Eastern Fly Fishing

Hiding Happily in the Shadows
By Nick Carter

No matter what region of the country you travel to to fish, there are marquee waters that draw crowds by virtue of reputation. Generally that reputation is warranted. These are the destination fisheries. They are also the places locals would prefer you to fish. The hype surrounding these big-name fisheries alleviates pressure on the places local anglers hold a little closer to their chests during conversations at the local fly shop.
   Perhaps that’s why there’s so little press on Georgia’s Etowah River.
   Truthfully, it has taken years to find a knowledgeable local fisherman willing to spill the beans for a story about the Etowah and its striped bass run. With a regional spotlight shining on the trout fishing and striper runs in the Chattahoochee River in and around Atlanta, anglers in nearby Cartersville, Georgia, have been content to remain in the shadows, catching some impressive fish and keeping a top-notch fishery mostly to themselves. It’s not that you don’t hear about good fishing on the Etowah; it’s just that local anglers are smart enough not to plaster photos all over the Internet or invite outdoors writers to come fishing.
   This was the conundrum faced by Andy Bowen, owner of Cohutta Fishing Company, a local fly shop. For more than 15 years he’s been quietly fishing the Etowah, building a thriving fly-fishing business in a town miles away from any decent trout water. But Bowen sees change on the horizon. With a new full-size boat ramp open on the Etowah, he hopes a little publicity in front of the right audience will help bring protections for the river he loves. Even though he’s a jet-boat owner, he is frightened of the day when big jets roaring up and down the river will diminish the value of the Etowah as a fishery.
   “Instead of trying to keep it close to our chests, maybe it’s time for us to get the word out a little,” he says. “Maybe we can protect it. Maybe some good things will happen. We’re working with different entities looking for a horsepower limit. We need more regulations.”
   And so it was that Bowen and his head guide, Garner Reid, decided it was time to let the cat out of the bag. You might have read about Reid in the March/April 2014 “Innovative Fly Tier” column in Eastern Fly Fishing. He and the guys at Cohutta are among the handful of Southern anglers adapting and developing flies and techniques to better target large warm-water game fish like black bass and striped bass. The Etowah River is an ideal testing ground.

 

Seein’ Stripes
The Etowah rises in the north Georgia mountains as a hatchery-supported trout stream and flows southwest into Allatoona Lake. Below Allatoona Lake Dam, the Etowah is larger and colder, but water quality and temperature are not consistent enough to support a tailwater trout fishery like those found below some other Southern impoundments. Conditions are suitable, however, to draw striped bass upriver all the way from Alabama.
   Although some stripers are year-round river dwellers, many of the fish in the Etowah outside Cartersville were stocked at Alabama’s Weiss Lake and have traveled about 75 miles upstream. They begin the move on a spring spawning run. The exodus continues through the heat of the summer, when stripers run up the rivers seeking cooler water and oxygen.
   Moving upstream from Weiss Lake, stripers—and white bass and white bass–striped bass hybrids—enter the Coosa River and migrate about 30 miles upstream to downtown Rome, Georgia, to the confluence of the Oostanaula and Etowah Rivers. Some fish run up the Oostanaula. Others choose the Etowah, where they are free to roam for 45 miles, up to a small low-head dam below Allatoona Lake. The guys at the Cohutta Fishing Company fish every inch of it, using a variety of launch and take-out sites.

 

Adapting to the River
After ferrying a shuttle vehicle downstream, Reid, Cohutta guide Conner Jones, and I pushed off the bank in a drift boat with a small kicker outboard mounted on the back. The river had a light-brown stain (originating from seasonal fluctuations in water quality at Allatoona Lake). Conditions were not the ideal clear-green low water that makes Reid giddy, but they weren’t too bad. 
   The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls the flows from Allatoona Lake Dam, and recreation takes a backseat to generating electricity. Flows can vary widely, from about 500 cubic feet per second to 6,400 cubic feet per second—a 10-foot variance in river height. This makes selecting the right day to fish an all-important crapshoot, but it has the unintended benefit of providing lots of fishy cover from blown-down trees and logjams.
   Other striper-holding features in the river are deep holes, feeder creeks, and highly oxygenated water below rocky shoals and a series of Native American fish weirs erected by people of the South Appalachian Mississippian culture. These V-shaped stone fish traps span the river in dozens of locations along its course and were used by the same people who constructed and inhabited the riverside Etowah Indian Mounds between AD 1000 and 1550. Check out the Etowah Indian Mounds Historic Site on the north bank of the river outside Cartersville.
   But picking apart shallow riffles around ancient fish weirs with baitfish imitations was about as close as we got to archaeology on our trip, unless you count dredging out deep holes with heavily weighted crayfish patterns. During the season, from about mid-April through early September, stripers are constantly on the move, seeking better water quality and more forage. For this reason, you can never be over-prepared for conditions the fish and the river will throw at you.
   “My suggestion is to take a number of rods,” Reid explained to me. “You want an assortment of lines to complement different conditions on the water. We’ll have 7- to 10-weight rods with everything from floating lines to 300-grain
sinking lines.”
   In shallow riffles, a floating line allows for quick presentation of large, lightweight streamers. Intermediate lines set up well for swift runs, where it’s necessary to get the fly down quickly. And the fast-sinking 300-grain lines are well suited for dredging out the deep holes when stripers are hugging the bottom. “You’ll know it’s us when you see two guys floating down the river in a drift boat wearing football helmets,” Jones joked, after launching a pattern heavy enough to put a hole in the back of your skull.
   Adaptation and variations on existing fly patterns to suit conditions on the Etowah are another key to success for fly anglers seeking to tie into a fish most locals are happy to fool with live bait. River-running striped bass feed on a variety of forage. In the Etowah, their forage consists of gizzard shad, threadfin shad, various sunfish species, drum, crustaceans, and pretty much anything else living or dead a striper can fit in its mouth.
   This is why Jones and Reid carry boxes full of baitfish-style flies in various weights and colors. They tie with an experimental eye, tweaking existing patterns to find what works best on their home water. Typically, they stick with natural-looking shad patterns and colors, but they definitely don’t shy away from throwing some flash, some noise, or something with a little added wiggle, like the articulated flies so popular for big trout and muskies these days.
   Starting with sharp, strong hooks is critical to landing these fish. As with muskie fishing, you do a lot of casting and cover a lot of water to get a bite from one of these stripers. When it happens, you want to give yourself the best chance at bringing one to the net.
   Through slightly stained water, the undulations of white fibers were clearly visible just a few feet under the surface. “It just looks too good,” I thought aloud. “Come on, fishy. Eat it. Please—just once, eat it.”
   I had not seen a fish. Other than a good cast behind a likely-looking submerged logjam, there was no reason to believe this retrieve would be any more successful than the dozens before it.
   Then it happened. There was no inspection of the bait, no warning. The flash of a wide silver side was followed by a jarring thud. An instant later, line was screaming off the reel. I was fishing a straight 20-pound leader, and the thought of palming the reel to slow the run crossed my mind. But with the handle spinning into a blur, fear for my fingers urged caution. The fish made three strong runs. The first time it became visible during the fight, it had several other stripers in tow. An accurate count was impossible. They darted in and out of sight in a frenzy around the larger hooked and panicking fish. The whole experience was exhilarating, and this was just a 6- or 7-pounder.
   Reid said this size striper is on the upper end of the typical range for Etowah River striped bass caught on flies. On a good day, fly anglers can expect to catch a handful of fish in the 4- to 10-pound range, with quality fish weighing in at 12 to 15 pounds. These bigger fish will put your fish-fighting skills to the test. With the true trophies, the 20-pound-plus fish, it takes luck to hook one and a little more luck to bring it to the net. If a 20-pounder decides it wants to wrap your line around a snag, there’s no way you’re going to stop it.
   Reid says he either swings for the fence by fishing big 5- or 6-inch flies for one good bite or he’ll try to match the predominant shad forage with smaller patterns in the 2- to 3-inch range. Better numbers are what you can expect when sizing down a little, and often a big spotted bass will take a striper fly.

 

Fishing for a Bonus
Whether it’s an incidental catch or the target species, spotted bass are a hoot. Unlike most of the striped bass, they inhabit the Etowah River year-round. Reid often targets them during the off-season or when the notoriously fickle stripers just won’t cooperate. Spot fishing on the Etowah is best from April through October, which tacks about a month of good fishing onto either end of the striper season. 
   These fish reach about 6 pounds in the Etowah, although 2- and 3-pound fish are more common. Poppers and other top-water offerings provide exciting action when the fish are willing, and they frequently are. But when they won’t take something on top, a crayfish pattern on sinking line or a spinner-equipped fly like a Cowen’s Coyote or a Schmidterbait will do the trick.
   Shoals of medium depth, deep-water banks with submerged timber, drop-offs, and any type of current break will hold spotted bass. When the striped bass start showing up in numbers, they often push the spots up into the skinny water, which can make for outstanding surface action.
   White bass and hybrids are two more bonus fish that will readily take a fly on the Etowah. Some years are better than others for white bass, and it can be hit or miss, but when it’s on it can be very good. These smaller cousins of the striped bass make spring spawning runs around April or May. When they’re up the river, they hang at creek mouths or around woody structure and school tightly. If you catch one, it’s likely you’ll catch 10 more in the same spot. Hybrids—so-called “wipers”—are also hit or miss. They also make runs up the river and show up usually about the same time as the white bass.
   “You never know what you’re going to catch in the early season,” says Jones. “You might catch a striper. You might hook into a hybrid. Or you might pick up five white bass. They are targets of opportunity, fun extra fish to catch.”
   On the Etowah, through the seasons, it’s all fun and games until the stripers show up each year. Then it’s time to get down to business. You may have to search a little harder and paddle a little farther to find gems like this that fly slightly below the radar. If you’re not willing to put in the extra effort, the locals don’t mind at all. If you are, they just ask that you respect the river, the fish in it, and the property around it. A few yahoos are sometimes all it takes to mess up a good thing.

 

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