October 04, 2010
The waters of the Coosa River and its feeders offer a wealth of opportunities for hybrid, striped and white bass. Join the author in exploring this river system. (April 2008)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Most Georgia anglers are fortunate enough to have at least one species of hard-fighting line-sided bass in their local waters. Should one or more of these species happen to be high on your list, though, northwest Georgia is without question the place to be. For consistent action for hybrid, striped or white bass, the Coosa River system is second to none. Let's take a yearlong tour of the Coosa watershed and the fishing it offers.
Before any trip, it helps to know the route. The Coosa leaves the state west of Rome where it flows through Weiss Lake and eventually into the Alabama River. The Coosa's large watershed in Georgia includes the Oostanaula, Conasauga, Coosawattee, and Etowah rivers. Major impoundments in the Coosa's Peach State drainage are Carters Lake on the Coosawattee River and Allatoona Lake on the Etowah River.
The Coosa system has excellent fishing for striped bass, white bass and hybrids. All three species are migratory, so the action can't be good at all places at all times. However, learn the habits of these species and good fishing is available nearly any month of the year.
Now that we know the route that our journey will follow, we need to learn something about what we hope to find. White, striped, hybrid, and yellow bass are all members of the family MoronidÃ¦, which comprises the temperate basses or "true" basses. Black bass, such as largemouths and spots, are actually members of the family CentrarchidÃ¦ -- sunfishes.
Since all of the true bass species are close cousins, telling them apart can get tricky, especially when they're small. All the species have a similar shape, although some are deeper-bodied than others. Most share a color pattern too -- silver bellies and sides darkening to almost black on top, with four to seven black stripes running the length of the body. Distinguishing the different species lies in the details.
The easiest to identify are yellow bass. As the name suggests, these fish have a distinct yellow cast to the lower part of the body. Also, the dark lines are sharply broken about halfway back on the lower part of the body. Yellow bass lack a tooth patch on the tongue.
Yellow bass are not native to the Coosa system. However, since their illegal introduction approximately 20 years ago, they've become extremely common. This species doesn't grow very large and is mostly considered a nuisance by anglers.
White bass have a deeper body and a single tooth patch. The dark lines, although present, are not as bold and distinct. The average Coosa white bass weighs less than a pound, but fish up to 3 pounds are common.
Next is the striped bass, or "striper." These fish have two patches of teeth on the tongue, and the dark stripes are very distinct. Too, the body is more slender, and much longer than it is deep. Stripers grow much larger than any of the other species. If the fish looks like a sleek, stout silver torpedo with dark lines, it's probably a striped bass.
The Coosa River striped bass fishery is truly a unique resource. The striped bass is a saltwater fish with the heart of its range on the Atlantic coast. Striped bass are "anadromous," meaning that they live in salt water and spawn in fresh water. But striped bass were first "discovered" in a freshwater sense when they began turning up in South Carolina's Santee-Cooper reservoir system.
When the dam Santee-Cooper Reservoir was closed, spawning striped bass were trapped, never to taste the brine again. Surprisingly, the marooned fish not only survived but also thrived. That revelation led to the striped bass' potential as a freshwater sportfish being realized, and the species began to be stocked in other freshwater systems.
Although stocked fish usually were able to survive in their new homes, in nearly all cases periodic stockings were needed to maintain the population. Natural reproduction was absent or very limited.
The Coosa River received occasional stockings of striped bass through the 1980s. Then, in the early 1990s, reports of anglers catching small stripers in the Coosa became common. Since it had been several years since any releases, the small fish had to be coming from somewhere else.
As the decade wore on, it became obvious that the Coosa had something special present in its waters: a true landlocked population of naturally reproducing striped bass. Such a thing wasn't unheard of, but it was certainly very rare. The riddle was solved when Dr. Bill Davin and researchers at Berry College in Rome documented striper spawning in the Coosa and Oostanaula rivers and even identified where the spawning took place. The result of all of this is a world-class striped bass fishery in northwest Georgia.
Now that we know how to identify a yellow bass, and what separates a white bass from a striped bass, here's the tricky one. Georgia's Wildlife Resources Division hatcheries produce hybrid bass by crossing white and striped bass. Millions of these manmade fish are stocked into reservoirs all across the state as a forage management tool, and to provide an additional fishery.
Hybrids combine the warmwater tolerance of a white bass with the larger size of the striped bass, making the species ideal for lakes whose striper habitat is nonexistent or marginal. The fish are also sterile, so overpopulation is not an issue.
Not surprisingly, hybrids look like a combination of their parents. But, like a striped bass, hybrids have two patches of teeth on the tongue, not one. The lines along their sides are distinct, but usually broken. Hybrids also exhibit a deeper body than that ofstriped bass.
In the Coosa system in Georgia, hybrids are stocked into Carters and Allatoona lakes. None of the fish are planted into the rivers, but hybrids that have made their way over the dams do occasionally show up in the stream.
So what do these biology and geography lessons have to do catching fish? Everything, really: If you want to catch highly migratory fish, you have to find them first, and an understanding of what goes on in these species' lives is vital to accomplishing that. A hole slam full of fish one month may have few if any a short time later.
Spring is the season of rebirth, so it's appropriate that early spring, when white bass and stripers head upstream to spawn, signals the beginning of the Coosa's best fishing.
The first to make the trip ar
e white bass. Exactly when the peak of the run happens has no cut-and-dried answer. Sometime in March is going to offer the best fishing. Whenever the water temperature climbs above 50 degrees, things are going to start happening.
The best place to find white bass is near current breaks. The fish often relate to fallen trees or other cover that provides refuge from the moving water. Creek mouths are also prime places to find schools of white bass during the spawn. Other features to key in on, especially in the later stages of the run, are sandy bars and banks.
The key to a great day of white bass fishing is to keep moving until you find the fish. Don't spend too much time in any one area, because if the fish are there, they usually strike. The next good hole up or down the river may be loaded with fish, even if the one you are at is barren.
If a good bite suddenly stops, before you pack up and leave in search of greener pastures, try making a few casts deeper or shallower. When fishing slows, often a change in the depth you are targeting finds the fish again.
The boat ramp at Mayo's Bar Lock and Dam is the favorite jumping off point for white bass anglers on the Coosa River. The area is not just for boat anglers either. Fishing off the old lock structure is probably the best place in Georgia for bank anglers to get in on some fast and furious white bass fishing.
As the 1990s wore on, it became obvious that the Coosa had something special present in its waters: a true landlocked population of naturally reproducing striped bass.
Although great fighters, white bass do not grow that large and ultralight spinning gear lets them exhibit their strength to the fullest. A 1/8-ounce lead-head jig with a plastic grub body can catch any white bass that swims, but small inline spinners and crankbaits are also effective.
Although most anglers go after white bass with artificial lures, live bait can be very productive too. Any type minnows, but especially small shad, attract white bass.
If the area around the Lock and Dam is a little too crowded for your taste, try putting in at the Old River Road ramp near the State Route 100 crossing. Good fishing is found around Georgia Power's Plant Hammond, just upstream from the SR 100 bridge.
The Coosa is not the only river that offers good fishing during the white bass run. Another choice is the Oostanaula. Anglers can utilize the fine boat ramp at the SR 140 crossing, and at springtime flows, should have little problem roaming the entire upper half of the river. To fish the lower river, use the Heritage Park ramp at the confluence of the Oostanaula and Etowah rivers in downtown Rome.
The Coosawattee and Conasauga rivers have minor runs of white bass, but the more limited access convinces most anglers to fish the nearby Oostanaula.
As the white bass begin to disperse after the spawn, the striped bass arrive from Weiss Lake. Anywhere from the state line up to the Lock and Dam Park can produce fish, but the area from SR 100 to the Lock and Dam is the most popular.
This early in the season the river is often high and muddy, making fishing with bait the best option. For bait, gizzard shad are No. 1. Finding those baitfish is half the battle. Brushy Branch at the headwaters of Weiss Lake near the state line is the best place to cast-net for bait.
For bottom fishing, locate a likely area like a deep hole, and anchor or tie off the boat. On a heavy outfit spooled with at least 20-pound-test monofilament or braid, thread on a 1-ounce slip sinker. Next, tie on a heavy-duty swivel, about 24 inches of leader, and then finish off the rig with a 3/0 Kahle bait hook.
As the water continues to warm, the fish move into their spawning grounds. The heart of the striped bass spawning area is literally in downtown Rome, one of northwest Georgia's busiest places. The Etowah and Oostanaula rivers join in Rome to form the Coosa. It's in the last few miles of the Oostanaula and first few of the Coosa that most striper spawning occurs. Conveniently, the fish picked a place with good boating access and easily navigable water. Not all of the spawning occurs in those few miles, but there are always plenty of fish in that area.
Depending on the conditions, a few fish can show up and start spawning as early as end of March. In some years, a few of the latecomers may still be reproducing the first of June. Late April and early May are ordinarily the peak, though, and the time for the most fantastic fishing you'll ever have ever experienced.
Just about anywhere you choose to soak your bait along the spawning area, you stand a chance at catching fish. Places to look for though are rocky bottoms, deep holes, logjams, and seams in the current. Anchor and fish for 20 minutes to see what happens. If you don't get any activity, pick up and move to another spot.
The best stretch on the Coosa seems to be from the ramp down to the Rome Sewage Treatment Plant a few miles downstream on the south bank. On the Oostanaula, anywhere up to the SR 140 ramp can be good. There are some good shoals and holes throughout this stretch of the river.
After the spawn, the fish scatter for several weeks before the need to survive kicks in. Stripers are a cool water species. To get through a blistering Georgia summer, they have to find cool water. Large stripers need water 77 degrees or less to feel comfortable.
This is when the smaller rivers begin to shine. The Etowah and to a lesser extent, the Coosawattee, can hold an amazing number of stripers in the heat of the summer. The cool water discharged from the depths at Carters and Allatoona dams keeps the rivers cool and the stripers flock there like moths to a flame. For these rivers, summer is prime time.
Two anglers can enjoy 100-plus fish days if they're at the right spot at the right time. When the bite is on, stripers literally fight each other for the honor of eating your bait. But, outside of the summer months, the fish don't use these rivers much.
Fishing techniques are basically the same whether you are targeting the Coosa and Oostanaula during the spawn, or are fishing in one of the summer refuges. After months of being chased by anglers, live bait fools the most fish, but artificial offerings are easier since you don't have to worry about acquiring and keeping bait.
Among artificials, topwater stickbaits are good. A Zara Super Spook is excellent. Stripers seem to love a sliding, gliding walk-the-dog action. The Redfin is another old standby. One thing to keep in mind: It doesn't take a huge plug to catch fish on the Coosa system. You aren't trying to draw fish up from 20 feet deep. Largemouth-sized plugs provoke more strikes than do hammer-handle-sized Redfins, and boast a better hookup ratio, too.
As summer fades into fall, the water begins to cool, and stripers can again roam anywhere they want. Most fish spend the fall and winter in Weiss Lake, but com
e the first hints of spring and the stripers are on their way up the Coosa once again to start the cycle anew.