April 27, 2023
The back of the cove erupted with surface activity as schooling bass pushed baitfish as far as they could go. When the terrified prey ran out of escape room, the slaughter began. "At times, we see wolf packs of big spotted bass tearing up threadfin shad and blueback herring all over the lake," says Henry Cowen of Cowen's Quality Flies and Guide Service (678-513-1934; henrycowenflyfishing.com). Cowen is considered an expert on Lake Lanier, having guided there since 2000. "If someone is looking for a personal-best spotted bass, or just a bass-fishing adventure like no other, then Lanier should be on your bucket list."
THE LAKE PROPER
Lake Lanier sits about 40 miles northeast of Atlanta. Officially named Lake Sydney Lanier after a 19th-century Georgia poet, the reservoir spreads across 38,000 acres along the Chattahoochee River; the Chestatee River feeds into Lake Lanier from the north.
The only reservoir in Georgia specifically managed to produce big spotted bass, Lake Lanier attracts millions of visitors each year. In the past, the lake delivered spots exceeding 8 pounds. The lake also holds an abundant largemouth population, with some hitting double digits.
"Spotted bass fishing on Lake Lanier for the past 10 years has been phenomenal," Cowen says. "I've heard of spots weighing more than 7 pounds. In many bass tournaments, anglers need at least 20 pounds a day to win. Anglers catching spotted bass win many of those tournaments. I think spotted bass grow large in Lake Lanier because of all the blueback herring in the lake."
Blueback herring, a saltwater species that spawns in fresh water, entered the lake about 30 years ago. Since then, the high-protein forage fish thrived and multiplied. When the herring population boomed, so did the bass. Some of the best bass fishing on Lanier occurs in the spring. Spotted bass typically spawn a little later and deeper than largemouths and usually begin spawning in April. The spawn can continue into June. "April is a transition period for bass," Cowen says. "When spots start coming off the beds, they get on points and stay in water 3 to 12 feet deep. People also catch them around docks."
Suspending jerkbaits make great temptations for pulling bass off points and docks. Long and slender, jerkbaits mimic baitfish and produce erratic action in the water. When an angler jerks the rod, the bait zigzags wildly. A suspending jerkbait will then hover in the water like a stunned baitfish.
Spotted bass generally prefer to stay a little deeper than their largemouth cousins. Toss baits up into the shallow ends of long, sloping points and work them out toward deeper water. After the jerkbait hits the water, let it sink a while. Then, vigorously jerk the rod a few times to make the bait slash through the water.
Shad spawn later than bass in spring, after water temperatures rise into the 70s, and again in the fall. A shad spawn can kick off a major bass feeding frenzy.
"In late spring, some of the best places to fish for spotted bass are seawalls or bulkheads," Cowen says. "Herring and shad need to stick their eggs on something. Therefore, they go to those vertical structures to lay their eggs. Early in the morning, we'll see tons of baitfish around the seawalls during the shad spawn. Spotted bass go to those seawalls to gorge themselves on baitfish."
Blade baits such as SteelShads imitate shad. They make excellent enticements when fishing vertical structures. Blade baits give off fish-attracting vibrations and flash. Anglers can let them sink to any desired depth. Make long casts and run blades parallel to structure, too. Occasionally pause to simulate a dying baitfish. Experiment with different retrieve rates and depths.
"A SteelShad is one of the best baits for spotted bass, and it works great around seawalls," Cowen says. "I also love to fish them around humps about 15 to 25 feet down. Fish suspend over brush piles or hover near them. When I get over a hump with brush, I'll throw that SteelShad and it's almost an automatic bass bite."
TURN TO TOPWATER
In the summer, topwater action turns hot. After spawning, shad head for deeper water and gluttonous bass follow. Schools of spotted bass, sometimes mixed with largemouths, herd baitfish to the surface and then attack mercilessly. Birds spot the surface commotion and swoop down for their share of the prize, a good indicator of schooling activity.
When bass feed on top, walking baits like Zara Spooks, Rapala Skitter Walks and similar lures work like dynamite. These heavy baits can sail long distances, so they cover significant tracts of water. Worked with a scintillating zigzag motion, they resemble wounded baitfish struggling at the surface. Anglers can work them fast or pause them periodically, so they sit on the surface a few moments.
"My favorite time of the year to fish for spotted bass on Lanier is from May through July, when they feed heavily on top," Cowen says. "In 2022, I guided a couple who love throwing Zara Spooks. We added a little hackle for a tail and boated nearly 30 spotted bass in a morning—and raised many more—all on top."
As a master fly angler, Cowen relishes the challenge of tempting bass on long rods. More aggressive than largemouth bass, spots fight harder and often clobber flies that imitate minnows, shad, herring and other baitfish. "We catch a ton of spotted bass with flies," Cowen says. "I can get a fly to a certain depth by using different lines. Floating lines are good when using surface baits, like poppers. If I want to bring a fly through water 3 to 5 feet below the surface, I use a slow-sinking intermediate line. With that type of line, I can throw flies that imitate jerkbaits running just below the surface."
To get down especially deep, Cowen opts for specialized line. "To get down to about 30 feet, I use fast-sinking lines with tungsten dust built into them," says Cowen. "That type of line sinks 6 to 7 inches per second, so I count down to the desired depth I want to fish."
Cowen makes various types of flies. A popular one is a Clouser-type minnow imitation called a Somethin' Else that works extremely well for attracting spotted bass, particularly when they feast upon smaller baitfish. Some people even use flies under bobbers or tie them to a leader trailed behind a spoon or Spook.
"A Somethin' Else imitates a 2- to 3-inch threadfin shad," Cowen says. "When bass feed upon juvenile threadfins up to about 3 inches long, that's a great fly to use. It's an absolute killer on spotted bass. When fish key on small shad, those in the 1- to 2-inch range, bass are next to impossible to catch, but they'll hit a Somethin' Else."
WHILE YOU'RE THERE
If you get tired of catching big spots, you might consider fishing for trout in the numerous northern Georgia streams near the towns of Blue Ridge and Helen. Both towns sit on the edge of the 800,000-acre Chattahoochee National Forest, which offers fishing, hunting, kayaking, horseback riding, hiking, camping and many other outdoors activities. For a good view, take a ride on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway (brscenic.com).
Racing fans might wish to visit the Dawsonville History Museum, home of the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame in Dawsonville, aka the "Birthplace of Stock Car Racing." In Atlanta, people who want to see really big fish should visit the Georgia Aquarium (georgiaaquarium.org). One of the largest aquariums in the world, the facility features several major galleries displaying many species. Football fans won't want to miss the College Football Hall of Fame (cfbhall.com).
GEORGIA'S BASS SLAM
- Peach State waters teem with different bass species.
At least 10 different black bass species inhabit Georgia waters. Anyone who catches five of these species by any legal method anywhere within the state during a 12-month period could qualify for a "Georgia Bass Slam." The species list naturally includes largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass, but also some lesser-known species, including shoal, Suwannee, redeye, Chattahoochee, Tallapoosa, Altamaha and Bartram's bass. Visit bassslam.com for additional details.