Rocky Mountain PFA Managed For Bass
A new management strategy for 2002 at Heath Lake is giving anglers a shot at public “small lake” lunker largemouths.
GON Staff | March 1, 2002
Small lakes offer big opportunities. That axiom holds true in a couple of ways. Look at the Georgia Biggest Bass List in last month’s GON, and you will see that small lakes are well represented on that list, making up more than 50 percent of the entries. Small lakes can produce huge bass.
So why do small bodies of water seem to regularly cough up trophy-sized specimens of our favorite sport fish? It is because they offer big opportunities for fisheries management.
Great fishing doesn’t just happen. It requires ensuring all the necessary ingredients are there to let the lake live up to its fullest potential. It is much more feasible in money and manpower to undertake activities like fertilization and habitat enhancement on a 200-acre lake than it is on a 20,000-acre lake.
Small lakes also respond well to special regulations. Implementing regulations designed to maximize a lake’s potential is the last step though. For any type of regulation to be effective, you must have something to work with. For example, an 18-inch minimum length limit is not going to be effective on a lake filled with stunted 10- to 12-inch bass suffering from a lack of forage. Due to the limited groceries, the growth potential just isn’t there.
Managing a small lake that can quickly respond to different management schemes is very rewarding since you can see the results of your efforts. After diagnosing what the lake needs, managers can formulate the plan of attack, put it in place, monitor the results, and hopefully gain satisfaction from seeing the smiles on anglers’ faces at the end of the day.
Unless you have permission to fish a private lake owned by somebody with the knowledge, manpower, and resources to create a killer fishing lake, your best bet is one of the intensively-managed lakes making up Georgia’s Public Fishing Areas (PFAs). PFA lakes are managed to provide the best fishing possible, sometimes with different types of anglers in mind.
Some are managed for catfish only, some for a balanced bass and bream population, and some to produce trophy bass.
Rocky Mountain Recreation and Public Fishing Area near Rome in Floyd County is one PFA you may want to add to this year’s fishing itinerary. Rocky Mountain PFA is part of Plant Rocky Mountain, an Oglethorpe Power Corp. pumped-storage hydro-power development. DNR operates the recreational aspects of the project with Oglethorpe Power providing 100 percent of the funding.
Rocky Mountain has two fishing lakes. The lakes serve as makeup water for the power plant in times of drought, but rarely dip below full pool. Antioch Lake is 357 acres, divided by a road into two sub-impoundments (East and West). Heath Lake is 202 acres. Access to both lakes is excellent with paved ramps and parking, restrooms, and shoreline trails and fishing jetties. No horsepower restrictions are in place, but both lakes have a “no-wake, idle speed only” regulation that is strictly enforced. This means all day and every day you can fish without having to share your favorite hole with a swarm of jet skis and skiers.
Besides the fishing lakes, there are two operating pools that are strictly off limits because of severe daily water-level fluctuations. The entire recreation area encompasses about 5,000 acres.
The Rocky Mountain lakes were filled in 1993. Because of the timing, the fish populations were not started with a balanced stocking of bass and bream fingerlings. Instead, the fish populations developed from whatever fish were caught behind the dams when the lakes flooded several small farm ponds and a portion of Heath Creek. An initial stocking of whateverhappens to find its way into the lake is not the ideal way to start a fishing lake. In fact, it is about as directly behind the eight ball as you can get. With undesirable species present, and an unbalanced mix of predators and prey, the lakes got off to a rough start.
DNR assumed responsibility for management of the area, and the PFA opened in 1997. Somewhat surprisingly because of the inauspicious start, fishing was very good that first summer. New lakes are usually good fishing though. Lakes are at their most fertile when they are new, and until fishing opens, the fish have been living fat, dumb, and happy. It doesn’t take long for the cream to get skimmed off the top though, and what was left at Rocky Mountain were two lakes full of hungry, slow-growing, and hook-wise largemouth bass. Forage was limited, the lakes were getting fished hard, and fishing quality declined.
A couple of years later, things began to turn around a little. A fertilization program proved very effective at increasing the forage base, and the numbers and growth of predators started to improve. Still, although the bass populations were actually the best they had ever been, fishing still wasn’t as easy as it was the first few months the lakes were open.
An idea began to form that there may be a way to continually recreate the “new lake” phenomena. The fish populations were good because of fertilization, so that piece of the puzzle was in place, but fishing pressure was keeping the fish wise to what was going on. Fishing was good, but maybe it could be better.
DNR developed a plan for one lake to be placed under special regulations to produce high catch rates of 14- to 18-inch bass, along with trophy bass potential. To reach this goal, the lake was placed under an 18-inch minimum length limit before harvest. With fertilization, the shad forage base was now on track and bass spawns were good, creating a population of fast growing, chunky fish that had a better shot at reaching trophy size.
To address the problem of hook-wise fish, the plan called for the lake to be closed to fishing except the first seven days of each month. The idea behind the lake being open the first seven days of each month instead of certain days of the week, just weekends, or some other formula, was to minimize anglers being unable to fish the lake because of their work schedule. Also, the first seven days of the month allowed for the longest string of closed days before the lake was open to fishing again. It is no revelation that fishing pressure affects the fish. The harder the fishing pressure, the harder the fish are to catch.
Heath Lake was selected as the best lake to try. User surveys revealed that 80 percent of Heath Lake anglers were bass fishermen. If you are going to try to do something for the bass angler, do it where they like to fish. Too, since fishing is the primary activity on Heath Lake, there wouldn’t be any penalization of anglers who wanted to take their family to Rocky Mountain for a combination angling, swimming, picnicking, (Antioch Lake has a swimming beach, campground, and picnic shelters). Finally, Heath Lake has a single, easily-controlled access point, so enforcement would be easier.
Since the proposed Heath Lake management plan was a departure from the norm, Heath Lake anglers were surveyed to get their feelings about the idea. The results were 89 percent in favor, 11 percent neutral, and none in strong opposition. A strong selling point was that Antioch Lake would remain open to fishing every day with a 14-inch limit, just like before.
The special regulations went into effect in March 2001. Within a few months, it was obvious they were working as planned. The majority of anglers were impressed with the kind of fishing they were experiencing. Positive reactions outpaced negative comments by five to one. Anglers reported catching up to 50 bass a day, all chunky fish. Some anglers decided they regretted the change, but they were the minority. Crowding was an issue with some anglers who agreed fishing was very good, but were worried about the number of boats.
Length limits take time to have an effect. Although it had only been a few months, surveys showed that anglers now ranked Heath Lake fishing quality at 4.1 on a 0 – 5 scale (5 = excellent), up from 3.8 in the summer of 2000. That change and the positive comments had to be a result of the limited-access component of the management plan. Results from the length limit should become known in the next few years as the fish have time to grow and respond to the special regulation.
Since this all may be just the ravings of a mad fisheries scientist, let’s talk to a Rocky Mountain regular about what he thinks. Willy Gibson of White frequents Rocky Mountain, and in January accomplished a bass-fishing feat most of us have never done, except he did it not once, but twice, in just a few weeks.
During the first week of January, Willy was fishing Heath Lake and caught a 10-lb. bass. A few weeks later, while fishing Antioch Lake, Willy put an 11-lb., 3-oz., largemouth in the boat. You can get lucky once, but lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice. Willy obviously knows something about getting your string stretched.
Willy is a regular at Rocky Mountain, so he can provide a good feel for what the fisherman can expect. “I average 15 to 20 fish a trip when I fish Heath Lake. Anything less than that, and I feel like I didn’t have a very good day. Don’t get me wrong, I have been skunked, too, but I always expect to catch fish at Rocky Mountain.
“The best thing I like about Rocky Mountain,” said Willie, “is the lack of boat traffic. I like to fish deep, and I like to fish slow. It may take me five minutes to complete a cast, and it is almost impossible to fish like that when you are getting bounced around by boat wakes.”
Willie put his favorite fishing technique to good use for both of the 10-lb. fish he has caught so far this year. “When the water is cold, I like to fish either a tailspinner or a spoon on deep breaks. Both of my big fish this winter came on a Fat Mike tailspinner, and both came from deep breaks with cover. I cast the tailspinner out, let it find bottom, and then just work it back real slow. Sometimes I will even let it sit 15-20 seconds between hops. When I do move it, it is just fast enough to feel the blade thumping.”
During warmer weather, Willy targets Heath Lake’s standing timber with a Texas-rigged soft plastic. He says slow is still the way to go though.
Willie approves of the special management in place on Heath Lake.
“I was one of the anglers surveyed when the changes were initially proposed. I voted for it then, but I did have a little apprehension. I was afraid the lake would be so crowded you couldn’t even fish. It can be a little crowded at times, but not nearly enough to cause a problem.
“The best thing about the limited access program at Heath Lake,” Willy continued, “is it takes so much pressure off the fish. Even though the lake is only open seven days, I still usually manage to fish there a couple of times each month, and then I fish Antioch the rest of the month. The fishing is good enough that you don’t have to make an all-day trip just to catch a few fish. Even going out after work for a few hours you stand a good chance of catching some nice fish.”
The first morning of the first day each month, expect to see 20-plus boats on the water. Use drops sharply after the first few days though, and the evenings are never crowded. Crowding at the fishing hole is a classic Catch-22; the better the fishing, the more people want in on it. It is also a sign of success — anglers must be catching fish or they wouldn’t be coming.
Heath Lake bass fishing is not the only attraction at Rocky Mountain. The area is managed to offer something for everyone, and other species anglers may want to try include bream, channel catfish, crappie, and hybrids. Crappie and bream are both abundant, but average sized. There are plenty of fiddler-sized channel cats, and some big ones. Both lakes have hybrid bass, and anglers have caught several weighing nearly 10 pounds.
Other facilities available at Rocky Mountain include tent and RV camping, swimming, hiking trails, and picnicking. The area is also open to gun hunting for waterfowl, and archery hunting for deer and turkey. Vehicles parked on Rocky Mountain must display a $3 daily parking permit or annual parking permit. Permits are available at all entrances to the area. A WMA stamp is not required at Rocky Mountain PFA.
Antioch Lake and the rest of the area are open every day from sunrise to sunset.
Heath Lake is open to fishing from sunrise to sunset the first seven days of every month.
To reach Rocky Mountain PFA from Rome, take U.S. Hwy 27 north 10.4 miles to Sike Store Road on the left. Take this road 0.4 miles to Big Texas Valley Road on the left. Travel 5.4 miles on Big Texas Valley Road to the area. For more information, contact the Rocky Mountain PFA office at 706-802-5087.
Here’s a feature article from 2006 about bass fishing at Rocky Mountain PFA.
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