A lot is said about North Georgia's freshwater fishing opportunities, but maybe nothing says more about fishing from the flatlands of the Piedmont to the ridges of the Blue Ridge Mountains as does the variety. Between tackling bruiser striped bass with big baits and heavy tackle on Lake Lanier, and combat-styled fly-fishing for wild trout with wispy rods and fine lines in a remote Rabun County mountain gorge, fishing venues are as varied as are the species chased by Peach State anglers.
Where will you begin your fishing outings this summer? Will you chase spotted bass with topwater plugs at daylight on Lake Chatuge? Perhaps, you want to soak live minnows along a brush line looking for crappie in the backwaters of the lower Etowah River. Maybe your next summer fish fry will feature a heap of dressed-out channel cats from Rocky Mountain Public Fishing Area.
At these sites and many more from the fall line northward, Georgia anglers find plenty of places to catch the fish of their choice. But they also realize that with so many places to fish, they can always branch out and make their next fishing trip an adventure in learning about fishing for trophy catfish, magnum bluegills, heavy striped bass, rainbow and brown trout and much more!
LAKE OCONEE TROPHY CATS
Sprawling north to south across Greene County, near the towns of Madison and Greensboro, Lake Oconee's long narrow shape carries a noticeable current during times of hydropower generation. Owned and operated by Georgia Power Company, the 19,000-acre reservoir is part of a pump-storage facility that creates power during times of discharge from the dam, but often recovers the water from the downstream pool of Lake Sinclair.
"You need to remember that a 10-pound catfish has a 'nose' on it that can track down the smell of a cut bait in that current over an area of about two miles," said Oconee fishing guide Chad Smith. "A fish that size — and bigger — can easily pick up the blood or the smell of dying bait when the powerhouse is running."
That's why Smith sets his bottom baits at the mouths of just about any creek channel entering the main-lake channel, where the current sweeps the smell of the cut bait around the drop-off.
"Much of the time I set up on the edge of the big flats at the creek mouths, right next to the river channel where there is usually some structure that attracts both catfish and baitfish. These are the threadfin shad, gizzard shad and the bluegills — especially the bluegills," Smith said. "And you can target any of the catfish species — channels, flatheads and blues — from May through the first of July with cut bluegills. The bream are easy to catch, but don't throw a cast net. You can keep up to 50 per person, so have fun hauling them in with a rod and reel. But because bluegills and all the other bream species are classified as game fish, you have to catch them with hooks."
Smith's bottom-fishing rig is set up as a Carolina rig. Using what he describes as a "no-roll" sinker, the teardrop shaped weight of 1 1/2 to 2 ounces won't move in the current.
Slide it onto a 20- to 25-pound main line of high-visibility monofilament and tie on a heavy-duty swivel. Tie a 1 1/2- to 2-foot length of the same mono onto the other end of the swivel for a leader. Finish it off with a size 5/0 circle hook and prepare your bait.
"I cut bream about 4 to 5 inches long across the back, from just behind the eyes on an angle through the backbone toward the anal fin," Smith explained. "That exposes the guts where the scent is strongest."
Those big baits return big cats for Smith. He said "small" channel cats — fish in the 3- to 5-pound range — often outnumber the larger fish, but he's not surprised any more by channel cats in the 20-pound range, flatheads in the 30-pound range and blue cats that easily tip 30 pounds. In fact, the lake record blue catfish topped out the scales at 47 1/2 pounds!
"Yes sir! A lot of folks are starting to call Oconee the 'little Santee,'" he said, referencing the Santee-Cooper lakes region of South Carolina, which is arguably the nation's best trophy catfishing destination.
Seven public boat ramps are situated on Lake Oconee. For more information about fishing for catfish at the reservoir, call Chad Smith Guide Service at (706) 207-2411 or visit his website at www.chadsmithguideservice.com.
For more information about Lake Oconee operations and facilities, call the Oconee/Sinclair Land Management Office in Eatonton at (706) 485-8704, or go to www.georgiapower.com and follow the links for Lakes and Oconee.
CARTERS LAKE LINESIDES
The sparkling waters and rugged shoreline of Carters Lake frames what is one of Georgia's most exciting fishing destinations. Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains just south of Ellijay in Gilmer County, the reservoir has a reputation for producing big striped and hybrid bass that hit hard and run deep.
"The average striper caught here is about 13 pounds," said Carters Lake fishing guide Eric Crowley of Ellijay. "And it's not just big stripers that Carters kicks out. Hybrids run with the rockfish. It's an excellent fishery for both species."
With just 3,200 surface acres, what Carter's lacks in size it makes up for in depth. The tallest earthen dam east of the Mississippi River creates the reservoir, which measures more than 450 feet deep at full pool.
"And it's the depth that supports the alewives, an illegally introduced fish that has become the primary baitfish for the stripers and the hybrids," Crowley pointed out. "They just showed up several years ago, and they changed the striper fishery. It's a little more difficult to locate the bigger fish, but the alewives seem to be the reason Carters is putting out bigger stripers and hybrids every season. The current lake record striper is 35 pounds, and the biggest hybrid is about 13 pounds. But there is so much bait the hybrid and striper records are likely to be broken every year over the next two to four years. They both just eat and eat and eat!"
Crowley said the late spring/early summer bite is early morning action, when the fish follow bait shallow, moving up into water about 15 feet deep. The action typically takes place in the lower half of the lake, in sight of the dam.
"The fishing can be really consistent on the humps in 15 to 35 feet of water. You can easily find many of these sites where shallow-water markers are located," he noted. "Otherwise, you need electronics to mark the humps. If you see fish on the sonar, set up a down line and drop the bait right into the school.
"I like a Carolina rig, using 14-pound line and a 20-pound leader about 6 to 7 feet long. My hooks run size 2/0 to 4/0 and my weight runs 1 1/2 to 2 ounces. Use a trolling motor to stay with the fish, and let the bait do its thing."
Six public boat ramps are on Carters Lake. For more information about catching stripers and hybrids on the reservoir, call Eric Crowley at Lake & Stream Guide Service on (706) 669-4973 or visit his Web site at www.lakeandstreamguideservice.com.
For more information about lake operations and facilities, contact the Carters Lake Project Office at (706) 334-2248; or go to http://carters.sam.usace.army.mil/.
For almost 50 miles, the Chattahoochee River is a stream full of trout — rainbows and browns — that provide the action on what is the deepest reach of a coldwater river into the Southeast. Trout fishing is sustained year-round by the release of 50- to 55-degree water from Buford Dam into its tailwater.
Access to this fishing is available in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Fifteen land units operated by the National Park Service provide are along the length of the river, but the river-bank fishing is often not suitable for shoreline fishing.
"That high bank and muddy shoreline can also be unsafe for fishermen," advised fishing guide Chad Bryson. "You might be able to peck and hunt out a site here and there, but the huge majority of trout fishing on the 'Hooch is done by wading or floating the river in drift boats, personal pontoon boats and float tubes."
For sure, the entire reach of the Chattahoochee tailwater provides very good trout fishing for fishermen of every persuasion. Fly-fishing, lure-fishing and bait-fishing all produce good catches.
Where you fish is a choice based on the setting you seek. Shoal waters are especially easy to reach for wade-fishing at the Paces Mill, Pallisades, Cochran Shoals, Island Ford, Jones Bridge, Settles Bridge and Bowmans Island units. Between these sites, the river features deep water best fished by floating.
"And this season, the new boat ramp is in place at McGinnis Ferry park. That's making access easy for anglers with drift boats and pontoons to one of the reaches of the river where both stocked rainbows and wild browns are abundant," Bryson said. "It's a stretch of about 5 miles through what is a portion of the 'artificials only' section of the 'Hooch.
"Fly-fishermen in summertime do well with heavy dark streamers and indicator-rigged nymphs," he continued. "Dry-fly patterns — especially a Blue-winged Olive — take some fish, but the best fly-fishing takes place under water using a No. 18 BWO nymph as a dropper off a size 14 Hare's Ear as the lead bug.
"Lure fishing can be great using the model 05 or 07 Countdown Rapala in gold and black finish," the guide added.
Anglers on the Chattahoochee must beware of variable river flows. Water levels can rise more than 8 feet during periods of power generation at Buford Dam and Morgan Falls Dam. Call (770) 945-1466 for the daily water release schedule at Buford.
On-the-water regulations include the requirement for all persons to wear a personal floatation device between Buford Dam and State Route 20, and between Morgan Falls Dam and Morgan Falls Boat Ramp.
For more information about trout fishing on the 'Hooch, call Chad Bryson of Chattahoochee River Outfitters at (770) 402-7883 or go to www.atlantatroutfishing.com.
You can also check with The Fish Hawk, Atlanta oldest continuously operated fly and tackle shop. Call them at (404) 237-3473 or check out their Web site at www.TheFishHawk.com.
For more information about the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, call the Visitor Contact Station on (678) 538-1200, or long into www.nps.gov/chat/index.htm.
BLUE RIDGE BLUEGILLS
Every late spring/early summer fishing trip in North Georgia should include one or more stops on the area reservoirs to have fun with "bream." This family of sunfish is typically made up of small fish in the 4- to 8-inch range that provide fast and furious fishing that's perfect for young anglers to hone their early fishing skills.
But don't let their usual small size fool you. Find the right population of the larger bluegills, redbreasts or shellcrackers and you can have a challenge, some fun and a fish fry.
Among the finest bream fisheries anywhere in the South, let alone in Georgia, is the bluegill and redbreast action at Blue Ridge Lake in Fannin County. With vistas of mountain ridges that reach upward of 4,000 feet, the 3,300-acre lake on the Toccoa River holds a lot of bream upward of 12 inches long.
These make their first spawn of the season under the last of the spring moons in mid- to late May. In fact, you can count on Memorial Day weekend to declare a significant bluegill bite is under way in the blue-green waters of Blue Ridge Lake. It's a bite I discovered almost 20 years ago and has remained consistently strong and predictable annually under the subsequent full moons of summer through August.
Key to catching the biggest of the bream is fishing on the move and fishing quickly through relatively deep water. I'm convinced that Blue Ridge's bream are over-sized because their population has long been the primary baitfish for the reservoir's predatory game fish — largemouth bass, walleyes and smallmouth bass.
However, spotted bass are now prevalent in the lake and so are the blueback herring that first appeared about four years ago. That combination may change the bream fishery in years to come.
Meanwhile, carry your best ultralight fishing tackle onto the lake and work live crickets down the lake's rocky steep banks and around the lain-down trees. Squeeze a 1/8-ounce split shot onto your 4-pound main line about 12 inches above a size 8 or 10 long-shank wire hook.
Then learn the feel of the bait bouncing slowly down the steep banks. Watch for ledges in 8 to 10 feet of water, and sandy patches between areas of broken rock. But, stay on the move, especially through the lake's riverine habitat upstream from Channel Marker No. 5.
There are four boat ramps on Lake Blue Ridge. For more information about bream fishing at Blue Ridge Lake, contact the guide team of Reel Angling Adventures by calling 1-866-899-5259, or visit them online at www.ReelAnglingAdventures.com.
For more information about the facilities and operation of Lake Blue Ridge, contact the Tennessee Valley Authority at (865) 632-2101. Their Web site is at www.tva.gov/sites/blueridge.htm.