When he cast his line out, Buddy McKellar never imagined hooking the largest fish ever taken from this Chattahoochee River reservoir. Who could?
Photo courtesy of Buddy McKellar.
When Buddy McKeller rose on the morning of June 2, 2007, to wet a line in Pataula Creek, the veteran Fort Gaines fisherman was expecting a business-as-usual excursion. After all, the 60-year-old construction company job superintendent is an avid angler who literally and figuratively lives on the creek, and fishes every chance he gets. Like countless other southwest Georgia anglers, fishing is this man's chief respite from a typically hard week of work.
That day, armed with his customary baitcasting rig, its reel spooled with 17-pound-test line, McKeller, accompanied by his wife Sandra, powered up his boat, motored up the creek, and was soon casting a Texas-rig worm into likely shallow-water largemouth bass haunts. It was a scenario played out innumerable times through the years. What ensued a short time later, however, went beyond all expectations.
"We'd decided earlier that morning to stay in the creek because the wind was up and we figured it'd be too rough out on the main lake," McKeller said. "Little did I know what I'd find there, though."
Pataula Creek is a south-end tributary of 47,000-acre Lake Walter F. George and what he "found" in the warm, sluggish waters of the drought-lowered reservoir arm was a striped bass, that hard-fighting, migratory true-bass species equally at home in both fresh and saltwater.
Normally, such an occurrence wouldn't raise too many fishermen's eyebrows. The Gulf-strain striped bass subspecies is regularly stocked in the sprawling U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir; sizeable schools of the fish cruise the lake, and a few ocean-run stripers swim up the Chattahoochee River each spring to join them. Ample annual stockings by the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division make a striped bass' presence in the lake no big deal.
McKeller's striper, however, weighed 39 pounds, 8 ounces -- a weight that not so much broke as completely shattered the previous lake record of 17 pounds, 4 ounces. To date, the fish is thought to be the largest recorded catch ever taken from the lake on hook and line, species notwithstanding. (Continued)
"I'd already made quite a few casts," recalled McKeller, "and was actually just making a long throw down the creek to straighten out my line. You know how you have to do from time to time to get those little kinks out" Well, that's when the big fish hit -- shortly after that long random cast. It was just one of those right-place-at-the-right-time things. It's almost like I wasn't even actually fishing at the moment."
For a while after the monster striper engulfed his soft-plastic offering, McKeller wasn't even certain that what he had on the opposite end of his line was a fish. "I saw him take it," he explained. "The water was shallow, and there was this big V-shaped wake when he was swimming toward the bait. I've been fishing since I was 2 years old, and I've seen gators chase a lure just like that. Tell you the truth, that's what I thought it was at first."
About 15 minutes into the feverish battle between surprised angler and fish, Sandra McKeller got her first brief look at the behemoth and suggested to her husband that it might be a big catfish. From the way the fish was fighting, McKeller guessed hybrid -- the hatchery-bred white bass/striper cross that inhabits the lake in large numbers.
"I really didn't know what it was to begin with -- big hybrid, catfish, whatever," McKeller said. "I was too busy to think about much of anything besides just hoping to get near enough to a shallow sandbar so I could get out of the boat and fight the fish more to my advantage. That never happened, though: I had to fight him from the boat all the way."
Almost a half-hour after the initial strike -- during which time the fish evaded the couple's too-small landing net and McKeller's first attempt at a one-handed behind-the-gill-plate boating came up short -- Mrs. McKeller at last managed to pin the striper's head down with the net long enough for the determined angler to grab it with both hands and hoist it aboard.
"When I got a good look at him, I wondered what in the world kept him from breaking off after that first attempt at landing him," said McKeller. "He was much too big for the livewell, and it was a good while before we could ice him down properly and get him to a certified scale. Actually I'm certain he dried out some and probably lost a couple of pounds before we could get him weighed."
The two hours of drying aside, the mammoth striper, which measured 39 1/2 inches in length and boasted a girth of 28 3/4 inches, was still one impressive critter.
A modest man, Buddy McKeller downplays his angling skill in the accomplishment, pointing out the sheer happenstance of his maintenance cast and the many things that could have, maybe even should have gone wrong to allow the big fish's escape. "Looking back, I think maybe the good Lord just wanted me to catch that fish," he said.
Regardless of whether the storied catch can be ascribed to angling skill, destiny, or divine intervention, McKeller's capture of a striped bass of this size piqued much local interest and, of course, raised the question as to whether Lake Walter F. George is now home to a legitimate trophy striped bass fishery. After all, low-density annual stockings of roughly 100,000 Gulf striped bass have been in practice there for more than a decade. Might it not stand to reason, then, that numbers of these fish have survived long enough to reach sizes comparable to McKeller's?
Not likely, according to WRD Region 5 fisheries biologist John Kilpatrick, who reported that the stockings create a moderate-at-best Lake George striper fishery, and are carried out primarily to aid in the dispersal of fish up and down the Chattahoochee River as part of the WRD Gulf Striped Bass Restoration Program.
"A good number of the striped bass stocked in Walter F. George each year escape downriver through the dam lock," he explained. "That's our main goal as far as Gulf striped bass restoration is concerned. It's the hybrids, not stripers, that provide the greatest return for anglers on the lake."
Kilpatrick went on to remark that the stocked fish that do remain in the lake fail to find the habitat striper-friendly. "Environmentally," he said, "Walter F. George is not conducive to the production of large striped bass. A really big striper is a fish whose life depends on the presence of cool-water r
efuges as holding locations during the hot months. In this part of the country, these are usually cold springs like those in the Flint River and the lower stretches of the Chattahoochee. Lake George just doesn't have enough of these cool-water areas to allow for the survival of truly large individual fish.
"Once these fish approach 12 to 15 pounds, warm water really begins to have a detrimental effect on them. By the time they reach 20 pounds, it is virtually impossible for them to survive without a cool-water refuge they can shelter in.
"As far as Mr. McKeller's fish is concerned," Kilpatrick continued, "it was likely a stocked individual, but not one that was originally stocked in the lake. It almost certainly 'locked through' one or more dams on the Chattahoochee to wind up where it was eventually caught. That happens from time to time when the striped bass make their annual upstream runs in the early spring. The chances of that fish living out his entire life in Lake Walter F. George, though, are extremely remote."
That may all ring a bit disappointing to a number of southwest Georgia anglers who, since McKeller's historic catch, have themselves been dreaming of the huge stripers they will one day haul from the waters of Walter F. George Reservoir. McKeller's fish, estimated by experts to be 7 to 10 years of age or even as old as 12 or 13, was, it seems, just a piscatorial fluke. The monster was merely a very big, lone individual swimming aimlessly around in Pataula Creek with no real purpose in life.
"That doesn't mean it's not a good story, though," Kilpatrick said. "Actually, it's a great story. I mean -- a fellow goes out and catches, totally unexpectedly, not only a rare fish, but the fish of a lifetime as well. Besides, a striper that size, being where he was, can only be looked at as a doomed individual. Fact is, the best thing that could have happened to that fish was for someone to catch it."