The Bronzeback Invasion
Whether stocked illegally or not, smallmouth bass have taken hold in the Savannah, and some anglers are glad.
If you ask anglers who’ve fished north Georgia’s Lake Chatuge or Lake Nottely what their single biggest angling disappointment has been over the last 20 years, you will unequivocally hear the same answer: the slow decline of the smallmouth bass in their home waters. In fact, until recently, one of the only fisheries in the state where you could still consistently target smallies was in Blue Ridge Reservoir.
However, in a bittersweet turn of events, it appears as if we could have a couple of new smallmouth fisheries burgeoning in Georgia. It is possible some smallmouth bass now reside in the Chattahoochee River below Morgan Falls Dam, and it has been confirmed that these fish are in the Savannah River just north of Augusta.
When I first heard rumors of smallmouth bass being caught in the Savannah back in 2007, I wouldn’t let myself believe them. I was working in Augusta, and a few of my co-workers would regularly fish the river after work. When a couple of them started reporting catching smallmouths, I simply had to check it out for myself.
Not long after hearing the rumors, I hitched a ride in Mike Floyd’s boat to comb the section of the river known as the Augusta Shoals. Mike is an Augusta resident who lived on this section of the river for the better part of a decade, and he fished it four to five times a week during that time.
The Augusta Shoals, a 3 1/2- to 4-mile stretch of good rocky-shoal habitat downstream of the Augusta Diversion Dam, is one of the only significant sections of shoals left on the Savannah, said Ed Bettross, a senior fisheries biologist at DNR’s Thomson office. It is also the only place on the river downstream of Clarks Hill where Ed has shocked up or heard of anglers catching smallmouth bass.
“I’ve long thought that the Savannah River was ideal habitat for smallmouths,” Mike said. “You’ve got a lot of rocks, you’ve got a lot of crayfish, you’ve got a good bit of current, and your water temp is ideal (for smallmouth bass). It’s a little too cold to be ideal largemouth habitat, but a little too warm to be ideal trout habitat.”
Many anglers in the Augusta area share Mike’s thoughts and have been pleading with the Georgia and South Carolina DNRs for more than a decade to stock smallmouths. But the state agencies have always held firm to their practice of managing watersheds in such a way to give the native fishes the top priority. And in this case, the native that would be threatened by the introduction of a fish like the smallmouth bass is a fish that, likewise, makes a living in cool, oxygenated waters in rocky shoal areas: the redeye bass.
Even though Mike is credible, my own skepticism of smallmouths in the Savannah still lingered. That is, until a certain bronze-colored bass obliterated a crawfish pattern I was casting during this excursion.
On my trip with Mike to the Augusta Shoals, I was surprised by the great diversity of species hooked in a relatively small area of the river. I focused my efforts on sub-surface retrieves of crawfish and baitfish imitations in search of smallmouths. In about a 100-yard stretch of water, several largemouth, spotted and redeye bass were hooked and landed, as were bream and a sizeable longnose gar that used its teeth to make short work of my monofilament.
But there was another fish in the mix — a fish that combined that recognizable bass headshake and violence with a healthy dose of running ability. This character’s lack of subtlety screamed “smallmouth bass.” It was unrestrained in its strike and had the classic painted-for-war markings of a bronze back with the three familiar dark stripes on its face. And there’s just something about a smallmouth’s eyes that seems different. Their eyes have a certain shape that makes them look like they’re forever ticked-off.
Even after catching what we were sure were smallmouths, I still felt a need to confirm it with a fisheries biologist. A phone call to Ed confirmed that several samples had been brought to the Thomson office that had telltale signs of a smallmouth. Not only did the biologists want to find out if smallmouths were present, but also if they were already successfully hybridizing with the native redeyes.
“We’ve seen fish — both smallmouths and hybrids of a smallmouth and a redeye — measuring up into the 3-lb. range,” Ed said.
So now that we know smallmouths are in the Savannah, the next natural question is, how did they get there? Did they trickle down from elsewhere in the river’s drainage? Or were they placed there illegally?
“There’s no evidence either way,” Ed said. “There are some of these fish higher up in the Savannah River basin. However, for them to get through the entire system and down to this part of the river is highly unlikely.”
And he’s right. Smallies are present in Lake Jocassee, but there are six dams between here and there. With an abundance of pro-smallmouth anglers in the area, the logical answer is they were stocked illegally.
South Carolina DNR Fisheries Biologist Jean Leitner reported some of the smallmouths and smallmouth-redeye hybrids recently sampled have been in the 2- to 4-year-old range, and that none of them had otoliths (ear bones) marked with oxytetracyclene, an antibiotic with fluorescent properties used to “tag” stocked fish.
Whether or not it is ever discovered how the fish made it into this section of the river, the smallmouth are here and probably will be for the foreseeable future. The prospect of a smallmouth at the end of one’s line is an exciting one. And since they’re here, we should at least figure out the best ways to fish for these hard-fighters.
“I throw a little bait called a Super Spin,” said Jeremy Altman, owner of Buckeye Lures and frequent Savannah River angler. “It’s like a souped-up Beetle Spin. I’ll also fish a small Rooster Tail. I’ll fish both in natural colors — pearls and shad colors — because that river usually stays so clear that I think anything brighter will be too much for them. Typically, smallmouth bass hit brightly colored lures, but here I think they’re seeing a lot of bream and baby bass, and that’s what they’re looking for.”
Jeremy recommends using a medium- light spinning rod and 8-lb. test.
“You want something big enough to handle the smallmouth, and you don’t want to get too dinky because there are some largemouth in there,” Jeremy said.
Mike likes to stick with topwater flies as that’s what he’s found the most success with.
“I go with white poppers and green poppers,” Mike said. “I’ve taken different styles of poppers that weren’t green or white, painted them one of those two colors and caught smallmouth on them. It’s all about the color.”
If you want to target smallmouth bass on the fly, Mike suggests a six weight fly rod.
“You can get away with a five weight, but there are enough largemouth bass around that it’s nice to have that extra backbone,” Mike said.
And if you want to target the smallmouth specifically during the month of May, fish all but the tail ends of the shoals. Electro-shocking studies conducted by DNR have shown high concentrations of redeye bass on the downstream ends of the shoals, while smallmouths seem to dominate the bulk of the main part of the shoals.
Employ bass tactics, and target slack water adjacent to current. These fish were built for rivers and know how to thrive in them, so you generally won’t find smallmouths wasting energy holding in the current. You will, however, find them in the seams between the slack and moving water where they can hold with little effort but still be close to the flow — the perfect spot to snatch food washing down.
As this fishery matures and its popularity grows, the tactics and tackle will undoubtedly evolve. But for now,
keep it simple and target the shoals for the highest concentrations of fish.
However, we all need to understand the threats presented to the native fishes through the introduction of nonnative competitors.
“My concerns would include a hybridization with redeye bass and therefore losing that population,” Ed said. “The redeye bass live in very specific types of habitat and don’t do as well in other areas, so they could be displaced.”
The bad news for the redeye is that if these fish do establish themselves, they’re probably there for good. Since they are there, anglers should enjoy fishing for them. But, there are consequences of moving species. If you need proof, just look at what spotted bass have done to smallmouths in Nottely and Chatuge.
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