Written by: Jacob Milholland, Cohutta Fishing Company
While our area of northern Georgia is known as the trout capital of the state, the most anticipated part of the early season for many of our guides and staff at Cohutta Fishing Company is actually the striped-bass run. These landlocked fish thrive in our local reservoirs, making annual journeys upriver to spawn during spring. We usually fish for them on the Etowah River tailwater from Allatoona dam down to Rome.
While the exact timing of the striper run varies by watershed, the Etowah system is fairly consistent: we see the initial push of migratory fish sometime in May. The first fish to arrive are usually the largest, sometimes over 20 pounds. A second wave of striped bass, usually “schoolies” ranging from three to eight pounds, will move into the river by June. Most of these fish will remain in the river until late July to early August, when higher water temperatures will push them back downstream into the cool depths of the reservoir.
These are strong, aggressive fish that can easily over-power typical trout gear, so an 8- to 10-weight fly rod with a matched reel is best. We suggest purchasing “crossover” equipment in these heavier sizes, meaning gear that is also saltwater-tolerant, so that it can be used in a wider range of environments. We love the Hydros series reels for this purpose.
The best all-around fly line for wading is a tropical saltwater line with an intermediate sinking tip. Attempting to make a long cast with a full-sinking fly line can be difficult, as the slack line sinks and tangles at your feet during the retrieve. We sometimes throw full-sinking lines from the boat–where they are easier to manage–in order to get our flies down into deeper strike zones. Either way, use a minimum 20-pound leader for these notoriously hard-fighting fish. Anything lighter is risking disappointment.
Shad or herring are the main forage fish here, so use baitfish patterns ranging from three to five inches long. Flies that ride hook point-up, such as Clouser Minnows (especially the classic chartreuse-and-white combo in size 1/0) can help navigate snaggy cover and won’t hang up as easily when you’re dredging deep runs. Lighter flies like Chocklett’s Finesse Game Changer and Lefty’s Deceiver (white or tan and sized up to 3/0) that ride higher in the water column can be good when the fish are feeding aggressively and are more willing to move.
For a wading angler, persistence is crucial. These are migratory fish, so much of your success will come down to simply being in the right place at the right time. Making the same cast in the same place might have very different results depending on the day or even the hour. Focus on good holding water that also provides ambush opportunities, such as weirs, eddies, shoals, drop-offs, or structure in the form of boulders or submerged logs.
When fishing on foot, cast upstream and allow your fly to sink before you begin retrieving. As the fly drifts downstream, start with 6- to 12-inch strips and then vary the cadence based on the reaction of the fish. Sometimes the best retrieve is not a retrieve at all, but a swing like you might make at the end of a drift for trout. Vary your technique until you find what’s working.
Fishing from a boat mostly involves blind-casting and covering water, so it’s vital that you keep your head in the game through slow periods. Try picking out specific targets along the river for your casts in order to stay sharp. Your ideal cast is a 30- to 40-foot shot angled about 30 degrees downstream and toward the bank, or into the deepest part of cover. Try increasing the speed of your retrieve by allowing the fly to swing more in the current, particularly if you see fish following. And always retrieve your casts all the way to the boat–until you can see your fly–before recasting, since you never know when a fish might be following just out of sight.
Jacob Milholland is store manager of Cohutta Fishing Company in Blue Ridge, Georgia.