Stripers on the Etowah

Northwest Georgia offers the state’s premier striped bass river fishery!

On The Fly Freshwater

June 2022

Article and featured photo by Jimmy Jacobs

Georgia’s Etowah River offers some of the most varied angling to fly casters in our region. The river starts just east of Puncheon Gap in Fannin County, but does not get big enough to interest fishermen until it crosses the U.S. Army’s ranger training facility at Camp Merrill and leaps over Black Falls. From that point downstream until it leaves Forest Service property at the boundaries of the Chattahoochee National Forest the river is a small stream that is stocked with trout on a put-and-take basis.

After becoming a warm-water flow, the river eventually empties into 12,000-acre Allatoona Lake between the cities of Canton and Cartersville. This upper river and the reservoir offer plenty of action for Alabama bass, which for years were called simply spotted bass in this area.

Once called spotted bass, these fish now are classified as Alabama bass. Photo by Polly Dean.

Once below Allatoona Dam and the smaller low-head Weinman-Thompson Dam a few miles downstream, a different fishery appears. Starting in the spring, striped bass make a spawning run from Weiss Lake in Alabama, up the Coosa River to Rome, Georgia, where they continue upstream into the Etowah.

That long expanse of river habitat allows this population of stripers to be one of the few found in freshwater that successfully spawn during such runs. Many of them then stay in the river through the month of October.

Those fish are also what brought On The Fly South to the Etowah in late May. Our guide for the day was Drew Friedrich, the Guide Service Manager for the Cohutta Fishing Company headquartered in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Although Drew grew up in Cartersville, where he fished along the banks of the Etowah, he has also attended the Sweetwater Guide School in Yellowstone Park and lived and fished in Estes Park, Colorado. We met him and his drift boat at Kingston Downs to fish the portion of the river flowing through that resort’s property.

Drew Friedrich at the launch site. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs

Water flow was low as Drew launched the boat, which indicated that the release from Allatoona Dam was running at a minimal level. That left the river clear, but not crystalline, and featuring a relatively mild current.

Another feature of this portion of the Etowah are the presence of multiple fish weirs left behind by the Native Americans that originally inhabited the valley. These V-shaped stone structures span the river and were used to funnel the fish through an opening at the bottom of the V, where they were trapped in baskets.

Today the eddies below those traps are favored places for stripers to hold and ambush bait fish. While the fish may show up in any pool, places where there are downed trees in the water, in the eddies below any shoal or along rocky shorelines are places to also target.

According to the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, fishing for the striper population in the 49-mile stretch from Allatoona Lake down to Rome has been stable for the past three to four years. Reproduction in the river fluctuates based on weather conditions and water levels, with strong year-classes happening roughly every other year in recent times.

One of those strong classes happened in 2020, so there are lots of 2- to 5-pound fish in the Etowah right now. Other strong classes took place in 2013, 2015 and 2018, which provides the chance of also crossing paths with stripers of up to 20 pounds.

The major forage for stripers in the river consists of small gizzard shad. Based on that, Friedrich favors tossing small shad pattern flies on the Etowah. He recommends  using leaders starting with a 30-pound butt, tapered down to a 20-pound tippet. These fish are not particularly leader shy and hooking a bigger one will test even that size leader.

On The Fly South’s Polly Dean testing the water on the Etowah. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

“Cast as close to cover as possible,” Drew advised, “and retrieve all the way back to the boat.” He went on to say that the stripers often follow the fly, grabbing it virtually at the gunnel. “Use a very aggressive strip,” the guide added. “If you see the fish, pause a half second, then strip again.” That ploy can provoke a reaction strike.

During our float the stripers were not cooperating, though we did get one hook up that ended in disappointment, when the fish popped free. Drew pointed out that on a really good day you might get half a dozen fish, while most trips may only produce two or three.

But don’t expect to be bored regardless of what the stripers are doing. This part of the Etowah is infested with Alabama bass ranging from 10 inches up to 2 or 3 pounds. These fish readily attack the same flies that attract the striped bass.

Up until 2008 these fish were considered to be spotted bass, but that year were declared a separate species. Although differentiating an Alabama from a northern spotted bass is virtually impossible outside a laboratory, testing by Alabama fisheries biologists over the years has revealed no northern spotted bass in the Coosa River system. It is pretty safe to say anything looking like a spot that is in the Etowah is an Alabama bass.

The Alabama bass were abundant and cooperative. Photo by Polly Dean.

Our day on the water yielded a steady stream of the Alabama species. They would dart out from under woody debris or around rocks in the river to aggressively take the fly.

There are seven public boat ramps along this portion of the Etowah, offering varied lengths for float trips. Additionally, a lot of the water is ankle to waist deep and can be waded at lower levels.

On the other hand, knowing where the cooler inflows of feeder creeks or thermal refuges provided by springs are located can be crucial to tangling with the stripers. At a minimum it behooves one to take advantage of a guide’s knowledge on the first trip to the Etowah. For the best success, a guided trip always offers the best option.

To set up such a trip, contact Drew Friedrich through the Cohutta Fishing Company website. For convenient overnight accommodations for an angling adventure, also check out the Cottages of Kingston Downs.

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