December Trophy Stripers at Lake Nottely

Guide Josh Garrison says winter is a good time to catch a wallhanger.

Lake Nottely sits high in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northeast Georgia. Being so far from Atlanta, the lake doesn’t see the fishing pressure of many reservoirs. In December, the pressure will be even less. For Josh Garrison, owner of Garrison International Inc. Fishing Guide Service, the lack of pressure is what makes the lake most appealing.

“You see how many other boats are out here today?” Josh asked as we sat over an underwater ridge on an empty section of Nottely.

Josh spends several months of the year in dangerous parts of the globe, protecting Americans as a private security contractor. When he is home, he is keeping clients on top of Lake Nottely’s stripers several days a week.

“I love what I do because I’m saving American lives, but I’m off for a couple of months at a time, and there’s nothing I would rather do than fish,” he said.

Josh grew up in a Navy family, so he lived in Virginia and Florida for most of his childhood. The family was based in the Keys for five years, and Josh had his first boat at 11 years old.

“I’ve lived up and down the east coast, and I’ve done every type of fishing there is,” Josh said.

The family started vacationing around Lake Nottely when Josh was a child, and when his father retired from the Navy in 1991, they moved to Union County. Since then, Josh has been honing his lineside-catching abilities on the mountain lake.

“I’ve caught stripers out here every way you can imagine,” Josh said. “I’ve even fished for them out of a canoe. You can imagine how much fun it is to hook into a big one fishing from a canoe.”

On the day we fished, Josh positioned his Blue Wave 220 Striper, a considerably larger craft, between a rockpile — that during the summer would be well under the surface — and a point across the lake. He has been consistently catching fish on downlined gizzard shad there since July. But Josh explained that with December’s onset things could change in a hurry, and he explained how prepared anglers could find some of the best fishing of the year.

“I don’t know exactly why these fish have stayed here for so long, but the river channel makes a 180-degree turn here, and they have stayed stacked on this ridge,” he said. “In December, whether they are here or somewhere else, you can do a bunch of different things to catch striped bass.”

For the first half-hour on the water, as a thick fog burned off, Josh set out several downlines with different types of bait and explained how to catch Nottely stripers this month. If December’s weather is typical — meaning cold nights and moderate daytime temperatures — there are a variety of tactics for enticing hard-charging stripers to take a bait and wear your arms out from reeling.

When Josh hits the water in December, he will employ several different rigs including downlines, planer boards and flatlines pulled behind the boat. Josh says that early in the morning, anglers will most likely find striped bass in more open water around creek mouths or off of main points in secondary creeks. This month, fish will move back into creeks chasing bait, and the later in the day it gets the more likely it is that stripers will school tighter on points.

“I’ll start at the mouths of creeks, but the fish can be back in there so you have to be willing to use your trolling motor, and you have to understand what you are seeing on your electronics,” Josh explained.

As I sat on the front deck of the boat, I alternated between taking notes and sticking my hands in my coat pockets to ward off the chill of the 22-degree morning while Josh talked about how he rigs his rods for December striped bass.

“I encourage people to use the longest rods they can find,” Josh said. “All the rods I use for live-bait fishing are 7- to 7 1/2-feet long. The Shakespeare Ugly Stik Striper rods are the best ones I’ve found because they have plenty of backbone for fighting fish. They have a really soft tip so a striper can pick up the bait without feeling the resistance of the rod, they are almost indestructible, and they are pretty inexpensive.”

Josh pairs his rods with large, baitcasting reels with line-counters attached so he can easily adjust the depth at which he is fishing. On the rods he uses to pull big baits such as large gizzard shad or trout, Josh will use 25-lb. test P-Line XT. For smaller baits, Josh uses line in the 15- to 20-lb. range. He tries to match his leader with his line, and he says fluorocarbon lines, which are virtually invisible under water, are the best for leader material.

“I prefer Stren in a color called coral mist,” Josh said. “That pink color seems to really work well on these clear mountain lakes.”

Just like with his line size, Josh will vary the sizes of hooks he uses depending on what baits he is putting out. For trout and gizzard shad he employs 5/0 to 7/0 hooks, and for smaller baits like blueback herring, he downsizes to a 3/0. Josh always uses circle hooks because they typically turn just right to catch a fish in the corner of the mouth, and an angler doesn’t have to make a great hookset to catch the fish. The circle hooks allow a fisherman to simply pick up the rod and make a steady sweeping motion to drive the hook point through a striper’s jaw.

On downlines, Josh will use heavy inline weights that feature swivels at either end. His weights are typically 1 1/2- to 2 1/2-ounces depending on how hard the wind is blowing. On most days, the smaller weight will probably work OK, but with a lot of wind, or with big baits, it takes more lead to get your presentation down where the big boys are roaming.

Also on board the boat will be rods ready for planer-board fishing. A barrel swivel with a small plastic bead will be tied to the end of the main line. On the terminal end of the swivel, Josh uses a 6-foot leader. The swivel-and-bead combination keeps the planer board from sliding all the way down the line which could potentially knock a fish off the hook. When Josh is using a planer board, he tosses the bait in the water, peels off about 40 feet of line, clips the planer board on and pulls another 40 to 50 feet off the spool.

Finally, some rods will be used for presenting baits on a flatline. Josh runs his flatlines out at different lengths from the boat. On the side where the longer flatline is out, Josh will put a planer board closer in. The side where the shorter flatline is will have a planer board farther from the boat. The reason for staggering baits in such a manner is so that they won’t tangle when the boat is being turned.

With all that in mind and the morning sun starting to show through the mist, the fishing was about to pick up considerably. We had made a couple of passes along the top of the ridge with no takers. Josh was watching his graph as fish came off the bottom of the lake and started getting a little more active, but 100 yards away, it sounded like someone was throwing bricks in the water as a school of fish ripped through clouds of bait. As we neared the topwater action Josh exclaimed, “Look at this graph! There’s so many down there they’ve got the screen covered up.”

The stripers were about to have us covered up, too. The first fish of the day buried a rod tip in the water, and Josh began reeling. He got the striper, a nice 15-lb. fish, in the boat in short order, and as we admired the lineside, another rod went off and I hooked into a fat hybrid. A few minutes later, two more stripers took baits, and we were busy reeling in fish and having a ball. Before long, the school moved and we were back to trolling, watching the graph and waiting for the bite to pick up again.

“It happens that quick,” Josh said. “You can catch a bunch of big fish in just a few minutes, and when you get into a school that’s hungry, you sometimes can’t keep bait in the water because you’re so busy fighting fish.”

As the day warmed up and the fishing slowed down a bit, Josh explained that stripers are light-sensitive fish. He believes the best fishing comes just ahead of a front, especially if the temperature is in the 50s, there is little wind and a light rain.

The striped bass weren’t so light sensitive that they wouldn’t strike again, however. In just a few minutes, we were both back to fighting 10- to 15-lb. fish to the side of the boat. In only about five hours on the water, Josh and I boated nine striped bass that tipped the scales at double digits and a healthy hybrid. Josh says the fishing in December will be great and the chance for an angler to boat bigger fish is always present.

“Last week, we boated more than 1,000 pounds of fish,” Josh said. “When you can find schools that have a bunch of 20-lb. stripers in them, you can wear yourself out.”

Josh told a story about a client he took out recently on a day when the striped bass were really in a big feeding mood. By 10 a.m. the gentleman had reeled in so many big, fast stripers that he sat down and told Josh to fish as long as he wanted.

“He was sitting there grinning ear-to-ear and he said, ‘Keep on fishing as long as you want, my arms feel like Jello.’”

You can go to just about any lake and find a guide who can put you where the fish are. All the technical knowledge in the world is great. However, the guides who can talk to you about anything are the most fun, and Josh is the consummate fishing guide. During lulls in the action, Josh told me about his daughter, a 10-year-old who has caught more than one 20-lb. striper on her own. We discussed his time in the U.S. Army doing long-range surveillance.

“I figured if I couldn’t fly planes, I would jump out of them,” he quipped.

With the holidays coming, many companies are slowing down and people have a little more time on their hands as they get ready for Christmas and New Year’s. Why not make a little trip up to Lake Nottely this month? With Josh’s techniques in hand, you could go on a striper-fishing trip that will leave you driving home with limp arms and a big smile.

If you want to really learn a lot about the lake and have a great time with a guy who can catch fish and ensure you have a blast doing it, call Josh.

You can reach Josh through Garrison International Inc. Fishing Guide Service at (706) 745-4802, or visit his website at <www.fishgarrison.com>.

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