Rocky Mountain PFA QFA: Quality Fishing Management
Changes in quality fish management regulations at Heath Lake should return the shine to the lake's trophy-bass reputation.
One of the best things Georgia anglers have going for us is variety. No matter what species is your passion, you can probably find a good place to fish for it in Georgia. Even better, for certain species, different bodies of water offer different opportunities.
Want big fish? Go to Lake Catchabiggun. Want lots of fish? How about Lake Wear-Em-Out? Sometimes these different angling opportunities are gifts from Mother Nature herself. Other times, she needs a little nudge in the right direction to get the desired result. Heath Lake, part of Rocky Mountain Recreation and Public Fishing Area, is one of those places where some nudging is taking place to provide the best quality bass fishing possible, and anglers themselves are the ones who can help pull the switches.
Heath Lake, at 202 acres, is part of Plant Rocky Mountain, an Oglethorpe Power hydropower development in Floyd County north of Rome. The 5,000-acre area is managed by WRD’s Fisheries Section as a Public Fishing Area with 100 percent of the funding provided by Oglethorpe Power.
Anglers have benefited from this sweetheart deal since 1997 when the area first opened. At no cost to the state, area staff perform activities like lake fertilization, facility upkeep and maintenance, enforcing game and fish laws, etc., to make the fishing the best it can be. Along with Heath Lake is another fishing lake, Antioch Lake, spreading across 357 acres.
The lakes are very similar in some ways. Both lakes are about 15 years old, opened to the public in 1997, have excellent boating access, and are intensively managed for fishing. However, their paths began to diverge somewhat in 2001 when it was recognized that Rocky Mountain presented a unique opportunity to try special management techniques not feasible on most bodies of water.
Since two lakes are available on the area, the idea was to place one lake under special management to attempt to produce the best bass fishing possible by regulating fishing pressure and harvest. The other lake would remain under standard PFA rules and regulations. Heath Lake was chosen to receive the extra attention for several reasons.
First, it was the favorite of bass anglers, likely due to the fact it just looks “more fishy” with abundant standing timber, several islands, and weedbeds. It made sense if you are going to try to improve the bass angling, do it somewhere bass anglers like to fish to begin with.
Second, there is only one road into the lake, so access is easily regulated. Third, because the lake’s facilities primarily consist of a paved boat ramp and parking area, limiting access wouldn’t impact other users on the area who prefer to mix in some family picnicking, camping, swimming, etc., with their fishing trip. All of that was and still is available on the larger and more developed Antioch Lake.
Finally, although the lake was a favorite of bass anglers, electrofishing surveys by WRD Fisheries revealed that of the two lakes, Heath Lake actually had the weaker bass population and was in more in need of attention.
Several approaches were considered, but when all was said and done, the consensus was to try a two-prong plan of attack to reach a goal of a lake dominated by high numbers of “keeper-sized” fish with good trophy potential also. One change was imposing an 18-inch minimum length limit (vs. the standard 14-inch PFA limit) on bass with a five-fish daily creel.
Although most Heath Lake regulars practice catch-and-release, the more restrictive limit would for the most part eliminate the effects of harvest on the bass population, but anglers could still take home a trophy if they wished. The second change was to limit fishing to only the first seven days of each month. As any well-traveled angler knows, fishing pressure affects the fishing. Why do you think those private, invitation-only small lakes are such good fishing? Because virtually nobody gets to fish them! You’ve got to have an in, or some deep pockets to pay to play, and as a result, the bass stay dumb and easy. The goal at Heath was to mimic that approach, but for all anglers. All you needed to have was a day off sometime in a seven-day stretch, and a pocketful of change to buy your daily parking permit.
Since both approaches were more restrictive, either in the fish you could harvest or in the number of days a month you could fish the lake, surveys were conducted to make sure Heath Lake anglers were willing to restrict themselves in the hopes of improving their fishing. A strong majority favored the changes, so the restrictions were put in place in 2001. Antioch Lake remained the same. You could come out to fish from sunrise to sunset, 365 days a year.
So did it work? Yes, it did. Within a couple years there were more and bigger fish. The beauty of small impoundments is they respond to management much quicker. It is a lot easier to do some nudging on 200 acres of fish compared to 20,000 acres of fish.
Management activities didn’t stop with just imposing a few new regulations either. Threadfin shad were successfully introduced to enhance the forage base. Grass carp were periodically stocked to keep the weeds at an optimum level. Significant manpower and money were invested in an ongoing fertilization program.
After just a few years under the new regulations, what was the fishing like? Let’s talk about a few days in June one year. A friend and I went to Heath one evening and in just 90 minutes before summer lightning storms chased us off the lake, we had a seven-pounder, a five-pounder, a handful of three-pounders, and hooked up with a bass I never could get all the way to the top before it eventually powered its way into some deep rocks and broke off.
Went back the next evening with two different friends and got on a bite that defied belief. In just a few hours time, we caught at least 150 bass between us, most averaging around three pounds. The biggest one went six pounds. Most came fishing medium-diving crankbaits and Texas-rigged worms around cover in seven to 10 feet of water next to a deep break, which is always a good place to find fish on Heath Lake in early summer.
Earlier that spring was a buzzbait bite. Bulldog your way into the timber and just start fan-casting a buzzbait or spinnerbait. That was another 100-plus-fish day, including gleefully catching five fish on five casts, all averaging 14 inches, while my partner’s efforts to free a hung-up favorite buzzbait got more frantic with each fish that blew up on mine.
Fishing is fishing, so not all days were that good of course, but the good days were really spectacular. However, you can have too much of a good thing, and that is where Heath Lake is today. The bass population eventually reached a density where growth and condition began to suffer. This was suggested by fishermen comments and confirmed with electrofishing surveys. The lake now holds too many 11- to 13-inch fish competing for the same forage, resulting in slow growth. Instead of 2- and 3-lb. “footballs,” more and more 1- to 2-lb. “dinks” have started showing up.
So what to do? Time to do some more nudging. And anglers are totally in control. Harvest is a management tool. In many cases, harvest is essential to maintaining a healthy and balanced fish population, just like with a deer herd. Think QDM with fins. Make the habitat the best possible (lake fertilization, install fish attractors), provide plenty of food (establish threadfin shad, keep weeds under control so small bream don’t have too many places to hide), and then use selective harvest to keep the population in check, healthy, and growing to its best potential.
To achieve these goals, beginning this spring Heath Lake will be managed under a 14- to 20-inch slot limit on largemouth bass. All bass between 14- and 20-inches must be released immediately, fish less than 14 inches or more than 20 inches are legal for harvest. The daily creel limit remains five fish, only one of which can be over 20 inches though. Also, the lake is now open the first 10 days of each month.
Let’s look at the slot limit first. Heath’s problem is too many smaller fish. Just too many mouths to feed on the available forage. The result is slow growth into intermediate size groups and beyond. Anglers can do their part to relieve that bottleneck by taking a few of those bass home with them each trip. The lake’s abundant 12- and 13-inchers are just right for the table and are good eating. But, once that fish gets to that hard-fighting intermediate size, the regulations require you throw it back for someone else to catch. Get lucky enough to boat a trophy over 20 inches and want to put it on the wall? No problem at all, the regulations allow that.
Expanding the open period from seven days to 10 days follows the same logic. If you have too many fish, you want to give anglers more opportunity to harvest them, while still staying within the general philosophy of the lake’s “special management.” Three more days of fishing each month isn’t going to give the fish much more of an education, but it will allow anglers some more time on the water to do their part to manage the lake.
If anglers will do their part by harvesting smaller fish, and the lake responds as quickly as it has in the past, soon anglers hopefully will see the average size of fish shoot back up to what it was a few years ago. There still will be plenty of uneducated fish to catch, and the chances of a truly big fish will be better with faster growth across the board from cradle to grave.
The bass limit on Antioch Lake remains the same as it has always been, 14-inch minimum with a five-fish daily creel.
So what kind of fishing can you expect from Heath Lake? A few facts about the lake may provide some hints. The lake’s maximum depth is 24 feet, and the average depth is nine feet. Fifty-seven percent of the lake is less than 10-feet deep, and 33 percent is less than five-feet deep.
Fifty-eight of the lake’s 202 acres were left with standing timber. So, by northwest Georgia standards, it is a relatively shallow lake with lots of cover. The lake’s main tributary, Heath Creek, enters on the far end of the lake. The channel is distinct in places, hard to follow in others. A few small tributaries also feed the lake on the north side near the road. Where these small branches enter are always good for a few bites. In the heat of the summer, Heath Lake is strongly stratified with the thermocline about eight- to 10-feet deep, so there is no reason to fish deeper than that. There is no oxygen below the thermocline, so you won’t find any fish there to catch.
There is always a bite going in the flooded timber coves. Buzzbaits and topwater are good early and late in the day, and pearl Flukes will draw strikes all day long. The farther you can fight your way back into the timber, the better. Once it is hot though, the shallows are mostly populated with smaller fish. The better fish will be found in the mid-depths around cover.
Several rock piles were pushed up during construction for fish attractors. Rock piles can be found off the corners of the two shoreline fishing jetties, along the main Heath Creek channel, and along the roadbed that runs across the lake out from the boat ramp. Most are in about 15 feet of water. The rock piles are a great pattern early in the summer, but by the time the thermocline really sets up in midsummer, many are too deep to hold fish.
When fishing the rock piles, or really anything other than shoreline cover, I like to give them a one-two punch with a crankbait and then a slow-moving worm or jig. The fast-moving plug helps you pinpoint the cover and will pick off the most aggressive fish. Then, the worm creeping along the bottom will coax the others into biting.
Leave the six-inch worms in the box. Everybody fishes those. On most days, I like an eight-inch or even a 10-inch worm. It will draw big bites, and even a 13-inch bass that has it in his head he is the baddest boy on the block won’t hesitate to try to eat it, too. For color, try junebug, blue, or red shad.
Fish 360 degrees around any offshore cover. Many times, the angle seems to matter. Fish it from one direction, nothing. Get on the other side of it, and get your arm broke.
A Little George is good lure here, too, especially for trying to get a feel for what it is you saw on your depthfinder screen.
Both lakes at Rocky Mountain are no-wake, idle-speed only, so always watch your depthfinder when idling from one spot to another. Some of the best holes have been discovered that way. If you want to shortcut this whole process and get right to the fishing, just head out from the boat ramp and hang a right toward the buoy you will see. The buoy marks a WRD-constructed fish attractor. A large pile of Christmas trees lies on the edge of a creek channel under this buoy. Scattered around several cast lengths out from the buoy are more trees and PVC structures.
Standing timber fills about a fourth of the lake, and for the most part rings the lake’s shoreline and fills the coves. Simply fishing the edge of the timber in six to 10 feet of water with a worm will put a lot of fish in the boat. While fishing, keep your eye on your depthfinder too for little points and humps. There are several of these, and they always seem to hold fish. The depth change doesn’t have to be much, just a foot or two will do.
One good area that meets these specifications is the saddle between the small island at the very upper end of the lake and the main shoreline. You can recognize the island by the osprey’s nest in the top of a tall dead snag. The right depth and plenty of cover makes this a good area for worm fishing.
If you haven’t fished Rocky Mountain yet, give it a try. Both lakes provide excellent summertime fishing, and the idle-speed restrictions mean you won’t lay eyes on a jet ski all day long.
The area offers nearly anything you could want including camping, a designated swimming beach, hiking, and picnic areas. A WMA stamp is not required to fish at Rocky Mountain, but all vehicles parked on the area must have a valid parking permit which are available at all entrances to the area.
Cold drinks, snacks, bait, and other supplies are available at Big Texas Valley Trading Post across from the main entrance.
More information on Rocky Mountain Recreation and Public Fishing Area is available at www.gofishgeorgia.com or by calling the area manager’s office at (706) 802-5087.
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