Cool Weather River Stripers

Cool Weather River Stripers

In winter and early spring, the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers offer some challenging angling for striped bass. Here are the places and tactics that can put you in the middle of the action. (January 2006)

Photo by Tom Evans

Rob Weller is quite fond of the Gulf Coast striped bass. He refers to the species as a "neat fish." From an angling, ecological and historical standpoint, it's hard not to agree with him.


Weller, the Fisheries Section supervisor for Region 5 of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Division (WRD), plays a hands-on role in the propagation and restoration of this true bass, whose native range once encompassed nearly all of the rivers and estuaries along the northern Gulf Coast. Originally found from Texas to Florida's Suwannee River and inland to St. Louis, Mo., on the Mississippi River, the fish was avidly pursued by anglers and commercial fishermen from the late 1800s through the early 1960s.

Today, except for a remnant native population in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) River system in northwest Florida and southwest Georgia, the fish is no longer common throughout its range.


In 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with state wildlife agencies in Georgia, Florida and Alabama, established a program to restore and maintain healthy populations of Gulf stripers in the ACF river system. This continues to be a boon to sportfishermen in the region, including those in southwest Georgia, where striped bass fishing is not exactly considered a traditional pursuit.


Hatching, stocking and management programs under the auspices of the participating agencies are supplementing native striper populations and allowing southwest Georgia anglers to enjoy some very good seasonal fishing for this sport-worthy species. Mature ACF-system stripers are regularly collected by WRD personnel and spawned at the Welaka National Fish Hatchery in Florida. Young fish are then shipped to various federal and state hatcheries to be raised and stocked according to the striped bass management plan.

All seems well at present, and it looks as if Rob Weller's "neat fish" is once again a vital part of the region's angling opportunities.

"In our region," Weller explained, "the stripers spend the hot summer months in what we call cool-water refuges. These are springs located primarily up and down the Flint River and in Lake Seminole. This is particularly true of the bigger fish. When a striped bass reaches about 15 pounds, he needs the cool water of the springs to survive. In fact, they are so concentrated and abundant in the springs through the hottest part of the summer, fishing for them is not allowed from May 1 through Oct. 31. They're pretty easy pickings during that time period. You can really decimate them."

In the fall, according to Weller, the fish leave the cool-water springs and "sort of roam all over the place." Then, in late winter and early spring, which falls in January and February, they head up the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers.

"They disperse in the fall when water temperatures equalize to the temperature in the springs," he said. "When the days begin lengthening in late January and February, they start moving up the rivers. This movement is triggered by spawning instinct. When they reach the dam tailraces at Albany (on the Flint) and Andrews (on the Chattahoochee), they are more interested in spawning than in the large concentrations of shad in these areas."

Although the reproductive urge is primarily driving them, stripers do actively feed at this time.

"They are shad-eaters and like bigger prey items," said Weller. "They feed on threadfin shad and are especially fond of the larger gizzard shad. They definitely like a nice mouthful. During the spring run, they can be caught on a variety of lures."

Moving up the Flint, the first major obstacle encountered by the migrating stripers is the Georgia Power Company dam that impounds tiny Lake Chehaw. Here the fish congregate in large numbers and draw attention from area anglers. Though relatively small, the dam site is angler-friendly, providing parking for a small fee, a boat ramp and restroom facilities. There is improved tailwater access with steps leading from the powerhouse right down to water level.

"There's a wing wall just behind the powerhouse," Weller said. "Fishing is allowed right on top of the wall. There's also a little pier right at water level. When the water is low enough, you can fish from that as well. It is easy and accessible and a pretty popular spot."

Quite a few diehard striper and hybrid bass fishermen hit this area pretty hard, especially during spring when there is a lot of water. The more water coming down the Flint, the more the stripers concentrate below the dam.

The Chehaw tailrace is a typical Flint River site, containing big rocks and a limestone bedrock riverbed. There is little sand or sediment. The waters coming through the gates of the dam wash that away.

"If you don't want to fish from the dam, boat access is quite easy here, if the water is high enough for boat-ramp use," Weller explained. "Just be careful during those high-water, fast-current times. Make sure you're in a decent-sized boat. Don't try it in a johnboat or the like.

"As on any tailrace, you just have to exercise caution. There's no buoy line or restriction barrier here. Use common sense," he added.

The majority of anglers here are artificial bait-fishermen, though some opt for live shad caught with cast nets. Favored lures are large crankbaits and bucktail jigs.

"Use heavy tackle when you fish here," Weller advised, "especially during high water when the bigger stripers are hanging around. There are some big fish out there. We once collected a striper that weighed 65 pounds. As any fisherman knows, a really big fish hooked in high, fast water will often have its way with you."

Weller suggested using heavy-duty spinning tackle or stout baitcasting gear. Use a stiff rod, and if you're really serious about landing a big striper, don't spool up with any line under 20-pound-test.

There are no special live-bait regulations to be concerned with, but anglers must be aware that the creel limit is 15 stripers and/or hybrids. Only two fish in this total limit can exceed 22 inches in length.

"That limits the number of big fish an angler can take in one day and helps protect the big-fish population," Weller explained.

As a rule, most of

the striped bass at the Albany dam run between 5 and 20 pounds, with a good abundance of 7- to 12-pounders. Of course, there's also that occasional 40-pounder-plus thrown into the mix.

The winter/spring striper run at the Chehaw dam and elsewhere is generally over by mid-April, though last season's run lasted well into May.

"February through early April is best," said Weller, "but they'll hang around the tailrace as long as there's high water and optimal water temperatures."

Another spring striped bass/hybrid bass fishery on the southern reaches of the Flint is located in the tailwaters of the Lake Blackshear Dam, upstream from Albany off State Route 300. This area has become quite popular with anglers in recent years. Owned and operated by the Crisp County Power Company, the Blackshear Dam tailrace is a good deal bigger than the Georgia Power facility downstream. It features a relatively new earthen dam reconstructed after the devastating Flint River flood of 1994.

"The Blackshear tailrace has been a popular hybrid fishing location for a long time now," Weller said. "It is becoming more popular now because of the increase in stripers there. A few years ago, we started stocking Gulf striped bass in Lake Blackshear, and they have started showing up in the tailwaters with more regularity. We're not seeing a lot of really big stripers here as yet, but we're hoping that the fish are finding and using the cool-water springs in the lake to their advantage and thriving accordingly. Some extended high-water periods on the lake might help ensure this."

Most of the stripers caught in the Blackshear tailrace are coming from the lake itself, after being washed over the spillway during high water. The big fish below the Chehaw dam cannot get past that structure to continue migrating upstream. Despite this, several 12- to 18-pounders have been caught here in recent years. Overall, the fishery looks promising.

"Tailrace conditions at Blackshear are similar to those in Albany, only more widespread," said Weller. "On the powerhouse side of the dam, there's a catwalk that provides bank access, and there's a boat ramp as well. There's also plenty of bank access right below the powerhouse and for 300 to 400 yards downstream. It isn't unusual for anglers to catch stripers and hybrids right at the boat ramp."

For boaters, ramping is easy during high water. During low-water periods, it can be difficult. But according to Weller, water too low for boat launching generally means the striper run is over anyhow. As at Albany, an abundance of shoals and rocks can be found downstream, but when the water is up, there are seldom any serious boating problems. Just as the bank-fishing access accommodates more shore-casters, the tailrace itself has room for more boats.

The biggest striper taken thus far from the Blackshear tailwaters weighed 18 pounds. It is hoped this may improve with time, but the greater abundance of cool-water refuges below Albany and their relative scarcity in Lake Blackshear make it unlikely that these fish will ever consistently reach the sizes of the stripers in the Chehaw tailrace.

"In general," Weller said, "the same fishing methods and equipment apply at the Blackshear Dam as at the Albany facility. Large crankbaits, jigs or live shad will do the job."

Traveling up the Chattahoochee River this time of year, the stripers are impeded by the George W. Andrews Lock and Dam on the Alabama/Georgia border near Columbia, Ala. At this U.S. Army Corps of Engineers site, the rule of "Bigger river, bigger tailrace" applies.

This area features a wide expanse of flowing water running through the floodgates of the dam, making for a far-reaching tailwater that can accommodate a good number of boats and good access to the tailrace for bank anglers on the Alabama side of the river. On the Georgia side, upstream from the boat ramp to the wing wall of the dam, a long expanse of shoreline riprap and sandbars hold large numbers of stripers and hybrids every season. The Andrews tailrace is a popular destination each spring for both southwest Georgia and southeast Alabama anglers.

"As larger fish go, you're looking at about an even chance of catching a really big striper when you compare Andrews to the Albany power dam," Weller explained. "In fact, if you have a spring run when the water is generally low throughout the entire region, the bigger stripers will often choose to migrate up the Chattahoochee in greater numbers than up the Flint. Sometimes it's almost impossible to fish here during really high-water periods, but during low-water years, Andrews is your best bet."

Of course, the bigger stripers congregate in the tailrace. But if the water is high enough, there will be a lot of fish between the riprap bank and the dam's wing wall. They won't use the really calm water directly adjacent to the wall itself, but will bite well in spots where current flow is sufficient. Downstream toward the boat ramp, bank-side anglers sitting in folding chairs or on upturned 5-gallon buckets catch large numbers of stripers and hybrids near the sandbars.

Anglers using boats prefer anchoring downstream from the end of the wing wall or in the tailrace itself downstream from the buoy line that marks the end of tailwater access for boaters. Caution is advised here. These waters can be dangerous at times.

Unlike fishermen at Chehaw and Blackshear, anglers are more likely to use live bait at the Andrews site. The shad run here is larger, and the baitfish are usually more readily accessible and easier to catch. Besides shad, many bank anglers like to use small, live crayfish fished on the bottom on a fish-finder rig. These smaller baits produce scores of fish, though most of them are hybrids. Stripers prefer the larger live shad. Artificial baits are effective, but are not as frequently used.

Again, use fishing tackle befitting the heft and aggressiveness of the fish you are seeking.

Upstream from Andrews, the Walter F. George Lock and Dam near Fort Gaines may also harbor some striped bass, though not in the great numbers as in those places already described. This Chattahoochee River tailrace is best known for its hybrid fishery.

STRIPED BASS EXPECTATIONS
The Flint River and its tributaries from the Georgia Power Company dams at Albany to the U.S. Highway 84 bridge; the Chattahoochee River and its tributaries from the Columbia Lock and Dam to the Georgia Highway 91 bridge; and Spring Creek and its tributaries downstream to Georgia Highway 253 are closed to striped bass fishing and spear fishing from May 1 through Oct. 31.

Lakes Seminole and Blackshear: all fishing, including spear fishing, for any species in the marked areas around five fish refuges in Lake Seminole and in three fish refuges in Lake Blackshear is prohibited from May 1 through Oct. 31.

Georgia 2005-2006 Sport Fishing Regulations

"When most people talk about

Walter F. George, they think of hybrids," Weller said, "but we do stock Gulf stripers in the lake above the dam. It's likely that adequate numbers of stripers are moving into the tailwaters. They could easily access them whenever the lock is opened. There also might be the occasional big fish moving upstream after coming through an open lock at the Andrews dam. Just don't expect to find these big ones here in great numbers."

As a rule, striped bass taken from the Walter F. George tailrace are appreciably smaller because of the lake's decided lack of those all-important cool-water refuges.

As at Andrews, bank-fishermen and boaters find ample access to the George tailwaters. Shore-bound anglers may catch fish from the Alabama side, which features access to some good sandbars and riprap areas near the tailrace itself; or the Georgia side, where they often find productive fishing from the moderately high bluff just below the dam. Those with boats should anchor downstream and fish in the current between the Alabama shore and the wing wall.

Live shad and crayfish are both productive baits. There is very little artificial-bait fishing in this area, though there's no reason it should not produce.

If you've not experienced the cool-water spring striper fishing up the Flint and Chattahoochee in southwest Georgia, this year might be a good time to give it a try. Whether you opt for the mixed-bag striper/hybrid stringers at the Blackshear and Walter F. George dams or a chance at a trophy striper from Albany or Andrews, chances are you won't be disappointed.

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