By Chris Funk
Floating over the area I had just thoroughly and unsuccessfully fished, I was not surprised to see several large shoal bass staring back at me. This happens all the time with big shoalies. You think you have them figured out, and then the truth swims under your kayak.
“Well played you big, beautiful beasts,” I said to the fish. They didn’t seem impressed.
There are very few finned critters that get me as fired up as a shoal bass. Old time prospectors were often overcome with a malady called gold fever that caused them to abandon family and friends and go to the ends of the earth in search of a piece
Shoal bass are indigenous to the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint River drainages of Georgia, Alabama and the Florida panhandle. They thrive in the turbulent shoals from which they derive their name. I moved near the ‘Hooch in 1986 and quickly became enamored with this bass. It lived in the most beautiful sections of the river that were mostly reachable by canoe or jonboat, and as a kid that was my mode of transportation. It was rare back then to see anyone else up in those rocks, and that was plenty fine by me. I still fish those same stretches of water, although there are a lot more people these days. The popularity of kayak fishing has opened up water that most folks have never seen.
The areas that shoal bass call home are not for the faint of heart. They love fast-moving, shallow spots loaded with rocks and logs. Often the best way to get to them is on foot while dragging your gear behind you. I have seen monster shoalies come out of some of the smallest holes in the hardest place to reach. If you are the “polished boat, pristine gear” kind of angler; you should probably target another species. If you don’t mind mud, blood and a bruise or two; this may be a match made in heaven. The shoalie sport is as much about hunting as it is fishing if you do it correctly. Stealthy stalking, hiding behind rocks, staying low and going slow are all ingredients to success in shoal bass territory. If that doesn’t get you fired up, “your wick may be wet” as they say in the South.
When you do connect with one, get ready for a dirty fight. Compared to other bass, they are muscle bound from exercising in the current. They use that strength to get to any obstacle that can be leveraged to their advantage. A shoalie is the freshwater equivalent to a reef-dwelling grouper. That grouper knows where every rock or crevasse is, and will “rock up” at the first opportunity. You better believe a shoal bass knows every inch of its territory and will wedge under a rock or wrap a branch as fast as lightning. When that happens, the angler’s best option is to slack off and pray they back out before the line parts, then put the muscle to them when they do—just like in offshore grouper fishing. I have had my heart broken countless times as I watched monsters swim away, trailing a tattered leader after wedging themselves under rocks. Out of the seven species of black bass that I have fought, none compares to the strength of a shoal bass. I hear arguments for the others but every time I tangle with a decent one it just solidifies my stance.
Those same nooks and crannies that are used to break an angler’s line are excellent ambush points. When fishing an area, work as close to the rocks as possible and make any spot that has shade a top priority. The slack area below a rock is good but the vast majority of larger shoal bass I catch come from the upstream side of the obstruction. That pressure wave bouncing off the structure is the perfect place for the big ones to sit facing into the current and ambush whatever floats their way. Not just rocks; large logs and stumps create that same upstream pressure wave, and can be an incredibly productive. Try to get as natural a presentation as possible when fishing this kind of structure, closely watching how your lure drifts into it. The more natural it looks, the more likely you are to convince a big shoalie to eat.
Shoal bass are opportunistic eaters, feeding on whatever draws their interest as it drifts in the current. Shad, sunfish and crawdads are all on the menu; last year, I saw a solid 4-pounder chase a water snake all the way up the bank. They are an incredible fish to catch on topwater lures, with any walk-the-dog bait a good bet. Buzzbaits pulled close to structure are also effective. For subsurface, I typically fish a weightless wacky-rigged worm or Senko-style bait through the riffles on 10-pound test. A good-sized shoal bass on light line in moving water gives you a better workout than the local gym. For shad imitators, I like a fluke-style bait but have friends that power-fish with hand-sized shad baits and regularly catch monster shoalies on them. When fishing deep, it is hard to beat a crawfish imitator rigged to a standup jighead or a football jig
The key to fishing any of these baits: They have to approach from the right direction. Shoal bass obviously spend their lives facing upstream. That’s where the food comes from. So the approach and angle of the cast are critical to a natural presentation. That means casting upstream and across the current, retrieving the lure to intersect the sweet spot in a natural manner. Whether approaching from upstream or downstream, avoid the area suspected of holding fish. If possible, anchor the kayak and stalk the spot silently on foot, selecting a launch site downstream or at most parallel to the target. Cast beyond the suspected lair, and let the current do most of the work in delivering the meal. Be prepared for an instant hookset, and don’t allow the fish any respite. The quicker it is powered from its comfort zone, the better the odds of landing it.
Even when you are on your “A” game and everything seems like it is perfect, shoal bass can humble you. The pack of heavyweights in the opening of this piece were not fictional. I wish I could say that it wasn’t a regular occurrence but that would be a flat-out lie. The simple fact is that shoal bass don’t get big by being dumb. They often follow a bait all the way to the kayak, studying it the entire way, much like a muskie does. The only difference is, the muskie “figure eight” will not convince them to hit. Trust me, it has been tried. To make it even worse, a big shoalie will hang there and look at you as your failure sinks in. This fish can get in an angler’s head and shred every tiny bit of confidence that may have been there.
When you beat the odds and hook a large one, then win the brawl through the rocks and rapids, you will appreciate what a worthy adversary the shoal bass is. It’s truly a muscular, beautifully patterned fish that was tailor made for its environment and worthy of respect. It has to fight Mother Nature, water quality and people who can’t see past hot grease for its very existence. I have no issue with eating a mess of fish, but these same rivers are full of prolific, invasive spotted bass and I would much rather see them on a stringer than a shoalie. That is an argument I seldom seem to win though, and only an angler who truly appreciates these beautiful fish will understand. Spotted bass ruined Georgia’s best smallmouth fishery, and I would hate for that to happen to my beloved shoal bass.
With the increase in accessibly and traffic due to the proliferation of kayak fishing, we need to make sure the angling masses stay educated about this special species. One of my favorite areas has degraded to the point that I no longer go there, due to overfishing by locals. A few years ago I watched a guy pull a 4-foot stringer out of his kayak, loaded with shoal bass. He was the beginning of the end for that place on the river.
Thankfully our Riverkeepers, local guides and dedicated shoal bass anglers are standing in the gap for this incredible species. My own local area of the Chattahoochee recently removed two spillover dams, which returned over two miles of river to premium shoal bass habitat. The level of involvement and cooperation between anglers and government to accomplish that task gives me hope for the future for this awesome fish. We just need enough people to fall hopelessly in love with them like I have. When you get one on the line, you’ll understand.