers wanting schooling action. This is the period when you do not want to leave home without topwater

baits, especially chuggers, prop baits and stickbaits.

This pattern, which holds through summer and into fall, yields some of the biggest fish of the year, with many 7-plus-pound bass being caught. As summer turns to fall, follow the fish back into the creeks, where spinnerbaits and crankbaits are once again the go-to lures for most anglers. Also, keep a soft-plastic jerkbait ready. The fish on Clarks Hill can hardly resist the lure, even in the fall and winter months.

LAKE VARNER

A look at premier bass fishing locales in the state wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Lake Varner, a Newton County watershed impoundment located just outside Covington. The diminutive lake, only 836 acres, is loaded with big largemouths. A 2003 sampling by Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division found that largemouth abundance and quality have remained solid for the last several years. The sampling also found that roughly 50 percent of the bass are 14 inches or longer. What’s more, Varner offers a great opportunity to catch a largemouth bass over 5 pounds.

“Any discussion of largemouth fishing in the state has to include Varner,” stated Alfred “Bubba” Mauldin, senior fisheries biologist with the WRD.

A five-fish tournament catch in March typically takes more than 30 pounds to win. If that’s not remarkable, consider that several catches of above 30 pounds are often brought to the weigh-in, and among them are several fish over 10 pounds. Moreover, unlike the situation at most lakes in the state, the size of catches from Varner does not drop in the summer months, with numbers of 6-plus-pound bass caught well into the dog days of August.

To have success on Varner, anglers need to find the cover, specifically the wood and the grass. In spring, target the largemouths in the shallow pockets in the northern sections of the lake. Look for patches of grass and throw lipless crankbaits right into the cover and rip them out.

Another great place for catching big largemouths in spring is near the numerous stump fields in the northeast section of the lake. These are great locations for a spinnerbait or jig.

“March is a good month for both size and numbers on Lake Varner,” said Wayne Glaze, a Covington resident who frequently fishes the lake.

In late spring and summer, use your electronic graph to locate fish along the old creek channel or along main-lake points in 12 to 15 feet of water. Carolina-rigged lizards are great here, as are deep-diving crankbaits.

Another dynamite location for catching largemouths on Varner is the site of an old pond dam. The location of the dam is right out from an old gazebo that sits on the far shore from the lake’s only boat ramp. The dam is surrounded by roughly 25 feet of water, making it an ideal place for a big crankbait, jigging spoon or Carolina-rigged lizard.

Those anglers wanting topwater action, however, can use buzzbaits or prop baits to fish the shallow water that covers grass all around the lake. These areas hold fish year ’round.

WALTER F. GEORGE

For years this lake has been known as one of the best in the country for the opportunity to catch big largemouths, a fact that led to anglers driving from as far away as Texas and New York to fish it. The size and numbers of fish had fallen off in the last few years, however.

In 1997 and ’98, Lake Walter F. George was one of numerous reservoirs in the country ravaged by the largemouth bass virus. The potentially lethal disease is believed by scientists to have led to fish kills and declines in overall weight of the largemouths in several lakes.

The impact was the same on 45,000-acre Lake George, said David Partridge, senior fisheries biologist for the lake.

“We lost a substantial number of fish,” he agreed, but added that he expects the fish to rebound quite nicely.

The WRD now is starting to see an increase in the average weight of the fish sampled on the impoundment.

“There’s still the opportunity to catch some quality fish in the 4- to 6-pound range, with an outside chance of catching an 8-pounder,” Partridge noted.

With things now returning to normal, expect there to be a strong bite this spring on the upper end of the lake. This section of the reservoir is veritably loaded with shallow cover, including alligator grass and primrose. With the water here usually more stained than in the lower end of the lake, it is a great place for throwing a chartreuse spinnerbait. Anglers fishing the upper end of the lake should also pay close attention to the shallow creek ledges that meander through the area. These ledges provide the ideal locations for largemouths to find cover. Use Carolina-rigged lizards, shallow-running crankbaits or spinnerbaits to tempt these fish.

If it’s sight-fishing you want, all you have to do is head down the lake and fish the shallow pockets with a tube lure or creature bait. The water is clearer, making it easier to see the spawning females.

In summer, however, it is ledge-fishing time on George. The lake is world-famous for the big fish that have routinely come off the river channel ledges in the summer months. To catch these fish, tie on a deep-diving crankbait and head for the most defined river channel ledges that can be found. Cast the crankbait parallel to the structure and then dig the lure to the bottom as it comes back to the boat.

STEVE BELL LAKE

For all the talk of trophy bass, very few lakes in the state give up truly mammoth largemouths — those in excess of 12 pounds. The 104-acre Steve Bell Lake has turned the trick twice in the last few years. The most recent was a 15-pound, 8 1/2-ounce behemoth taken in 2002.

In just last year, more than a dozen largemouths weighing more than 10 pounds were caught from the lake.

Dan Stiles is the manager of Dodge County Public Fishing Area, where the lake is located.

“I’ve personally had my hands on numerous (five-fish tournament) bags weighing over 30 pounds,” he said.

A fishery this good does not just happen by accident, however. Stiles said the water is very intensively managed to maximize the pounds of fish in the lake. That management includes steady applications of lime and fertilizer and constant monitoring of the fish populations.

In spring, fish deep-diving crankbaits around the standing timber located near the power lines that cross over the lake. Also, look for the old roadbed that cuts through this area, as it is also a natur

al “highway” for bass to move along.

The riprap at the dam is another productive area. The rock extends out into the lake and then slowly stair-steps down to deeper water. This structure is ideal for fish year ’round, since they do not have to move far to access deep water. Crankbaits and Texas-rigged worms are excellent choices here.

Between the fishing pier and the dam, there is probably the best piece of cover. A sunken island just eight feet beneath the surface forms an ideal spot for bass to forage or find cover in. The water around the island is 18 to 20 feet deep. A Carolina-rigged lizard or a crankbait would be hard to beat here.

“That’s a good spot year ’round,” Stiles said. “Even in the summer months, it seems like people pick up bass from that spot.”

One difference Stiles does note regarding Steve Bell is the fact that the lake’s well-defined thermocline is only 5 feet or so deep in the summer. This leads to fish staying much shallower, where they can access oxygenated water, in the warmer months.

“I tell people all the time,” Stiles said, “that if you’re fishing deeper than 5 or 6 feet in the summer, you’re fishing too deep.”

G&F

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