By Lindsay Thomas Jr.
You've probably heard about the Flint River shoal bass that
have been helping bass tournament fishermen win money on Lake Seminole in recent
years. The same fish also inhabit the Flint above Lake Blackshear, in the region
of the state between Macon and Columbus. They inhabit rocky currents, they have
a reputation as a tough fighter and in this part of the river you're better off
on foot than in a bass boat - making the upper Flint an excellent choice for a
summer fishing trip.
I went to the Flint on May 17 to wade for shoal bass and find out how you can go, and what you should throw.
My guide for our Flint River fishing trip was William Collins of Butler. William has been fishing the shoals of the upper Flint since he was 15 years old, when his father first took him up the river to fish for bass and redbreasts. William's love of the river and the fishing has grown ever since, and now he takes his father on fishing trips.
Though shoal bass can be caught on everything from worms and live crawfish to hand-tied flies and poppers, William keeps his approach simple. He fishes artificial baits on a spinning rod and 6-lb. test line, and he usually carries only a handful of spare tackle so that he can fit it all under his cap while he is wading the shoals.
One of the main lures he uses, a popular one on the river and for good reason, is a Rebel crawfish, which does a good job of imitating the main prey of Flint River shoal bass. He uses the 2-inch Wee Crawfish model in natural brown or brown with a chartreuse belly, and in this river you don't need the deep-running model. The shallow runner will skim just off the gravel and sand on the bottom of the eddies. You can fish it in a steady retrieve or a swim-and-hover retrieve.
We started out fishing at 2:30 in the afternoon on a stretch of shoals where the Flint River divides Crawford and Taylor counties. We began with smaller lures: a Flip-O spinner with a swim-tail plastic grub on the jig head. Flip-O is made by Beaver Spin Inc., and can be difficult to find, though William stocks them at Hortman's Grocery, where he works, on Hwy 128 near the river in Crawford County. This is another good, all-around bait for the river, and it tends to attract all kinds of fish. The grub William likes is a natural gray shad color with black flakes, and with this lure we immediately started catching redbreasts in the eddies under logs, before we reached the shoals we were heading for.
In the slack water below the shoals, we also picked up a couple of small shoal bass. William caught two of about 10 inches, and I picked up one 12-incher that was sitting right on the bank in a 2-foot-deep washout. At the time I was fishing the spinner on ultralight gear and 4-lb. test, and for a moment I didn't think it would be enough for this less-than-a-pound fish.
Shoal bass, like their close relatives the smaller redeye bass, carry a huge chip on their shoulder. They hit like they're out for revenge, they don't stop fighting, and if you wait for one to "play out" you'll just be giving it more time to work on throwing the hook. You either drag them onto a bank kicking, or net them. That's why folks who fish for shoal bass would give you a 7-lb. largemouth for a 1 1/2-lb. shoal bass any day. Shoal bass have the muscle to chase fleeing crawfish and minnows in the heaviest part of the current. That makes them one of the toughest fighting fish for their size that you'll ever catch.
We eventually fished our way upstream and entered the first, wide set of major shoals that we fished that day. Shoal bass are true to their name: though you will catch a few in slack water areas above and below shoals, the majority of them will be in the tumbling currents, eddies, channels, holes and ledges in the concentrations of rock. DNR Fisheries biologist Frank Ellis told me that electrofishing data confirms this habit.
The shoals we fished first had two main layers, or rock lines, and in between them was a narrow but deep pool made up of a series of eddies.
"You see that pool below the upper drop?" William said to me, as we waded upstream. "That's where we'll catch the first big one."
We fished the lower level of rocks with Rebel crawfish, casting them into eddies just under the rocks that were breaking the current, and cranked them back through the boiling run.
"Try to fish that crankbait across the current instead of straight downstream," William said. "When the current is pushing it straight down it doesn't wobble like you want."
We waded up into the first line until we were standing on the rocks at the lower edge of the pool William had pointed out. On his first cast, William hooked a shoal bass of about 11 inches, and two casts later into a different eddy he called out, "Here's a good fish."
I saw the dark, muddy-backed fish appear out of the run, streaking like a bullet in and out of the current. I swatted at it with the net as it shot past my feet and, luckily, netted it. This one was the biggest fish of the day, so far, about 13 inches and close to 1 1/2 pounds.
The long pool had produced, as William predicted. We continued to fish our way up through more layers of the shoal. One thing about the large shoal areas on the Flint is that you can spend a whole day within sight of where you started and never fish the same rocks.
In this area, as in most shoal areas of the Flint, there were several side runs branching and splitting around small islands, and these side channels, though usually shallow, should not be ignored. "It will surprise you how big a shoal bass can come out of a little bit of water," William said.
In one of the side channels, William showed me a shallow, shady pool beside a trickle of a run under a small tree. For the past two years, William has seen a monstrous shoal bass bedding in this shallow, sandy pool. Whether or not the fish he saw this year is the same as the one last year, William estimates that she weighs in excess of six pounds.
"I've thrown the tackle box at her every time I've seen her, and she will not bite," William said. On this day, the fish was gone.
This spring, William is helping DNR in an angler survey. DNR has given angler diaries to several Flint River bass fishermen, and in the period from March 20 to April 24 of this year, records for 26 different fishing trips have been collected, with a reported catch of 145 shoal bass (a trip average of a little over five bass). According to Frank Ellis, more than a third of those bass were in the 11- to 13-inch size category. A surprising 38 percent were 14 inches or better: good, solid bass. Four fish were recorded at greater than 20 inches, which is getting into the 5-lb. range, a trophy shoal bass.
"So far, this spring is one of the better years we've seen for shoal bass fishing," Frank said.
William hasn't caught a 4-pounder this year, but he has caught shoal bass up to four pounds in previous years. The largest he has ever witnessed was a 6 1/2-lb. heavyweight that a friend of his caught.
To get down into deeper holes near the main flow of water, William switches to a weighted plastic bait, usually a 4-inch tube skirt in red/black flake or a 6-inch Creme Scoundrel worm in natural blue or tequila sunrise. The lightest lead you can use and still get the plastic down into the holes under the current is what William recommends - he usually pinches on a medium or large split-shot just above the hook.
Just above the highest line of shoals we were fishing is a deep section of "slack" water that backs up above the first line of rocks. As we fished, we kept noticing pods of small minnows erupting from the water and skittering across the surface. When we reached the top of the shoals we began casting out into the deeper, calm water. On my first cast with the crankbait, a good fish hit.
When the fish came into sight, I saw another, smaller bass that was trying to take the crawfish out of its mouth.
"There's another one with him," William said. He threw his own crankbait behind the fish.
"I got him!" he said. Almost as quickly, he announced that the fish had spit the lure. He quickly threw back a second time, and again the bass hit. Another nice shoal bass of about 12 inches. Meanwhile, the bass I had hooked was darting around my legs, shooting in and out of the deep water.
"That's a good one," William said, when I finally netted the fish. We got out the De-Liar and measured the bass at 15 inches and right at two pounds.
In the next 15 minutes, still fishing the deep, slack water, we caught three more shoal bass, including another 15-incher and one that was close to 16 inches, all five on the Rebel crawfish. As these fish proved, deep water above and below shoals will also hold fish.
Frank Ellis said that stomach samples of shoal bass have turned up mostly crawfish, though it is obvious that the bigger bass add bait fish of various sizes to their diet.
After fishing out the deep water, we took a turn onto another branching arm of the river that we had not yet fished, and began to move back downstream. William tried to avoid fishing downstream, he said, mainly because the mud and silt that is disturbed when you walk along the bottom is washed down into the area you are fishing. But if this can be avoided, fishing downstream into eddies and across currents is still effective.
There are two ways that members of the public who don't own land along the river can get onto the river and wade for shoal bass: by wading right in on public land, or by floating or motoring from one of the bridge access points.
According to Frank, the best concentration of shoal bass, and good shoals, is in the stretch of river from Hwy 18 near Woodbury, on the Meriwether/Pike county border, down to the Po Biddy Road bridge on the Upson/Talbot county line. The best thing about this roughly 25-mile stretch is that it contains the best public access points for non-boaters: Sprewell Bluff State Park and Big Lazer Wildlife Management Area.
At Sprewell Bluff, hiking trails run along three miles of the river at a place where shoals are dense and large. If you pull a canoe behind you to get past the deeper spots, you can work your way a short distance upstream of the park to Pasley Shoals. In this area, as in many of the Flint River shoals, the sheets of rock lie like shingles at a steep angle. This makes for slippery, awkward footing, and it would be easy to break an ankle in the crevices between the rocks, so wade cautiously.
To get to Sprewell Bluff, take Hwy 35 southwest of Thomaston and look for the Sprewell Bluff sign on the right at Roland Road. Follow the signs to the park.
The other public-access area is Big Lazer WMA, below the Hwy 36 bridge. On the area, River Road leads from the first campground all the way to the river. There is a series of large shoals up and downstream of the parking area on the river. Call (706) 846-8448 for more information about this site.
There are also several float-trip options for owners of canoes or light jon boats. The Flint River Outdoor Center, located on the river at the Hwy 36 bridge, operates a shuttle service for canoe trips in shoal-bass territory. Although the Outdoor Center won't shuttle groups smaller than 12 persons, the owner, Jim McDaniel, and his employees are always willing to offer information about the river and good put-in and take-out points. The Outdoor Center also sells a detailed map of the shoal areas of the upper Flint for $1.50, so it would be a good idea to start a float trip with a stop at the center. You can call the Flint River Outdoor Center at (706) 647-2633.
A long-distance float trip is less desirable because there is less time to slow down and fish the shoals you cross. If you launch at Sprewell Bluff and take out at the Flint River Outdoor Center, you will pass through several good shoals along the way. The trip is about 5 1/2 river miles, which will make for a full-day of fishing and canoeing. Another good one-day fishing float is from the Outdoor Center down to the landing on Big Lazer WMA. This trip is even shorter, about 3 1/2 miles, but you pass through Daniel, Yellow Jacket and Hightower Shoals, some of the best on the river.
The lowest shoals in the upper Flint are located in the stretch between Hwy 19/80 and Hwy 128, near Crawford and Taylor counties. The shoals I fished with William are in this stretch. They can be reached from the Hwy 19/80 bridge if you bring along a gas motor to get back upstream, or from below, with a gas motor to get up to the shoals. The whole stretch is 14 miles in length, so a canoe float all the way through won't allow much time to fish.
When you wade the shoals, bring along some old shoes, preferably with a good tread for gripping the rocks.
When making a float trip, keep in mind that there are a few locations where the same person owns both banks of the river, which means that if you get out on the shoals you are technically trespassing. Most landowners don't stop fishermen from wading, but be courteous anyway: stay in the river and off the river bank, and don't even think of littering.
William and I ended our afternoon of fishing with an excellent tally: 14 shoal bass of at least 10 inches with three in the 15-inch range. A keeper shoal bass in the Flint is 12 inches in length. The only fish we kept were three redbreasts and five white bass that went home to the frying pan.
Shoal bass fishing in the Flint stays excellent right on through the hot months of summer and into the fall. And as for scenic beauty, you won't find many places in the state like the upper Flint. The fishing is unique and worth the extra effort of planning a float trip. So forget the jet skis, forget the traffic, forget the heat, and get on the Flint this month.
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