Quest For The Unique Bartram’s Bass Of Northeast Georgia

The redeye bass found in the Savannah River basin of northeast Georgia and South Carolina are a unique species.

Brandon Adams | June 20, 2023

Biologists have determined we have different and separate redeye bass species in different drainages. The redeyes in the Savannah drainage are known as Bartram’s bass.

The wooly bugger landed with a small ripple above a large pool on the West Fork of the Chattooga River, and I began to strip the fly between the rocks at the head of the pool. As the fly began to enter the calmer water at the head of the pool, I felt that distinct thud of the take.

I set the hook, and this fish felt different than the trout I had been catching. The fish at the other end of the line did not feel as heavy, but the fight was strong. The fish dug to the bottom of the river and submerged rocks, and I could occasionally catch glimpses of in the cold, clear water of the river, and I knew it was not a trout. The fish began to tire and came to the net, and I saw it was a bass. It was much smaller than I thought it would be based on the fight it put up coming in at around 8 inches. This was my first time catching what I would come to learn was a member of the redeye bass family called simply a Bartram by many, or more formally known as a Bartram’s bass.

The dad of one of my best friends in high school and college purchased a tract of land along the Chattooga River. While our primary targets while fly fishing were the rainbow and brown trout that are found in the river, we also would catch what at the time I just considered to be largemouth or redeye bass, fish that I had caught in many rivers and lakes. But these bass had a different look about them. At the time, I paid very little attention to them due to their smaller size than the trout we were catching. As I began to catch more of them, I began to appreciate their unique characteristics. These bass tended to have dark spots above the lateral line almost like a smallmouth or shoal bass. Some of the bass would also have an orange color to their anal fins.

Unfortunately, as time passed, the land was sold, and with the beginning of my career as a teacher, trips to the river decreased as fishing on local ponds and lakes became the main areas where I focused my time fishing. Some of the new friends that I made in the area that my wife and I called home brought me back to the Chattooga River in search of trout.

My first trip back to the Chattooga River was years later in late May. The water was warmer than my trips in the spring in the years past to the West Fork. The trout bite slowed as the sun began to hit the water inside the steep walls of the river valley, so I decided to make the switch to poppers to catch some of the beautiful panfish that call the river home. As I began to work my way back toward the parking lot, I entered some of the deeper slower pools.

I had tied on a green-frog-colored popper as I approached a new pool. The fly landed just to the side of a rock outcrop creating a small ripple. As I began to work the popper across the pool, an aggressive topwater strike took my popper under the water. This I knew was not a take of a panfish, but of a bass. The bend of the 5-weight fly rod took me back to my high school and college years, and I recalled the bass that I would catch occasionally. The pull was the same, but this time the bass also launched itself out of the water as it made a run trying to escape the upper end of the pool. After several runs, the bass came to the net, and there were the familiar spots, and this one had a brighter orange than I recalled them having.

I decided to try a variety of streamers trying to match some of the smaller fish that were in the pool. As I worked a small streamer that had some silver purple and green from the bottom of another pool, I could see a flash before I felt the take. The rod bent and the hook set. I was not sure if I had found one of .he large brown trout that sometimes set up residence in the deeper pools closer to the parking lot, or one of the bass I was targeting. As the fish turned fighting to return to the rocks it had emerged from, I could tell that it was a bass. Fighting to keep the bass out of the rocks and breaking me off resulted in one of the best fights I had ever had on the river. A beautiful 10-inch bass came to the net and was quickly released back to the pool it called home.

I had switched to a brown-and-orange crawfish pattern by the time I reached the next-to-last pool before I reached the parking area. The large fly made a splash, sinking among the rocks at the bottom of the pool. I was now fishing much as I have for smallmouth. I bumped the fly across the rocks, letting it settle for a pause on the bottom occasionally. I felt an aggressive take as I began to strip the fly after one of the pauses. I knew with the take it was one of the aggressive Bartram’s bass that I was catching as the take was immediately followed by a run back for the rocks. Once the bass knew that a return to its sanctuary was not possible, it began to make a run for the ripples at the upper end of the pool. This was accompanied by several jumps from the water trying to throw the fly.

To this day, this Bartram is still my largest coming in at 12 inches. I did not measure the girth of the bass or get its weight, but it was one of the heaviest I have ever caught. I was so caught up in the moment that I lost track of time. With a glance at my watch, I knew that I was running late for returning to the parking area to meet up with the guys I was fishing with.

By the time that I got back to the truck, some of the others I had come with had left after catching their limit of trout. When I arrived to those that remained with only a couple of trout for my family to eat for supper that night, they questioned my fishing abilities. When I told them about catching and releasing several bass, they wondered why I was targeting them as they, like most people that I meet on the river, considered them a bycatch.

Their opinion was that it had too many bones, and the taste of the trout was much better. To me the redeye bass was no longer a bycatch, but a fish I often went to the river to target for catch and release. I now wanted to learn more about them, and it began a journey that continues to this day.

Now in my 30s, I had found myself more curious about the plants and animals I come across. The internet was also a more useful tool to learn information by that time, and as I started my research, I ran across a very familiar name for the bass that calls this watershed home. Besides the common name that I knew most river bass as, redeyes, I saw the name Bartram’s bass also come up. It appeared that at the time, there was a push to create a distinct name for each redeye bass in its own unique drainage as scientists began to recognize their distinct characteristics. Seeing the name Bartram brought me back to one of my history classes at the University of Georgia and learning about the naturalist William Bartram.

While in college I was fortunate to take a class with Dr. Lester Stephens about the early naturalist studying the flora and fauna of the United States. Two of the naturalists we learned about were John and William Bartram. They were a father/son duo based out of Philadelphia that actively collected species and seeds in the mid-1700s and William into the early 1800s.

I became most interested in the explorations of William Bartram because of his travels in the colonies of North and South Carolina, Georgia and east and west Florida from 1773 to 1777. His journal from this adventure is still in print today and readily available. William not only recorded the plants and animals, but he also recorded his interactions with the indigenous people that called this region home.

Some of the areas that William Bartram explored I call home in Georgia. As you travel through northeast Georgia, you will see historical markers stating William Bartram had passed through the area during his explorations of the Savannah River drainage. You can also hike the Bartram Trail with a trailhead in Rabun County and through Warwoman WMA and into western North Carolina. Much of this area is protected National Forest and has returned to a landscape like Bartram’s time recovering from the logging of the late 1800s and early 1900s, apart from missing the once dominant chestnut trees that were wiped out due to the chestnut blight. The creeks and rivers in this area have changed very little. They are still filled with falls, boulders and deep pools. The scene changes as you travel south. Most of the waterways of the Savannah River drainage are dotted with numerous impoundments to control flooding and create electricity for growing populations in the area.

As scientists began to study the redeye group of bass, they found that in the various river drainages the bass had distinctive differences. They have been separated into new species often named for the drainage they are found in like the Coosa, Chattahoochee, Altamaha, Tallapoosa and Suwannee. One exception to this naming practice comes from the Savannah River drainage. Scientists decided to call this new species, which is still not recognize as a separate species officially, in honor of William Bartram, who had explored the area this fish calls home. From the research I have done over the years, I have never discovered the first to utilize the name Bartram. I suspect it comes from the name of the trail paralleling part of the river the bass calls home that Bartram once traveled.

Scientists noted their distinctive characteristics such as the orange color along the tips of the fins of the Chattahoochee bass and the spots of the Bartram bass, but to be separated out more evidence must be present to show that it is not just a random occurrence. Scientists then began to dig further into the redeye bass family by collecting DNA from the fish in the different drainages. Currently scientists and states recognize five as distinct separate species in the redeye family, and two, including the Bartram bass, are proposed to be separated.

Will Mundhenke is a South Carolina DNR employee who heads up the state’s Redeye Bass Outreach and Education Campaign and chair of the Native Fish Coalition South Carolina Chapter. Regarding redeye bass, Will said, “It is best to think of them like seven cousins—related but distinct.”

Currently the Bartram’s bass is one of the proposed species and is not recognized as a separate species at the time of this writing. They are still considered Micropterus coosae, redeye bass. Currently in South Carolina the legal name is Redeye (Bartram’s) Bass.

“South Carolina and partners have proposed that this redeye found in the Savannah River drainage is a unique species, and hopefully will be formally recognized as the Bartram’s bass in the future and we hope to legally drop the redeye part of the name,” Will said,

The data that has been collected in research of Bartram’s bass was possible through a grant awarded to Clemson University, the Georgia DNR and South Carolina DNR.

It is my hope that Will’s home state and mine, Georgia, will follow suit with South Carolina since the Savannah, Tugaloo and Chattooga rivers are the common shared border between the states that this unique bass species calls home. It often takes hunters and fisherman to start a push to research wildlife.

The Bartram’s bass is a smaller river bass ranging up to 14 to 16 inches with the rare exception of larger fish. The Bartram can be found from the Savannah River shoals in and around Augusta upstream in the various tributaries of the Savannah. I have caught Bartram in Lake Hartwell and Lake Russell, two of the impoundments found in the river system. But the best places to target them are the shoals and pools that still can be found in the area around Augusta and other tributaries.

Unfortunately, with the introduction of nonnative spotted bass and smallmouth bass in the shoals around Augusta, the Bartram’s bass are already threatened even before they have official been listed. Smallmouth bass are competing for the same food resources, and likely eating the smaller Bartram’s bass. In the impoundments, Bartram’s bass that have had DNA collected are now mostly, if not completely, hybridized with the introduced spotted bass.

Some of the shoals and pools of the Broad River are home to Bartram’s bass.

Bartram’s bass, like most river fish, often seek out ambush points lying downstream of boulders, logs and especially log jams. They also can be found searching pools for baitfish, crawfish and other food sources that have washed into the creeks and rivers. The take is often aggressive, and it will give anglers the impression that a much larger fish is on the line.

I prefer to use a 5-weight fly rod because it is what I have for trout, bass and panfish. I know some people use a 3-weight rod to catch them, as well. Most of the pools I fish are not that deep, so a floating line works fine. Bartram will readily take streamers, muddler minnows, leaches and crawfish patterns. Once the topwater bite starts as the water warms in the summer, Bartram will readily take poppers, damsel flies, frogs and terrestrial flies. I have found their aggressive nature tends to make fly selection not as much of a priority.

Bartram’s bass typically are not as finicky as the trout they share the shoals and pools with. Here are some of the author’s favorite flies to tempt a Bartram.

The areas that I prefer to fish when targeting Bartram’s bass are wadeable and have good public access. Some are also accessible with kayaks, canoes and rafts. Stretches of the Chattooga and Broad rivers offer shuttle services and provide kayaks, canoes and raft rental. Some of the stretches of the Chattooga River are Class V rapids and caution should be exercised if fishing there. If you have seen the movie Deliverance, then you have seen some of these rapids. The rapids of the Broad River range from Class II to Class IV depending on water levels, and I do not recommend fishing when the water levels are high. Both rivers have public launching areas. Land along the Chattooga is mainly national forest land allowing for people to walk-in to fish.

Along the Broad River there are two locations of the Broad River Wildlife Management Area that allow access to the river, especially the Anthony Shoals area near where the Broad River meets the Savannah River. With careful inspection, a person can locate the canal that was blasted in the rocks sometime in the 1800s to allow rafts and canoes to transport goods down the river to the confluences with the Savannah River and downstream to Augusta. Bartram’s bass can be found throughout these shoals, along with striped bass and other bass species.

Once I found these shoals to be home to the Bartram’s bass, I began to change my focus to target them specifically. Black streamers, crayfish, hoppers—and caddis when a hatch is taking place— are all great flies. Drift a dark-red and olive-green crayfish down through the narrow canal, and the take can be massive, sometimes even confused with being hung on one of the rocks… that is until the Bartram decides to make a run up the canal. You occasionally see people rock-hopping to keep up with the bass that call these shoals home. Often the fish do not make it to the net, but as a good friend likes to say, “It is all about the adventure.”

An public access point for Bartram’s bass is Watson Mill State Park. Anglers can’t access the water right below the dam, but there is a trail to wade-fishing access on the south side of the river. Try a 4-inch worm on an 1/8-oz. shaky head.


Watson Mill State Park can also be found on the West Fork of the Broad River. This Georgia State Park is home to one of the few remaining covered bridges in Georgia. The mill is no longer, but the foundation and dam remains. You can fish downstream of the dam in the shoals and pools to where the river is joined by Clouds Creek on the western shore, marking the southern boundary of the park. Fishing here can be challenging to say the least. The shoals and pools are often filled by people seeking relief from the summer heat, so it is better to go early, or fish in the spring and fall before the water warms. Also, the river has silted in a lot over the last several years that I have fished it, which has seemed to dramatically reduce the Bartram population in this area.

What more can a person ask? A fish that will readily hit a fly with an aggressive take… a fish that resides in beautiful scenery that is easily accessible. Take the time to enjoy the nature around you. Listen to the ripple of the water over the rocks…  you might just hear the words of William Bartram as you follow in his footsteps searching for the bass that shares his name, the Bartram’s bass.

Become a GON subscriber and enjoy full access to ALL of our content.

New monthly payment option available!



  1. Linda Adams on June 20, 2023 at 8:04 pm

    Wonderful article! Enjoyed the descriptions, the historical connections, and the captivating conclusion. You know your topic.

  2. Andrew Curtis on June 20, 2023 at 10:50 am

    Excellent article! It makes this South Georgia boy want to take a trip north to find a Bartram bass!

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.