Summertime Tailrace Stripers

The author heads to the Etowah River with Rob Smith in search of hard-fighting linesides.

Don Baldwin | August 1, 2006

It’s that time of year again; the middle of summer in Georgia.

Temperatures are soaring, the humidity is stifling and it is often downright uncomfortable to be outside. For us anglers it can be even worse. The reservoirs are packed with fun seekers on watercraft of virtually every description, and it is often difficult to find a quiet place to wet a line. With the high water-surface temperatures and naturally lethargic fish, (even they must be uncomfortable) it just doesn’t seem to be worth the effort at times.

Fortunately those reservoirs have a feature that offers relief from the crowds and tepid water temperatures in spots that are full of fish ready to stretch your line.

I’m talking about tailraces. Tailraces are defined as an area downstream from a dam that’s affected by flow variation from water release and noticeable temperature variations. So, tailrace fishing doesn’t always mean you’re looking up at a dam watching white water.

At the deep end of every reservoir there is a dam that empties into a river below. Since most of the reservoirs are very deep near the dam, the water at the discharge is naturally cooler than the reservoir surface temperature. This cooler water attracts fish and makes them active. Couple this fact with stocking programs in reservoirs down stream and you have a great combination.

In the spring stripers move up from reservoirs in a mock spawning run and often travel many miles until they are blocked from going farther by a dam. Once they get there they tend to stay in the area all summer enjoying the cool water and abundant forage.

There were lots of 2 to 3 lb. stripers in the Etowah. These plentiful fish should be a lot bigger next year.

One such tailrace is the Etowah River below the Allatoona Dam. This tailrace offers miles of fishing, and there are good numbers of fish of several species available for the catching.

I fished the Etowah with Rob Smith of Cumming in the middle of July. Rob is the manager of North Georgia Fishing and Outdoors and an accomplished striper fisherman.

“I almost never fish in the lakes any more,” said Rob. “I don’t like the crowds and the conditions are pretty tough in the summer.”

Rob spends most of his angling time fishing one of the many tailraces across the state.
We launched Rob’s boat at Heritage Park in Rome on a sultry mid July morning and headed upstream. Rob had checked the release schedule the day before, so we hit the river when the level was high. The flow at the dam was cut back that morning so we expected the river level to drop as we fished throughout the morning.

“These are ideal conditions,” said Rob. “The high water will allow us to travel upstream relatively quickly and as the water drops the fish will concentrate in the holes.”

The ramp enters the river right where the Etowah and Oostanaula meet to from the Coosa and flow down into Lake Weiss. From the ramp we traveled about 15 river miles upstream to our first fishing location. Moving up the river, we could see that the water level was getting lower as we went. Rob’s boat was a stable 14-foot jonboat equipped with a 40 hp jet drive outboard and a trolling motor.

It would be almost impossible to fish the river without a jet drive. There are rocks everywhere and a conventional outboard wouldn’t last very long. That’s true of most tailraces. They are generally pretty shallow, once you get a bit downstream from the dam, and have fast-moving water creating shoals.

Our first fishing location of the morning was at one of those shoals. Pulling up downstream of the shoal, Rob anchored the boat in the swift current and pulled us right up next to the rocks.

“There is a hole right behind the stern that should be holding some good fish,” said Rob.

I could see a small eddy in the water where the flow from the shoal hit the deeper water. The depthfinder said we were in seven feet of water and the surface temperature was at 70 degrees. That is a huge difference from what we would expect to see as surface temperature in the reservoir where surface temps would have been 85 degrees or more. Even though we were about 30 river miles downstream from the Lake Allatoona dam, the tailrace effect was still a big factor.

Rob rigged up to Carolina style bottom rigs with 3/4-oz. sinkers, a bead and barrel swivel. A two-foot leader was tied below the swivel and terminated with a 3/0 circle hook. The rigs were fished on medium-heavy casting tackle spooled with 20-lb. test line.

We baited the hooks with a fresh piece of cut blueback herring and made casts directly behind the boat into the deeper water. While live bluebacks are not allowed in the Etowah, cut bait is fine. If you can’t find the bluebacks, shiners or gizzard shad are good choices as well.

Rob warned that you should not make a diagonal cast hoping the current will swing the rig into the hole.

“There are so many rocks and snags you will spend most of your time re-tying rather than fishing,” said Rob. “Always cast directly behind the boat and leave the bait on the bottom without moving it very much. Too much movement and you are bound to get hung in the snags.”

It didn’t take long to produce results. One of the rods, in the rod holders at the stern, bowed to the water and line began stripping off the reel. Rob grabbed the rod, and the fight was on. The fight was brief as the line snapped, probably around a rock, and the fight was over.

Within a few minutes the other rod went into action. This time, after a brief fight in the swift water we guided a catfish of about six pounds to the boat. It’s not exactly what we were looking for but a good fish nonetheless.

“There are a lot of catfish here,” said Rob. “Some of them will make that one look small.”

The action slowed down at this hole, and we picked up the anchor and moved downstream to the next likely spot. There is so much cover in the river every place looks “fishy.” But Rob is very careful about the locations he chooses to fish.

“The fish will tend to stack up in the deeper holes, particularly on low-water conditions,” said Rob. “If there are fish in a spot they will usually bite within a few minutes. If I haven’t gotten a bite in five minutes I’ll pick up and move on.”

Rob Smith said he often catches nice catfish as a result of fishing with cut bait. This 6-lb. blue cat was caught on the trip with GON.

At the next site we broke off two more fish and boated several catfish along with five stripers between two and three pounds.

These fish were in the river as a result of a stocking a couple of years ago in Lake Weiss, and from the looks of things, they were part of a strong year class. We boated close to a dozen stripers of almost identical size before the day was over. This bodes well for next year when these fish should be approaching the 5-lb. range and more.

In addition to the cut-bait pattern, Rob says that a Redfin or Bomber swimming bait can also be very productive early and late in the day. He recommends that you cast the bait to shoreline cover and swim it steadily back to the boat with a slow retrieve. The bait should run just under the surface with the classic wobble characteristic of these baits. Hang on tight because explosive strikes are probable.

A lead-head jig with a soft plastic tail can also produce well. It is fished in the same areas as the Redfin but a little deeper. Swim the bait back to the boat while keeping it just off the bottom. Because the jig runs deeper it can be fished effectively throughout the day. White bucktail jigs are a good choice.

Making our way down the river for about eight miles we hit several holes and had great results catching small stripers and catfish at almost every hole we tried.

The Etowah is only one of the tailraces that Rob fishes on a regular basis. The Oostanaula is very similar to the Etowah and is also a favorite. Stripers from Lake Weiss, some red-eye bass, and the prolific catfish are generally pretty easy to catch.

The tailrace below the Lake Russell dam offers some great striper fishing, but it is a very different fishery than the Etowah. Russell essentially dumps into the top end of Clark Hill so there isn’t much in the way of a classic tailrace to fish. But cut bait on the bottom can produce some big stripers.

Farther southwest the tailrace at the upper end of Bartletts Ferry is a great hybrid spot and a place to catch a few big stripers and some shoal bass in the 2- to 4-lb. range, according to Brent Hess, WRD fisheries biologist.

Swift water and shoals provide plenty of good fishing locations and live shad fished on a freeline or under a float can produce big hybrid.

If you don’t mind the drive, there is some excellent hybrid fishing in the tailrace below the Nickajack Dam on the Tennessee River. The swift water near the dam holds lots of big hybrids and a live shad fished near the bottom as you drift downstream is very likely to produce a trophy-class fish. This tailrace has extremely strong water flow at times when several of the gates are open on the dam so caution is in order. It is a great idea to wear a life jacket in the swift water. Life jackets are required to be worn at all times on some tailraces so check regulations before you go.

One tailrace that may surprise you is the section of the Chattahoochee River below the Morgan Falls dam. Chris Martin is the Georgia DNR fisheries biologist responsible for that section of the river, and he says that the quality of that fishery is improving steadily.

“There are big stripers in the 30-lb. class in that section of the river,” said Chris. “While they are spotty and relatively few in number, they will stay in the river from early spring through late fall before moving back downstream toward West Point. In addition to the stripers Chris says that the diversity of the types of fish in that section of the river is expanding. There have always been largemouth present as well as some spotted bass. But since the late 1990s native shoal bass have been showing up in that section of the river. These native fish are often in the 2- to 4-lb. range.

In addition, the DNR has an aggressive stocking program adding shoal bass to the river. This program is in its fourth year, and the fish are getting to harvestable size. In a normal year there are 25,000 shoal bass added to the ‘hooch below Morgan Falls. This is an excellent location to try to catch a species that is usually pretty hard to find elsewhere in the state.

So when you are hot this summer and looking for a way to beat the crowds, consider tailrace fishing as an alternative. The day Rob and I were out we did not see another boat. And it was a Saturday in the middle of July.

If you are going to try tailracin’ there are some things you should consider. This fishing can be dangerous, particularly if you are close to the outflow of the dam. Check water-release schedules before you venture out. You’ll need some special equipment. A shallow draft boat with a jet-drive outboard is essentially a must. You may be able to get by with a conventional outboard in some locations, but they will be rare.

It is probably a good idea to go with someone who has the equipment and knows what they are doing the first time or two you try it. This is a different style of fishing, and it can take some getting used to before you get comfortable with it.

But if you get yourself prepared you won’t find a much better place to fish in the heat of summer.

If you would like additional information about fishing tailraces just stop by and see Rob Smith at North Georgia Fishing and Outdoors on Keith Bridge Road near Lake Lanier. He’ll be glad to share a few pointers. Once you get the hang of this style of fishing, like Rob, you may never go back to the lake in the heat of summer again.

Swift water and a good fish makes for an awesome fight. Here, Rob Smith does battle with a small striper.

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