The Georgia Big Bass Special
Growing a bass big enough to make Georgia’s Biggest Bass list isn’t easy. But with the presence of a few critical ingredients, it sure is possible!
It was a rainy day in late February. The weather had been warm for several days before, and an approaching front had brought a slow steady rain. I was fishing Lake Bennett at the Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center. The fish were biting like nobody’s business, and a 5- and a 7-lb. bass along with several smaller ones had already been inside my boat. Easing up to a submerged brushpile, I tossed a Zoom worm into the brush and let it sit for a few seconds before slowly lifting the rod tip. When the fish hit, I knew right away it was a big one, and my heart was racing a few minutes later as I lipped a 9-lb., 14-oz. largemouth and brought it into the boat. I’ve been bass fishing since I was old enough to hold a rod, and I’ve been on hundreds of fishing trips, but I don’t ever forget a big bass.
Since Georgia holds the title for the world-record largemouth, and big bass are caught all over the state every year, we know that Georgia has the right stuff when it comes to growing the big ones. Not only does Georgia hold the world-record title, but only California (21.75 pounds), Texas (18.18 pounds), and Mississippi (18.15 pounds) have state records that are larger than the second largest bass documented in Georgia (18.06 pounds)! On top of that, 14 of the 25 lakes for which GON keeps lake records boast a largemouth record of over 13 pounds, and four others have a lake record over 12 pounds. The big ones are out there, but what does it take for a lake to produce big bass, and which waters offer the best opportunities this year?
One of the most important factors in big-bass production is food, or forage. Bass need plenty of forage in the right sizes and quantities throughout their lives to develop into real trophies. A bass has very little chance of reaching trophy size if she doesn’t have abundant food available her entire life, regardless of how long she lives (nearly all trophy bass are females — males rarely reach weights of more than five pounds). Biologists believe the first year of a bass’ life is a critical time in determining whether or not it will reach trophy size. If a young bass doesn’t have plenty of food available in sizes that it can eat, it may take two or three years or more for that bass to reach 12 inches long, if it doesn’t starve to death first. If a bass doesn’t reach 12 inches in length during the first year of its life, the odds are against it reaching 10 pounds or more before it dies of old age.
The food supply is an important ingredient in producing big bass, but the habitat where the fish lives is also important. Adequate cover provides bass with good ambush points and protection from predators. Ambush points allow bass to forage effectively and catch their prey with less work. Less energy spent catching food means more energy available for growth. Moderate levels of cover usually provide the best conditions for bass growth. A 1995 study in Colorado compared bass growth and condition in experimental ponds with varying levels of cover. Bass gained weight faster and were in better condition in ponds with moderate amounts of cover when compared to bass in ponds with high or low amounts of cover.
The length of the growing season (warm weather) each year is also crucial. This is where Georgia has a big advantage over more northern states. Folks in Vermont or even Maryland consider a 6-lb. largemouth to be a whopper, while a 6-pounder in Georgia is a nice bass but not exactly a trophy for most serious fishermen. Even within Georgia, your odds of catching a lunker are better in south Georgia vs. north Georgia because of the longer growing season. Bass metabolism slows down considerably in water less than 50 degrees, and bass don’t eat or grow nearly as much in cold water. A bass in Lake Seminole or a south Georgia farm pond will have more days of higher feeding activity and growth each year than one that lives in Lake Rabun. A bass that can spend more time eating and growing each year just naturally stands a better chance of reaching lunker status.
Two more components of the big-bass picture are genetics and age. Genetics is another area where Georgia has the edge over more northern states. There are two sub-species of largemouth in the United States, the Florida and the northern. Pure northern strain bass don’t often reach the 10-lb. mark. Georgia bass are natural intergrades, or hybrids, of the Florida and northern subspecies and have a much greater growth potential than pure northern bass. The Florida genetic influence tends to be more dominant in south Georgia, and the northern influence slightly more dominant in north Georgia, but practically all of our bass have some Florida genetic influence. Given Georgia’s record for producing big bass, it’s obvious that Georgia bass have the genetic potential to reach trophy status, although that may vary in some areas of the state (see page 28 for more on age and genetics).
A bass must grow old to grow really big. Harvest of smaller bass can actually improve bass growth by reducing competition for food and cover, but harvesting 4-, 6-, or 8-lb. bass will reduce the chance of catching a 10- or 12-pounder later on. In Florida, biologists found that bass weighing more than 10 pounds were an average of 9.7 years old. Oklahoma biologists collected samples from taxidermists and found that 55 percent of bass over eight pounds were at least seven or eight years old. If that 5-year-old 6-pounder you catch after reading this article lands in the frying pan, you can bet she’ll never make it to the 10-lb. mark.
All bodies of water are not created equal, and some definitely give you a better chance than others at a big bass because of the factors described above. If catching a big bass is your goal, it’s well worth the effort to spend time identifying the most promising lakes and ponds before you ever tie on a lure. New reservoirs almost always have the combination of factors necessary to produce big bass. The bass population and the forage population are expanding, so the first few spawns, or year classes, of bass in a new lake have plenty of food throughout their lives. Also, when a new lake basin is flooded, lots of nutrients are released from the soil into the water over the first 10 or 15 years, which make the lake even more productive. Looking again at GON’s lake records, six of the 25 lakes had their record bass caught within the first 12 years of the lake’s existence. It usually takes at least seven or eight years for a bass to reach trophy size, so the prime time to hit a lake is when it is seven to 15 years old. Major drawdowns or renovations often give a lake a chance to rejuvenate, and the effect is similar to the new-lake effect, so seven to 15 years after a major drawdown or renovation is also a good time to catch big bass.
Remember the flood of 1994? Most of us know of a lake or two that had the dam or spillway damaged during that flood and suffered a major drawdown for repairs. If repairs were made in time for the bass to spawn in 1995, those bass that were spawned then will be seven years old this year, and one of them just may be your trophy. The biggest of the damaged lakes in the ’94 flood was Blackshear, which was almost completely drained when the dam gave way. I’m betting we’ll see some big ones coming from Blackshear over the next few years. The lake at Fort Yargo State Park had a major drawdown in ’94, although it wasn’t due to the flood. The Dog River reservoir in Douglas County and the water-supply reservoirs in Henry County are about the right age for trophy production, as are Lake Varner in Newton County, Dodge County PFA, and Lake Juliette near Macon. Those last three also have a history of producing big ones, and that is probably the best indicator for which lakes will produce monster largemouth. Several other lakes that have a history of producing big bass, even though they aren’t in the young-lake category, are the lakes at Fort Stewart (Big Metz in particular), Marben PFA, Clarks Hill, Russell, Tugalo, Jackson, and Seminole. The Fort Stewart lakes in particular have been producing some monster bass in recent years, including six of the bass on the Georgia Top-30 list. They have the right combination of management, forage, fertility, genetics, and protection from over-fishing.
Once you’ve decided where to go, you still have to figure out how to catch them. Obviously, there’s more to catching a big bass than just showing up at a lake where the big ones live. One man in Georgia who knows what it takes to catch the big one is David Hudson of Warner Robins. David fishes exclusively for big bass from January through the end of summer each year, and he has more than 30 bass over 10 pounds to his credit, so he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the big ones.
“Ninety percent of the time I fish with a big jig ’n pig,” said David. “I don’t use any fancy colors, just black and brown. About the only other bait I use is a big plastic lizard, and I never use one less than nine inches long. I don’t want to mess with catching 2-pounders. I like to use that Carolina-rig lizard in early spring when the water has started to warm up but the bass haven’t gone on bed yet, because I can cover a lot of water with it. The rest of the time, I’ll fish with the jig. I’m fishing for one or two bites a day.”
David, like most of us, fishes when and where he can, but he likes to start in south Georgia in January and work his way north as the weather warms up. He rarely goes any farther north than Lake Varner. He likes lakes that have a good creek coming into them with a well-defined creek channel, and he rarely fishes lakes smaller than 40 acres. On any lake, he targets both the major and secondary creek channels early in the year, then as the water warms up he starts looking for shallow areas with plenty of cover and access to deep water. He avoids large expansive shallow flats, because the big fish avoid them as well.
David also spends a lot of his time on the water looking for big fish, either on the bed or cruising, and once he finds a big one he’ll stick with it for hours. He may ease around with the trolling motor for five or six hours before he ever makes a cast, watching for signs of a lunker. This style of fishing is not for everybody, but it does produce big bass. It’s similar to hunting for a trophy buck — it takes loads of patience, and you have to give up a lot of chances at smaller ones just to get a shot at the big one.
The next two or three months are the prime time to be fishing if a big bass is what you’re after. In south Georgia bass will be on the bed this month, and in central and north Georgia the pre-spawn fishing will be heating up. Tie on a jig ’n pig and go fishing. This just might be the year you finally catch that monster bass you’ve been wanting.
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