Coosa River Spring Striped Bass
These big, hard-fighting stripers are plentiful and relatively easy to catch during the spring if you know where to go.
Kevin Dallmier | April 9, 2005
Some Georgia anglers are fortunate enough to get in on one of the annual fishing rites of passage, the spring white-bass run. During this wonderful season, hard-fighting white bass are plentiful and easy to catch. Okay, take that fishing experience and multiply it by 100, and you have what northwest Georgia anglers have. Not only does the Coosa River system have some fine white-bass fishing, but after the white bass have sharpened your skills, you get to put them to the test on the Coosa River’s other favorite species, the striped bass. The Coosa is home to a self-sustaining population of striped bass, and the spring and summer fishing is excellent.
The Coosa River striped-bass fishery is truly a unique resource, and to understand the fishing, it helps to understand the fish. The striped bass is a saltwater fish with the heart of its range on the Atlantic coast. Striped bass are anadromous, meaning they live in saltwater and spawn in freshwater. Stripers are “broadcast” spawners, so they don’t build a nest on the bottom. Instead their eggs are released near the surface and once fertilized, drift with the current. If everything works out right, the eggs hatch as the current deposits them in the rich estuaries where the river meets the sea. Here the young stripers live the early portion of their life before joining the adult population. Although the process sounds simple, the spawning requirements of striped bass are actually very rigorous. All the variables have to be just right for success.
Striped bass were first “discovered” in freshwater when they began turning up in South Carolina’s Santee-Cooper system. When the dam on Santee-Cooper Reservoir was closed in 1941, striped bass on their spawning run were trapped, never to taste the salty brine again. Biologists were aware that striped bass were in the Cooper River when the gates were closed, but they just assumed that the trapped fish would die. However, as a striper fishery began to develop, it was discovered that striped bass were not only surviving, but actually reproducing in the huge freshwater lake.
That revelation led to the striped bass’s potential as a freshwater sport fish being investigated, and the fish began to be transplanted in other freshwater impoundments around the country. Although stocked fish usually were able to survive in their new homes, in nearly all cases periodic stockings were needed to maintain the population. Natural reproduction was absent or very limited. Given the fish’s usefulness as a forage-management tool and its popularity with anglers, the cost of producing annual hatchery crops of fingerlings to stock was judged to be worth the rewards.
Like many reservoirs or large rivers throughout the Southeast, the Coosa and Lake Weiss both received occasional stockings of striped bass through the 1980s. Stocking rates were low and generally limited to banner years when hatchery production outpaced the statewide demand.
A strange thing began to happen in the early 1990s. Reports of anglers catching small stripers became more and more common. Since it had been several years since stripers had been stocked, the small fish had to be coming from somewhere. Escapees from Allatoona and Carters, which received annual stockings? Maybe, but there sure were a lot of fish being caught. As the decade wore on, it became obvious that the Coosa had something special going, a true landlocked population of naturally reproducing striped bass. Such a thing wasn’t unheard of, after all it happened at Santee-Cooper, but it was certainly very rare.
The riddle was solved by Dr. Bill Davin and researchers at Berry College in Rome who scientifically documented the fact that stripers were indeed successfully spawning in the Coosa, and they were were able to narrow down where the spawning was occurring.
So what does this biology lesson have to do with the Coosa River and catching fish? Everything really. If you want to catch a highly migratory fish, you have to find them first, and that is where an understanding of what goes on in a striped bass’s life is so important.
Adult striped bass have two factors in their lives that override everything else — the first is the will to spawn, and the second is the will to survive to see another spawn. Understand these requirements and you may have a shot at finding the fish in Lake Weiss’s 30,000 acres and the roughly 250 miles of tributary rivers that feed it.
Extensive field work by WRD, confirmed by the experiences of dedicated Coosa striper anglers, has shown that a hole that is chock full of fish one month may not have a striped bass within 20 miles of it just a month or two later.
Let’s talk about the spawn first. Just like white bass, stripers head upstream to spawn, no secret there. Even on lakes without successful reproduction, the fish still make a false run upstream. It is just what they are programmed to do. But where do they go? Do they go somewhere in the 30 miles of the Coosa itself, or maybe the 45 miles of the Etowah River from Lake Allatoona to Rome? Maybe it is the 25 miles of the Coosawattee River from Carters Lake down to Calhoun? That is a lot of water to go looking for some fish. Studies conducted by WRD and Berry College give us the surprising answer to that question. The heart of the striped bass spawning grounds is literally in downtown Rome, one of northwest Georgia’s busiest places. The Etowah and Oostanaula rivers join in Rome to form the Coosa. It is the last few miles of the Oostanaula and first few miles of the Coosa where most striper lovin’ occurs. Conveniently, the fish picked a place with good boating access and easily navigable water. Not all of the spawn occurs in those few miles, but there are plenty of fish in that area. Also, not all of the spawn happens at the same time. Depending on the conditions, a few fish can show up and start spawning as early as the end of March. In some years, fish may still be spawning the first of June. Late April and early May are usually the peak though, and that is the time for what can be the most fantastic fishing you have ever experienced.
In the early days of the fishery, it wasn’t uncommon to take an evening trip and catch a couple dozen stripers ranging from five to 20 pounds, all on topwater plugs! For every fish that hit your Spook and the hooks stuck, there were five others that would blow up hard enough to make your pulse race and your knees weak, but they would somehow manage to avoid being hooked. The fish are wiser now, and although artificials will still produce, the best results are had with bait. The best holes are closely guarded secrets, but there are plenty of fish to go around.
Just about anywhere you choose to soak your bait, you stand a chance at catching fish. Places to look for though are rocky bottom, deep holes, log jams, and seams in the current.
For bottom fishing or freelining bait in a hole, you can anchor and fish for 30 minutes to see what is there. If you don’t get any takers, pick up and try another spot. For casting artificials or freelining live bait around shoreline cover, the best method is to drift. If the current dictates, a one-foot piece of heavy chain makes a good drag anchor. Tied off to the bow line, the drag anchor will slow the boat down to a comfortable fishing speed and also keep the boat straight so you don’t have to constantly fight to maintain good casting position. Carry a couple extra lengths of chain and a few quick links to hook them together and you can make adjustments as needed.
Where to fish? Just launch the boat in Heritage Park in Rome and start fishing. Keep moving until you find some fish willing to bite. The best stretch seems to be from the ramp to the Rome wastewater treatment plant a few miles downstream on the south bank. Low light conditions are the best fishing, so early and late are prime.
The bite can last all day on a nice, warm spring day when the rain comes down slow enough to keep from muddying the water. If you are lucky, during low-light conditions you might see stripers actually spawning. A 20-lb. female on top of the water getting pushed around by several large males is a sight to behold, especially if the river is filled with spawning groups.
After the spawn, the fish scatter for three or four weeks before the need to survive kicks in. Stripers are a cool-water fish, and to survive a hot Georgia summer, they have to find cool water. Larger fish need water 77 degrees or less to feel comfortable. Other than a few choice locations in Weiss, the coolest water is found in the smaller tributary rivers. The best bets are the Etowah, Coosawattee, and Chattooga rivers, and Big Cedar Creek, a tributary to Brushy Branch. These small waters will hold an amazing number of fish.
Both the Chattooga and Big Cedar see a minor early run of fish with spawning on their mind, but the fishing doesn’t really pick up until the summer. For the Etowah and Coosawattee, the summer is prime time. Fish don’t use these rivers much other than during the heat of the summer. Cool water is almost a sure thing. Find a spring or where a spring-fed small stream enters, and you have found fish. The same spots will produce year after year. Fishing these small waters is a question of access. Public boat launches are scarce. Even if you find somewhere to launch, you aren’t going to get very far in a prop boat if you value your lower unit. Dedicated river fishermen run jet boats or float from point A to point B. The numerous rocky shoals make running these rivers a white-knuckled ride in a jet boat or an exercise in boat dragging if you go the float route. However, hard work always results in good things. Two anglers can enjoy 100+ fish days if they are at the right spot at the right time. When the bite is on, stripers will literally fight each other for the honor of eating your shad.
As summer fades into fall, the water begins to cool, and stripers can go anywhere they want. Most fish spend the fall and winter in Lake Weiss with its deep water and abundance of bait. Come the first hints of spring, the fish are on their way up the Coosa once again to start the cycle anew.
Fishing techniques are basically the same whether you are fishing the Coosa and Oostanaula during the spawn, or in one of the summer refuges. After months of being chased by anglers, live bait fools the most fish, but artificials are easier since you don’t have to worry about acquiring and keeping bait.
For bait, gizzard shad are best. A five- to six-inch gizzard shad is just right for cut bait. Most anglers prefer seven- or eight-inch shad. Finding bait is half the battle. Before you wear yourself out throwing a cast net at empty water, just resign yourself to the fact that no matter where you actually are going to fish, any trip is likely to involve Brushy Branch. This large Coosa River slough near the state line is the best place to catch bait. Any backwater slough has plenty of shad, but most are so stumpy that until you learn where to throw, you are going to tear up a lot of cast nets.
There is bait, and then there is good bait. Good bait means catching plenty of shad (150-plus for an all-day trip) and keeping fresh bait on the hook, whether it is live or cut bait. Keeping shad alive in the summer heat is no easy task. A good bait tank with a recirculation pump and a filter is a must. Adding some rock salt to the water will help keep the shad frisky. Several bait-tank additives are available that promise to keep your shad alive and kicking. Everybody fine-tunes their own system, but what is commercially available is a good starting point. What separates so-so striper anglers from really good ones is how well they can find and keep bait.
For bottom fishing, locate a likely area, say a deep hole below a shoal, and anchor or tie off the boat. On a heavy outfit spooled with at least 20-lb. test monofilament or braid, thread on a 1-oz. slip sinker. Next, tie on a heavy-duty swivel, about 24 inches of leader, and then finish the rig with a 3/0 Kahle bait hook. You may have to adjust the sinker weight depending on the current, but most of the time an ounce is about right since you should be fishing straight downstream. Don’t make the same mistake many anglers do and cast all your baits out so they are just a few feet from one another. Instead, stagger the distance the lines are from the boat. The more spread out your bait, the better the chances for a strike.
For cut bait, take a shad and cut it in half at an angle with the leading edge of the cut just in front of the dorsal fin, and ending up by the vent. This way all the shad guts are left in the bait to put out a strong scent. Hook the piece of bait through the eyes, cast out, tighten up your line, and you are good to go.
For live shad, the setup is identical except the shad is hooked through the nostrils. For freelining, use the same rig, just get rid of all the hardware except the hook.
For artificials, topwaters and stick baits are both good. A Zara Super Spook is excellent. Stripers seem to love a sliding, gliding, walk-the-dog action but aren’t quite as fond of a chugging topwater bait.
For stickbaits, Red Fins are an old standby, but Bomber Long As are good too. An absolute killer plug is a Rebel Windcheater, if you can find one. Primarily marketed for saltwater, the Windcheater is a great striper plug. Although the plug is just four-inches long, its stubby body and lexan construction make for a lure dense for its size that casts well on heavy line and has a little bit different look.
One thing to keep in mind is it doesn’t take a huge plug to catch fish on the Coosa. You aren’t trying to draw fish up from 20-feet deep. Bass-sized plugs will draw more strikes than hammer-handle-size Red Fins, and you’ll have a better hookup ratio too.
Rat-L-Traps will catch fish, and jigs are good too if you can keep them out of the carpet of logs that litters the bottom of the river.
Access to the Coosa is excellent with good boat ramps at Heritage Park in downtown Rome, Mayo’s Bar Lock and Dam, River Road near the intersection of Hwy 20 and Hwy 100, and Montgomery Landing in Brushy Branch.
Likewise for the Oostanaula River with ramps at Hwy 140, Hwy 156, and the Hwy 136 Connector. The Etowah, Chattooga, and Coosawattee are tough access, with public ramps limited to the very lower end of each river. A canoe launched at road crossings is the best way to reach these holes.
This spring, follow the fish to experience one of the premier striped-bass fisheries in the Southeast, the Coosa River system. Fish are plentiful, once you know where to find them, and catching big, hard-fighting stripers in a river is a fishing blast second to none.
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