Eastern Fly Fishing

Catch the Fish That Doesn’t Officially Exist
By Nick Carter


We’ve all heard it, and most of have said it: “I just enjoy being out experiencing the outdoors. It really doesn’t matter if I catch anything or not.” Baloney! The only ones among us who can use that declaration honestly are old salts who have accomplished everything in the fishing world and men with a desperate need to escape their overbearing lives. The rest of us are lying and/or trying to cover up for an inability to catch fish.
   Let’s be honest. Regardless of where we fish, we go with the hope or even the expectation of catching something, and most of us have taken it a step further. Are you on a lifetime quest to catch a permit or a 100-pound tarpon on the fly? Would a 30-pound river-run striped bass be the apex of your angling career? Whatever it is, we’ve all got goals.
   That anticipation, the early-morning inkling that today could be the day, keeps us coming back for more. And the euphoria of a goal achieved is evident in millions of photos that feature beaming anglers with fish they likely caught to release. It’s a silly and wonderful thing, and one of the great aspects of fly fishing is that once you achieve a goal, there’s always another one to get started on.
   Here’s a goal you can add to the list just beneath catching a Tennessee muskie and an Amazon River peacock bass: catching a fish that doesn’t officially exist. Enter the Bartram’s Bass Known by the common name it has acquired over the last couple of decades in angling and scientific circles, the Bartram’s bass is the fish that doesn’t officially exist. It is present in the Savannah River system, which runs along the border between Georgia and South Carolina, but it has always been identified as a redeye bass by the scientific community or as a shoal bass by some anglers.
   The thing is, it is neither a shoalie nor a redeye. According to Dr. Byron “Bud” Freeman, of the University of Georgia’s (UGA) School of Ecology, this fish is a genetically distinct species of black bass found in only this part of the world. Like the Guadalupe bass in Texas, the Bartram’s bass is the species that evolved to fill a niche in the Savannah system. Ichthyologists familiar with the Bartram’s bass generally accept that it is indeed its own species. The problem is no one has yet completed the studies that would make it official.
   Freeman’s first encounter with the Bartram’s bass occurred in the early 1980s, when he ran a shuttle for boaters on northeast Georgia’s Broad River. A fisherman in need of a lift on this Savannah River tributary was particularly proud of a 15-inch “redeye” he had in his cooler. Being an angler, Freeman had to have a look. Freeman’s formal training as an ichthyologist told him at first glance that the fish was not a redeye or any of the other species of shoal-loving black bass found in the region. It was something new. 
   Three decades later, Freeman has determined that although it is often referred to as a redeye, the Bartram’s bass is closer genetically to the shoal bass native to the Chattahoochee and Flint systems. It looks like a mix between the two, with striking dark vertical bars arranged like the teeth of a zipper along its sides. And the best part about these fish from a fly fisher’s perspective is they are a hoot to catch.
   On the Broad River, the Bartram’s typically caught don’t weigh much more than a couple of pounds. However, it is said they can exceed 5 pounds, evidenced by the 5-pound, 2-ounce, world-record “redeye bass” caught in South Carolina’s Lake Jocassee. There may be a problem with that record. Redeye bass (Micropterus coosae) are found in west Georgia’s and Alabama’s Coosa River system, not in the Savannah system, which Jocassee is a part of. That record, according to Freeman, is likely a Bartram’s bass or a hybrid of a Bartram’s and another black bass species.
   Hybridization has thrown a huge wrench into Freeman’s quest to give Bartram’s bass official recognition as a separate species. When Alabama spotted bass were introduced into the Savannah system at Lakes Keowee and Russell in the 1980s, they spread quickly through the system and began spawning with the native Bartram’s. Recently, smallmouth bass, likely the result of illegal stockings, have shown up farther south on the Savannah River to further muddy the gene pool. Now Freeman’s studies have become a race to find enough pure genetic samples of Bartram’s bass before massive hybridization renders the yet-to-be-recognized species extinct. The next step would be conservation efforts aimed at protecting the species. South Carolina and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation have officially recognized the unofficial fish as a species in danger.
   It sounds grim, but there may be a lifesaver for the Bartram’s bass in South Carolina. Originally, it was thought the fish existed only in the now genetically tainted Savannah River system. However, another population of Bartram’s bass has been discovered in South Carolina’s Saluda River system. It is unknown whether the Saluda population is native or was introduced, but it could prove invaluable for conservation efforts as an unthreatened pure-strain population of Bartram’s bass.

 

The Broad River
Though hybridization has made a mess out of Freeman’s studies in the Savannah, there are still unadulterated populations in this system, which includes famous fisheries like Clarks Hill Lake and Lake Hartwell and renowned rivers like the Chattooga. But you’ll have to get off the major impoundments and main stem of the Savannah River if you want to catch a Bartram’s bass these days.
   The Chattooga River, which is well known for trout fishing and white-water rafting, is home to Bartram’s bass downstream of the point where summer temperatures make for poor trout habitat. Perhaps the best bet for catching Bartram’s is the place where they first came on the radar: Georgia’s Broad River. Freeman has genetically pure examples from the Broad, and it’s one of the best and only places in the world to catch them.
   Running southeast through the Georgia Piedmont in an extremely rural setting, the Broad flows unimpeded and largely undeveloped for most of its course. For 60 miles it runs mostly through private hunting and agricultural lands before joining the Savannah River at Clarks Hill Lake.
   I personally discovered the Broad River and these little bass while attending UGA in nearby Athens during the 1990s. There is a 6-mile stretch of river near the small town of Danielsville, Georgia, that is shoal-broken and dotted with mild Class II rapids. Because it’s fun, and because this stretch is serviced by outfitters with shuttle service and canoe and kayak rentals, it is a popular float trip for pleasure seekers.
   Initially, I was one of those pleasure seekers who enjoyed floating the river with a few beverages and a watchful eye for a good bikini hatch. But that was before I discovered the fish. One fateful trip, a buddy and I took a rod along just for kicks. After that, bikini hatches became almost an annoyance. We began planning our floats in the mornings, evenings, and on weekdays when fewer pleasure boaters would be on the water. The fishing was good enough that it actually made college guys want to avoid co-eds in bathing suits who flocked from the nearby college town.
 
   In every shoal, in every little pocket where structure created shade from the current, Bartram’s bass congregated in numbers, almost schooling like crappies, eager to cream anything crawfish colored or with a little flash. Often, if one fish took your fly, several others would follow it to the boat trying to steal the morsel from its mouth. Thirty fish in a four-hour float was a good day, and although they don’t grow very large, they fought with the ferocity that swift-water bass are known for.
   At the time, northeast Georgia was in the grip of a severe multiyear drought. The water was low and clear, which is almost unheard of for larger rivers in the Piedmont, where Georgia red clay stains water the color of a dark Cajun roux. But low water made the fishing better. We noticed over several years of fishing that high water and low clarity shuts the fish down. It was boom or bust. When it was good, the action was unbelievable. Following a heavy rain, it wasn’t even worth the trip.
   Fast-forward more than a decade, and I found myself on the Broad River for the first time in a long while. The river looked different. With an incredibly wet spring and summer, the Broad’s normal flows had become what we once considered too high to fish. I was dubious about our prospects when I met Ryan Hines at the Broad River Outpost. After all, enjoying the outdoors is nice, but I had a goal.
I wanted to catch fish.
   Hines is a river rat who has spent about 15 years working at the Broad River Outpost while also teaching white-water kayaking and studying at UGA. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in recreation and leisure studies, which sounds like a wise choice for anyone so immersed in recreational activities. Heck, when he’s not recreating for a living, Dr. Good Times spends his time fishing—fishing and searching the ground for edible mushrooms. Now that’s a hobby for the very knowledgeable or the very brave. Misidentify one small fungus in the bunch and it will leave you convulsing on
the floor.
   So, looking forward to seeing a good mushrooming spot Hines promised a few miles downriver and debating whether I would actually serve said mushrooms to my family, we began our daylong float. He paddled a canoe loaded down with two Lab-mix puppies. I paddled my trusty red sit-on-top kayak. Putting in on a stretch unfamiliar to me, we started on the Hudson River, a tributary of the Broad, and paddled upstream a short way to see and fish an old stone bridge abutment before fishing our way downstream to the Broad. It was just one of several historical sights Hines would point out over the course of the day.
   At one point, Hines pointed out a high bluff wall on the bank. The rocky escarpment formed a good shoal to fish in the river below, he said, while caves above had served as hideouts for escaped slaves making their way north along the river corridor to freedom. History runs deep on the river. During the mid- to late 1700s, both William Bartram, for whom the Bartram’s bass is named, and Meriwether Lewis, of the Lewis and Clark expedition, spent time on the Broad River. Bartram, a famous American naturalist, studied the native flora and fauna. Lewis cut his teeth as an outdoorsman and had his first encounters with Native Americans and the Cherokee tribe.
   At a centuries-old Native American fish weir, a V-shaped structure of piled stone, Hines stripped to set the hook on our first fish of the day. The old fish trap is still producing.
   Just after the take, before even seeing the fish, Hines correctly identified it as a Bartram’s bass rather than a largemouth bass, which also inhabit the river. His first clue was the rocky, swift-water run from which it took a crayfish pattern, but the spirited fight was the identifying characteristic. The fish, which weighed less than a pound, pulled enough line that Ryan had to take it on the reel, and it put on an aerial show to boot. 
   As much as the novelty of catching a new species, the gameness of Bartram’s bass is the reason to fish for them. Like other shoal-loving species of black bass, they feed aggressively and opportunistically, racing each other to pick off whatever tasty-looking morsel swims or drifts by in the current. In the past, Clousers tied with some flash, small Woolly Buggers, or a popping bug have been my go-to flies for Bartram’s bass or any river bass. But with the river high and stained, it seemed all the fish wanted was a crayfish pattern. And they didn’t want it on the bottom with a steady hand-twist retrieve or with jerky strips the way you would normally fish a crayfish. They wanted it dead-drifted with just a little weight to get it down in the water column around the edges of the current seams. Hines suggested the bass might view the drifting crayfish as helpless and just washed out from under a rock. Whatever the reason, it worked. 
   And so we had found the productive pattern for the day. Under overcast skies we fished and drifted, rounding each bend with anticipation of the next set of shoals that would give up a few more of the feisty little bass we were after. I had not noticed the time, but it was already 2 p.m. when Hines and I beached on a sandbar at about the halfway point of our 7-mile float. It’s amazing how picking apart shoals diligently can eat the clock, and there was still plenty of good water to fish before we reached the takeout. 
   But this was the spot where Hines wanted to show me some mushrooms. He was eager to find a variety he had previously found here, the black velvet bolete. He found some and broke one open to show me the characteristic color change of pale to black of the wounded flesh. However, the caps of the mushrooms, instead of having the black velvet color and texture they should have, had a hoary look Hines called a fungus on our fungus. We erred on the side of caution and left them where we found them. We also found some cinnabar chanterelles, which are bright orange. This is a color I typically identify with danger in the wild. Thankfully, Hines did not test my bravery. He gave me the escape I was looking for when he said they weren’t as tasty as golden chanterelles anyway. So we got back on the river empty-handed from our mushroom hunt. It was a fun diversion from what turned into a long float.
   Fishing hard, we took a full eight hours to complete the section of river we had bitten off. It was mostly flat water broken by occasional shoals and sprinkled with large boulders, which made for good Bartram’s bass water. Hines chose this stretch instead of the 6-mile section downstream of the Broad River Outpost, which is typically covered with college kids on summer weekends. Those lower 6 miles, however, actually have some of the best shoal habitat on the whole river. They contain some Class II and III white water, which can be either fun or a quick way to lose a lot of expensive gear, depending on your paddling skills and luck. I have witnessed and been a part of several boats swamping or capsizing in this stretch. In high water, these rapids should be avoided by all but expert paddlers. The fish don’t cooperate when flows are dangerously high, anyway.
   Those two sections make up only about 13 miles of a 60-mile river. However, public access is very limited due to the rural landscape, which is mostly privately owned. The shoals that make for good Bartram’s habitat also peter out downstream, although the mostly undeveloped landscape remains.
   With so little development between occasional road crossings, the Broad River is a snapshot of what all rivers of the Georgia Piedmont must have looked like when Native Americans were the only ones settled near its banks. In such scenery, it’s easy to get lost in time, listen to the sound of turtles plopping in the water as you pass, and enjoy the simple beauty of an unspoiled . . .
   Bah! Who am I kidding? Good scenery is just a bonus when you’re there for the fishing. And we achieved our goal. We caught the fish that doesn’t officially exist.

 

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