On The Run: Catch White Bass Spawning Up The Coosa
Hordes of hungry white bass are now making a move up the Coosa River above Lake Weiss. Catch 'em while you can.
Jim Hakala | February 26, 2011
They have spent the winter in Lake Weiss feasting on baitfish in preparation for their spring migration. Subtle cues in daylight, river in-flow and water temperature have drawn them in mass from their main-lake wintering grounds to the flowing waters of the lake’s main tributary — the Coosa River.
They move with purpose out of the lake and into the river, uneventfully crossing the Georgia state line on their up-river migration. For some it is their first trip, but for others it’s a familiar journey. The destination is the Georgia portion of the Coosa River, and the travelers are hoards of white bass on their yearly spring spawning run.
From a lake more often associated with world-class crappie fishing, comes an up-river rush of mini-linesides every year. While the timing of their arrival on the spawning grounds may vary by a week or so each year, the first week of March often welcomes the first wave of spawn-ready white bass. Their arrival can be sudden — one day not a sign of them anywhere and the next the river is flush with them.
This massing of fish usually lasts four to five weeks before winding down with their postspawn return to Lake Weiss. Though relatively short in duration, this early spring fish bonanza has turned into one of my favored and most anticipated times of the year. It’s become a time to meet up with friends, load up the boat and head out on the water for some excellent spring fishing and competitive camaraderie.
For those unfamiliar with the Coosa, the river is deep and generally navigable by bass or center-console sized boats. The slow to moderate flowing waters of the Coosa are always stained, and, like all rivers, one must take care to avoid floating debris. A handy map of the river with boat-launch sites can be found in the “Guide to Fishing the Coosa River” available on the DNR website <www.georgiawildlife.com>.
As a general rule, the best white bass fishing occurs at water temperatures warmer than 50 degrees with steady or falling river levels. Water temperatures dropping into the 40s or a slug of muddy rain water effectively kills the bite for a day or two. Before hitting the water, you can get real-time river temperature and flow information for the Coosa near Rome or the GA/AL state line from the USGS website <waterdata.usgs.gov/usa/nwis/uv?02397000>.
The average spawn-run male white bass will run around 1/2 to 1 pound, with a few older fish solidly tipping the 1-lb. plus mark. However, the female white bass are the real targets of a trip. Most of these plump, egg-laden fish will run a healthy 1 1/2 to 2 pounds in size, with the bigger “nannies” pushing into the 3-lb. range.
Even though the white bass have come to the Coosa to spawn, they are still aggressively feeding on shad in the river. Therefore, regardless of the bait type I’m throwing, the color pattern will resemble that of a shad. I prefer duller black or grays on a white body when it’s cloudy and brighter whites, silvers and metallic colors when the sun comes out.
I’d like to say I picked up on that pattern myself. Unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way from a buddy who ran up his catch-count with a silver-blue Shad Rap every time the sun peeked through the clouds. Needless to say, I’ve added a few more shiny Shad Rap patterns to my tackle bag since then.
I like to start each trip throwing either a 1/4- or 1/2-oz. Rat-L-Trap or Cotton Cordell Super Spot. Some outings you can toss either bait all day and wear them out. Other days, they want no part of them regardless of color.
If the lipless baits aren’t producing, a switch to traditional deep-diving lipped baits usually does the trick. I like lures that run in the 8- to 10-foot range.
With multiple people in the boat, you can figure out the flavor of the day quicker if everyone throws something different. However, if it’s not your bait they’re hitting, you better hope you’ve got something similar, as the “on-the-water cost” for similar baits can be steep.
I personally prefer fishing crankbaits but always keep a few jigs in my white bass arsenal. To get some distance on the cast and the bait deeper on the retrieve, I stick with 1/4-oz. jigs. Basic white or white-and-chartreuse-bodied grubs or minnow-type baits will generate strikes. While not my favorite white bass bait choice, plenty of people fishing for these river-run white bass use jigs of all types with great success.
When fishing crankbaits, I would characterize my retrieve speed as “medium.” Sometimes a bit slower retrieve is required, and I’m never burning baits. Just let the fish dictate speed. If fish are following baits, a few quick reel turns will often get them to strike before reaching the boat.
Fishing rods are usually numerous on our outings, for no other reason than to be able to quickly throw a different lure or color variation without taking precious time to retie. When the action is hot, you don’t want to fall behind in the “catch-count.” Even worse, you don’t want to catch a crankbait in the face while looking down to tie on a new lure — and yes, there is a painful story there.
White bass may be found throughout much of the upper Coosa, as they surge upstream during the spawning period. However, for most outings we target the roughly 10-mile river stretch from Old River Road boat ramp (west of the town of Coosa) upstream to Mayo’s Lock and Dam Park (has a boat ramp and ample parking). I consider this portion of the river ground zero for the Coosa white bass run.
One of the first stops on an up-river trek are the swirling waters in front of Georgia Power’s Plant Hammond, located just above the Highway 100 bridge. The combination of natural river flow and the billowing water returning from the power plant’s cooling towers keeps the river stirred-up and active. Both river banks in front of and downstream of this towering landmark have always produced well over the years.
After passing upstream of the power plant, the landmarks become much more subtle. There are several smaller creeks that join the Coosa in this section. The water inflow and baitfish moving around these tributaries concentrate and hold white bass throughout much of the spawn. The mouths of Webb, Hamilton and Beech creeks, among others, are all good locations to stop and thoroughly work a bait.
Moving upstream toward Lock and Dam Park, fish the inside bends and straight-aways of the river. While this sounds like most of the river, the key is to select river banks with good water flow and cover. Slack-water stretches, even those with good cover, are nowhere near as productive as areas associated with good flow.
Schools of white bass will hold behind logs and root wads, which act as current breaks. From these locations they ambush prey passing by on the current. Despite having good water flow, we typically avoid the deeper outside bends of the river. They just, for whatever reason, have not proved as productive over the years.
Once you reach Lock and Dam Park, water flow picks up as the river flows through and over the old low-head dam extending from the historic lock. While certainly not a barrier for migrating white bass, the structure definitely stacks up plenty of fish below it. The rip-rapped bank directly across from the lock and both banks for a good 1/2 mile downriver will hold plenty of white bass through the spawn.
In terms of fishing the river, position your boat 25 to 30 yards off the bank and drift slowly downstream. Unless you hit slack water, the trolling motor is used to just keep the boat pointing in the right direction.
With two or three people aboard, you can methodically cast to just about every stick, log, stump or tree limb until someone hooks-up. Given the schooling nature of white bass, it usually pays to swing the boat upstream into the current and make several more casts to the same location. The combined commotion of fighting the first fish and more lures fleeing the area will sometimes spark a mini feeding frenzy below the surface. It’s not uncommon for several other white bass to be pursuing schoolmates being brought to the boat. Singles, doubles and even triples may be had before the bite slows. When it does, we don’t hang around long.
Any time you locate feeding fish, take note of the water flow, shoreline characteristics and how the fish were relating to nearby structure. Looking for these same subtle features elsewhere along the river often leads to the same results — fish on!
There’s definitely no need to get an early morning start on a Coosa white bass trip. In fact, some mornings I’ve been able to chase turkeys for a couple hours before heading to the river. The bite doesn’t really get going until after 10 a.m. Fishing usually improves throughout the day, as rising air temperatures warm the river a degree or two from morning lows.
That slight warming moves the fish up shallower along the bank and gets them actively feeding. A sunny day definitely gets things going in the right direction sooner. On the flip-side, the bite can really be slow to develop on a cloudy day.
If you do choose to fish the early morning, target the sunny side of the river to take advantage of any early morning warming of the river shallows. If the fish are just holding deep, try deeper diving crankbaits that plunge to 12 or 15 feet. We have never just worn them out with this approach, but it will keep the doldrums away while waiting for the shallow bite to get going. Another approach to catching these deeper fish is to drop a spoon down to them or vertically jig a Rat-L-Trap. I have yet to master the jigging spoon, but those skilled in the technique do well.
As the fish move shallower through the day, cast placement seems to become critical. Often, the lure has to hit the shore right at the water’s edge, or it goes largely ignored on the retrieve. I’ve repeatedly seen two people cast to the same location with identical baits, but the bait landing closest to the water’s edge is the only one slammed by a white bass.
A well-placed shoreline cast will have a crankbait striking the bottom for the first few feet of the retrieve. This action is irresistible to white bass holding close to the bank or on the first bottom contour break into deeper water.
In terms of catch, a “good” day on the water, with a late morning start, will have us boating around 40 or 50 white bass apiece before supper. However, if conditions are right and you make a long day of it, you can really put together a banner day in terms of numbers.
Besides white bass, the occasional largemouth or spotted bass may be brought to the boat. And, of course, you can’t fish upstream of Lake Weiss without catching a crappie or two. In addition, it seems like a reel drag is tested every year by an early migrant striped bass. These early fish typically weigh less than 5 pounds, but they make for some exciting by-catch.
Whether you have a boat or are fortunate enough to have a friend with an empty seat in theirs (or at least one that can be purchased with lunch), give the Coosa white bass run a try this spring.
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