Plenty of us have simultaneously admired Callaway Gardens' flora and drooled over the fantastic-looking bass water along its pathways. Happily, the angler will find a trio of options for fishing those ponds. (February 2008).
Photo courtesy of Polly Dean.
It was a fateful phone call during the summer of 1999 that eventually led to my job at Callaway Gardens.
I had called an executive at a well-known fly-rod manufacturer and explained to him that, as a fly-fishing guide, I was putting his company's rods in the hands of my clients on a daily basis and had sold dozens of them that way. I suggested he show a little appreciation in the form a few freebies passed along my way.
He responded by telling me that he had worked for this company for 25 years and the only thing he ever got for free was whatever he stole; then he said that he'd see what he could do. I wasn't sure what that meant exactly, but not wanting to incriminate myself, I just said OK.
I never did get a free fly rod out of the deal. But in the course of the conversation, the exec told me that he'd heard through the grapevine that Callaway Gardens was looking for someone to run fishing operations there. Like so many other people I was only vaguely aware that this 13,000-acre resort and botanical garden in Pine Mountain even had a fishing operation. The most beautiful azalea display I had ever seen? Yes. One of the nation's largest tropical butterfly conservatories? Yes. Luxury accommodations? Sure. I even knew that Callaway Gardens offered world-class golf, but the fishing opportunities seemed to fly under the radar.
A few days later I made contact with Callaway Gardens and within a couple weeks I was interviewing for the job. The highlight of the interview process came when one of the guides took me fishing to determine if I knew what I was doing.
It was a miserably hot August day and the guide frankly told me that he doubted we would enjoy much success. For the first hour we caught nothing -- not even a bite. Then suddenly it turned on. Over the next two hours we caught numerous bass in the 3- to 6-pound range. I left that day feeling confident I would get the job.
I'm also happy to say that eight years later I still feel the same as I did that day -- for quality bass fishing, Callaway Gardens ranks among the best there is.
For those wishing to take advantage of the bass fishing opportunities at Callaway, there are basically three options. Boat rentals are available on Mountain Creek Lake, guided fly-fishing is available on the 14 other private lakes, and a limited number of guided spin-fishing trips are also available on the same private lakes. Let's take a closer look at all three.
ON YOUR OWN
Mountain Creek Lake
At the center of the gardens is the 175-acre Mountain Creek Lake. This lake was constructed in 1950 and guests of the gardens have been enjoying some great bass fishing there ever since.
For many years the primary forage fish in the lake was golden shiners. It was not uncommon to see schools of thousands of shiners cruising the banks with a pod of bass following closely behind, waiting for the baitfish to encounter a point or hump. Once they did, a vicious attack was eminent. Bass grew large from feeding on shiners and the lake record is just over 16 pounds.
Then in 2002-03 something strange happened. The shiners disappeared. It took over a year to put the pieces of the puzzle together, but after consulting with fisheries biologists and professional lake management experts, it was determined that the shiners had contracted a fairly rare, but deadly virus which is specific to golden shiners. Over a period of several months the shiner population had been decimated.
The domino effect was an increase in bass production -- because shiners actually invade the beds of bass and help keep bass populations in balance by devouring eggs -- and a decrease in food available for the bass. Couple those with the simultaneous emergence of a burgeoning crappie population and it appeared that Mountain Creek Lake was in big trouble.
Crappie hatch a month before bass and compete directly with bass fry for the same size of forage. A problem of too many mouths to feed and not enough food to go around had developed fairly quickly. This put an all-time record amount of pressure on the bream and shellcrackers, and consequently fishing for them suffered as well.
Fortunately, a major part of Callaway's mission is to be good stewards of our natural resources. It was not a small investment, but the lake was restocked with coppernose bluegills, shellcrackers, and threadfin shad over a period of about five months. A concentrated effort was put forth to reduce the number of bass in the lake, which by this time had become stunted and thin.
The investment paid off; the shad thrived. With the pressure off, the bream and remaining shiners staged a comeback, and in less than a year the bass' average size had increased from under a pound to 2 1/2 to 3 pounds.
Many regulars of the lake now believe that the bass fishing is the best that it's ever been; Columbus' Dewey Posey is one who agrees, having fished Mountain Creek Lake since it first opened to the public. To say that the 85-year-old angler is a legend of the lake doesn't begin do him justice. Even during this past season's drought and record heat he was able to bring a 10-pound, 10-ounce bass to the boat on ultralight tackle. Like most of the trophies he has caught, it went back into the lake.
Recently Dewey told me that he believed there was a world-record bass in Mountain Creek Lake.
"It's there, Carl -- I guarantee it," he emphasized. "I'd bet a thousand dollars on it. And that's coming from a poor man." Then, with a wink and a thump on the shoulder, he added, "And you can put that in your article!"
Another side benefit of stocking the shad has been an increase in the effectiveness of crankbaits. Pre-shad bassin' on the lake was best with soft-plastics. Zoom Trick Worms, Brush Hogs, flukes and, more recently, Senkos had been the staple of Callaway bass fishermen. During the spring, unweighted worms pitched into shoreline vegetation worked well, whereas Carolina rigs with long leaders worked best during the heat of the summer.
Since the shad stocking, crankbaits like the Shad Rap have risen to be the bait of choice. It is very common to find schooling shad with bass annihilating them. Personally, I find a topwater fly pattern like Kent Edmond's Stealth Bomber to be most effective during these times, but a Pop-R or Rat-
L-Trap works well too.
In addition to largemouth bass, Mountain Creek Lake is also well known for phenomenal bream and shellcracker fishing. In recent years giant crappie have shown up as well, and even an occasional catfish is brought to the boat.
Fishermen are allowed to keep a limited number of fish out of this lake, and that number typically varies from one year to the next based on management goals. Live bait in the form of crickets, worms, and other "garden hackle" is permitted, but minnows, shiners, and any other type of baitfish is strictly prohibited.
On the southeast side of the lake is a beautiful boathouse that is home to a fleet of 14-foot aluminum johnboats with electric trolling motors and two padded swivel seats. These boats are available to rent for both half-day and full-day fishing excursions. Rates for the boats range from $35 to $60, depending on the length of time and number of people going in the boat. There are canoes available for rent as well.
IN THE WATER
I admit that I am a bit biased when it comes to fishing -- I love fly-fishing. In fact, I'll be as bold as to say that there is no more fun way to catch a fish than on a fly rod. If you were to ask me what the one activity you should not miss at Callaway would be, I would say a guided fly-fishing trip.
As Callaway Gardens was developed a total of 14 lakes ranging in size from 3 acres to 65 acres were built around the property. Originally designed as retention ponds, golf course water hazards, irrigation sources, and simply for their aesthetic appeal, it didn't take long to realize their potential as prime fishing holes, too.
Throughout the years these lakes have been managed for fishing, but it was not until 1994 when the former director of recreation Roger Childers devised a plan to offer guided fly fishing on these lakes that an intensified management strategy was put into place. Now these lakes provide opportunities for fly fishers of virtually every skill level to enjoy the sport.
Beginners find Callaway to be an excellent starting place to learn how to fly fish. We have on our staff six Federation of Fly Fishers certified casting instructors, and two of us are certified master instructors, of which there are only around a hundred worldwide. You probably don't want us to fix your brakes or do your income taxes, but we can teach you how to fly fish. Learning to fly fish on still water is also much easier than starting out on a river or stream, where things get much more complicated.
Experienced fly fishers also enjoy the fishing on these private lakes. In fact, more than half our guests are repeat customers, many of whom fish with us several times per year.
Without a doubt, the best time to fly fish for Callaway bass is April to June, especially using top-water flies. March can be fantastic, but rogue cold fronts can abruptly turn the fishing off.
Some of the most effective fly patterns include Clouser Minnows, Whitlock Swimming Frogs, Zuddlers, the Rubber-Legged Dragon, DP Poppers, and Wooly Buggers in black, peacock herl, peach, white, and olive.
September through November is also very good. During the winter months most of the guided trips are spent pursuing trophy trout, which we stock in three of the private lakes, but bass are also caught along with trout at that time as well.
Paul Hudson has been guiding at Callaway since the fly fishing program began. In those 13 years the one thing that has remained constant is how surprised people are when they find out how effective fly-fishing is for catching bass.
"People seem to think that fly fishing is just for trout," he explained. "When it comes to bass fishing they seem to think they have to crank hardware to catch bass. Actually, fly fishing can be even more effective than bait casting or spin fishing, particularly when fish are feeding in shallow water and are easily spooked."
FROM THE BOAT
In addition to guided fly-fishing trips, Callaway Gardens began to offer a limited number of guided half-day and full-day spin-fishing trips on the private lakes in 2002. These trips offer a fantastic opportunity for anyone with a limited amount of time that would like to get into fish as quickly as possible.
Some of the lakes available for spin-fishing trips are managed for large bass, while others are allowed to go "bass heavy." This provides an opportunity for anglers to just catch fish or a chance to catch a true trophy.
On average, between 20 and 30 bass in the 8- to 13-pound range are caught each spring and summer on guided trips. So while it's not an everyday occurrence, the possibility of a lunker is always real. Bill Conine, one of the guides at Callaway, has caught more bass over 10 pounds in the gardens than most people will hear about in a lifetime. Conine said that guests he guides have a reasonable chance of catching a bass in the 10-pound range.
"Of course nothing is guaranteed," he added, "and folks are generally going to catch a bunch of small fish before they get that big one, but they have as good a chance of getting a trophy here as they do anywhere in the country."
Conine prefers to put guests on fish using Senkos, and swears that is the best big-fish bait. Other Callaway guides have found various crankbaits and chatterbaits to be effective, but all agree that a soft plastic is tough to beat.
All fishing is catch-and-release on guided trips; both fly-fishing and spin fishing. No live bait is used during guided trips. The cost of trips is $195 for a half-day and $295 for a full day, for either one or two anglers. Callaway Gardens provides all gear to use during the day, or guests are welcomed to bring their own. For more information on fishing at Callaway, call Kingfisher Outfitters at (706) 663-5142.