Reel Time: Stripers on the Hooch

The Chattahoochee River has an intimate connection with Florida, one that existed long before I first visited it near its headwaters at Jack’s Knob in northeastern Georgia.

It flows for over 400 miles, merging with the Flint and finally the Apalachicola River at the Florida Georgia border before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico at Apalachicola Bay. Since my first visit nearly 30 years ago, I have enjoyed fishing its upper reaches for rainbow, brown and the occasional brook trout.

Recently, I was introduced to an entirely new fishery by Jimmy Harris, owner of Unicoi Outfitters, and Jeff Durniak, a Trout Unlimited award-winning trout conservationist and Georgia DNR fishery biologist. Striper bass or stripers as they are commonly known are an anadromous (adapted to fresh and saltwater) fish, so in some regions, their upriver spawning migrations led some individuals to become landlocked during lake dam constructions.

Georgia’s Lake Lanier stripers were introduced to control an invasive forage fish. In recent years, abundant rainfall in the southern Appalachians and the subsequent high water has made it possible for populations to travel upstream as far north as the Nora Mill Dam near Helen. As luck would have it, this dam lies right behind Unicoi Outfitters and just 10 minutes from our cabin in Sautee. When I got a text from Harris that he and Durniak were fishing the river for stripers after closing, I jumped at the chance.

While I had heard of fish up to 20 pounds being hooked, I had no idea what to expect. The opportunity to fish with Harris and Durniak was reason enough to don waders that afternoon, but the experience was an eye-opener. We started fishing at the base of the dam at Nora Mill, which forms a barrier to the stripers that migrate up the Chattahoochee from Lake Lanier. This spot, as well as Unicoi Outfitter’s one and a half-mile stretch of the river leading up to it, concentrate the fish on their mission to spawn, search for food and find cooler waters.

I was fishing a seven-weight outfit and a large, flashy baitfish pattern. It only took two casts before I was hooked up with a small striper, and then in quick succession, Harris was hooked up, and then I missed another bigger fish. At Harris’ suggestion, we moved further downriver fishing the deep runs, pools and pockets along the way.

Harris positioned me on a rock that jutted out into the current and showed me how to swing the fly and work it in the swift current. On my third cast, a big striper crashed the fly on the surface and made a downstream run that threatened to have me sprinting after it. Fortunately, I was able to turn him at the last moment, fighting him back upstream from pool to pool. After another two or three spirited runs, we were able to slide the striper up on a shallow ledge where Harris landed and released him. We estimated the fish weighed about 9 pounds.

 Stripers on The Hooch
Jeff Durniak holds a striper taken on the Chattahoochee River just below the Nora Mill Dam. – Rusty Chinnis | Sun

I began to fish the same water again but soon became aware of Harris photographing Durniak, his rod doubled on a nice fish. Hurrying just downstream from the dam, I was able to get some good shots of the striper before it was released. I went back to fishing, but the action had slowed and the light was fading from the river. Durniak and I met Harris as he was returning from the base of the dam where he had hooked a fish that he thought was a rock. After tugging on the obstruction a couple of times, it took off and broke him off. Looking back up at the deck at Nora Mill heath, several bystanders indicated with outstretched arms that the fish had been a big one.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the river and the unexpected action on the stripers made it even more special. It’s always a treat to experience a new fishery and especially one that’s new to even those anglers living nearby. The run of striper just adds to the special nature of a place already on my top 10 list. This is partly about the quality of the fishing but also the level of expertise and professionalism exhibited by those associated with Unicoi Outfitters. To reach Unicoi Outfitters and experience the excellent fishing visit their website or call 706-878-3083.

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