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CATCHING GEORGIA'S OTHER RIVER BASS

    There can be no disputing the fact that the largemouth bass is the glamour species of Georgia fishing. No other gamefish receives anywhere near the column inches accorded to the bucketmouth in Georgia's excellent (in our opinion) sporting press. There are five other species of black bass in Georgia that receive very little attention. Take a minute and see if you can name them...

    If you failed to name all five, you are part of a large number of Georgia anglers who have never heard of a Suwannee, redeye, or shoal bass or perhaps didn't realize that smallmouth bass exist in extreme northern Georgia. Since a vast majority of the fishing in Georgia occurs on lakes and ponds, most anglers are interested in learning how to catch the bass that live where they fish: largemouth, and to a lesser degree, spotted bass. Anglers who fish rivers and streams can often catch at least two and often three bass species on the same trip. The purpose of this article is to simply educate curious anglers on the various bass species, popular methods for catching them, and some of the places they can be caught.

SPOTTED BASS

    Other than the largemouth, the spotted bass is the most widely distributed black bass in the state. Spots occur naturally in all northern Georgia river systems that eventually empty into the Gulf of Mexico. Spots are present in just about all of northern and middle Georgia's "west slope" river systems (and their numerous tributaries) including the upper Chattahoochee, Coosa, and Tennessee. Spots have recently started turning up in the Yellow and South Rivers due to illegal stocking downstream in Lake Jackson. Spotted bass are extremely rare in southern Georgia other than in the Chattahoochee, but spots get scarce south of Lake Walter F. George.

    Spotted bass are very similar in appearance to largemouth bass. There are numerous methods of telling the two apart, but the easiest way is to run your finger across the fish's tongue. If the tongue is smooth, the fish is a largemouth. If a sandpaper-like tooth patch exists, you have caught a spotted bass. Also, the jaw hinge on spotted bass does not extend past the eye as it does with largemouths. Spots run smaller than largemouths, too, and rarely exceed four pounds in most Georgia rivers, with the average size running right around a pound.

    Generally speaking, spotted bass will tolerate more current than largemouths. In waters where spots and largemouths are the dominant species, the spots will normally reside in the quicker water. In many northern Georgia streams, spots and redeye bass are the dominant species. In these instances, the spots tend to prefer the areas with less current. Use this site to research the types of species that occur and coordinate your fishing approach to the stream you intend to fish. Like every other black bass, spots love cover in the form of rocks and wood which they rest behind and dart into the current to ambush prey. The best places on the river to find them will also have deeper water very close by. 

    Most anglers fish for spotted bass with the same lures they use for largemouths, except most downsize their baits slightly since spots run smaller and have proportionately smaller mouths. Spots are also slightly less apt to bust lures on the surface than the other bass species, but take a few along anyway because spots hit topwater with a vengeance when they are in the mood. Anything that imitates a baitfish, crawdad, or worm works well on spots. Small crankbaits, suspending jerkbaits, 1/4 or 1/8 ounce spinnerbaits, 4-inch plastic worms, and tube jigs fished on medium-sized spinning gear or a light baitcasting outfit should cover just about any spotted bass situation. 

REDEYE BASS

    Redeye bass, also commonly referred to as Coosa bass, are closely related to the shoal bass (see below). Redeyes tend to run small, averaging around eight inches and 1/2 pound, and anything over a pound is considered large. Coosa bass are sometimes called "bluebellies" because they normally carry a turquoise tint on their undersides. Redeyes also tend to have orange coloring around the edges of their tail fins. Just about all bass species mentioned here commonly have red eyes, so eye color alone cannot be used to differentiate most black bass species.

    Like the shoal bass, the redeye prefers to live in the fastest portion of a stream, using submerged rocks as cover and an ambush point to dart out and catch a quick meal. The redeye is best suited to the highland tributaries of the Coosa River (ironically, the Coosa itself is a mediocre redeye river), where the water is swift and the streams are not much more than a cast wide. The upper tributaries of the Savannah River (Chattoga and Tugaloo) are also excellent, and redeyes also appear in the northern tributaries of the Chattahoochee and Altamaha systems above the fall line. The Broad River contains a subspecies of the redeye commonly called the Piedmont bass, which has physical characteristics of the shoal bass. In streams that originate in the mountains, redeyes tend to become the dominant species at the point where trout become less common and upstream from prime spotted bass water, though redeyes coexist well with spots. In waters farther south, redeyes appear alongside shoal bass and often interbreed with them, making identification tough.

    Redeyes are great fun to catch. Though small, they are almost always willing biters and they put up a tremendous battle on light tackle. Small crawfish crankbaits are absolutely deadly on redeyes, as are dark-colored curly-tail jigs, in-line spinners, and tiny topwater lures. These brown brawlers are unbelievably sporty taken on light or ultralight spinning or fly tackle, and the streams they inhabit tend to run cool and clear.

SHOAL BASS

    Often called the Flint River smallmouth, the shoal bass (micropterus cataractae)  has only recently been granted official status as a separate species from the redeye bass (micropterus coosae). The scientific community has finally reached a conclusion that anglers familiar with both species have known all along: they're different! Yes, they are both brown fish that favor swift, rocky, shallow water, but shoal bass grow much larger than redeyes. The state record is an 8 pound 3 ounce monster taken from the Flint River and was the world record for almost 20 years. While the range of the two species overlap infrequently, shoal bass do not normally have e tooth patch on their tongue like redeyes do. Shoalies normally average slightly under a pound, and anything over three pounds is worth bragging about. While not quite the acrobatic equals of smallmouths, GRF considers shoal bass the strongest fighters of all the black bass species.

    Shoal bass are endemic to the Chattahoochee-Flint drainage and have also been successfully (and illegally) introduced to the Ocmulgee River between Lake Jackson and Macon. The Flint has excellent shoal bass fishing in the Thomaston area and also between lakes Blackshear and Seminole. The Chattahoochee contains pretty good shoal bass water above Lake Lanier and south of West Point in places. Between the months of March and November, shoal bass live in the rocky, shallow sections of these rivers and most of their tributaries. The key is to locate the sections of these streams where the shoals occur, because shoalies do not like sluggish water. Their diet consists largely of crawfish and baitfish, but shoal bass absolutely love hellgrammites. 

    Shoal bass act very much like trout. They hide behind rocks and ledges in swift, wadeable water and ambush whatever floats or swims by. Like trout, the most effective way to fish for shoal bass is by wading, since the angler can cover water far more thoroughly than by fishing from a boat. Plastic worms, weedless curlytail jigs, jerkbaits, and shallow-running crawfish crankbaits all work well on shoalies, but try a topwater popper first. When they are on, shoal bass hit topwater poppers better than any other species of bass, which makes them a big hit with fly fishermen. If they are being finicky, the subsurface lures mentioned above (fly fishermen try woolly buggers) should do the trick. Most shoal bass anglers use slightly lighter tackle (5-6 weight fly gear) than they would for largemouths and adjust their lure size based on water clarity: smaller in clear water and larger when stained. Live crawfish or hellgrammites drifted slowly through a pool or deep run are almost foolproof.

SMALLMOUTH BASS

    Outside of extreme northern Georgia, only a small percentage of bass fishermen know that smallmouth bass even exist in Georgia.  Smallmouth bass occur exclusively in tributaries of the Tennessee River, usually small streams that run north into Tennessee. The state record smallmouth was caught from Lake Chatuge and weighed 7 pounds 2 ounces. In the few Georgia waterways that hold smallmouths, the average size is around 3/4 pound, and GRF has not heard of any smallmouths caught from rivers or streams weighing over three pounds. Smallmouth are easy to identify because they are generally the only bronze-colored bass in the waters where they exist, though spotted and largemouth bass (usually greenish) occasionally show up.

    Smallmouth are at home in either fast or slow current, but in Georgia streams, they tend to reside in the faster, more shallow sections of a stream while the other species live in the slower sections. Bronzebacks tend to rest in deeper pools and move into shoal areas to feed, so the best areas will contain shoals and pools. Cover is important, too, especially in the form of downed trees and boulders. Smallmouth feed primarily on crawfish and small baitfish, so anything that resembles these staples works well. Light to medium spinning or fly fishing tackle works well for Georgia smallies and smaller lures tend to be productive.

    Crawfish crankbaits, tube jigs, four-inch plastic worms, 1/8 ounce spinnerbaits, and your favorite small topwater bait are about all you need to catch stream smallmouth. Flyfishermen may want to try wading the shallows with a popping bug or Woolly Bugger. Stream smallmouth are incredibly sporty for their size and tend to jump higher and more frequently than other bass. Though the average size is rather small, there are undoubtedly a few 3 and 4 pounders in Georgia streams, and these fish most likely don't get much pressure. 

SUWANEE BASS

GRF member Bill Bell hoists a beautiful Suwanee bass into his kayak.

    Let me start this by saying that I have never personally fished for Suwanee bass, so most of the information that follows is second-hand. The Suwanee bass is found exclusively in South Georgia (and more commonly in northern Florida) in the Suwanee, Alapaha, Withlacoochee, and Ochlocknee river systems. The Ochlocknee (in the Thomasville area) has by far the best reputation in Georgia as a Suwanee bass hotspot, and it holds the state record with a 3 pound 9 ounce fish. Suwanee bass average around 1/2 pound and are said to prefer the faster water in these streams, though the current rarely  gets brisk in these waters.

    Suwanee bass look like an amalgam of all the other bass species, but appear to have thicker, more rounded bodies and a hint of turquoise on their underbellies. Their favorite foods are crawfish, hellgrammites, and small fish, and Suwanees  hit down-sized bass lures well. Late summer and fall are said to be the best times to pursue these fish, as lower water levels tend to concentrate them in deeper, cover-laden areas. Be careful though, because big largemouth bass also inhabit these rivers, often in the same areas as Suwanee bass.

 

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