Lake Lanier Primed For Big Spotted Bass

The 14-inch size limit and an explosion of blueback herring in the lake have the spotted bass in great numbers, and the quality is better than ever.

Don Baldwin | March 1, 2002

When I got the assignment to do a spotted-bass story on Lake Lanier, I must admit that I wasn’t terribly excited. The prospect of sitting at the end of a long  point or over a hump dangling a jigging spoon in 40 feet of water over a brushpile wasn’t that appealing.

Particularly since it was mid-February, and I just knew the icy winds would be blowing up the goose bumps even before we left the boat ramp.

Then I started talking with a few anglers to get the lay of the lake. I had been living out of the country for almost four years and hadn’t fished Lanier, or any other Georgia lake for that matter, for that entire period of time. It was when I began making calls that I started hearing a consistent theme. Literally everyone I talked to said, “That lake has really changed.”

You hear those kinds of statements often, and just about as often they fall in the same category as “you should have been here yesterday” or “I had a 6-pounder on, but he got off right next to the boat.” Fishermen have a way of exaggerating, and it pays to do a little checking around. I placed a call to my old friend Reggie Weaver at the Georgia Fisheries Section of WRD. If there was anything new and different going on at Lanier, Reggie would know.

Much to my surprise, Reggie immediately supported the information that I had been hearing. Even though he was a little cautious in his comments, Reggie told me that there appeared to be more numbers and larger spotted bass on Lanier than in previous years. He attributed the change in the fish population to two primary factors. First, the introduction of a 14-inch size limit in 1999, and secondly, the illegal introduction of blueback herring into the lake.

Larry Lewis holds a fat spotted bass caught February 14, 2002 from under a dock in Shoal Creek. The spotted bass population in Lake Lanier is getting better in numbers, and anglers are reporting fatter, heavier fish than ever before.

A larger size limit has obvious implications. In Reggie’s words, “It simply increases the abundance of fish in the reservoir,” and the results appear to be paying off already. Biologists expect a change in the size limit to take at least three years to make an appreciable difference. However, it can be seen readily from the statistics on the graph on page 16 that a significant change has already occurred in the number of fish-per-hour in electrofishing samples. The 2001 numbers are the highest since the surveys began in 1988, and the extremely-positive trend of the last three years is a huge turnaround from the previous three years’ results. These numbers are for fish over 11 inches and are taken every April for consistency. It will be interesting to see what the 2002 numbers look like next month and, to be fair, Reggie is waiting to see those before making any definitive statements about the Lanier spotted-bass fishery.

The blueback-herring introduction requires a little closer examination. Most fishermen say the introduction of herring into Lanier has had a big impact on the size of the fish, and it’s obvious from tournament results that something has improved the average size pretty significantly.

While Lanier has always been recognized as a spotted-bass lake, it has never been viewed as producing a lot of trophy fish. Four years ago, a tournament string of 10 pounds topped by a 2 1/2-pounder was likely to win a few bucks. Now, I’m told that 15-lb. sacks are more the norm and 4- to 5-lb. spotted bass are common.

As you might expect, there are both positives and negatives to the introduction of the bluebacks. As a positive, Reggie puts it quite simply. “Extra groceries for extra growth.” The bluebacks are prolific, and they have provided abundant forage for the bass. This includes not only food for spotted bass, but also the striper population. In fact, these baitfish were more than likely illegally released into the lake by fishermen trying to improve the striper fishery, or by striper anglers illegally using herring as bait.

The herring provide a more consistent food supply, since they are a cold-water species and tend to migrate to deeper, cooler water in the summer as do the stripers and spots. Shad, which have been the traditional forage fish in Lanier, stay more shallow in the warmer water and are therefore less accessible to the spots and stripers in the summer months.

There are some negatives to blueback herring, however. In other lakes where bluebacks have been introduced, DNR has noticed a negative impact on the largemouth bass population. Bluebacks are known to be predators on the largemouth fry and also tend to compete with largemouth fry for the zooplankton that they require during their early-growth stages. There has already been noticeable decline in largemouth populations in some of the mountain lakes where bluebacks have been introduced. There is less concern with respect to the spotted bass since they spawn in deeper water and are less susceptible to the predation and competition for food. Reggie indicates that there is the added danger that bluebacks will spread throughout the system south of Lanier and have a more significant impact on the lakes farther south due to the much-higher percentage of the population being largemouths in those lakes. There have already been reports of bluebacks turning up in the river below the dam.

I scheduled a trip to Lanier with Larry Lewis to find out first-hand what was going on with the spots. Larry is the current president of the Georgia Bass Federation and has been in that post for 26 years. The Roswell resident is a longstanding member of the Cumming Bass Masters and is a regular on the tournament scene. He runs five tournaments a year for HD Marine of Buford and is one of the key organizers of the Children’s Health Care of Atlanta benefit tournament held on Lanier annually. Larry has lived in the area all of his life and began fishing Lanier when it was impounded. To say he knows the lake well is a gross understatement.

Larry knew I had been away for a while so when I called him about the trip the first thing he said was, you guessed it, “That lake has really changed since you fished it last, Don.”

I met Larry at the Shoal Creek Park ramp on a cold Thursday morning in the second week of February. As we put the boat in I noticed that there was a great deal of activity in the area. The sky was full of gulls circling and diving on bait, and there were several striper fishermen on the bank. The air temperature was close to 30 degrees, and the surface-temp gauge indicated that the water temperature was 55. A front had gone through a few days before, and we had a bright clear sky. The air temperature was slated to go to nearly 60 before the day was out.

“We’ll stick right in this creek until the day warms up a bit,” said Larry. “There is always plenty of bait in here, and we may just pick up a spot or two around the docks toward the back of the creek. Believe it or not, I’m getting good numbers of fish around docks in five to 10 feet of water — and have been all winter.”

Larry indicated that he had seen a major change in the fishing pattern over the last couple of years.

“Three years ago, I spent most of my time this time of year fishing over deep points in 40 to 50 feet of water,” said Larry. “You may have caught a small fish or two around a dock but nothing that you could weigh in. Now pitch a Finesse worm around docks in eight feet of water and you’ll pull out some really decent fish.”

Larry attributes this significant change in pattern to the presence of the blueback herring.

“I’m sure that the change in the size limit has had an impact on the number of fish, but I think the bluebacks are the real difference,” Larry said. “The size of the fish I see brought in to tournaments has increased dramatically, and I believe that the fish are just easier to catch than they once were. I’ve seen plenty of 17- and 18- lb. strings weighed in and lots of 4- and 5-lb. fish.”

Larry and his club mates are all catching fish shallow and are using techniques more common in the late spring or early summer. Spinnerbaits, jig ’n pig and Finesse worms around shallow docks seem to be the primary producers.

We moved toward the back of the creek and hit several docks for the first couple of hours without success. Once the air warmed a bit we moved farther out toward the main lake and worked docks that were similar in depth to the ones back in the creek. By 10:30 we still didn’t have a fish.

At 11:30 Larry got a short hit that ate his green pumpkinseed Zoom Finesse worm without getting the hook. Two casts later, on the same dock, he connected. After a brief fight he landed an extremely chunky 2 1/2-lb. spotted bass.

“These things look like footballs,” Larry said as he held up the fat fish. I had to agree that it was one of the healthiest-looking spots I had ever seen come out of Lanier.

Within the next 30 minutes we had four hits and landed two more fish of comparable size and shape. Although we didn’t land a 4-pounder, it was clear that the fish were more plentiful and heftier than I remembered from previous years.

All of our hits came in roughly eight feet of water along the sides or fronts of docks. The bites were all on Zoom Finesse worms in a green pumpkinseed or shad color, Texas-rigged with a 1/4-oz. bullet weight and a bead. We were fishing 10-lb. Berkeley Trilene clear line.

The technique was to cast under or as close to the dock as possible, let the bait sink to the bottom and retrieve while slowly shaking the rod tip steadily. Bites were subtle and often short, so we let the fish run a few feet before setting the hook.

“I was pretty sure that the action would pick up as the day warmed,” said Larry. “In fact, I will usually fish the afternoon this time of year rather than the mornings. If we have a few bright warm days in a row, the fish can really get active.”

Larry said that it is also good to fish the leading edge of a cold front. The falling barometer and windy conditions will often really turn the fish on, even if a cold wind isn’t so good in the human comfort department.

On the dock pattern, Larry says that if you pull one or two fish out of a dock it is best to move on to a similar dock rather than continuing to beat the one where you caught the fish.

“I seldom catch more than one or two fish on a particular dock at any one time,” says Larry. “If you leave it for an hour or so and return, it just might produce again, but I generally don’t try to pull five or six fish out of a single dock at one time.”

Larry says this boat-dock pattern will continue until the fish spawn in late March.

Whether it is the result of the change in size limit imposed by DNR, the introduction of the blueback herring to the lake as a forage fish, or a combination of both, it is clear that the spotted-bass population on Lanier is thriving. Biologists, and tournament and club fishermen, are consistently reporting that this lake is on a strong upward climb as far as its spotted-bass fishery is concerned. By all reports the fish are larger on average, more plentiful than they have ever been before and shallower for more of the year and therefore easier to locate and catch.

My own first-hand experience on a single outing with Larry supported the story I’d heard from just about everyone I talked to. As a result, I believe that I have joined the ranks of anglers who, when talking about Lake Lanier, will say “That lake has really changed.” I strongly recommend that you head out and give it a try.

If you’d like to get more information from Larry Lewis, give him a call at HD Marine on (770) 614-4080.

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