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Camping

Next up for Blake and I was the Altamaha Bass, which is found above the fall line in the Ocmulgee, Oconee, and Ogeechee river basins.

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We woke up early, packed up camp, and headed to the river to hike down to where we wanted to begin to fish.  The Chattahoochee River trib we fished the day before was much smaller than the river we were about to fish and had better clarity too, but this was still fishy looking water.

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Things were pretty slow early on, Blake picked up a sunfish or two before we got into any bass.  I caught an 8″ Altamaha in some slow water under a log to start things off.  Blake followed that up with a good one that went 10″.  These fish didn’t have the bright red fins like the Chattahoochee bass, but they did have some orange color on upper and lower part of the caudal fin, and outer margins of their second dorsal, and anal fins.

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We caught a few more bass and sunfish as the morning progressed.  The action had only slightly picked up as we worked our way through the shoals.  When we got to the end of the shoals we headed out and made our way into Athens for lunch.

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On the recommendation of my brother we stopped at Akademia brewpub for lunch, the beer and food were excellent, the bartender was top notch too.  I’d recommend it to anyone heading to Athens.

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After lunch we made our way to Watson Mill Bridge State Park where we planned to camp and fish for Bartram’s bass, the last redeye we needed to complete the slam, the redeye bass found above the fall line in the Savannah river basin.

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There was still some daylight after we had set up camp so we decided to try and knock out the Bartram’s that evening.

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We started on a tributary creek that ran through the park, but it was slow and low and Blake only managed a chub there, so we moved on to the shoals below the mill dam.  It was a good move because we were able to catch our Bartram’s there shortly after we started fishing.

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With the redeye bass slam complete we’d accomplished what we had set out to do and it was a pretty awesome feeling.  I had four of the five bass species needed to get a Georgia bass slam so tomorrow we’d set out to catch a shoal bass and knock that slam out too.  First we’d feast though, steak night tonight.

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After completing the Mobile Basin redeye slam back in May, Blake and I knew we wanted to make another trip later in the summer and complete the seven species redeye slam by catching our Chattahoochee, Altamaha, and Bartram’s bass in Georgia.  I’ve spent plenty of time fishing for wild trout in North Georgia, but I’ve never really sought the native basses in the state.  Last year the Georgia WRD introduced a bass slam of their own and have put in a lot of work creating a website that really provides a great starting point to planning a trip to target any or all of the ten black bass species found in the state.  Check out the nifty ArcGIS web mapping application they’ve built below:

https://arcg.is/nm5Dy

With the help of the Georgia WRD online resources and the help of a few other friends we set off early last Wednesday to camp and fish our way across the state, starting on a tributary to the Chattahoochee to target the aptly named Chattahoochee Bass.

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As you can tell from the Joseph Tomelleri illustration above these bass differ from other bass species because their second dorsal, caudal, and anal fins have bright orange to red coloration on the outer portions.

After about a 7.5 hour drive we arrived at our destination around lunch time and hiked down to where we wanted to start fishing.  It did not take long to start catching fish.  They weren’t the target species, but Blake began wearing out the redbreast sunfish (Lepomis auritus) in the first spot we tried.  I joined in on the fun with a healthy bluegill on a hopper.

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After a few bream we began working our way upstream.  We each caught a bass or two that looked like a spotted bass, or hybrids, before we got into the redeye.  One good thing about the Chattahoochee bass is their bright red fins make it hard to mistake them for anything else.

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We eventually got into our target fish and we each caught a few around 8-9″.  After trying a hopper/dropper early I switched to a crawfish pattern Blake tied and that’s when I really started to catch them, swimming it slowly through good looking water.

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My best Chattahoochee bass was a 9″ football who didn’t miss a meal.  I also managed to catch a nice 12.5″ spotted bass in a slower bend of the stream.  We may have been targeting redeyes, but I wasn’t against the bycatch, especially if I wanted to complete the Georgia bass slam too.

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We packed up shortly after that.  It was after 5pm and we still needed to drive another 2.5 hours east to set up camp, closer to where we planned to fish the next morning for Altamaha bass.  It was a great start to the trip though.

We were after hours guests at Brierfield Ironworks Park and the on-site hosts were very accommodating.  As I understood their instruction, any place we saw fit was available for primitive camping, though there were some designated spots with picnic tables and fire pits.  We picked a spot, recommended by the host, up on a hill overlooking the rest of the park as it had some suitable trees to hang our hammocks.  It was the warmest night of the trip, but not too warm to where it was tough to sleep.  In fact I got great sleep that night and I needed it.  The camping spot was away from everyone else so there were no dogs to growl at me and there weren’t any whip-poor-wills going berserk – it was the best camping spot we had all trip.  We also stayed dry, the rain moved quickly through the area and didn’t linger.  We looked forward to a blue bird morning fishing for Cahaba bass.  A huge bonus to staying in a State Park was that we were actually able to shower that morning.  A hot shower after a couple of days of living in your own filth does wonders.  We left the park re-energized and ready to cap off our slam.

We had a short drive to fish a tributary of the Cahaba River right where it dumps in to the main river, giving us the option to fish either.  We are small water guys so fishing the tributary was more appealing than fishing the shoals of the Cahaba.  If we had an entire day we would have done both, however it was Sunday and we still needed to drive home, so we really only had a half day to devote to fishing.

After traversing a long, bumpy gravel road we were at our destination and began making our trek upstream.  We split ways after stepping in the water with Blake fishing downstream of me as I began working my way upstream.  It wasn’t long before I heard him holler that he had caught his Cahaba bass.

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After a long day of feeling the pressure the day before I’m sure it was a big relief for Blake to knock out his slam early and put that pressure back on me.  I wasn’t too worried as it was early and his fish ate aggressively.  I fished on and actually missed chances at two separate redeye in places by pulling the fly out of their mouth.  Meanwhile Blake pulled out a redeye behind me, after that I switched from my hopper-dropper to a subsurface fly.  Soon enough I was catching fish.

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They just weren’t the target species.  The bluegills were feisty that day.  We had very little luck on topwater this entire trip, which goes against everything I read about redeye.  The trusty woolly bugger was catching fish though.  I finally fooled a bass, but to be honest I couldn’t tell if it was entirely redeye or if it was a hybrid.  I went through the slam protocol as if it were a Cahaba bass, but I still felt like I needed to catch another one, just to make sure.

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This creek had no shortage of good-looking water and we fished every fishy looking part.  Much like on other creeks they weren’t holding in the mid-water trout-type holding areas, we had much better luck catching them in slower water, so we worked the pools and any other slow water pretty hard.

We ran into a stand of Cahaba lilies on this tributary.  They are similar to the spider lilies that grow in ditches on the side of the road here in Louisiana, but the Cahaba lilies have a much more specialized habitat, living only in shoals in the middle of rivers above the Fall Line in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.  They bloom around late May, early June so we were a little early for their peak, but it was pretty cool to at least catch a few blooming.

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We weren’t exactly lighting the world on fire catching fish.  It was slow, not as slow as the day before, but still slow.  Things did start to pick up as it got hotter out.  I finally caught another redeye, it was a baby, and then I caught another baby.  There’s no size requirement for this slam so I was fine with the micro fish.  I was now confident that the slam was in hand.  Blake would catch another one as well and it had to be bigger.

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We got to a big pool and decided that this was it, it was past noon at this point and we still had a six-hour drive ahead of us so after the pool we would turn around and hike out.  It was the right call as we both managed to catch decent sized Alabama bass from the pool.  I always like to end a trip with a good fish and this was a pretty sweet way to do it with us both catching nice fish in the last hole.

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After a walk through the woods we made it back to the vehicle and chowed down on some sandwiches before hitting the road.  It’s funny how nonchalant we are when we finish trips like this.  There is a sense of accomplishment in putting together a successful trip, but we’re not hoot-n-holler kind of guys, so we just smile and keep fishing.  It was a great trip, we fished a ton of awesome water, caught a bunch of fish, and had a good time hanging out with each other.  Now it’s time to start putting in the work to plan for Georgia.  The Altamaha, Bartram’s, and Chattahoochee bass are all we have left to finish our 7 species redeye slam and I can’t wait to do it.

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A much better night’s sleep was had on night two.  I could have done without the dog in the adjacent site that growled at me every time I moved, but at least it didn’t make noise through the night, or break free from its leash and try to murder me as I slept peacefully in my hammock – that may have crossed my mind at some point.  Luckily the dog was well-behaved, just protective I guess.

Much like the day before, that morning we ate breakfast, packed up, then headed down the road to the river.  This time, though, there was a lot more people in the parking lot where we were planning to fish.  They weren’t fishermen though, it looked like a group of Boy Scouts was getting ready to go on a hiking trip into the Bankhead National Forest.  A short ways up the trail we encountered some boys swimming, which was a little unfortunate because their swimming hole looked like a great place to fish.  We fished a bit downstream of them before walking around where their group was camping in the middle of the trail.  I don’t know why one would pick the middle of the trail, or at the base of a waterfall, like we saw another group doing, as a good place to camp, but what do I know I was just here to fly fish.  Speaking of fishing, Blake managed to catch an Alabama bass in that first spot we tried before we moved on.  After the early fish I was feeling optimistic.

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We went around the boys and continued to fish.  This river was much sandier than the two we fished previously, it actually reminded me a little of the rivers back home, though it didn’t have massive sand bars like you see on rivers south of the Fall Line.  Like the rivers back home it required quite a bit of wading between fishable water.  It definitely had a different feel than the other redeye streams we fished.  We went from stacked shoals on day 1 to high gradient for day 2, now we were on a fairly low gradient stream with lots of sand – we were definitely seeing a good variety of the water Alabama has to offer.  Despite the differences it was just as beautiful as the others, with some of the clearest water I’ve seen in a river, but we found out pretty quickly that it was also a tough place to fish.

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We covered a lot of territory without a bite and I was getting pretty nervous about catching a Warrior bass here.  I was within site of where I planned on turning around and heading back to the truck, but I got lucky and caught one as I floated a woolly bugger near some woody debris on the bank, it came out from a deep spot and nailed my fly.  I had my Warrior bass in hand and there was a little hope for this stream after all, so we kept fishing.

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We gave ourselves a little extra time on the water to see if Blake could land a Warrior bass.  If we didn’t have any luck soon it was onto Plan B.  I wanted so badly for this stream to work out for both of us, but it wasn’t in the cards.  I’m not sure if redeye bass numbers here are low or if the fishing was just tough, either way, we needed to get Blake a Warrior bass before dark and we weren’t having luck here so it was time to make the move.

One of the reasons I wanted to fish here was actually for the hike out.  The trail that runs along the river is one of the best in Alabama, every feeder stream that flows into the river has to go over a massive riverside bluff, so there are numerous waterfalls you pass along your hike.  It’s a really cool place to visit, whether you’re hiking or fishing, one of the prettiest in the state.

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We had been watching the weather all morning and as we hiked out the skies finally opened up.  I couldn’t help but think of how much harder it would be to catch a redeye if Plan B was high and muddy.  Our only hope was that whatever rain that came down would be brief, not only did Blake still need a Warrior bass today, but we still had to catch Cahaba bass tomorrow.

We hit the road toward our next destination, which was a little closer to Birmingham and drove through some serious weather.  It was the kind of storm that makes you put on your flashers when you drive and that’s something I never do.  Zero visibility would not be an overstatement.  We drove far enough east to get to our next creek that we had driven ahead of the line of storms, but that just meant we’d get it again soon.  Blake was out of the truck as soon as we parked, he was a man on a mission.  The dry spell didn’t last long however as the skies opened up again.

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Things weren’t looking good, but luckily the rain, although heavy, was short lived.  He hadan hour, maybe an hour and a half, before we had to be off the water – we were actually in a park that closed at 5:30pm, so the clock was ticking.

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Much like the last stream the fishing was tough.  I did spook a couple of fish that looked like redeye bass near the bank, so we at least knew they were in here, but things were looking bleak. We were down to our last 20 minutes when it finally happened.  He caught a fish and it was a Warrior bass.

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Who would have thought catching an 8″ fish could be so exciting!  What a relief that was, we had already talked about having to swing back through here when we were en route to Georgia for the second half of the slam, but thankfully we wouldn’t need to do that.  It was a tough day of fishing period.  I only caught one, thankfully it was a Warrior bass, Blake only caught two fish, we got seriously lucky.

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We got out of there shortly after that fish and headed south toward the Cahaba watershed, which held Cahaba bass, our final species needed for a Mobile Basin slam.  We found some primitive camping available at Brierfield Ironworks State Park.  We showed up after hours, but that didn’t seem to be a problem, there was plenty of primitive camping available.

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The first night in a hammock is always tough.  I’ve said that in the past and on this trip it was no different.  The hammock is comfortable and it beats sleeping on the ground, but it takes a bit of adjustment coming from a king bed.  Throw in an overzealous whip-poor-will, who was vocal for nearly the entire night, and sleep for me on night one was sporadic at best.

We were up at dawn, ate some breakfast, got packed up, and rolled out of the campground to make our way a few miles up the road to Cheaha Mountain and visit the highest point in the state.

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It was tough to get an unobstructed view of the surrounding area at the top of the tower, there was lots of communication and radio equipment up there.  A better view was had at the restaurant deck a little further down the mountain.  It’s neat what a little bit of elevation can do though.  At 2,400 feet the trees were still leafing out, whereas nearly everything just 1,000 foot down in elevation was pretty much done and making that transition out of Spring.

We came down off the mountain after checking out the view and headed down the road a way to where we planned to fish that morning for Coosa bass in the Talladega National Forest.  I had been told this was as close as I was going to get to a bonafide southern Appalachian blue line trout stream in Alabama and it held our target species so I figured it was worth a visit.

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It didn’t take long for me to get on the board with my second redeye species of the trip, the Coosa bass.  I let Blake play through after that and took time to explore my surroundings.

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It’s always a good idea to stop what you’re doing and take it all in sometimes, it’s amazing how much more you notice when you’re a little more observant.  I found loads of crawfish in the little feeder creeks and a handful of snakes like the one above, which made me a little more cautious while I was doing a bunch of rock hopping knowing they were out and about.

It took a little longer than expected, but Blake got on board with a Coosa bass of his own.  It was about this time that the creek picked up some elevation, entered into a bit of a canyon, and took on a whole new character.

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It was a beautiful stretch of water to wade.  We caught a few more Coosa bass through that section, but I knew it was time to turn around and hike out once I caught a chub in a big pool below a falls, especially when that was the only action we saw in that pool.  It was pretty good timing too because the locals were just making it up the trail to their swimming hole as we were heading out.

We left the creek and headed into nearby Anniston and Cheaha Brewing Company and met up with our friend Mark Miller for lunch and a flight.  No fishing trip is complete without a brewery stop and Cheaha fit the bill.  The food was good and the beer was acceptable.

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We left full and happy and drove through Birmingham en route to the Bankhead National Forest.  For Day 3 we’d target the Warrior bass on a creek that I fished a few times when I lived in Madison, the only place where I’d previously caught redeye before.  It was a much more memorable place for its beautiful scenery than anything else, it seemed only appropriate to head that way.