Atlanta Shoal Bass Fishing On The Chattahoochee

Shoal bass offer another option for Hooch anglers when temps get too high for trout. Some may find a preference for this feisty native.

Nick Carter | September 1, 2007

With dog-day, afternoon temperatures peaking at about 100 degrees, Atlanta’s scorching black asphalt reaches temperatures suitable for frying an egg almost every day of the summer. During an afternoon thunder-shower, rainwater runs over these impermeable surfaces, leaching heat off the blacktop before flowing directly into the Chattahoochee River.

This amounts to a death sentence for the trout below Morgan Falls Dam which are stocked every fall by DNR for the delayed-harvest season. Water temperatures can spike from the 60s into the 80-degree range numerous times during the summer, and combined with the fish anglers take out of the river every year, the mortality rate for trout on this section of the river hovers at about 80 percent, according to WRD Fisheries Biologist Chris Martin.

These warm-water events began killing trout in the late 1980s, and they’ve increased in number with continued development. The hot, dry summers have not helped either. When limited rainfall minimizes the amount of 40-degree water churning out of Lake Lanier at Buford Dam, there is less water in the river, and that water heats up more quickly as it makes its way down to sit in the sun at Bull Sluice, the lake above Morgan Falls Dam.

To put it bluntly, summertime is a bad time to be a trout — or a trout fisherman — in Atlanta.

On the flip-side, there is a species of game fish native to the Hooch that absolutely loves the hot summers and these warm-water events. Since the damming of Lanier in the 1950s, shoal bass, once prevalent in the Hooch, have been the underdog. Now, with a jump-start from DNR, they are attempting to make a comeback, and the warmer water is helping.

In an attempt to bolster the population of these native fish, and to provide a summer fishery for area anglers, DNR began stocking fingerling shoal bass in the Hooch below Morgan Falls. The plan was to dump more than 25,000 fingerlings per year into the river for five years, and then to watch and see what happened. They started stocking fish in the shoals at Morgan Falls, Cochran Shoals and Paces Mill in 2003, and the final stocking took place this year.

“We’re trying to create another fishery,” Chris said . “ The winter temps are fine for trout, but the summer temperatures make a shoal-bass fishery more attractive.

“The jury is still very much out on whether this is going to produce a reproducing population suitable for a fishery,” he said. “But, they are in excellent condition. In my opinion, they are the healthiest in the state.” Chris stressed that the shoal bass are not taking the place of the trout, and that the winter trout stockings will continue. He also said the DNR is waiting to see if the shoal bass will take hold. But, in the meantime, many of those fingerlings have grown up, and they have created a heck of a metro-Atlanta, summertime fishery —whether it is permanent, or not.

I met Rob Smith, of The Fish Hawk, at Cochran Shoals early in the morning on his day off. Our plan was to wade the shoals just upstream of the I-285 bridge, using bass gear to tangle with these spunky fish. The parking area was already full of joggers and bikers getting an early start to beat the August heat, but we had the river to ourselves. The water was low, about a foot down from the water marks on the bank, and it was running as clear as I’ve seen the Chattahoochee — with a green stain.

“You’re basically looking for the same kind of water that the trout live in,” Rob said as he stepped into ankle- deep water and pitched a silver-and- white buzzbait to the top of a run. “I think some of the bigger fish may live in the deeper, slower water, but you’re going to catch more numbers in the shallower shoals.”

Rob Smith with a well-fed shoalie taken on a spinnerbait just upstream of the I-285 bridge at Cochran Shoals. The DNR began shoal-bass stockings five years ago, and the fish are gaining a reputation for aggressive strikes and tough fights.

Rob knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the Hooch. He grew up in Dunwoody on a riverside lot, and he’s fished the river hard since 1970. Spending almost every day on the Chattahoochee for years, he’s targeted every species of game fish in the river at one time or another, and he’s also taken note of the decline of the trout fishery.

“During the 70s and early 80s, it wasn’t nothing to come down here and see 3- and 4-lb. trout feeding on dry flies,” he said. “It’s not like that anymore. That’s why the shoal bass are here.

“Before they started stocking them, you caught some… but not a lot. I’m happy they’re in here in bigger numbers now. I’d just as soon catch shoal bass as trout, and I think they’re going to multiply and this is going to become a major fishery.”

Local anglers have taken note of the increased presence of catchable-sized shoal bass on the river in recent years, and the fish are beginning to gain a reputation for explosive hits and  hard fights. They seem to be more active when water temperatures are higher, but they should bite aggressively well into the fall, and it’s a common occurrence for trout anglers fishing the delayed harvest to hook into the occasional shoal bass when it is cooler. But there’s no confusing a shoalie for a trout once the hook is set. A half-pound shoal bass will put a 16-inch trout to shame when it comes to pure muscle.

“They’re aggressive, and they fight like a smallmouth,” Rob said.

For this reason, he opts for bass gear as opposed to the ultra-light tackle many people use on the Chattahoochee. He also carries two rods, tucking one into the back of his wading belt so he can go from one lure to another quickly when a fish trails his first lure but won’t take it. One of his rigs is a spincaster for fishing lighter lures, and the other is a baitcaster. Both are medium-action St. Croix Avid Series rods with Shimano reels, and he spools them with 8- to 10-lb. test P-line Floroclear.

We had thrown a couple of casts to the first set of shoals upstream of the parking area when the first shoal bass hit. I was burning a white buzzbait through the riffles of a swift run when it passed into eddy on the downstream side of a rock. The bait spluttered through the still water of the current break and pulled back into the flow for a fraction of a second before disappearing with a splash. I set the hook, and the fight was on.

“It’s a pretty good one,” I said to Rob, as I angled my rod upstream to turn the fish.

It had gotten into the flow, and I was fighting both the fish and the current as Rob looked on knowingly. Less than a minute later I pulled a short, 9- or 10-inch fish to hand. I was shocked to see how small the fish was when I pulled it out of the water.

“I told you, they’re aggressive, and they’ll fight like a full-grown man,” Rob quipped.

We fished buzzbaits for another half-hour without another topwater bite. Rob said the action can be fast when the topwater bite is on, but it only happens for about 45 minutes after first light. Next, Rob tied a Zoom Super Fluke Jr. in white pearl onto his spinning combo and fished it weightless. He was skipping it up under the trees hanging low off the bank, and working it back in with quick jerks. It didn’t take long before he hung into a fish, but it wasn’t a bass.

“Aw, it’s just an old trout,” Rob said, holding up a pretty brown most people would be proud of. After a quick picture, he unhooked it and released it. Rob and I caught several more small shoalies on Flukes and small hard-plastic jerkbaits before switching off to spinnerbaits.

“Buzzbaits at first light, then Flukes, then you go to the spinnerbait,” Rob explained, leaving the Fluke on his spinning rod and replacing his buzzbait with 3/8-oz. Custom Series Mini-Me spinnerbait. “They like that spinnerbait when the sun gets up a little, and those blades get to flashing.”

Rob likes the Mini-Me spinnerbait because the profile is slimmer, with the wire and blades running closer to the hook than most spinnerbaits. He goes with a tandem gold Colorado blade on top, and a silver willowleaf on bottom, and likes either a white or white/chartreuse skirt. He fishes white baits because they seem to draw aggressive strikes from these fish, and they are also easier for the angler to see coming through the runs.

Buzzbaits are a good option early in the morning for explosive topwater hits. When the topwater bite is over, Rob will go to a Fluke or a hard-plastic jerkbait, and when the sun gets high enough to make the blades flash, a spinnerbait or in-line spinner is the go-to lure. A Sworming Hornet rigged with a Fluke is also a good option.

“Another thing,” he said, pointing out my clear prescription glasses. “You need to get a good pair of polarized sunglasses. I can see my lure in the water, and I can see where I’m walking, too. I can also see the holes; I can see where the deeper spots are way better with the glasses on.”

The white-and-chartreuse spinner- bait turned out to be the real producer of the day once the sun got up above the treeline. We worked our way several hundreds yards upstream, then across the river and back down the opposite side casting to every likely looking run and pocket. Between the two of us, we brought about 15 shoal bass to hand, with the average fish measuring about 10 to 12 inches. We did catch a couple of larger 14- or 15- inch fish, though. And the kicker came after about five hours on the water.

The sun was high; it was hot, and the bite had slowed noticeably as we worked back down to the bottom of the shoals near the parking area. The water is a little deeper here, and the shoals don’t protrude above the waterline as much as they do upstream.

“Don’t ever give up until it’s done,” Rob said. “We could get into a good one down here in these deeper holes.”

It was like he knew the fish was there — and he might have. Just after the last word left his mouth, I felt a tug on the end of my line and set the hook. This time, I didn’t feel the frantic, hard and short, jerky runs at the end of my line. This fish turned its head upstream and I could feel its tail thump, thump, thumping as it pulled line off the spool.

I didn’t know what I had until it went airborne about 20 yards upstream and shook its head trying to throw the spinnerbait. This one really was a good one, and Rob became anxious that I get it in for a photo. The jump worked to our advantage, as the fish turned and zipped back downstream past us, and I was able to steer him into the slack water below us. Then it started threatening to bulldog into our legs, as we stood waist-deep near the bank.

“Don’t let him get any closer,” Rob said, as the fish did figure eights a few feet in front of us. There really wasn’t much I could do but follow with my rod tip and lean across Rob when the fish darted behind him. Rob pivot- ed, and risking a hooked hand, lipped the fish to haul it out of the water still thrashing.

I’ve caught bigger bass, but not one of them has fought the way that 3- lb. fish did. There’s something about running water that puts a little extra muscle on a fish. Hopefully, these shoal bass will take hold on the Hooch. Give it a try, you may just find a new favorite summertime fishery.

There are numerous wadable shoals where these fish can be caught in the metro-Atlanta area. The shoals at Cochran Shoals and Paces Mill should be productive, and they are easily accessible. Or schedule a guided trip with Rob. He can be contacted through The Fish Hawk website at

Rob put the author on this nice shoalie.

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