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The Natural Georgia Series: The Flint River

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Native Shoal Bass: Unique Habitat Conditions Foster a Popular Fishery

by Michelle S. Davis. Photos by Richard T. Bryant.

Fly fishing in the rocky shallows is a popular method for catching shoal bass. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_T_bryant@mindspring.comTentatively I inched forward, one foot after the next plunging into swirling currents. Underneath, my feet struggled to gain footing in the shifting rock floor of the river bottom. Even in shallow water, the unstable rocks pitched with every step, and the swiftly moving stream struggled to carry me downstream.

We were wading across the Flint River in middle Georgia at Sprewell Bluff State Park in search of shoal bass. Armed in borrowed waders much too large for me and boots that were a half size too small, I looked awkward as I made my way across the river with my fishing rod held out in front of me. I felt strangely akin to an astronaut walking on the moon, due to the buoyant feel of each step through the water in my bulky clothing and heavy boots.

The sounds of the rapids and the view were soothing though and took my mind off my clumsiness. Magnificent sheer cliffs, for which the park is named, frame the river in this section. Subtle hues of browns, tans, and greens stretching toward the sky create quite a backdrop for the Flint River winding its way through the gorge. One might easily mistake the view for a scene out of the north Georgia mountains as opposed to the Piedmont.

The river is equally beautiful, with a series of cascading shoals. Deep, dark pools are interspersed with stretches of clear water tumbling over rocks of various sizes. The river is wide here with water swirling, dividing, and joining once again between the two banks.

We were on an expedition to fish for shoal bass, the trophies of the Flint. The November day was beautiful with moderate temperatures in the low 60s. Not a cloud marred the perfectly blue sky, and a recent day's rain hadn't been enough to muddy the river, as is sometimes the case.

We were wading the shoals of the Flint because shoal bass, as their name implies, are typically found in the shoals, rapids, and riffles of streams. While most fish, such as the largemouth bass, prefer the calmer water in the pools, shoal bass primarily occupy fast-moving water.

The only waters in which shoal bass are found are in Georgia, eastern Alabama, and north Florida, where they are native to the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river system. Within their range, they are most abundant in the Flint.

The shoal bass (Micropterus cataractae) wasn’t designated as a separate species until two years ago. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_T_bryant@mindspring.comBecause shoal bass spend their days fighting the currents of the shoals, they are strong fish. That endurance translates into a good, acrobatic fight when hooked at the end of a line, and is sure to entice even the most experienced angler.

"They're fighters," said Jimmy Jacobs, author of Bass Fishing in Georgia, who happened to be my guide for the day. "One of the oddities of this fish is that big ones take a fly and dive real quick. They try to get under the rocks."

With that knowledge in hand, I was ready to catch a fish. After we had waded downstream a ways to locate some of the "better looking" shoals, we began making our rhythmic casts into the water.

"You want to cast into the fast-moving current," instructed Jacobs. The swirling currents of the rapids are the ideal spot to catch a shoal bass. We cast again and again, wading up and downstream and from left to right.

We didn't have much luck though, and by the end of the day, I was casting into the pools, up against the underside of rocks-anywhere I thought a fish might be hiding. Once again, I was fishing on a day when the fish weren't biting. In fact, we only caught three fish that day, a pitiful creel number for more than five hours of fishing.

The New Fish on the Block

Anatomically, the shoal bass (Micropterus cataractae) on top is similar to the spotted bass (Micropterus punctulatus punctulatus) on bottom. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_T_bryant@mindspring.com Though anglers like us have been reeling in shoal bass for many years, the fish was still unofficially named as recently as two years ago. In fact, the fish had not been designated as a separate species. Informally, some experts had recognized its existence as a new bass. As early as 1940 a scientist named Dr. Carl Hubbs had theorized that this fish was its own distinct species during his research on black basses. Fishermen also acknowledged the shoal bass as a separate species.

"Shoal bass were broadly recognized as early as the 1940s, but there weren't very many specimens around," said George Burgess, an ichthyologist and Coordinator of Operations at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. "The panhandle region and southern Georgia were still the 'country,' so the sort of mainstream ichthyologists hadn't spent a lot of time looking there."

Anatomically, the shoal bass (Micropterus cataractae) on top is similar to the spotted bass (Micropterus punctulatus punctulatus) on bottom. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_T_bryant@mindspring.comThose studying the bass groups were reluctant to describe the fish with the presence of so few specimens. "Nobody had enough material," said Burgess.

Not until the 1990s did two Florida scientists step up to the task. Burgess teamed up with Jim Williams to conduct the research necessary to describe the fish, finally completing their work in 1999.

One of the reasons Burgess felt compelled to write the description of the shoal bass was to ensure some protection for the fish. Loss of habitat in both Florida and Georgia was posing a serious threat to this bass that relies on such a specific type of riverine habitat. Only when the fish had a scientific name could it be designated a threatened species and properly protected. Without an official name, the fish could risk disappearing forever.

As a result, Burgess and Williams began the long process of scientifically describing a fish. They spent the next five to six years collecting specimens, counting scales, taking measurements, describing color patterns of juveniles versus adults and more. They also went back through published reports of feeding habits and reproductive activity of similar fish. They discovered publications where fish listed as a spotted or redeye bass were actually a shoal bass, and they were able to uncover some useful information that was already researched.

When it came to naming the fish, Burgess and Williams decided to keep the common name of "shoal bass" since it had been known as that since the early 1970s. (Some also know the fish as the Flint River smallmouth in Georgia or the Chipola bass in Florida.) The scientific name they chose was Micropterus cataractae. Cataractae is drawn from the Latin word, cataracta, meaning waterfall. The name became official once they completed a written description, which was peer-reviewed and published in a technical journal.

Range

The shoal bass is unusual not only because of the many years it went unnamed, but also because it can be found only within the ACF basin in the southeastern United States. According to Burgess, such a limited range is not unique to the shoal bass.

"It's not unusual to have a species like this relegated to one single drainage system," said Burgess.

Experts don't know exactly where the first shoal bass originated and whether it then expanded up- or downstream. What they do know is that the bass relies primarily on limited habitat, riverine habitat with shoals, for its existence.

The native range of the shoal bass stretches from southeast Alabama into northwest Florida and Georgia. Its range in the Peach State is limited to the drainage of the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers. Shoal bass, sometimes referred to as shoalies, occur throughout the entire Flint River system; however, they are concentrated in the shoals of the Flint, such as those at Sprewell Bluff in middle Georgia, where the river appears extremely healthy and capable of supporting a productive fishery.

Mary Freeman, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, has been studying conditions of fishes and habitats in the shoal section of the Flint River from Flat Shoals to Snipe Shoals.

"We don't have many rivers that have shoal habitat like the Flint," she said. "We've lost a lot of shoal habitat to big hydro-powered dams. Most of the shoals on the Chattahoochee were destroyed by impoundments.

"What astounds me about the Flint is how good the habitat looks in that section from Flat Shoals, to Sprewell Bluff, and Yellow Jacket shoals. Even during the summer drought, when the water was very low, the fish were abundant."

Though the river's headwaters begin in an urban area, near Hartsfield International Airport as a matter of fact, the waterway supports a whole range of native fish, including shoal bass, minnows, the rare Halloween darter, and even mussels, Freeman said.

Shoal bass continue to be common in the Flint farther south, as well, where the river takes on a different appearance than that of its headwaters.

"We have a popular and productive fishery in the lower Flint as well," said Fisheries Biologist Matt Thomas of the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) Fisheries Department. "Contrary to popular belief, we do have shoal habitat in this lower section of the river. Most of the Flint River in this area has the typical limestone bottom and outcropping. The water is not falling as quickly as in the northern section of the Flint, but it is a little bit deeper. Shallow shoals are not as prevalent, but there are definitely shoals."

The lower section of the Flint has a somewhat different appearance from its headwaters because it lacks the fast-moving shoals that are characteristic of the Flint in its headwaters. Outcroppings of rocks are common in the lower Flint, however, and that is where shoal bass are usually found.

Shoals are the preferred habitat for the shoal bass, however, they can and will occur in other areas, says Jacobs. "They don't have to have shoals, but they do need rocks," said Jacobs.

In the southern reaches of the Flint, shoal bass occur south of Blackshear Dam from Albany almost all the way to Bainbridge. Some of the tributaries in this area also harbor the fish. In addition, shoalies are occasionally found in the headwaters of Lakes Seminole, Chehaw, and Blackshear.

In other areas of the ACF basin, shoal bass aren't quite as prevalent, although they are believed to have once occurred in abundance throughout the system.

"They aren't found throughout the ACF any more," said Burgess.

Like so many other wildlife species throughout Georgia, the shoal bass has fallen victim to loss of habitat. Dredging and damming of rivers ruined habitat, erasing shoals from the streams to allow for barge traffic and power plants. As the shoals disappeared, so did the shoal bass, leaving the vast majority of the population limited to just one river, the Flint. The Chattahoochee River is a prime example of how habitat loss can affect a fishery.

"Because of man's impacts, the Chattahoochee population certainly has been reduced to the point of being at most incidental. Shoal bass occur only in a very few places due to impoundments on the river," said Les Ager, WRD Regional Fisheries Supervisor. "There is a reasonable population in the headwaters, but between Lake Lanier and West Point very few shoal bass exist. Once below West Point, there is very little riverine habitat, due to dams."

Jacobs agrees with Ager. He has found shoal bass in the Chattahoochee from Helen on downstream to the dam, but "they're not what I would call common in that part," he says. In the headwaters, "shoal bass receive a lot of competition from spotted bass coming out of Lanier."

Ager has found that in areas where the shoal bass are less abundant, such as in the Chattahoochee, they seem to occur almost exclusively in the shoals, as opposed to in the Flint where the population has dispersed into areas devoid of typical shoal habitat.

Only one other area in Georgia contains shoal bass, though the fish aren't native to that river. In 1975, shoalies were introduced into the Ocmulgee River, the upper drainage of the Altamaha system, and can be found today in the shoals of that river just below Lake Jackson. They exist in some of the main tributaries there, as well.

In Florida, shoal bass exist in the Apalachicola River and the Chipola River, a tributary from the west. Even there, the population has changed dramatically over the years.

"There was continuous distribution at one time, but now there is only a remnant population just south of the dam on the Apalachicola and the middle section of the Chipola," said Burgess.

The installation of the Jim Woodruff Dam at the Georgia/Florida border changed the look of the Apalachicola, Flint, and Chattahoochee rivers there, limiting the shoal bass to a 6-mile area downstream of the dam.

Natural History

The shoal bass is considered a black bass, those members of the sunfish family (Centrarchidae) that get the largest, said Ager. Included in this group are the largemouth, spotted, redeye, smallmouth, Suwannee, Guadeloupe, and shoal bass. Six of these seven black bass occur in Georgia, more than in any other state in the country. Only the Guadeloupe bass, which is native to Texas, is missing from Georgia's waters.

The most distinguishing feature of the shoal bass is the dark vertical bars running the length of the body. The red eye is another obvious feature, as well as the round, dark spot that appears toward the base of the tail. Scale color varies from pale olive green, to dark olive green, to even black at times. Three lateral dark bars can be seen on the side of the head across the cheek.

Shoal bass reach sexual maturity at age three and spawn in the spring, generally from April to June of each year.

"It's a common misconception that shoal bass spawn earlier than other bass species. They probably spawn later," said Ager. "Anglers think it occurs in February or March, but it's actually the first of May."

Males use their tail to dig out saucer-shaped nests in course gravel beds out of the main current. The male fish boldly guards the nest. In fact, males do most of work, with the female's role basically limited to laying the eggs. A single nest contains an average of 10,000 eggs, though the range varies from as few as 5,000 to as many as 22,000.

Shoal bass are stronger than many other fish and that may be the cause for their acrobatic leaps when caught on the end of a fishing line. This characteristic is accounted for by the habitat in which this fish has evolved to survive. "The shoal bass has to be strong to make a living," said Ager.

Despite their strength, shoal bass are one of the smaller bass species, averaging lengths of a mere 9 to 12 inches, and an average weight of 8 ounces, said Jacobs. Some individuals will reach 16 to 18 inches, however.

"Any larger than that and you're talking about a trophy fish," said Jacobs.

David Hubbard caught Georgia's state record shoal bass, an 8-pound, 3-ounce fish, in the Flint on October 23, 1977. That fish was also the world record for many years before being beat by Carl W. Davis who caught an 8-pound, 12-ounce shoalie from the Apalachicola River in northern Florida on November 11, 1995.

Shoal bass are like other warmwater predators and are very versatile, feeding on whatever is most abundant in that location or season. They typically feed on a variety of other fish, invertebrates, and crustaceans. Young fish feed mostly on insects, but once they reach 6 inches or larger, they begin diversifying their diet.

"One misconception of anglers is that crayfish are real important because anglers often find crayfish in the stomachs of the bass," said Ager. "The truth is that crayfish just don't digest as quickly, so one found in a bass may have been there for a week or more."

Steve Golladay with the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center discovered an abundance of crayfish in one of his studies on stomach contents of fish. He compared different species of fish and found that the shoal bass consumed more crayfish than the other species. He also found an abundance of a Dobson fly larvae, which lives under rocks in shoals.

"Shoal bass are the largest predator on the shoals; they're unique in that respect," said Burgess. "They are like the southern trout, found in riffle areas that are more characteristic of trout streams in northern climates. The difference is they grow larger than most trout."

Comparisons to Other Bass

Native bass species of the Apalachicola basin include the shoal, redeye (Micropterus coosae), and largemouth (Micropterus salmoides) basses. The fourth bass species to occur in the system is the introduced spotted bass (Micropterus punctulatus punctulatus).

Despite the similarities in appearance between the bass species of Georgia, there are several ways to distinguish between them. Shoal bass have been historically confused with the redeye, even though they don't occur in the same rivers. Redeyes, also known as Coosa bass, are only found in the Coosa River system. Still, anglers have a tendency to call any fish sporting a red eye a "redeye."

"Traditionally everything has been called a redeye in the Chattahoochee," said Jacobs. There is even a fish in the Savannah River system that is commonly called a redeye. It may soon be designated as yet another species of bass that most closely resembles a shoal bass. There's also a panfish in the mountains known as a rock bass, which is called a redeye by some, said Jacobs.

Despite the variety of common names and the confusion it generates among anglers, shoal bass are actually very different from redeyes. First of all, they don't have the red brick coloration on the tail fins that is indicative of a redeye. The tail fins of a shoalie are clear with a hint of green. Secondly, redeyes are missing the dark spot at the base of the tail that is apparent on the shoal bass. Redeyes, being the smallest of the black basses, are also smaller in size than shoalies.

When compared to largemouths, the difference is in the fins, jaw, and eyes. For one thing, shoal bass have smaller mouths. In addition, the dorsal fins of the shoal bass are connected, unlike those of the largemouth, and their jaw line stops before it reaches the eyes. Only the shoal bass has the red eyes. The color patterns of the two fishes are also strikingly different. The largemouth has a dark lateral bar across the body, while the shoal bass sports vertical bars. Largemouths are predominately green, with white and silver accents, while the shoal bass is much darker. Largemouths are also simply larger fish and are found in different areas of the river, for the most part.

It is possible to turn up a largemouth every now and then in a shoal, however. "The largemouth is not a real current fish. He's not going to fight the current but will be found in a bend, in the slack water," said Jacobs.

Anatomically, the shoal bass is most like the spotted bass. Differences include the typical absence of a tongue patch, a small spot of teeth that occur in the middle of the tongue, in the shoal bass. (Variances do occur in this one characteristic, as we found during our fishing trip on the Flint. One of the shoals we caught had a tongue patch along with all of the other characteristics indicative of a shoal bass.) Additionally, spotted bass are missing the characteristic dark, vertical bars found on the shoal bass.

Spotted bass are not typically found in the same areas inhabited by shoalies though they both favor similar habitats. Shoalies are thought to be the dominant fish and typically don't share space with spotted bass. Spotted bass are also larger fish, averaging 25 inches from head to tail.

In the Flint River, a bass pulled out of the river is one of two species, a largemouth or a shoal bass, so the distinction should be easy to make. Above Lake Lanier on the Chattahoochee River, a bass could be either a spotted or a shoal.

Fishing for Shoal Bass

Kyle West proudly holds a prize shoal bass. Photo by Richard T. Bryant. Email richard_T_bryant@mindspring.comFishing for shoal bass has become quite a popular sport. The shoals of the Flint are hot spots for anglers, especially on weekends in the spring. Sprewell Bluff State Park is one of the best fishing locations because of its easy access. Big Lazer Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is another. The Flint borders one side of the WMA, and access is easy via the WMA road. In addition, the creek on the WMA also has a good population of shoalies and is worth checking out. It borders another side of the WMA for several miles. Big Lazer is not an optimum location during low water situations or in the dead of summer when fishing is not as good.

Most of the Flint's other shoal sections occur on private land. Anglers must have permission to access the river from the land; however, they can fish those sections if they're drifting the river. Yellow Jacket Shoals located between Sprewell Bluff and Hightower Shoals is one of those areas, but the class III and IV rapids in this area are not typically approached with an open-deck canoe. The remote shoals are worth the effort it takes to reach them, however, for some excellent opportunities to land a nice-sized shoalie.

Farther south is Snipe Shoals. The fishing rights to these shoals are leased by Cane River Outfitters. Anglers must check in with the outfitters before accessing this stretch of the Flint.

Another honorable mention in terms of shoals is located not on the Flint but on the Chattahoochee. Factory Shoals found in Sweetwater Creek State Park is a relatively unknown spot for catching a shoal bass. The creek feeds into the Chattahoochee and has a nice population of shoalies.

"You'll catch probably as many spotted as shoals, but you will turn up some shoal bass in these waters," said Jacobs.

While the shoals of the upper Flint receive the majority of fishing pressure, fishing for shoalies on the lower Flint has picked up over the past three to four years, reported Thomas. Even anglers from the Piedmont area have been traveling south to sample the action. They're catching large fish, too, weighing 5 pounds and up.

"The last couple of years starting with 1999, we've had good year classes. Some of the difference may be due to supplemental stocking," said Thomas.

The lower Flint is the only section of river where shoal bass are stocked. When WRD fisheries managers first began stocking the lower Flint, they alternated each year between a section of river above and below Albany. They had hoped to determine differences in the year classes between river sections, but the big flood of 1994 wiped out their data.

During the last two years, WRD has concentrated its stocking efforts on a 32-mile section of river between Lake Blackshear and Albany. WRD is currently conducting research to determine the contribution of stocked fish to the population. Approximately 50,000 1- to 2-inch fingerlings are released each spring. The fish are grown at the Cordele and Dawson warmwater fish hatcheries run by WRD.

When fishing for shoal bass, the most common method is fly-fishing in shoal areas. On the lower Flint, most anglers resort to a spinning rod, although fly rods are gaining in popularity. Thomas says many of the fly-fishermen there attempt to tie flies that resemble small crayfish. Spinning rods are effective when using a combination of crayfish imitations, worms, and other lures.

April and May is the best time to fish for big fish. "It's the easiest time to catch them," said Jacobs. "But water levels are often too high and too muddy. You can get a lot of small fish in the summer, but you also get low water and bright sunshine."

Our fishing efforts on our November trip were thwarted by sunny skies and daylight hours. We fished from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. and had a difficult time locating the fish and getting them to bite. Shoal bass tend to congregate under rocks in the middle of the day to escape from the sun, making it difficult to locate them and entice them to take a lure.

"A shoal bass holds tight against the rocks and avoids the light," said Jacobs.

In cases where they have the option, they also move into deeper waters, further decreasing our odds of reaching them.

There is a minimum length requirement for shoal bass on the Flint River. All shoal bass taken home from the Flint must be at least 12 inches.

When fishing for shoal bass, wading is probably the best method. A number of anglers float the river when shoal bass fishing. For years, Jacobs, like many others, thought you had to float the Flint to fish for shoalies. Wading is actually more effective to fish in the rapids. When float fishermen hit the shoals, they generally take their rods out of the water to maneuver themselves through the rapids with their oars. They then put their fishing rods back in the water when they clear the shoals. This process, while protecting them from capsizing during the ride, results in them missing the majority of the fish that are hanging out in the rapids. Anglers who are wading don't have that problem, and they can easily access the rapids without racing past them and the fish.

Fishing the lower Flint requires other methods, due to the difference in habitat.

"It's such a different thing once you get on the lower waters," said Jacobs. "You don't have wadeable shoals, and it's mostly boat fishing."

Fly fishermen are making their way into the lower Flint waters, though, and taking advantage of the shoal bass fishery there.

The previous drought years may have had a small detrimental effect on the shoal bass population. According to Ager, there have been less fish in the shoals over the past few years. He attributes it to consecutive years of drought or the "equivalent to a smaller river." One year of drought wouldn't have produced such an effect, he said, but several years can.

Still, the opportunities to catch a shoal bass are very good. And the areas they occupy on the Flint are stunning enough to warrant a trip, whether you really want to catch a fish or not.

This newest of the black bass family with all of its unique characteristics makes it the finest fish of the Flint and worth protecting for future generations.


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