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Fly Fishing for Shoal Bass

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

By Ellis Wynn: 1-17-2023

As doggedly hard fighting as a smallmouth, and as efficient a predator as the largemouth, the Shoal Bass is perhaps my favorite fish to target on a fly rod in Georgia. Balancing the best attributes of its more recognized cousins, these well-honed predators are at the top of the food chain in the river systems they call home.

I first started fishing for shoal bass as a kid. My Dad would take me to the Flint River with ultralight spinning gear, but it wasn’t until I picked up a fly rod that my interest in this fish really picked up. There are few fish on the shoals that will stop you in your tracks quite like a seven-pound shoal bass. Shooting out from under a rock ledge to crush a fly, then tearing off downstream while you fumble over rocks and deep pools trying to keep up, these fish flat out bring it. They are relatively easy to fool and predictable, though the bigger specimens will take some skill.

The easiest way to target them is usually done from a boat to access the shoals on rivers, but in the summertime water levels drop low enough to wade. Kayaks are well suited for this; paddle out to shallow waters, drop anchor and then wade fish the area you prefer.

Where Can I Find Them?

This unique species is found exclusively in the subtropical waters of Georgia, Florida, and parts of eastern Alabama. Their strict habitat requirements demand free-flowing, rocky bottom rivers that run clean. In Georgia, Shoal Bass can be found in the Ocmulgee, Flint, Savannah, and Chattahoochee Rivers. Quick currents, rocky shoals, weed beds, pools, and mouths of tributaries are the best areas to seek out 'shoalies'. Still, the deterioration of water quality due to the introduction of man made flow control measures like dams, and the introduction in some areas of spotted bass present a threat to this species that will require active participation in conservation and good stewardship of the outdoors.

On The Fly

Shad, crayfish, minnows, hellgrammites, and small panfish consist of their main diet, so make sure to match the hatch when you go out. Typically, I use a streamer pattern like a white Deceiver or Game Changer, or something resembling a small crayfish bouncing along the bottom. Clouser patterns will work fine and catch a lot of fish but expect the size of the fish to be smaller. Poppers are fun in the summer when the bass get warmed up and provide explosive bites on the surface. Nymphs, like hellgrammites, are also surprisingly productive.

The Gear

I suggest a 6 weight fly rod minimum, all the way up to an 8 weight (typically what I use). You won't need anything with impressive drag systems, so a Lamson Liquid or Orvis Clearwater reel will be fine. I use 10-15lb tippet and leader, it isn’t advisable to go any lower than that because Shoal Bass will run under rocks and fallen logs when the opportunity arises.

While wade fishing for these shoal dwellers can be especially satisfying, contending with unrelenting current and treacherous stone bottom may best be done from from kayak, canoe, or other small watercraft that will allow you to hop from one shoal to the next more safely and efficiently.

When To Target Them?

Much like their more widely spread cousins, Shoal Bass can be patterned many different ways throughout the year. As a fly angler, I really appreciate the opportunities they provide to keep me on my toes, and continuously evolving my game. Look to chase shoal bass during the seasons with the following patterns:

  • Late spring/early summer - Look for shoalies to be a little more aggressive during this seasonal period. Fish will be actively and aggressively feeding. I prefer large streamer patterns resembling local forage fish, shad, or crayfish. Familiarize yourself with local 'food item's and mimic those patterns!

  • Late summer/early fall - As the season begins to cool off start testing the surface of the water. Fish will be more likely to rise on poppers - but continue to throw the same streamer patterns from early summer. Once winter rolls around, slow down your retrieve or switch to a nymph rig. Shoalies will be keyed in on hellgrammites and anything that nymphs resembling them.

  • Late fall/early spring - For me, this period has always been the 'big fish' window. I catch bigger Shoal Bass consistently between late fall and early spring. Be mindful of local water levels. Stay attentive to local and upstream weather patterns. Local rains and runoff from upriver that impede visibility and disturb flow will make it substantially more difficult to target these fish. In clear water, the eats can be very visual and aggressive.

Should you be passing through the clean rivers of western Georgia - make it a point to target one of North America's most unique bass species. The pursuit of shoal bass blends all of the best elements of the internationally recognized largemouth, and the hard fighting smallmouth. Take pride in knowing you're chasing a fish completely native to its range, unique in character, and prime to take a fly.

Ellis Wynn

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