Fishing on Georgia State Parks

Dozens of lakes... a handful of hotspots, a handful of duds, and lots of mediocrity.

How important is fishing on small lakes in this state? Well, to make a 100-acre fishing hole, Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is willing to spend a couple of million dollars.

After construction costs, engineering fees, wetland-mitigation and land-acquisition costs, the state’s bill totaled more than $3.6 million to build a 109-acre Public Fishing Area (PFA) in Laurens County that will open in September.

It is obvious that DNR places great value in providing fishing opportunity on small lakes. And fishermen certainly place great value in the quality of fishing provided at PFAs — Marben Farm, Dodge County, Paradise and Big Lazer are among nine PFAs that provide excellent small-lake fishing opportunities. There are plans to build several more PFAs, and costs can be expected to be similar to the Laurens County project.

There is an economic return from providing good fishing. A DNR fact sheet on the proposed Ocmulgee PFA slated for Bleckley County states: “Based on 12,000 annual fishing trips expected at Ocmulgee PFA, the lake will generate about $430,000 annually in fishing-related expenditures, resulting in $862,100 in economic activity each year.”

With such value placed on small-lake fishing opportunity, the question arose: Why don’t more of our existing state-owned lakes — specifically those on state parks — have anglers salivating about wetting a hook there?

State parks are under the DNR umbrella, just like the Fisheries Section that creates the excellent fishing on PFAs. There are 28 small lakes spread across the state on 21 different state parks. This doesn’t include the parks that are located on major reservoirs, which provide access and facilities to those big lakes, nor does it include the parks that provide stream and river fishing opportunities. But just looking at the small lakes on State Parks, there are more than 3,300 acres of small-lake water. Only a handful of these lakes, however, attract fishermen like the average PFA.
So why not take a couple of million dollars and spread it around the existing Parks lakes — buy fertilizer, build fishing piers, put in boat ramps — to make them better for fishing? The answer is not as simple nor clearcut as some anglers might expect.

One aspect of improving a lake for fishermen is actual management of the lake and fishery, something that a Fisheries biologist can assist with.

“What you run into with the Parks lakes is that most of them, almost all, were not designed to be fishing lakes,” said Michael Spencer, assistant chief of the Fisheries Section. “When that land was bought for a State Park, it wasn’t bought because it had a lake that would be good for fishing — there just happened to be lake there.”

According to numerous Fisheries biologists in various regions of the state, the Parks lakes that aren’t intensively managed for better fishing are quite simply unmanageable.

The two most-common deterrents to management have to do the size of the watershed (the number of acres of land that run-off into a lake), and the flow-through rate (how quickly water that enters a lake goes through the spillway).

For example, take Lake Rutledge, a 275-acre lake at Hard Labor Creek State Park in Morgan County.

“Lake Rutledge doesn’t lend itself to intensive management. It’s basically a wide place in the creek,” said Bubba Mauldin, a Fisheries region supervisor.

“It was built in the 20s and done with mules and drag pans. It has a low dam and never was very deep. Silt run-off from the cotton years made most of it, I’d say more than half, less than three feet deep.

“There are some things that could be done [to improve the fishing]. The biggest need deals with the amount of silt that is there. Until the last decade, there was just a tremendous silt load in Hard Labor Creek. But land use has changed. It’s gone from cotton and soybeans to pasture and pine plantations. So that watershed at this point in time is more stable. If you had 19 state budget deficits, you could get in there and excavate the lake,” he said with a chuckle. “That’s not a cheap thing to do.

“If I remember correctly there’s about 25,000 acres of watershed. That’s a tremendous amount of water and flow through. Anything you put in the lake won’t stay there long,” he said.

According to the DNR booklet Management of Georgia Fish Ponds, “Excessive flow through a pond flushes out nutrients and prevents the effective use of a fertilization program.” The booklet recommends a watershed-to-pond ratio of 10 acres of pasture per acre of pond, or 25 acres of forest per acre of water. The ratio at Lake Rutledge is closer to 100 to 1 than the recommended 10 to 1 or 25 to 1.

Because of the huge watershed and flow-through at Lake Rutledge, money spent to lime and fertilize the lake might as well be dumped downstream in the creek, because that’s where most of the nutrients would end up.

A PFA, Bubba pointed out, is designed with management in mind.
“The Laurens County PFA, that site was picked because we could build a 100-acre lake there that could be manageable from a classical fisheries-management standpoint. We’re not dealing with excessive flows, we’ve got enough water. We can have a lot of control over the species that are there, which goes a long way toward manipulating the fish population to have good fishing.”

The natural limitations of Lake Rutledge doesn’t mean it has been ignored by state Fisheries biologists.

“Over the years we’ve put out fish attractors. One of the biggest things we did was in the late 1970s. We had a tremendous gizzard shad population that was really screwing up the dynamics. We were able to eliminate the gizzard shad. There was some renovations work in late 80s and early 90s. We drained the lake, then tried to time the draining and re-filling with the spawn of predators before the prey. Overall, there’s not a lot of intense management. We have to just take what nature gives us.”

One aspect of management that does occur on many State Park lakes is a sampling of the fish populations by Fisheries Section biologists, but even that depends a lot on how interested the individual park manager is in fishing.

In northwest Georgia, senior Fisheries biologist Kevin Dallmier talked about his region’s Small Impoundment Program. Kevin and other biologists solicit cooperation from public-lake owners, including State Parks in their region, to let Fisheries biologists sample the fish populations and make recommendations for management improvements.

“We try to sample every lake on a three-year rotation,” Kevin said. “That doesn’t always happen, but we try. Then we give a management plan. We do that for all of the State Parks in our region that have lakes. But the level of what we end up doing depends on the park manager.

“We used to go to Fort Mountain [which has a 17-acre lake but no boat ramp]and sample every year with a seine. But fishing is not their draw. They are not interested in spending their limited money on that. Fishing is not a big draw, and there’s not a lot we could do anyway. Over the years, there’s a problem even getting a bream spawn. It’s one of those in-between lakes, not good for cold-water or warm-water species.
In contrast, another Park in their region is James H. “Sloppy” Floyd, where fishing is the big draw. “They have us fertilize and intensively manage for good fishing,” Kevin said. “Fishing is a big reason why people go to that Park.”

The lakes at Sloppy Floyd are examples of well-designed lakes that are more-easily managed, according to Mike Spencer. “It was actually built by the Fisheries Section years and years ago before Parks took it over. It was designed with fishing in mind. We work very closely with them on weed control, fertilization, stocking. Where we can manage, we do.”
But there are cases where improvements could be made, either in the quality of the fishing or in the quality of the facilities. On those parks, it is a lack of funding that holds them back.

“In general, the funding for anything a Park does is up to them,” Kevin said. “A good example is Sweetwater Creek. The park manager is limited by money. We have done a management plan that recommends a fertilization program. He wants to do things, but good fishing isn’t free in terms of money and manpower.”

Kevin outlined the management plan they recommended for Sweetwater Creek State Park’s 215-acre lake, which is located in Douglas County in the Atlanta metro area and receives heavy fishing pressure.

A fertilization program would cost about $3,700 for a year, requiring one-gallon of fertilizer an acre for 10 applications a year. Kevin said liming would help on that particular lake, with one application costing about $8,500 that would last for 10 years.

“Lime makes the nutrients better able to be taken up by the food chain. You can get by with less fertilizer over a period of 10 years,” Kevin said.
Also needed would be storage tanks to keep the supplies, and that would cost another $1,500 or so. Over 10 years, the cost for improving the quality of fishing at Sweetwater Creek State Park would be about $47,000, or an average of $4,700 a year.

“You can double the carrying capacity. Double the number of fish out there,” Kevin said. “I’d call it overall a B- to B+ fishing lake. And it gets hammered. There’s a lot of people fishing down there. It’s providing a lot of fishing opportunity.”

There is no department-wide mandate or structure for State Parks to improve the fishing or facilities used by anglers. Like every state department, the Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites Division has been getting hammered by legislative budget cuts. Despite the obstacles, a park manager who has made some fishing-related improvements on his area is Joe Bradford at Hamburg State Park.

“A park receives about 17 percent of their park-pass fees back every year for projects, and we spend them on things that improve our facilities for guests,” Joe said. “So we used that money and put in a boat ramp this year. We had an old beat up boat ramp made out of logs, and people got stuck a lot trying to put a boat in. We tore that out and poured a new slab. Those are the kinds of things we target because we know that one of the park’s biggest draws is the lake. Any project that you request has to be approved all the way up to our general maintenance level, but it’s initiated at the site level.”

The ramp at Hamburg was more the result of the park personnel’s hard work than money being available.

“It cost us roughly $900. It’s about 12×30, and our cost was just for the concrete and framing material. We did all the site preparation ourselves, so there was no cost for that or for labor.”

Joe said while there’s no mandate to put emphasis on a State Park lake or the fishing, “smart site managers are going to take care of what keeps their folks coming. If you work with your district [Fisheries] biologist you can get a lot done on your lake. Since I’ve been here I’ve been putting out fish attractors — Christmas trees, brushpiles. Just trying to improve it for shoreline fishermen.”

The new ramp at Hamburg State Park was completed in October. “A lot of people are giving good comments,” Joe said. The ramp could pay for itself by attracting more anglers to the lake. Each vehicle will pay the $2 Park Pass Fee, a small portion of which will go back to Hamburg for more improvements.

Improvements to facilities, like building ramp, should be a function of the Parks Division and the park manager. As far as managing for better fishing, Mike Spencer said, “There’s always room for improvement. But it’s not always easy considering the lakes themselves. Sometimes it just doesn’t work.”


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