The Upper 'Hooch's 'Other' Bass
October 04, 2010
Once upstream of Lake Lanier, you're likely to find the bass fishing on the Chattahoochee River a bit different. Join the author in tackling this moving water. (March 2009)
In the foothills of North Georgia, the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River begin their southward trek across the state toward Florida and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. As it makes its way south it combines with the Flint River in Middle Georgia and eventually becomes the Apalachicola River in Florida.
Getting out in the shoals (as Jimmy Harris of Unicoi Outfitters is doing here) is key to finding the upper river's shoalies. Photo by Don Baldwin
Today there are several large reservoirs along the route that supply drinking water and recreational opportunities for the state. These reservoirs have changed the characteristics of the river and have formed isolated fisheries along the way. One such area is the Chattahoochee River above Lake Sidney Lanier.
Between the mountain town of Helen and the upper end of the lake, the river winds its way through the foothill as a relatively shallow, clear mountain stream that cascades over rocky shoals. In some sections these shoals are short stretches containing a few big boulders, but in others the whitewater created by the flow tumbling over the rocks stretches the width of the river for hundreds of yards. This swift clear water is excellent habitat for one of Georgia's native bass species, the shoal bass.
The shoal bass is only found naturally in the Chattahoochee and Flint River basins in Georgia and was not identified as a separate bass species until 1999. Prior to that time it was thought to be a subspecies of the redeye bass, which is also a native to the state.
Shoalies, true to their name, prefer fast moving, shallow, water around rocks as their primary habitat. They are fierce acrobatic fighters when hooked. Shoal bass angling has been growing in popularity since the species was identified and these fish are the targets of anglers from the basic to the most sophisticated. The feisty fish will attack natural bait like worms, crickets and crayfish, or artificial lures like small in-line spinners, small- to medium-sized surface lures and poppers.
Light spinning tackle on short but stout rods is the choice of most anglers, as it is best suited to casting the small baits in the sometimes tight quarters around the shoals. But there is an increasing population of fly-fishermen who are beginning to show up in the shoals stalking these fish.
Jimmy Harris of Unicoi Outfitters and his staff now offer guided outings for shoal bass on the upper "Hooch." He confirmed that interest in these fish is on the rise among fly casters.
"The shoal bass is a great alternative for trout fishermen on the Chattahoochee, particularly when the weather gets hot during the summer," Harris noted.
He described the shoal bass as an ambush feeder that lies in wait under rock ledges and in churning water to attack unsuspecting prey as it is washed downstream in the current. These bass aggressively charge out of their lairs and also slam baits drifted by them. In the clear, shallow water it is often possible to see the fish flash out and take the lure. That adds some excitement to the action.
In this area of the river, most of the shoal bass are in the 1- to 2-pound class, but Harris said the occasional 4-pounder keeps things interesting.
For fly casters, 5- or 6-weight rods are in order, as well as heavy tippets of 1X or 2X. Even though the water can be ultra clear, the turbulence of the rapids limits visibility so the heavier tippets don't usually affect the strike rate. While fishing, it is also a good idea to check the tippet often for frays. The rocks in the shoal are hard on monofilament line, and these fish are tough fighters that use the current to their advantage. A weak tippet often results in a lost fish.
While these bass rise to a surface popper, Harris tells has more consistent success with larger fish on deep-running streamers. He recommends large Clouser Minnows, Wooly Buggers and Zonkers in sizes No. 2 to No. 6.
But more important than the fly is the placement of the cast.
"These fish act more like trout than bass," Harris explained. "They stay very tight to the cover and in, or right next to, the most turbulent water."
That makes it important to place your cast well upstream of your target and in a line that lets it drift right by the chosen location. If the cast isn't far enough upstream, then the bait is not likely to be deep enough as it drifts through the target area.
According to Harris, shoal bass are much more likely to hit a swimming type of bait than a free-floating nymph.
"I don't want to suggest that you should never dead drift a nymph, because you can certainly drift a fly through a big pool and hook up with a fish, particularly if you have a fly that imitates a crawfish or hellgrammite," he cautioned. "But even then I would probably end my drift by giving the fly a few quick strips."
Harris frequently teases fish to come out of cover by using his rod to guide where the fly goes, rather than stripping the line. When provoked, shoal bass pounce on a fly.
"That's one of the fun things about fishing for shoal bass," Harris offered. "They attack like lightning, both subsurface and on top."
Another technique that is often productive is stripping the streamer across the current, imitating a darting baitfish. This is generally done by casting the fly upstream at about a 45-degree angle and making an immediate mend as soon as the line hits the surface. The fly is then retrieved back across the current using sharp strips of a foot or two of line. This action makes the fly swim in a jerky, darting action. This approach is effective in deeper pools where the current isn't quite as strong.
The shoals in the upper Chattahoochee are almost impossible to fish from a boat, since it is hard to hold in the swift water. Wade fishing is a better option. But the current is swift and the rocks can be slippery, so felt-soled boots are needed. It is also a good idea to fish with a buddy so help will be close by if you go for an unintentional swim.
Float tubes are not a good option because the water is too shallow to allow for a consistent drift with the lower half of your body suspended below the tube. Shallow-draft inflatable pontoon boats, like a Water Skeeter, or a canoe or kayak can work quite nicely, because all of them allow you to sit above the water. Access to this fi
shery is limited and is one of the biggest drawbacks to targeting the shoals in the upper 'Hooch. Most of the bank is on private property, so you have to obtain permission before gaining access from the land.
There is access to the river near some excellent shoals at the State Route 115 bridge and farther downstream Duncan Bridge on SR 384. However, there is no public parking in either of these locations. The parking lots are managed by Wildwood Outfitters, so you need to check with them before using the lots. Wildwood offers a shuttle service between the upper and lower access points and they rent canoes and kayaks if you don't have your own boat.