Most anglers in Georgia immediately think of trout when the subject of fishing in the Cohutta WMA and Wilderness Area comes up.
However, it’s time to think again, because Lake Conasauga has consistently produced some good numbers and sizes of largemouth bass over the last few years.
The 19-acre lake also has another claim to fame. Its elevation of approximately 3,150 feet above sea level makes it the highest public lake in Georgia.
“It’s sort of like an alpine lake right here in Georgia,” said angler Steve Hightower, of Marietta. “It’s just gorgeous. Not to mention the fishing is great.”
The fishing hasn’t always been good in Lake Conasauga, though, according to Mitch Braswell, of Decatur.
When Mitch first visited the lake almost 20 years ago in 1994, he found a much different fishery than what exists today.
“When I first started fishing it, the fishing was dismally slow, and I was convinced that there were very few bass in it,” Mitch said.
In 2003, the U.S. Forest Service began work on the lake’s earthen dam to invert the water flow into Mill Creek, which the lake feeds.
The project included completely draining the lake, followed by a total restocking of bass and bream.
As a result, from 2003 through 2006, all fishing was closed on the lake.
The new design of the dam altered where the water feeding Mill Creek was being drawn from inside the lake.
This change meant that warm surface water, which the bass needed, was no longer flowing over a spillway into the creek.
Today water to feed the creek is drawn from the cooler depths of the little lake.
The intended result has been warmer average water temperatures in the lake, which is good for bass, and cooler water flowing into Mill Creek, which is good for the trout in it.
Since the lake was opened up to fishing in 2006, the newly stocked population of bass has really taken off.
“We always catch bass there,” said Steve. “On almost every trip now, I can tell the bass are getting pretty beefy, especially for them being in such a small mountain lake.”
Steve and Mitch met each other while both were camping and fishing at the lake about five years ago.
Since then, they’ve grown into good camping and fishing buddies, and they fish the lake together as often as they can.
For Mitch, a retired Marine, that means at least a few days per month. Steve is able to make three or four trips per year.
Just after the lake was opened up again to fishing, most of the bass he caught weighed between 1 and 2 pounds, Mitch said.
While that size range is still likely to be the case for the average bass, the lake has proven itself capable of producing some true trophies, as far mountain lakes are concerned.
“Last year, Steve and I were there just before the forest service closed the gate on the road to the lake for the winter,” Mitch said. “I caught a great fish on my first cast that had to have been over 8 pounds. There are some really good fish in the lake today.”
Mitch’s bruiser largemouth was caught using his favorite tactic, slowly working soft plastics from shore.
“There’s a well-maintained trail the whole way around the lake that gives good access to fish just about any part of it,” Mitch said.
The big fish took a 6-inch chartreuse Zoom lizard.
Fishing soft plastics is a great early spring tactic for bass.
“In the early springtime, the water is usually very clear, and I use plastic worms with a very slow presentation,” Mitch said. “I’ll use either a Carolina or Texas rig, or just the worm hook without a weight at all. Which rig I choose depends on the cover I am fishing. Sometimes, if the weight is allowed to move around too much, they’ll get you hung up in heavy cover.”
A lizard or curly tail worm between 6 and 8 inches is tough to beat when crawled on the bottom.
“If I could only pick one color of plastic to fish that lake with, it’d be a chartreuse curly tail worm,” Mitch said.
Steve also likes to use soft plastics, but his approach is slightly different.
“I like to use a green lizard on a 1/4- or 3/8-oz. jig head,” Steve said. “
While Mitch fishes from shore usually, Steve prefers to fish out of a rubber raft, or dinghy, that has a transom and a trolling motor.
“Mitch has the patience it takes, and I don’t always have that,” Steve said. “He’ll sit on a spot and just work it all day long. I’m pretty much in my boat running up and down the lake with the trolling motor hitting every blowdown and point.”
The lake is perfect for jonboats, canoes, kayaks and other small craft. Boats are restricted to electric motors only, and there is a gravel boat ramp for loading small boats on trailers.
“There’s some big trees that got blown down last year, and they’re full of branches,” Mitch said. “When I’ve helped (fisheries biologists) perform shocking samples of fish, the big bass are always by the trees.”
Some man-made structures have been added to the lake’s upper end, too.
“A handful of fish attractors have been sunk in the upper end of lake,” Steve said. “You can see them during periods of very clear water if you’re in a boat.”
The average depth of the main creek channel running through the center of lake is about 18 feet.
“Three small creeks converge in the center of the lake, and the channel runs straight down to the dam,” Mitch said.
Roughly 40 feet upstream of the dam in the middle it’s about 18 feet deep.
“The coves and pockets in the southern corners of the lake are going to be the most shallow portions of it, and they will also have most of the stumps in them,” Mitch said.
Try starting the day out early in shallow coves, and move into the 8- to 10-foot range by midday.
“All of the coves are shallow, and if you go 10 to 20 feet out from the bank, you’re talking about 8 to 10 feet of water,” Mitch said. “Then there’s a pretty sharp drop off to about 18 feet deep.”
The bass should start looking up for a meal off the surface a bit more during this time of year.
Hula Poppers and buzzbaits are two of Mitch’s favorite lures for topwater fishing.
“I’d try topwater early in the morning and just before dark,” Mitch said.
If you’re fishing a calm and overcast day, the topwater bite is liable to last a little longer than on a bright, sunny day.
“I’d rather catch one on the top than 10 on the bottom,” Mitch said.
Shallow-running plugs like floating Rapalas and the Rapala Jointed Minnow also work well early and late in the day.
Be sure to try the Rapala plugs if you see “bass chasing baitfish from the deeper water up onto shore,” Mitch said. “They look like a nuclear submarine coming through the water.”
Steve prefers to toss a 1/4-oz. Panther Martin in-line spinnerbait when fishing bass in the upper end of the water column.
Good baits when the bass are out in 8 to 10 feet of water include small Rat-L-Traps and Rapala Shad Raps.
“I like to use the shad-pattern crankbaits,” Steve said. “I try to use the smaller crankbaits over bigger because I fish with light gear most of the time.”
Steve generally fishes with a 6-foot light spinning rod and matching reel spooled with 8-lb. fluorocarbon line.
Mitch goes a little heavier on his terminal tackle, using a 6 1/2-foot medium action spinning rod and reel, spooled with 8-lb. monofilament.
“I did use 4- and 6-lb.-test, but now that some of the fish are getting bigger and some of the heavy cover I am fishing around, I really think I need 8-lb.-test,” Mitch said.
Whatever type of lure you decide to try to throw, keep in mind that the bass’ main source of forage in Lake Conasauga includes bream, minnows, salamanders and crayfish, when selecting patterns and colors.
“I’ll try every color until I find one that works,” Mitch said.
Later in spring and on through the summer, the forest service fertilizes the lake, which makes the water much less clear.
When the water is not clear, Mitch likes to switch his color selection of lures from the general light array of colors he prefers in clear water to something darker.
“When the water is stained, I’ll use a darker-colored bait so it stands out more to the fish,” Mitch said. “I’ll also try a double-bladed spinnerbait or a Rat-L-Trap. You want something that will make a little noise and agitate the fish a little bit and make them bite.”
With bass heavier than 8 pounds swimming in Lake Conasauga, Mitch and Steve are hopeful for a bit more growth out of the oldest fish before they start to die and make way for the next generation of Lake Conasauga hawgs.
“There are some really nice fish in the lake now, but I can’t see any bass being over 10 pounds yet, based on the average growth rate for bass,” Mitch said.
When fishing in Lake Conasauga, no live baitfish may be used. All bass caught between 12 and 16 inches must be immediately released unharmed.
There’s also a great population of bream in Lake Conasauga, both bluegill and shellcrackers.
Mitch said bream are the thing to turn to on the lake whenever you’re fishing with kids.
In general, look for the bigger bream to be about 8 to 10 feet of water this month.
“I’ve seen some nice bream come out of there, but they’re usually deeper,” Mitch said. “Everything you catch near the bank is typically pretty small.”
Try fishing live crickets or red wigglers for bream. Use size 6 or 8 hooks and a BB split-shot above the hook about a foot.
Depending on water depth, fish this rig either with or without a bobber.
“When I’ve got any kids around me, I’ll rig them up and let them have a little fun catching bream,” Mitch said.
The amenities at Lake Conasauga are second to none. The campground located around the lake is among the best public-land camping in Georgia, and spaces tend to stay full, especially on weekends.
The area also has picnic pavilions, a swimming area and floating dock, flush toilets and potable water for campers.
“I’ve camped at a bunch of places, and it is by far my favorite place to camp in Georgia,” Steve said. “The scenery and the seclusion is great. You’re also up at a pretty good elevation, so even in the dead of summer there’s no humidity. So even when it’s so hot in Atlanta that it’ll choke you, it’s still plenty cool up there.”
Great fishing, gorgeous surroundings and good facilities make Lake Conasauga a great destination for a family camping or day trip.
“It’s a totally family friendly kind of place,” Steve said. “In the summertime, there’s always a lot of kids running around.”
Whether you plan to go to fish for the day or to camp for a week, be sure to understand what you need in order to be prepared.
Getting to Lake Conasauga requires at least a 14-mile ride on single lane gravel roads, that are filled with switchbacks and blind curves. Driven at a safe conservative speed and with proper caution equals a 45-minute ride once your tires leave pavement.
Even a flat tire in the Cohutta can spell big trouble if you’re left with no way to fix it on your own.
“Common sense is really the best rule of thumb,” Mitch said.
For more information on Lake Conasauga, call the U.S. Forest Service Conasauga Ranger District at (706) 695-6736.