An Etowah River Fishing Primer

Spanning three distinct geographic regions, the Etowah’s fishery is as diverse as the landscape surrounding it. With 75 native fish species, the Etowah has something to offer every angler.

Trout Water (Headwaters, Hightower, Etowah Falls and Tunneling for Gold Maps)

The Etowah’s rapids, runs and waterfalls provide you with all you would expect from a mountain trout stream. Upstream of Hightower Church Road (Lower Crossing), the Etowah & all its tributaries are seasonal trout streams that are open from the last Saturday in March through October 31st. The remainder of the river in Lumpkin County is open to fishing all year. Most of the river can be waded easily and casting upstream is usually the best approach. Trout in Georgia are not necessarily the finicky, selective feeders like their cousins out west. Georgia trout will eat just about any fly, live or dead bait or artificial lures. For fly casters, caddis and mayfly patterns as well as streamers produce well. If the water is dingy, fishing deep, slow, big and gaudy is the way to go. If the water is running clear, small bright colored flies cast to the shadows yield the best results. Whether you use bait casting or spinning rod, stealth will help. Georgia trout are not selective, but they do spook easily. Always be careful to avoid moving overhead limbs or casting shadows across pools and runs. Getting the bait or lure into the water without alerting the fish is the only way to be a successful.

Sunfish of Dawson County (Big Savannah, Dawson Forest, Eagle’s Beak maps)

As the river flows out of Lumpkin County into Dawson County the river begins its’ swing westward, and although there are still a few trout to be found in the cooler months, water temperatures increase and the primary fish are sunfish. Sunfish are a diverse family and the ones that occupy this part of the river are primarily redeye bass, rockbass, spotted bass and cool water bream varieties. The fly angler can now switch to a heavier rod and larger flies. Popping bugs, leech patterns and wooly buggers work great for the bass family and may even pick up an errant catfish. The green sunfish, red breast, long ear and spotted sunfish have smaller mouths than the bass, and you will have more success with smaller popping bugs, dry flies and wet flies. The best time to fish for sunfish is in warmer weather. In the cold months you might swear that there are no fish in the river. They are there, just sluggish & harder to catch. Spinners such as Mepps, Panther Martin and Blue Fox are perfect for any of the sunfish family. Small minnow-type lures, live minnows and almost any live bait is a good choice in the Dawson County section of the river.

Migratory Sport Fish of Cherokee County (Setting Down the River, Canton, Lake Allatoona Backwaters maps)

After leaving Dawson County the river slows and warms even more. Just as the river has changed, so have the fish species. Redeye bass have now almost disappeared and have been replaced by largemouth bass and spotted bass. Large blue catfish and channel catfish can be found, and since the river soon dumps into Lake Allatoona, migratory species begin to show themselves. White bass, striped bass and crappie all swim upstream in the spring when the water temperatures are perfect for each species. The white bass make their run up the river in late winter/early spring. If the dogwood trees are budding the white bass are making their move. White bass will strike minnows, jigs, small crank baits and spinners. Whites usually congregate at creek mouths and eddys associated with sandbars. Sometimes small striped bass can be found schooling with the whites and these fish will hit the same baits. Striped bass usually make their spawning run a few weeks after the whites. Even though the current flow and temperature combination needed for a successful spawn does not exist in this part of the river, the stripers can still be found. These fish love live shad, large minnow lures and big jigs. Heavier tackle is needed for stripers as they range up to 30 pounds. In late summer as the lake begins to warm, they will return to the river seeking cooler water. Catfish of all sizes are usually found in the deeper, slow sections of the river near Canton. Chicken livers, night crawlers, shad and cut baits fished on the bottom are the best bets for the cat family. The larger the bait, the larger the fish you might catch. Thirty-pound cats are caught every year by the patient bait fisherman.

Lake Allatoona (Lake Allatoona Backwaters, Lake Allatoona maps)

Lake Allatoona is home to a variety of sport fish. During the summer, heavy recreational boat traffic makes portions of the lake almost un-fishable during the daylight hours, but night fishing with minnows for crappie under lights can be very rewarding. All members of the bass family can be landed on the lake. Stripers & hybrids can be caught using the large minnow lures, shad, small trout or by trolling. Sometimes the lake will have a “turnover” in the spring and fall. In the fall this is when the lake surface begins to cool and this water becomes heavier. Often the surface water sinks to the bottom and the oxygen deprived bottom water rises. The effect often results in a die off of the shad that happen to be caught in the process. Fishing can be productive when striper & hybrids gather to feed on the dead & dying shad. Allatoona has many narrow coves that are not conducive to water skiers and wave runners. These coves give the largemouth bass protected places to have their spawning beds. Soft baits, such as plastic worms, lizards and jigs can yield a trophy sized bass or a bunch of good eating sized fish. During the colder months daylight fishing is much easier and almost any fish can be caught on points and sandbars.

Tailwater Fishing (Indian Mounds, Euharlee, Hardin Bridge, Reynolds Bend, Rome maps)

Because of the operation of Allatoona Dam, the Etowah in Bartow and Floyd counties has two distinct personalities: generation flow and non-generation flow at normal low water. Boaters and wade anglers should always be aware of the power generation schedule at Allatoona Dam before embarking on a trip (Call 706-334-7213 for release schedule). Failing to understand this schedule and heeding the signs of rising water can result in the loss of property and life. The river here is characterized by long pools that vary from waste deep to ten feet or more and these sections offer the angler the opportunity to fish the logs and rock outcrops for spotted bass and bream. Lures and flies work as well as anything. The same pools offer some great bottom fishing. The river is full of catfish, drum, smallmouth buffalo, Asian carp and grass carp. Night crawlers work best for the small cats and the rest of the group, except the grass carp. The big cats will hit large cut bait such as shad or bream. If you see grass carp rolling, a dough ball mixed with corn floating on the surface works well. Sometimes wild grapes floating on the surface in the fall will get a fish especially if there are muscadine vines dropping the grapes into the river. Be sure to use heavy tackle because these fish grow to 100 pounds. Striped bass are caught with regularity from mid spring into early fall on the same baits and lures mentioned earlier. Stripers come up the river from the Coosa and Oostanaula Rivers. By late May they can be caught anywhere in the river from Thompson Weinman dam downstream to Rome.

At low levels the Etowah has perfect wading areas for catching striped bass. There are stretches of the river that are knee to waste deep for as far as a mile or more. These shallow areas often have one or more fish weirs crossing them. These weirs act as funnels that stripers often use to their advantage. The stripers will wait in an eddy on the downstream side of the funnel mouth and ambush a shad or other baitfish as it swims downstream. An angler should either wade or position their boat fifty feet or so below the mouth of the weir, out of the current, and cast their lure to the upstream side of the funnel. Then the retrieve should be fast enough to surpass the speed of the current so that the bait will have a natural action. If a striper is there, be prepared to wind faster and set the hook hard. This technique is especially productive when the river is rising as a result of releases from Allatoona Dam. Of course, this is when being in a boat or canoe is imperative for safety sake.

A word of caution about fish caught in the Etowah:

Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources has issued fish consumption guidelines for specific species caught in various sections of the Etowah from Dawson County to Floyd County due to elevated levels of mercury and PCBs, contaminants that can cause a variety of health problems in humans who consume these fish. Generally, the largest predatory fish contain the highest levels of contaminants. It is best to take photos of the large fish and release them. Smaller fish are safer to eat. For specific fish consumption guidelines refer to the Department of Natural Resources website.

Compiled by Paul Diprima
Coosa Valley Chapter Trout Unlimited