North Georgia Small Pond Cats
October 04, 2010
In the uplands of the Peach State, the catfishing heats up in the summer. Here are some smaller waters that can provide plenty of action at this time of year. (August 2009)
In the middle of summer, making the choice to sit in a boat and broil in the middle of a lake with the sun beating down unmercifully may cause some to question your sanity. By midmorning when it really starts to heat up, you'll probably be asking yourself the same thing. Hours of sunburn and sweat with little to show for it can make summertime angling more a chore than a pleasure in the Deep South.
There is a way to beat the heat though, while still getting your fix of a tug on the end of the line. The bonus is the main course of a fine backyard fish fry. Summertime catfishing is hot, but the pain and suffering is not if you just take things slow and easy.
There are many small lakes in the northern part of the state that meet the two main requirements for this type of easy-does-it fishing. The first is plenty of catfish, and the second is shoreline trees under which to kick back in the shade and enjoy the breeze while waiting for a bouncing rod tip to let you know Mr. Whiskers has found your bait.
Channel catfish are going to be the main target in small lakes. The species has been widely planted in small lakes and ponds all across the state, and usually thrive wherever they are stocked. Because of a lack of suitable spawning habitat, channel catfish often don't naturally reproduce in small lakes. Periodic restocking is required. Depending on the lake and when it was last stocked, fishing may cycle up and down every few years.
Small waters can produce some big channel cats, but "fiddlers" of a couple of pounds are the most common catch. Channel catfish can be identified by their deeply forked tails and small dark spots on the bodies, although the spots are often very faint or absent in large specimens.
Along with channel cats, small lakes sometimes have one or more bullhead species too, especially if a stream feeds the lake. Brown, yellow and black bullheads are three common bullhead species you may run into in North Georgia, depending on where you are fishing. Distinguishing them isn't really all that important to the average catfish angler, most of whom are content to just lump the fish together as bullheads.
Bullheads don't typically grow as large as channel cats, but are fun to catch nonetheless. Bullheads lack the channel catfish's deeply forked tail, so telling the two apart isn't going to be difficult.
Like many anglers, as a kid I spent hours and hours sitting on the bank soaking night crawlers for whatever would bite. More often than not, that was bullheads. It was a fun way to spend time outdoors when it was too hot to do anything else back then, -- and it still is today.
For a summer fishing trip that involves smaller kids, you can forget about a long, hot day spent sitting in a boat. Kids have short attention spans, and when they are hot and uncomfortable, the span gets even shorter still. Much better is to take them fishing where they can run around on the shady banks exploring when they get bored waiting for the next bouncing rod tip. Many public small lakes have other amenities like play areas and nature trails to feed a youngster's need to be constantly doing something.
Rest assured though, even if you allow them to venture off a short distance to do something else, as soon as they see you jerk up a rod to set the hook, they'll come running back as fast as their feet will carry them to watch the action.
Channel catfish and bullheads are not fussy eaters and will chow down with gusto on a smorgasbord of baits, both live and dead. Catfish feed mostly by scent and taste, which explains the popularity of baits that leave a strong scent trail for the catfish to follow to the hook.
Every catfish angler has his favorite stink bait. Some have their own secret recipe for a home brew that will gag a maggot, while others prefer the convenience of buying it off the shelf and letting someone else stink up the place mixing it.
For the small-water catfish, stink baits, chicken liver, or a gob of night crawlers fished on bottom is hard to beat. Use a simple fish-finder rig of a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce slip-sinker ahead of a small split shot pinched on the line about a foot in front of a 1/0 or 2/0 short-shank heavy wire hook. This rig allows the catfish to take the bait without feeling much resistance from the weight.
Catfish are strong pullers, so you want to go with a hook made of heavier wire, but don't oversize the hook to where the fish have a hard time taking it completely into their mouths along with the bait. When using pasty or nearly liquid stink baits, many anglers prefer a specialized hook that consists of a treble hook attached to a small piece of sponge or ribbed plastic. These hooks are designed to hold the bait on the hook and slowly release it into the water. Whatever type hook is used, the bait should be well secured to prevent a crafty catfish from stealing it undetected. Cats are nibblers and often tentatively mouth a bait for some time before finally taking it completely.
For tackle, a medium spinning or casting outfit spooled up with 12-pound monofilament or 20-pound braided line is a happy medium. Smaller fish get a chance to show off what they have, and you have even odds on being able to land a bigger fish. Too, a snagged sinker or hook can sometimes be pulled free before the line breaks, so you don't have to tie on a new rig every time you want to reel in and check you bait.
Picking out a spot on the bank to set up shop isn't that hard. Of course, in the heat of a summer day, a good shade tree is one of the first things to look for when picking out a spot.
What makes a spot good for catfishing isn't all that different from what makes it good for any other species. Points, dropoffs and channels are all good. Anywhere there is sloping bottom that offers the fish a choice of depths is going to be better than a broad, flat uniform bottom.
Since you are shore-bound, reading the bottom won't be as easy as dialing in the picture on a depthfinder. Just looking around you, though, should give some good clues on what is under the water. If the bank has a steep slope, it likely continues that way under water. If the ground is flat leading up to the water's edge, then it probably continues that way past the water's edge. For stream-fed lakes, you can usually guess where the old creek channel runs just by looking at the topography around the lake and where the stream enters and exits.
One other thing to keep in mind is oxygen. Small lakes often stratify in the middle of summer. Below a certain point, there will be no oxygen.
Where this happens varies from lake to lake, but in general, the clearer the water, the deeper the thermocline. Don't think you have to fish the deepest hole on the lake to find the catfish. The mid-depths are likely to offer the best combination of oxygen content and cooler temperatures that fish prefer.
Now let's take a look at some of the best places to spend the hazy, lazy days of summer filling your stringer with tasty catfish. All of these lakes offer good fishing, and shoreline access is excellent. All you need to bring is your rod and reel and some bait, and you'll be fishing just as quickly as you can pick out a spot and bait the hook.
George Sparks Reservoir, a 215-acre lake in Sweetwater Creek State Park, is only minutes from downtown Atlanta. Most anglers choose to fish the lake from the bank and there is plenty or room for everyone to spread out and find their own honeyholes.
The lake bottom was cleared during construction, so there is very little cover other than what is found along the shoreline. The channel catfish and bullheads don't care about that though, and can be caught nearly anywhere on the lake.
Since the vast majority of the fishing pressure from shoreline anglers is directed at just a few popular access points, it would be wise to take a short hike to get away from the hard-hit areas and find somewhere more secluded.
Sweetwater Creek State Park is a day-use area. In addition to the lake, other facilities include picnic shelters and tables, playgrounds, fishing piers and a bait shop. Camping is not allowed.
To reach the park, take Interstate 20 west from Atlanta to exit No. 44 at Thornton Road. Turn left and go one-fourth mile to Blairs Bridge Road on the right. Travel two miles and turn left on Mount Vernon Road to the park.
Another good bet for small-lake catfish is the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division's Rocky Mountain Recreation and Public Fishing Area near Rome. Two lakes are available to the public for fishing and outdoor recreation.
Antioch Lake and Heath Lake, at 357 and 202 acres, both offer improved bank access, shoreline fishing jetties, paved boat ramps and parking areas. Channel catfish are present and regularly caught by anglers, but even more common are brown and black bullheads.
Antioch Lake is open every day of the year and offers the best bank access, making it popular with catfish anglers. Favorite places are where the road crosses the lake at the main entrance, and also the area near the campground and swimming beach.
Heath Lake is open the first 10 days of each month. The lake is not as developed as Antioch and access is more limited, but shoreline anglers have easy access to the lower end of the lake. If you're willing to do some hiking, you can get to even more remote areas.
A wildlife management area stamp is not required to fish at Rocky Mountain, but all vehicles parked on the area must display a valid Rocky Mountain Daily Parking Permit. Permits can be purchased at all entrances to the area.
Standard Public Fishing Area creel and length limits apply to all fish caught from Rocky Mountain.
Rocky Mountain Recreation and Public Fishing Area can be reached from Rome by traveling 10.4 miles north on U.S. Highway 27, left on Sike Storey Road for 0.4 miles, then left on Big Texas Valley Road for 5.8 miles to the main entrance of the area.
You can call the area manager's office at (706) 802-5087 to get more information on facilities available or area rules and regulations.
Not too far up the road from Rocky Mountain PFA is Floyd State Park in Chattooga County near Summerville. The park has two lakes that together provide more than 50 acres of water for fishing. Shoreline access is excellent on both lakes, and anglers will have no problem finding a shady place to set up shop under the trees at the foot of Taylor's Ridge.
The upper lake has more developed facilities and the best access, so it receives the most pressure. However, the upper lake also has the most catfish, since a portion of the lake is often sectioned off and stocked with catfish for special kids and senior citizen fishing events. Once the special events are over, the fence is removed and the leftover catfish spread throughout the lake.
The Floyd State Park is three miles south of Summerville. Take Sloppy Floyd Lake Road from U.S. 27 and follow it into the park.
Hollis Q. Lathem Reservoir is a 334-acre Cherokee County water-supply lake on the Cherokee/Dawson County line. The lake is relatively new, having opened in 2002. A variety of fish species call the lake home, including several species of catfish.
Although much of the lake can only be reached by boat, there is some easy shoreline access around the boat ramp and Lake Manager's Office facility. During the summer, the lake is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. For more information, call the Lake Manager at (770) 894-4356.
To reach the lake, from State Route 400 take SR 369 west approximately 12 miles to Yellow Creek Road and turn right. Travel Yellow Creek Road approximately four miles to Shiloh Church Road and turn right. The lake entrance will be on your left, less than a mile away.
Lake Marbury is a 260-acre lake 1n Fort Yargo State Park near Winder. These waters offer good fishing for channel cats and bullheads.
Like most state park lakes, shoreline access is excellent. Boat launch facilities are available, but you really don't need them, since your own two feet can take you nearly anywhere you want to go around the lake. To reach the lake, take SR 81 south from Winder for one mile to the park entrance.
Lake Commerce is a 200-acre water supply reservoir operated by the city of Commerce. The lake offers good fishing for a variety of warmwater species, including catfish.
The lake is easy to reach just off I-85. Take the U.S. Highway 441 exit north and turn left onto County Road 232. Travel two miles and turn right onto Grove Level Road, past the Atlanta Drag Strip Raceway.
Unicoi Lake is found on the state park of the same name and lies just east of Helen. This 53-acre lake offers fishing for a variety of species, including catfish.
Shoreline access is good, and the area provides many different activities should the fishing be slow. The lake is open 365 days a year.
To reach the lake, take SR 356 east of Robertstown for approximately two miles to the Unicoi State Park entrance.
Another state park lake anglers may want to try is Lake Trahlyta at Vogel State Park, one of Georgia's oldest and most popular state parks. This lake covers 22 acres and a short walk takes you anywhere you want to fish along its banks.
The lake offers a chance at catfish along with bass and bream in the summer.
The park is located 11 miles south of Blairsville on U.S. 129.
This summer, give North Georgia small-lake catfish a try. There's no better way to beat the heat while still keeping your hook wet during the dog days of the Georgia summer.