Hundreds of miles from the nearest rapid waters of north Georgia lies a stretch of the Flint River reminiscent of anything but south Georgia. Tall river banks and steep clay and rock walls tower high above some of the fastest-moving water south of the gnat line.
When one thinks of south Georgia fishing, what normally comes to mind is fat, farm-pond largemouths and bream so big it takes two hands to hold them. And though these fish deserve their fame and familiarity, there is an often overlooked game fish that inhabits the almost unnatural, shoal-broken waters of the lower Flint River in northern Decatur County and Mitchell and Baker counties. The shoal bass is the fish, and though its reputation and size aren’t as big as the largemouth, you better not tell that to the shoal bass.
Hooking into a 1-lb. shoal bass for the first time on my trip with Matt Baty, of Bainbridge, I felt like I had just hooked into a tournament-winning largemouth. My excitement was short lived, however, when I finally saw the size of what had just attacked my jerkbait. Its ferocity had me wondering what a 3- or 4-pounder could do if this little guy put up such a fight. That fight is just what leads a tournament bass angler like Matt some 50 miles upstream of Seminole in search of these bronze beasts — the shoal bass.
We launched the boat at Norman’s Ferry Landing in Baker County, just north of the Decatur-Baker line. As we started upstream around the first turn, I was already excited about a chance at one of the Peach State’s best shoal-bass populations.
DNR Fisheries Biologist Travis Ingram said the typical length of shoal bass in the lower Flint is about 12 to 14 inches, which would put the typical weight at about 1 to 2 pounds. But, he also said there are strong year classes of older fish and plenty of 3- and 4-lb. fish in the river right now.
“Georgia DNR offers citation awards for any shoal bass over 4 pounds. But for the angler who has never caught one, any shoalie can be a trophy,” said Travis. “In the lower Flint, I think most people, self included, would agree that any shoal bass over 5 pounds is a true trophy. In other river systems, a trophy shoal bass may be 2 or 3 pounds.”
Matt and I traveled a short mile or so upstream to the mouth of Itchaway Notchaway Creek the day of our trip. A strong mud line was present running from the mouth of the creek into the Flint. Since the creek is private property and off limits, visibly marked with no trespassing signs on either side of the mouth, we fished the mud line in hopes of a good one on our first few casts.
“Mud lines are excellent places to fish,” Matt said. “The baitfish will get just inside the mud line for cover, and the bigger fish will wait on the outside for the ones that venture out.
“I wasn’t going to stop here, but this mud line is too tempting to pass up.”
Because of the stain in the water, we started out with Spro Little John crankbaits in a chartreuse-and-black color. Matt said if there isn’t any color to the water he normally fishes a PB&J color Little John for shoal bass.
The mud came out of the mouth of the creek down the west bank of the Flint and gave us a good 15 feet or so between the end of the mud line and the bank. We casted to the bank and worked our baits through the stained water into the clear water toward the boat. Only a few casts into the day I hooked up on a small striped bass. The mud line wasn’t very productive after that, so we made a few more casts and packed things up to continue upstream about 7 miles from the landing.
We started upstream because it’s easier to fish with the current than against it, and with so many submerged rocks that could easily take the foot off an outboard, it’s better to be upstream so you can still drift back to the landing in case of an accident. When we finally reached our destination, we cut the motor and started our controlled drift downstream.
Matt began his explanation of tried-and-true, shoal-bass tactics.
Anglers who like to sleep in will surely be fans of shoal-bass fishing. Matt says when he targets shoal bass, he usually waits until the sun has started to warm the rocks before he even starts fishing. Between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. is usually the best time.
“The best possible scenario for big shoal bass will be long straight-aways where there are shoals in the middle of the river that are no more than 6 or 8 feet deep,” said Matt. “The big shoal bass really like the middle of the river. They don’t like a whole lot of current, but they also don’t like for it to be still. Though I’ve gotten a few good ones off the rocks on the side, most of the really good ones are going to be right in the middle of the river waiting on a minnow. A lot of folks think big shoal bass eat more crawfish than minnows, but I’ve found that their main diet is minnows. I’ve tried a lot of crawfish colors and never had much luck.”
Travis gave a biologist’s confirmation of Matt’s suggestion on the shoal bass’ diet.
“The shoal bass is an opportunistic feeder. It will eat basically anything it can fit in its mouth — much the same as a largemouth. Juvenile shoal bass feed heavily on insects, both aquatic and terrestrial, and as these fish grow, their diet shifts to crayfish and smaller fish. In our sampling efforts we often see crayfish in the stomachs of these fish, but we also see fish species such as shad and suckers. In my opinion, the larger these fish get the more piscivorous (fish-eating) they become,” said Travis.
For that reason Matt likes to cast a Spro McStick jerkbait. He likes to fish a chrome-shad color on sunny days because the shiny finish really gets their attention. For cloudy days he will throw a clear-and-chartreuse McStick.
“I like this bait because it has a really good action over other jerkbaits on the market,” he said. “It is a floating bait that is really good for summertime fishing. When the water cools off in the winter is really when you would switch to a suspending bait.”
It was apparent the shoal bass seem to like the McStick better than other baits, as I continued throwing several other brands of baits that I just couldn’t get them to pay attention to anything like the McStick.
“You want to have a jerk, jerk, jerk, pause action, and you want to keep jerking because shoalies like baits on the move,” said Matt. “You don’t necessarily have to pause it in October because the fish are feeding heavy and getting fat for the winter. They eat a lot of minnows, and that’s why the jerkbait works really well. If you make a cast and you’re jerking that bait and see minnows start to scatter, get ready. You’re probably about to get a bite.”
Matt also said one of the keys to having a good action is using a good spinning reel and rod and strong light line. While he normally throws bait-casting reels, he says a spincast combo is a must have for jerkbaits. He prefers a Falcon 6-foot, 6-inch Bucoo spinning rod with 8-lb. Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line.
“The lighter line you use the better the action you’ll get out of the jerkbait,” said Matt.
But, sometimes the jerkbait bite can be slow, and that’s when Matt likes to switch to a more subtle approach using a Big Bites Bait Fighting Frog. Matt said the bait is very versatile, but he sticks to fishing it two ways.
“I normally fish it Texas rigged on a 4/0 off-set shank Gamakatsu hook and either a 5/16- or a 3/4-oz. Tru-Tungsten weight. I will fish the lighter rig Texas-style in areas where the current isn’t as strong or on banks using the Gamma Edge fluorocarbon,” said Matt.
The bluff banks on outside bends of the river are going to be your best bet for Texas rigging the fighting frog.
“Look for the cuts in the rocks. The shoal bass like to get up in the cuts, and the Texas rig works real well to get down in those cuts,” he said.
Matt also uses a 3/4-oz. weight and Flipping Frog combo teamed with 50-lb. braid to flip laydowns and tree tops.
“The heavy sinker allows the frog to be used in stronger current situations,” Matt said. “Flipping is my favorite way to catch fish, and big shoalies and largemouths can be caught doing this when the bite is tough.”
If you’re in a position where there’s no structure to flip to and near some shoals, Matt also suggested using a football-head jig to work the Fighting Frog in the rocks for some real hawgs. Remember the heavier the weight you’re using, the more likely it is to get hung in the rocks.
Matt fishes both the Texas rig and the jigs on a Falcon 7-foot, 3-inch Cara T7 Amistad Special Rod because of its action and sensitivity.
“The rod is stiff with a lot of backbone, but has a medium-fast action that allows it to bend real good when fighting fish,” said Matt.
All of those tactics are good for sunny days, but on an overcast day he likes to try a little something different. When the sun creeps behind the clouds upstream, Matt switches to one of his favorite surface baits — the buzzbait.
“If you go up there and it’s real cloudy, and possibly a little bit of rain, a buzzbait works real well,” said Matt.
He said his favorite color is white with a little bit of chartreuse in it. He generally throws either a Boogerman or a Lunker Lures bait. He said anything that has a lot of squeak to it is good, and a smaller buzzbait usually works better.
You can use the buzzbait most any place upstream, but the farther you get from the shoals, the more likely you are to hang a largemouth instead of a shoal bass. A few minutes into the first brief rain shower we experienced, I hooked into a good 2-lb. largemouth using the buzzbait. It was holding tight against the bank next to a laydown in a slower section of the river.
After a long afternoon of fishing, Matt and I boated more than 15 fish of numerous species including shoal bass, largemouth and striped bass.
Our trip was in August, a month in which the fish typically aren’t as active as they are in October. So, though you won’t see as many anglers upstream as you would on the lake, it doesn’t mean these fish are any less fun or more difficult to catch. Take the advice of Matt Baty, and get up there and catch some shoalies.