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Allatoona's alive and kickin'

5/9/2008

What's the worst nickname you've ever heard for a lake?

How about the Dead Sea? Who would ever want to fish a Georgia lake called the Dead Sea?

That's what a small impoundment in the northwest part of the state has been called for about 20 years now.

The irony is Lake Allatoona is nowhere near dead: It was one of the first bigger lakes in the area to completely recover from the drought of 2007. And while its famous cousin, Lake Lanier, was still 14 feet low in early May, Allatoona was looking prime and maxed out at its full summer pool.

It's also boasts a healthy population of baitfish and five kinds of bass: largemouth, spotted, white, striped and white-striper hybrids. In early April, a local caught a 35-pound striped bass that nearly broke the lake record and while yet another caught a 9-pound largemouth.

"You just let them keep thinking it's the Dead Sea," said guide Robert Eidson. "And we'll just keep catching fish."

Alive and kicking

Under the surface, Allatoona is one of the most productive black bass lakes in the state. It's easier to boat five bass at Allatoona than at nearby Lake Lanier, the Savannah River to the east — or even venerable Lake Seminole.

Believe it.

Dr. Carl Quertermus of the University of West Georgia heads a long-term statewide creel study, and the most recent results show Allatoona being in the top five when it comes to the number of bass tournament anglers catch each hour. While 0.3 bass per tournament hour might not sound like much, it's better than Seminole's 0.2. It also ranks high in percentage of tournament anglers who actually caught five or more bass.

In other words, the "Dead Sea" is a great place to fish if you really don't want to get skunked.

But Quertermus and his small army of grad students didn't stop there: They also recorded how much those fish weighed.

And that's where Allatoona sinks.

Allatoona is tied for lowly 15th place (out of 16 lakes surveyed) when it comes to producing heavyweights. Quertermus recorded the average weight of the tournament bass and found the average at Allatoona was only 1.34 pounds, tying with Bartlett's Ferry but beating out Carters Lake's anemic 1.29 pounds.

Seeing spots

The bass in these three northwest Georgia lakes aren't stunted. They're spotted.
In Allatoona, nearly 80 percent of the black bass — or green bass as the guides call them here — are spots, just like Lake Shasta in California, Texoma in Oklahoma, Smith in Alabama and Lanier in Georgia.

The world-record spot is a 10.27-pounder caught at Pine Flat Lake in California. And while Lanier's spots can get to the 8-pound mark, Allatoona's rarely top 7.

Spots are prolific, but always stay in the single digits.

Lanier's spots are often 2- to 3-pounds heavier than Allatoona's; some speculate Lanier's spots gorge on blueback herring, making them they're bigger than in Allatoona, which only gizzard shad and threadfin herring call home.

"I'll take a 4-pound spot any day," said Mike Bucca, who runs Spots Country Guide Service. The south Mississippi transplant said that pound for pound, spots fight harder than largemouth.

When I fished with Bucca in early April, he didn't target pre-spawn spots, because they were staged in deeper water. They were still hanging around the rocks they love, out in 10 to 40 feet of water, though they'd be on the beds soon enough. But with the lake at 57 degrees in early April, they just weren't interested in laying and milting just yet.

The shallow-swimming largemouths were much easier to catch around shoreline stumps, weeds and blowdowns.

Anglers catch decent largemouth here — Bucca caught a nice early-season 9-pounder in April and a few 7-pounders since, all on a big swimbait.

Bucca pushes the swimbait envelope in this part of Georgia: He's found the big bass key in on gizzard shad, which can get as big as yellow perch. So Bucca matches the hatch, having great success throwing a 8-inch, double jointed light swim bait he calls a Hampton Shad, designed by Bucca himself and his friend, Anthony Hampton. Bucca hopes Hampton — who runs Money Makers lure company — to make some 10-inch and even 12-inch versions, just like the real gizzard shad in the lake.

"When things get tough, people throw finesse," said Bucca. "That's what the bass always see. When I'm looking for the big girls, I throw what the bass haven't seen ... and it works."

Bucca uses a 7-foot, 9-inch Dobyns rod with 25-pound-test Triple Fish X Rated line and a Shimano Calcutta or Ardent reel. In the pre-spawn, he casts the swimbait like a banshee at any structure at the water's edge. He directs the trolling motor to pull his Triton parallel to the shore line. When the waters warm to the 60-degree mark, he'll work deeper sections for spots.

"Sometimes you'll find spots where the largemouths will be, and sometimes you'll find largemouths where the spots should be," said Bucca, in his Southern drawl, sometimes chewing on a piece of 25-pound or so monofilament as if it were a toothpick.

With largemouth bass up against fallen trees and weeds in coves, and spots among rocks in 10 to 30 feet of water, next in the water column you'll find the white bass and, deeper still, hybrids and stripers.

Guide Robert Eidson makes a living putting anglers on stripers and hybrids.

"Mike does the green bass, I do the white bass," said guide Edison.

"Green" bass are what you and I call black bass, while "white" bass can be white bass, white-striper hybrids or striped bass.

It's not that Eidson has a disdain for "green" bass (although sometimes you wonder), but rather that he has little interest in pursuing them. He'd rather cast-net shad or herring and deep-drop them to schooled-up white bass he marks on his fish finder.

Eidson, a native to the area, calls friends when his clients catch big stripers. He'll post photos religiously on his guide service's bulletin board.

He recently called me in the middle of dinner with my family to tell me someone on his boat had just caught a 35-pound striper.

"It was awesome! And it was the kid's birthday," said Eidson, shouting into his cell phone from the water. The fish was a few pounds short of the accepted lake record of 39 pounds — and about half of the inland world record of 67 pounds.

But on Allatoona, you take what you can get.

Fished hard

This lake is hammered like few others operated by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. Only 20 miles from Atlanta up Interstate 75, more than 6 million waterskiers, pontoon boaters, swimmers, kayakers and anglers descend on this 12,000-acre impoundment every year; on summer weekends, it feels like they are all here at once.

But give northwestern Georgia anglers and guides the pre-spawn spring, around the time when the dogwoods bloom, and they'll happily take to the muddy creek arms and clear waters of Allatoona.

"It might be the toughest lake to fish in the Southeast," said Bucca, who guides about 120 days a year and manages a Target store in Woodstock, Ga., at night. "But I love it. It's a challenge. If I can put anglers on fish every day out here, I could do it anywhere."

Despite its ornery rep, Allatoona can be kind, too.

It's where I bring my four young sons to fish if I want to be sure they'll bend a rod. I can always count on a small largemouth, a channel cat and loads of bluegills along the banks. The early-season crappie bite is excellent as well.

You could say Allatoona is a work in progress.

Each year, the Corps and area volunteers sink and bind to the lake bottom hundreds of Christmas trees to create additonal baitfish habitat.

Another program allows folks to tag and cut lakeside trees that would eventually fall into the water anyway. By cutting them now, and leaving the roots, overall erosion along the lake's edges is slowed, reducing sediments in the water and giving game fish excellent hidey-holes.

Local color

While checking out a few of these largemouth havens, Bucca got a text message on his cell. His friend, Anthony Hampton, was fishing a tournament, but forgot to bring a Hampton Shad.

A few minutes later, Hampton idled his boat into the cove, sidled up to Bucca's boat and first demanded to see the 7-pound largemouth Bucca caught earlier that day.

Hampton and his two sons, Zech, 14, and Josh, 12, nearly drooled over the big girl as Bucca borrowed Hampton's digital scale to get an accurate weight: 7.49-pounds.

"Let's go get our own," said one of the boys, who started casting a jig in the cove while their dad buttonholed Bucca for big-bass whereabouts.

The Hampton team got ready to plane over to one of the spots Bucca let slip. As the boys strapped on life vests, Zech mentioned it was his birthday.

"I'm always lucky on my birthday," he said. "Imagine that, it's my 14th birthday — and I'm fishing in a bass tournament!"

The Hamptons waved, motored off and jumped up on plane.

The cove was quiet again. There was not a house, building, road or tower in sight. Tall pines, red clay banks, weeds and brown rocks lined the lakeshore as far as you could see. Threadfin herring skipped across the surface. The trolling motor hummed. Finesse worms splashed onto the water's surface, and a swimbait crashed.

"She's on!" said Bucca, as he hooked into another largemouth.

Indeed, life is good on the Dead Sea.