Peach State Fall Fishing Roundup

Peach State Fall Fishing Roundup

Hunting seasons are now open, drawing a lot of attention away from the water. That leaves many uncrowded options for angling. (October 2009)

Football games, county fairs, colorful leaves, apple cider, the whitetail rut --fall brings a plethora of pleasant thoughts to most people's minds and everyone's list is a little bit different. For many Georgia sportsmen, fishing is not super high on the list. They associate that sort of fun mostly with spring or summer.

Bull red drum show up all along the Peach State coast in the autumn months.
Photo by Jeff Samsel.

For anyone who likes to catch fish, though, overlooking autumn's offerings is truly a serious mistake. Fall brings some of the very best opportunities of the year on many different waterways, and because so many sportsmen have hunting on their minds, crowds tend to be light.

We've scoured the Peach State with fall fishing in mind and selected five of the finest opportunities available from the mountains to the coast. Each is different from the rest in terms of the setting, the techniques and the kind of fish targeted. The common denominator is excellent fall fishing action.Chattooga River Trout

Autumn offers double delight on the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River in Rabun County. First, the river's fine population of wild brown trout spawn at this time, making the biggest fish in the river less wary than normal. In addition, the "delay period" of the delayed harvest section begins on Nov. 1, with three miles of river heavily stocked, but open only to catch-and-release fishing with single-hook artificial lures. Adding even greater value, the river tends to run at a nice level for wading during October and November, and temperatures are normally comfortably cool.

Some brown trout can be found throughout the Chattooga's run along the Georgia/South Carolina border, but the best populations of wild fish are found in the first handful of miles below the North Carolina border. Just downstream of the best wild brown waters, semi-wild fish, which are helicopter stocked as fingerlings, also attempt to spawn and provide similarly good fall prospects.

The most practical access to the upper Chattooga is at the Burrells Ford bridge. From parking areas near the bridge, all access is by foot, but trails on the South Carolina side follow the river both up- and downstream. A reciprocal licensing agreement allows anglers to fish either side of the river with a valid license from either state.

Catchable-sized rainbows are also stocked below the bridge, but wild browns are the main attraction to many anglers who venture to the upper Chattooga in the fall.

Unlike other times, when mature browns are usually in deep, dark holes, are very hard to reach, and active only under low-light conditions, brown trout are apt to be almost anywhere this time of year. They are much more likely than normal to be spotted cruising, especially near gravel bars that offer spawning habitat.

Good flies for autumn browns are bushy attractor dry flies, terrestrial patterns and Woolly Buggers. Spin-fishermen do well with Rebel Teeny Wee Crawfish, minnow-imitating plugs and small spoons.

The delayed harvest section of the Chattooga, which is located well downstream of the best wild trout waters, extends three miles from the mouth of Reed Creek to the State Route 28 bridge. Except right at the highway bridge, all access is by foot travel. This is a fairly large and beautiful section of river that offers exceptional trout habitat through the cool months, and fall fishing can be outstanding.

November can be especially good because the trout have just been stocked and are not yet "educated." Anglers can use a lot of different approaches and enjoy good success. It's worth stressing, though, that only single-hook artificial lures may be used or possessed on these waters beginning Nov. 1.

Because the delayed harvest section is extremely popular and because all access is by foot, anglers sometimes have to walk significantly to get away from company and find waters that aren't being fished.

For more on the area around the Chattooga, visit www.gamountains. org.

Flint River Shoal Bass
Hard hitting and high-flying, shoal bass serve up huge fun throughout the year. Fall, however, brings an extra dose of feistiness to these regionally distinctive black bass. Shoalies are the signature species in the Flint River, which begins as a rocky Piedmont river and eventually transforms to a sand-bottomed coastal flow. There's no better place to catch them. The Flint produced the world record shoal bass, an 8-pound, 3-ounce giant caught in 1977. That fish, by the way, was caught during the month of October!

True to their name, shoal bass favor rocky habitat, and the best populations are within the Piedmont region, where shoals are most common. They pile up in shoal areas, holding in eddies and along current lines, where they ambush baitfish, crawfish and various aquatic insects.

Downstream of SR 128, where the river becomes flatter and sandier, shoal bass utilize shallow sandbars with swift currents pushing over them, and the current lines that run through the branches of downed trees along the banks.

Recent year-classes have been strong in the Flint, based on survey work conducted by the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division. The most abundant shoal bass in the population are 11 to 15 inches long, but bass up to 20 inches are abundant. An occasional 20-inch-plus trophy shows up in catches as well.

Some of the best overall fishing on the river is found in the area around Thomaston.

Excellent public access is available at Sprewell Bluff State Park, which fronts a major shoal and provides easy access for wade-fishing. The park is also a popular spot for putting in boats to float to the Flint River Outdoor Center, which is located at SR 36. The Outdoor Center offers canoe rentals, shuttle services and take-out use for a small fee.

This section contains modest white water, an abundance of shoal habitat and lends itself ideally to a combined floating and wading trip.

Part of the appeal of shoal bass fishing is the simplicity of angling approaches. Medium-sized spinning tackle is well suited for the task, and an angler needs nothing more than a small tackle box stocked with Pop-Rs, Tiny Torpedoes or other small topwater lures, shallow-running crankbaits, in-line spinners, jigheads and assorted soft-plastic trailers.

Around shoals, the fish tend to be in a

ll the places that look "fishy." Look for them over gravel bars that drop into deeper runs; in eddies immediately below rapids and behind boulders that block the current. The fishing is highly visual because of the shallow cover that shoal bass favor, which is helpful for figuring out what they are hitting and how they are relating to the cover.

Lake Lanier Stripers
Atlanta-area anglers need not travel far to find great fall fishing. Lake Sidney Lanier consistently produces some of Georgia's finest striped bass angling, and fall is a prime time for getting in on fast-action fishing. The most recent fishing prospects report published by the WRD notes that the striper fishery is in excellent condition, with fish averaging about 7 pounds. There's a good supply of fish in the 10- to 15-pound range and an average number of 20-pound-plus trophies available.

Stripers can be caught at a wide range of depths this time of year, and they move a lot, following schools of baitfish. Many will relate to the Chattahoochee or Chestatee River channels, but some schools follow baitfish up the creeks. The level of the lake, nighttime temperatures, water color and other factors affect baitfish movements and therefore striper movements and feeding patterns.

Because fishing patterns are so volatile, it's well worth stopping by an area bait shop or checking an on-line report or two to see what areas have been producing and what depths the fish have been using before you head to the lake.

Fishing with live trout or blueback herring definitely is the most consistent way to catch stripers on Lake Lanier. If the fish are shallow, the baits can be put out on flat lines and the boat moved very slowly through the general areas that the fish have been using. For deeper suspended fish, down-lines are fished straight below the boat. Often anglers use a combination of both popular rigs until they figure out what the fish are doing.

That said, the most exciting fall action occurs when fish school up and feed on the surface. Walking lures like Zara Spooks will draw vicious strikes from schooling fish. It's worth noting, however, that Lanier stripers can be extremely size-specific when targeting baitfish. When they are targeting on 2 1/2-inch herring, they can be feeding voraciously, but may not touch a topwater lure walked among them. When that's the case, a relatively small bucktail, swimbait or jig-and-grub retrieved just under the surface often produces jolting strikes.

Cotton Cordell RedFins V-waked slowly across the top may bring up fish that aren't necessarily schooling, but are feeding on shallow baitfish.

Lake Lanier spreads over 38,000 acres, providing anglers plenty of room to roam. Given normal water levels, access to the lake is very good. Low water substantially reduces the number of usable boat ramps.

Clarks Hill Autumn Blitz
Clarks Hill Lake offers a little bit of everything to anglers who opt to head out during the fall. Clarks Hill consistently yields some of the Peach State's finest crappie action, and fall is prime time for slamming slabs.

Meanwhile, anglers can add to their fun with steady action from channel catfish, which abound throughout the lake, and flathead catfish that grow to super sizes and bite best during the fall.

Not to be forgotten are stripers and hybrids, both of which often school during October.

Finally, there is one of the state's most consistently solid largemouth fisheries.

Many anglers think spring when they target crappie, but autumn brings a second "run" of sorts. That's when the fish feed heavily in shallow water. The crappie move into the creeks, where they become easier to locate, and hold on brush over flats that lie adjacent to creek channels. A good approach for locating schools of crappie is to slow-troll with an assortment of jigs and minnows fished at a range of depths under floats.

Channel cats also stack up in the big creeks during the fall, and they can be effectively targeted from a boat or from the bank. Major points rank among the best places to look for channel cats because they connect flats with channel drops. Anglers can effectively search a range of depths simply by varying cast lengths and angles. Chicken livers or cut fish work great for channel cats.

Unlike their smaller cousins, flatheads generally prefer the main Savannah River channel or the lower channels of major tributaries like Georgia's Little River. They are very structure and cover oriented and hold along hard bends in the inundated channel and at channel confluences. Flathead specialists actually "hunt" groups of fish with their electronics, and then anchor overhead to the fish with live bream fished on very heavy gear.

Clarks Hill stripers and hybrids offer excellent opportunities 12 months per year, with large numbers of big fish that seem to spend most of their time terrorizing baitfish. Fall can be extra exciting because the linesides congregate and sometimes push the baitfish to the surface resulting in a feeding frenzy. Anglers equipped with topwater plugs, bucktails or live blueback herring on free-line rigs search for feeding fish erupting on the surface or look for gulls diving to feed on the same baitfish.

Largemouth anglers, meanwhile, commonly find excellent fall fishing simply by working major creeks with fast-moving shad-imitating lures, such as spinnerbaits or lipless crankbaits. Clarks Hill veterans also know to keep a Zara Spook handy, both for the bass and for schools of stripers and hybrids. Some of the best fall topwater fishing occurs over the outside edges of hydrilla stands.

Access to Clarks Hill for boating or bank-fishing anglers is outstanding, with three state parks and dozens of regional parks and Corps of Engineers recreation areas offering plentiful points on the Georgia side alone.

Coastal Bull Reds
Moving to the coast, fall is when the bull redfish come out to play, providing brutish battles to anglers who place the right baits in the right places at the right times. Adult fish congregate over shoals in lower estuaries, inlets and beachfronts after the spawn, feeding heavily on concentrations of baitfish in the high-energy surf and shoals. They feed hard throughout the fall in order to regain strength after the spawn and prepare for winter. Anglers who understand redfish haunts and behavior commonly catch numerous bull reds in the 20- to 40-pound range in a day.

The most popular way to target big redfish is with fresh cut mullet, menhaden or whiting fished on the bottom with a fish-finder rig. The rig is normally anchored with a 2- to 4-ounce pyramid sinker and has a circle hook (not offset) with at least a 1/2-inch gap between the point and the shaft at the terminal end of an 80-pound-test fluorocarbon leader.

Because of the size and strength of the fish, strong currents and shallow shoals, anglers should equip themselves with rods that have plenty of backbone, reels with torque and strong line. When selecting tackle, it's better to err on the side of too heavy than too light. It's tough to

overpower a bull red with anything that can be cast decently, and undersized tackle leads to excessively long fights, which can be hard on the fish.

Bull reds congregate on shoals and sandbars all along the Georgia coast. Some of the more traditionally productive areas are McQueens Inlet at St. Catherines Island, the Altamaha River Delta, the lower Satilla River and the jetties at the entrance to the St. Marys River, according to Spud Woodward, Assistant Director of Marine Fisheries for the Georgia Coastal Resources Division. Fishing the shoals in any of those areas requires a boat, Woodward noted. However, he pointed toward the Tybee Island ocean pier and Goulds Inlet between St. Simon's Island and Sea Island as areas that can be reached by vehicle.

The bite turns on and off with the tides, and moving water is critical for congregating the bait and activating the redfish. The reds feed on rising or falling tides, Woodward noted, but the rising tide tends to be more productive. Whatever the tide, baits should be cast into the middle of turbulent, shallow water.

It's important to note that the bull red fishery is a total catch-and-release game all along the Georgia coast. The maximum size limit for keeping a red drum is 23 inches.

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