The heat of summer has set in across the hills and mountains of north Georgia, warming lake temperatures considerably.
This warm up means some of the striped bass in area lakes have headed to the rivers, and the result is some of the most challenging and exciting action all year.
On most lakes with stripers, like Lanier, Weiss, Allatoona and Carters, many of the fish move into the rivers and creeks that feed the lakes in search of cooler water.
The fish move out of the lakes each year once it is on the verge of being too warm for stripers to tolerate. This annual migration sets up the best opportunity for striper fishermen to go toe-to-toe with a lineside in small water.
“There’s nothing better than hooking up with a good striper in a trout river,” said river striper fisherman, Dirk Dial, of Dawsonville. “I caught a 42-lb. striper in Lake Lanier earlier this year, and it was fun, but I’d rather catch a 25-lb. striper in one of the cold-water refuges across the state. There’s nothing else like it.”
Stripers usually head to their cold-water refuges as early as late March, but this year, they began moving into the tributaries in large numbers in late May.
“Because we’ve had a cool spring and continuing rains this year, the stripers took their time getting up in the rivers,” said Cy Grajcar with Extreme Stripers Guide Service. “It took a little longer than normal, but they’re in the rivers now.”
However, anglers will need to follow the fish closely, because they will move through a river system as the water warms up there as well.
“A lot of folks have the misconception that stripers just run all the way up a river, as high as they can get, like to the base of a dam, and that’s just not true,” Cy said. “The majority of the fish are going to stage throughout the rivers.”
Consistently finding river stripers is a science of sorts that guys like Dirk and Cy eat, sleep and breath.
“The fish in the rivers are going to be in places they feel comfortable being able to ambush any bait going by it,” Cy said. “Look for deeper holes, logjams, big bends and other current breaks.”
Internet mapping websites like Google Maps or MapQuest can be of enormous help in scouting out a river.
Perhaps the two strongest and most consistent runs of fish into cold-water refuges in Georgia occurs on the Coosa River system above Lake Weiss and in the Chattahoochee and Chestatee rivers above Lake Lanier.
“There’s the potential for fish to be in every river above the lake that is part of the Coosa System,” Cy said.
“They’ll run up the Hooch almost to Helen,” Dirk said. “And, they come up the Chestatee River past Dahlonega.”
In terms of river features that hold fish, try looking for major structures like deep holes, big bends and shoals.
“In general, if a deep hole has more than 4 or 5 feet of water, there’s probably going be a striper there,” Dirk said. “But the more shallow they are, the more spooky they can be. The more clear the water is, the deeper the hole needs to be.”
Stealth is paramount when fishing river stripers, and periods of stained, high water can offer anglers a leg up. But either way, being careful not to spook the fish is critical. So, keep a low profile, and try not to make too much noise.
Once you identify a few places to fish, the next thing to do is decide if you’re going to hike in or float through.
In most cases, the cold-water refuges that linesides use are made up of waters suitable for only wading or bank fishing.
There are portions of rivers that boats can be run on, but they are usually limited to shallow-running small boats, such as jet boats, canoes and kayaks.
Stripers don’t tolerate water temperatures much warmer than 75 degrees, and when it reaches that mark, the fish will almost always move.
“It’s all about survival, they follow that water temperature,” Cy said. “They will be looking for any water that is cooler than 75 degrees. It’s not about food, it’s about survival.”
Find the right structures in the sections of river with cold water, and there are likely be good numbers of linesides packed in. These places likely do not have enough food to sustain such a big number of large fish. Hunger combined with lots of competition creates an angler’s dream come true. Some of these fish will rarely let a bait or lure go by without eating it.
It’d be an understatement to say they feed more aggressively in the rivers than they do in the lakes.
“Because there aren’t a lot of baitfish or other food sources in the river for the stripers to eat, they opportunity-feed all day long,” Cy said. “We see some really good numbers of fish in a day’s fishing because of it.”
“Usually by August, the stripers have eaten all the bait, trout and bream in the rivers that they can find, and then they get really aggressive,” said Dirk.
When it comes to what to offer river stripers, Cy prefers live bait, and Dirk likes to toss artificials.
On cold-water refuges in north Georgia, using live gizzard shad is the way to go.
“If you don’t have shad, don’t go,” Cy joked.
Cut shad will work for the smaller fish, but if you hope to get a big one, you’d better be pitching fresh, live bait,” Cy said. “If your bait is not lively, the fish probably won’t eat it.”
However, using live bait requires a livewell and the time to catch it.
“I like to throw lures just because of the logistics of having to haul live bait to the river,” Dirk said. “Plus, I like to go for a few hours before or after work, so I keep it simple.”
Dirk prefers shad-pattern jointed swimbaits between 4- and 10-inches long.
“All I use, without exception, is jointed swimbaits,” Dirk said. “Some people like to throw big Redfins or jigs, and they do catch fish, but you can not beat the action of a jointed swimbait. The closer it looks to a shad, the better it works.”
Both Cy and Dirk recommend using a 6 1/2- to 7-foot medium-action spinning rig and a matching reel with a good drag system.
“You want to use a rod with a light tip,” Cy said. “If you don’t, you’ll wind up throwing off a lot of baits.”
Dirk likes to use 15-lb. P-Line Fluoroclear line and does not use a leader in the Chattahoochee and Chestatee rivers because of the extreme clarity of the rivers at times.
On the Coosa System rivers, Cy likes to use 30-lb. PowerPro line and a 15-lb. fluorocarbon leader attached with a swivel and a 2/0 kahle hook.
The fish will remain in the rivers through the summer, usually until sometime in September, when water temperatures in the lakes return to levels that are comfortable for linesides.
Not long ago, Cy and I fished together on the Coosa River system. We met at a boat ramp on the Coosa, just upstream of Lake Weiss.
Cy uses a RiverPro jet boat to get to the fish in the rivers, and it allows him to get into a lot of water that someone with a prop outboard couldn’t.
After climbing aboard Cy’s jet boat, we took off for a winding run up the Coosa.
We ended up in a small tributary that averaged 30 to 60 feet wide.
After dropping his trolling motor in the water, Cy and I baited up with gizzard shad from the livewell. Cy pointed out the deeper side of the river and made a pitch tight to the overhanging vegetation on the bank.
Cy scooped up a net full of baitfish, started squeezing them and then tossed handfuls of them toward the spot we were fishing.
“Chumming works to get them going,” Cy said.
It didn’t take too many casts before Cy was hooked up on a small striper weighing a few pounds.
“The trick is to get it as close to where the fish is feeding as possible,” Cy said.
I followed suit with my first small striper not too long after Cy.
Once we’d caught a few more small stripes, Cy made the call for us to run upstream in search of bigger fish.
Regardless of which river we’re on, every time I’ve fished with Cy, he has fished logjams. This trip was no different, as the second location was a logjam in a narrow section of river.
As we pulled up, we could see fish busting bait in the center of the logjam through the bark, leaves and other debris floating around it.
Cy positioned the boat off to one side of the logjam, almost parallel to it, and dropped an anchor out the bow of his boat.
“I like to cast above a structure and let the current bring my bait back down to the fish,” Cy said. “You don’t really need to do anything with your bait except bounce it every now and again to be sure it’s not hung in the tree.”
Once again, in short order Cy buttoned up with a scrappy Coosa striper. Moments later, I felt the thump in my line, caused only by a striper inhaling live bait. I set the hook and fought the fish to the boat.
“One thing I really love about this sort of fishing is that you actually get to feel the fish hit and hook them, rather than letting the rodholder do all the work,” Cy said.
Cy likes to work structure both upstream and downstream.
We both continued catching lots of 3- to 8-lb. stripers as we started easing upstream pitching baits at every wood structure on the bank.
“Presentation and accuracy is everything with these fish,” Cy said. “Try to put it where the fish are feeding, not necessarily where they are holding.”
Before long, Cy set the hook, and I heard a quick squeal of drag from his spinning reel and saw his rod double-over. A large striper took off along the bank, throwing a big wake.
“They’ll try every time to get you in the structure,” Cy said.
Cy fought the nice fish for almost 10 minutes until he brought it alongside the boat. After a few pictures, Cy released the 18-lb. striper.
“I encourage everyone to practice catch and release with river fish,” Cy said. “Depending on where you are in the Coosa, it may not be safe to eat because of pollution.”
Once the fish was revived, we watched it swim back toward the bank. Fish heavier than 25 pounds are landed by anglers in about every cold-water refuge in north Georgia, but the average fish will run 3 to 8 pounds.
We worked up to a big bend, and Cy anchored the boat again. In merely seconds, Cy was hooked up with a small fish.
Looking into the water, there were countless other smaller stripers following the hooked fish along with the occasional bigger fish.
“It’s important to remember to always have a rod ready to throw while someone is fighting a fish,” Cy said. “If you see another fish with the hooked fish, throw your bait right on it. Most of the time you’ll have a double hook-up that way.”
The action continued for Cy and I throughout the morning and into mid-afternoon, when obligations led us off the water, not the lack of action.
“I enjoy the river fish more than lake fish,” Cy said. “You can catch a ton of hard-fighting fish, and the surroundings are a lot nicer than being on a lake with other boats. There’s lots of wildlife to see, and you rarely see anyone else in a boat except the occasional jonboat.”
In total, we caught more than 25 fish that day, which Cy said was on the low end because of the late run into the rivers.
“By July, I’d expect daily numbers into and more than the 50-fish mark,” Cy said.
For more information on cold-water stripers, or to book a trip with Cy, visit www.extremestripers.com, or call (770) 815-9579.