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A hard-fighting striper was a pleasant surprise for Rusty Chinnis on his float trip. - Wes McElroy | Submitted

Reel Time on the Road: River of Painted Rocks

The river’s edge was garlanded with the lime-green blush of early spring. Maples, oaks and sourwood trees lined the banks, punctuated with the blossoms of flowering dogwoods, eastern redbud and flame azaleas. The Creek Indians aptly named the river Chattahoochee, or River of Painted Rocks, a reference to the many colorful stones and rock outcroppings in and along the banks of the river.

Jimmy Harris, co-owner of Unicoi Outfitters, prepares to release a 20-plus inch shoal bass with Wes McElroy. – Rusty Chinnis | Sun
Jimmy Harris, co-owner of Unicoi Outfitters, prepares to release a 20-plus inch shoal bass with Wes McElroy. – Rusty Chinnis | Sun

Wes McElroy paddled the raft through the shallow rapids, periodically dropping the anchor so Jimmy Harris and I could explore deep pockets on the river’s bottom where we worked flies and small jigs for shoal bass. This species of bass was first described as a new species in 1999, having formerly been considered a redeye bass or a subspecies of the redeye bass. Resembling a smallmouth or spotted bass, shoal bass are found predominately in the Chattahoochee, Flint and upper reaches of the Apalachicola rivers, an area known as the AFC Drainage, that begins in the mountains of north Georgia and ends in the Gulf of Mexico.

This was my second time exploring this part of the river, about 20 miles below the town of Helen, Georgia, where McElroy manages and runs trips for Unicoi Outfitters, North Georgia’s premier fly shop. For many years I had fished the waters near the shop’s private waters on the Chattahoochee for trout. When I inquired about a new experience, McElroy encouraged me to try shoal bass fishing. I did my first trip with him in the fall of 2020, and although we hooked and lost several fish, the action was less than spectacular. When I asked him about shoal bass on my recent trip, he encouraged me to try again.

According to McElroy, the bass are preparing to spawn in late April and are easier to target in the areas they congregate prior to the spring ritual. Over the years, I have developed a friendship with Harris, Unicoi Outfitters’ co-owner, and invited him to join us on the expedition.

We launched McElroy’s inflatable raft at the Route 115 bridge southeast of Cleveland, Georgia, for a five-hour float to the pullout where the Duncan Bridge crosses the Chattahoochee. After dropping me off with the raft, McElroy took his truck to the takeout where he met Harris. The two then returned and we slid the raft down a steep embankment to the river’s edge.

On this trip we were rewarded with multiple shoal bass on fly and spin tackle and one of the most scenic float trips I have ever taken. The productive fishing was interspersed with slower-moving, less-productive sections of “frog water,” where McElroy encouraged us to sit back and enjoy the scenery.

It took me a few missed strikes to get the hang of hooking these elusive bass as our guide coached me to feel for the tap, tap of a bite before setting the hook when the pressure was consistent. While not every section of the river produced fish, the ones we caught were “quality” fish, several ranging between 20 and 21 inches.

In a run between two pools, I hooked a fish that peeled line off the reel in a number of hard surges, atypical of the more dogged fight of the shoal bass. As it turned out, I had hooked into one of the hard-fighting striped bass that also inhabit these waters. Over the course of the afternoon, we caught and landed numerous bass and had several doubles. It was an excellent reintroduction to a completely different kind of fishing experience and I eagerly await a rematch.

McElroy can be reached at Unicoi Outfitters at 706-878-3083 and by visiting their website. If you’re looking for a great day on the waters of North Georgia, whether you’re seeking trout, stripers or shoal bass, the guides at Unicoi Outfitters can feed your passion.

Rusty Chinnis is the Outdoors columnist of the Anna Maria Island Sun and chairman of Suncoast Waterkeeper, an organization dedicated to preserving the coastal environment.