AFTER THE SPAWN: summer fishing heats up

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Summer is upon us, which means it’s not only time to be out on the water, enjoying North Georgia’s pristine lakes, but for many folks it’s also the time to cast those lines and see what’s biting just below the shimmering surface. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran of all things fishing, or...

  • A fish is reeled in by fishing guide Josh Fowler. PHOTO/MICHAEL ISOM
    A fish is reeled in by fishing guide Josh Fowler. PHOTO/MICHAEL ISOM
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Summer is upon us, which means it’s not only time to be out on the water, enjoying North Georgia’s pristine lakes, but for many folks it’s also the time to cast those lines and see what’s biting just below the shimmering surface.

Whether you’re a seasoned veteran of all things fishing, or you’ve just bought your very first rod and real with only a rough idea of how to use them, there are tricks of the trade you can learn. There are individuals with deep knowledge of the bounty of fish the clear water of area lakes have to offer, and many are willing to share their valuable knowledge.

Eric Welch is the proprietor of Welch’s Guide Service, which officially kicked off its operations in 2001. Welch guides on eight different lakes in three states — North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.

In Georgia, he frequents lakes Burton, Nottely, Blue Ridge and Chatuge, teaching aspiring anglers his craft.

“I’ve been fishing these lakes for over 30 years,” Welch said. “It’s more of a passion than anything. It’s just different every day. It can change every day.”

 

Fishing guide Eric Welch shows off a large catch. (Submitted photo)
Fishing guide Eric Welch shows off a large catch. (Submitted photo)

 

Despite the uncertainty of the sport that has become his livelihood, Welch has a passion for sharing his love of fishing with anyone who steps off the dock onto his boat. Picking a favorite lake, however, can be as difficult as catching a fish with bare hands.

“They all have their time, different times of the year,” Welch said. “Burton, Nottely and Blue Ridge are pretty much real good in the spring, fall and winter months. In the dead of summer, Burton, with all the boat traffic it gets, the fish really get finicky once July and August get here. All the boat traffic pushes them down deep, and they won’t feed as much until nighttime.”

But just because the summer brings a few challenges, it doesn’t mean the fishing opportunities become stale.

Once the fish have completed the spawning process, which happens March to April, depending on the species of bass, Welch said the fish are hungry and looking to feed.

“They’re trying to eat all the bait they can catch to bulk back up from the weight they lost during the spawn,” he said. “Once the sun gets up and it starts warming up, the top water bite will start fading away, and the fish will start moving into their summer pattern, which is deep water fishing. Some fish will be out off deep rocky points, around docks, lay down and brush. There are many different types of ways to catch fish during this time of year. I like fishing the dropshot, shaky head, Texas rig and jigs.”

In highlighting the area’s lakes, Welch shared a couple of interesting facts about Lake Burton.

“Lake Burton holds the Georgia state record for spotted bass,” he said. “Back in 2005, there was a guy named Wayne Holland who caught an 8.2 (pounds) that beat Lake Lanier’s record that was like 8.05 or something like that. ... It’s got some big spotted bass in it. ... They stock so many trout every year with the hatchery being there. So, the bass have learned that, as well as the blueback herring.”

On the subject of blueback herring, one of the main food sources of the sought-after varieties of bass, Welch said the bait fish’s introduction into North Georgia lakes in the last couple of decades is one of the most significant things to happen as far as fishing goes. And a herring population explosion in Lake Burton helps explain the trout.

“They claim it (introduction of blueback herring) was done illegally,” he said. “Lake Lanier was about the only place that you could actually buy them, and they mysteriously got in all of our lakes up here. So what they did is they started stocking the trout in Lake Burton to try and control the herring population. So the bass have learned to eat the trout.”

Lake Nottely is also home to spotted and largemouth bass, along with striper and hybrids. Welch said the stripers, in particular, are an attraction in the deep, clear mountain lake.

“The biggest striper around is usually caught in Lake Nottely,” he said. “It’s one of those finicky lakes, too, that in the summer time it gets a lot of boat traffic. So, the fish really tend to bite early in the morning or later in the afternoon.”

As any good angler knows, Welch said there is much more to the sport than just dropping in a line and hoping for the best, regardless of which lake you set out on for a fishing adventure.

“Nottely and Burton, all of our spotted bass lakes, even Lanier and Hartwell, they all fish kind of like the same,” Welch said. “We use a lot of techniques. I use a lot of light line, like 7-pound and 5-pound gamma fluorocarbon. My philosophy is the lighter the line, the more bass you’re going to get, especially in the warmer temperatures. You’re going to be able to feel every little tick or bite.”

Lake Chatuge provides some good fishing as well, offering the same varieties as other area lakes. Chatuge has been the backdrop for some pretty big-name tournaments.

“Chatuge is the same way as Burton,” Welch said. “It’s got some big largemouth in it. Early spring, you see a lot of tournaments where there’s been 28-pound sack or 30-pound sack of fish. One pretty cool thing about Lake Chatuge is, back in 2013 and 2014, it had the Bassmaster Carhartt College National Championship two years in a row on it. And then last year, Chatuge had the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year where the top 50 pros in the nation would go fishing, and it paid out over $1 million. Being a small mountain lake like that, it’s pretty impressive to have those type of events coming to that area.”

Sometimes, Welch may suggest moving on down the road half an hour or so to get the ultimate experience. Because as any true North Georgian knows, the weather can change in an instant, causing a change in the fish.

“These lakes in the mountains can change from a thunderstorm,” Welch said. “The barometer can change; you can have a temperature drop and these fish will be at one depth and they’ve moved five feet deeper just because of that front that came through.”

Just a little further south, Lake Hartwell is not immune to those sudden changes, either.

Josh Fowler, long-time angler, former fishing guide and former host of a local cable channel fishing show, is well acquainted with navigating those changes, as well as the vast waters of Lake Hartwell.

 

Fishing guide Josh Fowler shows a large-mouth fishing bass caught on Lake Hartwell. (Photo/Michael Isom)
Fishing guide Josh Fowler shows a large-mouth fishing bass caught on Lake Hartwell. (Photo/Michael Isom)

 

On a recent June morning that featured some action by way of a few sporadic breaks in the water’s surface, Fowler explained the situation.

“What’s happening is the fish are finished up with the spawn, they’re done with the bedding part of it, and they’re migrating back out to points off shore,” he said. “What we’re going to do today is what Lake Hartwell is famous for. Lake Hartwell is known across the country for its top water fishing.”

After demonstrating several types of lures that would provide the most stimulation for predatory bass, Fowler said there couldn’t be a better time to be on his lake of choice.

“If I had to pick a month to fish Lake Hartwell, June would be the best month out of the whole year,” he said. “They’re finished with the spawn. They’re recovering from the spawn. They’re stressed out. They’re feeding. It’s just a good time to fish, because they’re hungry.”

Fowler reiterated that blueback her-ring, though not native to Georgia lakes as they are a salt water minnow, have become an integral food source for the bass.

‘IF I HAD TO PICK A MONTH TO FISH LAKE HARTWELL, JUNE WOULD BE THE BEST MONTH OUT OF THE WHOLE YEAR.’ - JOSH FOWLER

“All day long those blueback herring are swimming. They’re constantly moving,” Fowler said. “The bass have adapted to that. They’re a major food source. So the bass will sit on these points. There may be a brush pile, there may be a rock pile, there’s something on the bottom that those fish will relate to. When the fish are sitting down there on a brush pile and those herring swim over, the bass rush to the surface and push the bait fish against the surface and feed on them. So what we’re trying to do with our bait is mimic those herring swimming over their head.”

With that tactic in mind, Fowler explained how clear water and sunshine are important, making the bait easily visible to the waiting hungry bass below.

Lake Richard B. Russell, just south of Lake Hartwell, is not as clear, Fowler said.

“You can catch some down there, but it’s not as predominant as it is here on Hartwell,” he said. “The water down there never is gin clear like it is here on Hartwell. The reason is Russell Dam has pump-backs. What happens is the water stays sloshed up all the time and never really has a chance to clear.”

Fowler said fish are just like many other animals, they’re more active during low-light periods of the day. So early in the morning or late in the evening is typically the best time to be on the water.

Once on the water, for Hartwell in particular, Fowler said it’s important not to spend too much time in one spot if the top water fishing isn’t paying off in a short amount of time.

“If they’re there and they’re going to bite, you’re going to catch them within the first five or 10 casts,” Fowler said. “And if you don’t get a bite, you may just as well move on to the next spot. They call it the Lake Hartwell Run and Gun technique.”

Fowler said his bait of choice for this type of fishing is the Zoom Super Fluke, because it most closely mimics the bass’ favorite meal, blueback herring.

For muddier water, like that of Lake Richard B. Russell, Fowler said one of the best tactics is to put out a worm and drag it along the bottom, which can also be done on clearer lakes.

‘IF YOU DON’T GET A BITE, YOU MAY JUST AS WELL MOVE ON TO THE NEXT SPOT. THEY CALL IT THE LAKE HARTWELL RUN AND GUN TECHNIQUE.’ - JOSH FOWLER

But for Fowler, the top water fishing remains the most enjoyable experience.

Other areas to look for in the lake are what Fowler refers to as a “tabletops,” which essentially are long, flat points close to deep water. It’s where the fish will come and feed most often.

“When you’re running this technique, what the fish are looking for is a tabletop kind of deal, like a flat spot. That tabletop needs to be in about 20 feet of water,” Fowler said. “That’s the depth range you want to throw your bait over.”

Using depth finders, Fowler said you want to look for man-made brush piles and the tabletops in 18 to 25 feet of water, being close to deeper water but casting in the shallower direction.

Though Fowler doesn’t hide the fact that his hometown lake of choice is Hartwell, as an experienced fisherman, he’s well aware that other North Georgia lakes can have a lot to offer, such as the slightly smaller Lake Lanier.

 

Fishing guide Eric Welch fishes on one of Northeast Georgia's beautiful lakes. (Submitted photo)
Fishing guide Eric Welch fishes on one of Northeast Georgia's beautiful lakes. (Submitted photo)

 

“Lanier is probably the best spotted bass lake in the country,” Fowler said.

Though he doesn’t get to fish professionally as much as he would like these days, Fowler still makes sure to involve himself in as much as he can as far as the world of fishing goes. That even led to the start of a side business with long-time friend Greg Kellum called 706 Fishing Lures, which produces a wide assortment of lures and apparel.

For more information on Fowler and Kellum’s business, visit the 706 Fishing Lures page on Facebook.

For more information on Welch’s Guide Service, visit northgafishingguide.com or call 706-455-2323.