October 04, 2010
Some of the reservoirs in Georgia have outstanding striped bass fisheries, but there are also some others that go largely unnoticed. Here's a look at those waters in west Georgia.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Kevin Dallmier
Georgia striped bass anglers are truly blessed. Very few states offer fishermen the quality of striper bass options found in the Peach State. Striped bass are some of the hardest-pulling game fish to be found, either in fresh or salt water. Their never-say-die fighting abilities, together with their capability to grow to large sizes, make them truly worthy opponents.
Striped bass fishing opportunities abound in Georgia, from native coastal populations to stocked reservoirs all across the state, especially in North Georgia. Striped bass, however, typically do not spawn in those landlocked systems. The success anglers enjoy at famous striped bass factories like lakes Lanier, Clarks Hill and Carters is due to the very successful striped bass propagation and stocking program of the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division (WRD).
Every spring, striped bass brood fish are collected from the wild and spawned under hatchery conditions. The offspring are reared for stocking in selected reservoirs all across the state. Since striped bass are not self-sustaining in most lakes, if the stocking program were to cease, so would the striper fishing. Striped bass are stocked to provide additional fishing opportunities, and as a forage management tool to keep prolific baitfish species like shad and blueback herring under control for the benefit of all game species.
Beyond the stocked reservoirs, Georgia's striped bass resource is even more special because we have one of the few reproducing landlocked striped bass populations found in the country. Stripers successfully spawn in the Coosa River system in northwest Georgia, maintaining their numbers through natural reproduction without the need for supplemental stocking. As we will see shortly, the Coosa River is not the only freshwater system in Georgia in which natural reproduction has been documented. However, it is the only instance in which landlocked stripers support a very good fishery solely through natural reproduction.
So where should you go striper fishing in Georgia? That question really can't be answered with just one or two words. Lake Lanier would certainly be on the list, and lakes Hartwell and Clarks Hill are favorites too. The Coosa River system, including Weiss Lake, is filled with hefty striped bass just waiting to be caught.
These popular striper fishing holes are just the beginning, though. Sometimes traveling a little bit off the beaten path can pay off handsomely. Let's look at some lesser-known west Georgia striper fishing opportunities, and how to go about catching the fish.
First of all, be aware that not all striped bass are the same. Georgia has two genetically distinct populations of striped bass - the Atlantic strain and the Gulf Coast strain. In outward appearances, the two look identical. It takes scientific analysis to accurately distinguish them - sort of DNA testing for fish you might say.
What is important, though, is that these two distinct strains have evolved over time. As the names suggest, Atlantic Coast fish are from stocks native to the river drainages flowing into the Atlantic Ocean, while Gulf Coast fish are from rivers flowing to the Gulf of Mexico. To preserve the unique genetic makeup of the imperiled Gulf Coast striped bass, only their offspring are now stocked into west Georgia reservoirs along the Chattahoochee and Flint River drainages.
According to Rob Weller, a senior fisheries biologist in the WRD Albany fisheries office, "Gulf Coast striped bass once ranged all the way from the Florida Panhandle to east Texas. Currently, though, the Flint River has the only naturally reproducing Gulf Coast striped bass population of any significance left in the region. Even the Apalachicola River population is not doing well at all. The Flint has more coolwater refuges remaining, which likely explains why the population is doing better than most."
No matter their genetic makeup, when it comes to tactics for catching them, striped bass are pretty much all alike. Find the bait to find the fish. Stripers have voracious appetites, and unlike many other popular game species, striped bass find winter's cold water to their liking and feed heavily during what is to them the most comfortable time of year.
Striped bass are also a "pelagic," or open-water, species. Put that fact together with their desire to stay close to the food source, and a few pieces of the puzzle fall into place. In reservoirs, look for open-water structures like humps, points and channel ledges. These areas tend to hold bait, and the stripers won't be far behind.
The best way to find fish is to do your homework before you even get on the water. Get a good topographic map and look for structure near the channels. Channels are like striped bass superhighways. The fish use them to move from one area to another. Humps and points along the channel are like exits lined with fast-food eateries. When they get hungry, the stripers just veer off the road to grab a quick snack.
After finding prospective areas on the map, do some on-the-water reconnaissance with your depthfinder to confirm that spots are as good as they looked on paper. If you did your homework correctly, your electronics should reveal that at least some of these are honeyholes holding bait. Even better, you may see some larger fish on the graph, which very well could be stripers.
How you proceed from this point is a matter of personal preference. Many anglers like to stick with the real deal and fish live bait. Down-lining a lively shad is a proven producer, and free-lining shad behind the boat can also be effective. Use your trolling motor to slowly move along the structure until you find willing fish.
Artificial lures can produce too. Bucktail jigs and jigging spoons have caught many striped bass, especially in the winter. The idea is the same. Slowly work all around the structure, trying to coax a strike. Using a lift- and-drop retrieve, present your lure so that it resembles a dying shad, which is easy prey.
Crankbaits can also be effective, especially when trolled over likely spots. Trolling covers a lot of water and is a good way to prospect for fish without wasting too much time fishing any one spot.
In the dead of winter, look for fish to be in the lower reaches of the reservoirs. As winter's grip begins to weaken, though, striped bass make an upstream spawning run. In the case of landlocked fish, this is typically a false spawning run, since most reservoirs don't provide all the ingredients for successful striped bass reproduction. During the spring run,
look for fish concentrated around upstream shoals and dams.
WHERE TO GO The first stop on our west Georgia striped bass journey is Bartletts Ferry Lake, on the Chattahoochee River. Georgia Power Company operates this lake located in Harris County north of Columbus, and boating access is good, with several ramps from which to choose. Striped bass have been stocked in Bartletts Ferry since 1992 to help support the Gulf Coast striped bass recovery in the Apalachicola River system. Striper anglers are currently enjoying a quality fishery on this 5,850-acre reservoir, with fish in the 25-pound range available. Of course, the average Bartletts Ferry striped bass weighs much less than 25 pounds, but the fish are abundant and there is good trophy potential.
During the winter, the area near the dam offers the best fishing. As winter wanes into early spring and the spawning urge begins to take hold, look for the fishing to pick up around Riverview Dam, farther up the lake.
The next step down the Chattahoochee River string of reservoirs is another Georgia Power reservoir - Goat Rock Lake. At only 940 acres, Goat Rock is a small impoundment, really just a stretch of widened river channel nestled between two larger reservoirs.
Though no stripers have been stocked into Goat Rock, anglers catch a few. These are likely escapees from Bartletts Ferry that have moved downstream. A few years ago, this virtually unknown lake yielded a striped bass pulling the scales down to 32 pounds.
Anglers should target the Bartletts Ferry Dam tailrace, on the very upper end of Goat Rock, to get in on this action. Access is only fair on the lake, with just one privately operated launch ramp on the Georgia side. Georgia Power does maintain a public boat launch at its Sandy Point Recreation Area, on the Alabama side of the lake. This public-use area is just downstream of Bartletts Ferry Dam, making it a good choice for anglers wanting to fish the tailrace. Goat Rock Lake is just north of Columbus.
As you travel on down the Chattahoochee, the next reservoir where you stand a decent chance of catching a west Georgia striped bass is Lake Walter F. George. This sprawling 45,180-acre impoundment is stocked at a relatively low level per acre. Multiple the number of fish stocked per acre by the lake's immense size, though, and it adds up to a lot of fish.
On the other hand, finding a school of stripers in such a large, structure-laden lake is a daunting task. The lake is known for its offshore ledges, which provide the fish lots of good structure to choose from. The deeper water near the dam is always a good bet in winter, so that part of the lake would be the place to start your search. Access is excellent on this U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir west of Cuthbert.
Below Walter F. George is Lake George W. Andrews, also known as Columbia Lake. The reservoir is basically a 29-mile stretch of the Chattahoochee River sandwiched between upstream Walter F. George and Lake Seminole to the south.
Although the lake itself is not the best choice for striper fishing, the Columbia Dam tailrace can offer good prospects. The best time to target this area is during the spawning migration.
"Below Columbia Dam can be good at times, with decent numbers and some real bruisers showing up," Rob Weller explained. "Anglers do well there during the spawning run."
Expect most fish to be in the 2- to 3-pound range, but anglers have caught striped bass exceeding 20 pounds from this area.
To protect the fish during the critical summer period, the striped bass fishery in the Chattahoochee River from Columbia Lock and Dam downstream to Georgia Highway 91 is closed from May 1 through Oct. 31 of every year.
Bank anglers can access the tailrace on the Alabama side, and there is a Corps of Engineers boat ramp on the Georgia side. The lake is found to the southwest of Blakely.
The last lake on the Chattahoochee in Georgia is the Corps of Engineers' Lake Seminole, a 37,500-acre fish factory near Bainbridge known nationwide for its bass fishing. Seminole is heavily stocked with striped bass.
"The fish are in there," Weller said, "but anglers just don't catch them."
Perhaps Seminole's favored status with bass anglers so overshadows the striped bass fishing that most anglers overlook the stripers. Too, maybe stripers are just hard to find and catch in such a large lake. Anglers who unlock the striped bass secrets of this most southern of Georgia's major reservoirs could probably enjoy some great fishing and have it all to themselves.
The average striped bass caught here weighs about 3 pounds. Because of the ongoing efforts to rebuild the striped bass population, all fishing is prohibited in five springs located in Lake Seminole from May through October. These critical refuge areas are well marked, so you should have no problem avoiding them. Access to Lake Seminole is excellent, with many boat ramps available.
Heading back north up Seminole's Flint River arm brings one to Albany Dam, impounding Georgia Power's Lake Chehaw at the northern edge of Albany. This is another place where the fishing in the dam's tailrace overshadows that of the main reservoir.
"Anglers do well during the spawn below the dam," Rob Weller stressed.
Most stripers caught weigh 3 to 4 pounds; however, a few fish pushing 30 pounds are caught each year. To protect the fish as they concentrate in the summer cool-water refuges, the striped bass fishery in the Flint River below Albany is closed from May 1 through Oct. 31 of every year.
As part of the lake's recent re-licensing process, Georgia Power improved the facilities for anglers. On the west side of the river, fishermen can access an improved fishing pier, a boat ramp, plenty of parking, and rest rooms.
Proceeding on up the Flint River above Lake Chehaw brings you to the final stop on our west Georgia striped bass tour. Located near Cordele, Lake Blackshear covers 8,515 acres.
Blackshear is unique in a couple of ways. It is the only major reservoir in Georgia operated by a county commission, and it is the only major Georgia reservoir to ever have its dam breeched by floodwaters. The flood of 1994 broke the dam, reducing the lake to the old river channel. The lake came back strong, though, and the fishing is as good as ever.
Blackshear offers striped bass fishing both in the lake itself and below the dam in the Flint River.
"Blackshear has been stocked fairly heavily, but until recently the fishing was only fair," Weller pointed out. "The lack of sufficient coolwater refuges to help the fish get through the summer is likely what has prevented the population from really taking hold."
Good stocking survival the last few years, however, means that
striped bass numbers in Lake Blackshear are at an all-time high. Fish less than 20 inches make up most of the catch, but some linesides in the 10-pound range are possible.
Popular areas for fishing are around Smoak Bridge and in Gum Creek and Boy Scout Slough. All fishing is closed in three springs located in Lake Blackshear from May through October, since stripers congregate heavily in these locations. These areas are marked and are easy to avoid.
Rob also mentioned the area below Blackshear Dam as a possibility.
"Anglers have caught some good fish below the dam," he said. "I can remember a 28-pounder coming out of there, and we hear reports of other respectable fish coming from there too."
Tailrace access is good for both bank and boat anglers.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION Kevin Dallmier is the author of Fishing Georgia, a FalconGuide book about fishing in the Peach State. Signed copies can be purchased from the author for $21 (postage paid) by mailing a check to 90 Dogwood Hill, Menlo, GA 30731. For more information, visit www.alltel.net/~ kevin90/index.html on the Web.
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