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Coosa River Fly Fishing

By Slapout Mike

    If we all woke up this morning and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) had just designated the 7.5 mile stretch of the Coosa River from Jordan Dam to Wetumpka as “Fly Fishing Only”, we’d all be surprised.  The hardware and bait fisherman would clearly be outraged.  But for us fly fisherman, the designation would have little effect because we already know this is some of the best fly fishing water in Central Alabama.  The Coosa rises in Northwest Georgia near Rome, travels some 150 miles to Jordan Dam through seven reservoirs, and drains 10,148.00 square miles of Northeast Alabama and Georgia watersheds.  When the Coosa leaves Lake Jordan, 14 miles remain until it finds the Tallapoosa River to form the Alabama.  The first half of that final leg to the Alabama is loaded with fly fishing opportunity.

    The Coosa River holds the typical mix of healthy Alabama game fish.  Good sized Spotted Bass predominate, but there are opportunities for Largemouth and Redeye Bass.  In a 2005 Coosa River Management Survey, the ADCNR found that 26% of the Spotted Bass sampled from this stretch of river were over 18 inches.  The largest Spot collected in that survey was 21 inches long. Bluegill, Red-Eared Sunfish, Redbreast Sunfish and Crappie are present in good numbers.  The river holds White Bass which make seasonal runs as well as Striped Bass and Hybrid Striped Bass.  All these species are exceptional fly rod targets.  Freshwater Drum and Longnose Gar are also present in good numbers and are occasionally caught on the fly rod.

The River

     Before the dams, the Coosa from where Lay Lake is today all the way to Wetumpka was one big series of impassible shoals, the most famous known as the Devil’s Staircase.  Most of the shoals today lie underneath the lakes, but those that remain below Jordan dam create a unique fishing opportunity for the fly fisherman in Central Alabama.  From the dam, the river flows southeast approximately 6 miles in a straight line to the Highway 14 Bridge where it makes a 90° turn to the Southwest as it flows into Wetumpka.  For the most part, the river bottom is made up of medium to large gravel, boulders and bedrock.  Between the dam and Gold Star Park in Wetumpka, the river can essentially be divided into three types of water:

1) The Shoal Waters- There are three major sets of shoals on this part of the Coosa that have been classified as high as Class III whitewater.  The first is the River Falls section about 1.5 miles below the dam.  River Falls is essentially a one mile long set of braided channels around several large islands. Fast riffles, runs and drops are everywhere, but the major white water is at the bottom end of this section.  You could spend a full day fishing River Falls and not cover all the water. The Rivers Falls section is also known as Gray’s Island Shoals. The next shoal water is known as Moccasin Gap or Moccasin Shoals.  This is the shortest, but toughest whitewater on the river.  As you leave the River Falls section, it is about one mile to Moccasin Gap.  The Gap is really just one big ledge with two chutes running through it.  On the east side of the Gap is a small island and there are rocky, braided runs around it.  The final set of shoals and my personal favorite are the Pipeline Falls—so called because there is a propane pipeline crossing prominently marked just upriver from where the shoals start.  Pipeline Falls starts about one mile downriver from Moccasin Gap.  The Pipeline section is really three major ledges spaced over ¾ mile of river with lots of braided channels, rocky runs, small falls and pools and grassy islands.  Going downstream, the Pipeline section ends at the mouth of Corn Creek.  This last set of shoals is also known as Corn Creek Shoals.

Shoal areas are the feeding grounds for a multitude of Coosa River fish

2) The Deep, Fast Runs at the Base of Each Major Shoal- Below each of the major shoals there are some deep, fast runs where the river pours over the largest gaps in the ledges.  I separate these as distinct sections because they are the most productive places to catch Striped Bass and Hybrids.  These are deep, fast runs where fish hold tight to bottom structure 6 to 10 ten below the surface.

The deep, fast runs below the Coosa's major shoals provide good habitat for striped and hybrid bass

3) The In-Between Waters- The in-between waters are relatively slow moving, deep pools interspersed with underwater shoals and a few islands.  Many of the islands at low summer flows are still submerged and covered with American Water Willow (Justicia Americana) which attracts all sorts of damsels and dragon flies, as well as small baitfish.  These are prime feeding waters for bream and bass in the early morning and evening hours.  The edges of the in-between waters are for the most part shallow, less than 18 inches at summer flows.  This is the primary zone for bluegill and red breast sunfish in the summer months. The in-between waters also have some areas of relatively deep banks that remain shaded in either the morning or evening hours.  These banks harbor the largest bream and are bedding areas in the spring.

    Keep in mind that the Coosa is really big water and not really suitable to wading, except in the shallower shoal areas.  It is best fished from a kayak, canoe or drift boat.  Most of the best water can’t really be reached or fished on foot.  Relatively speaking, it is a deep river as well.  Although there are places you can wade for a 100 yards along a gravel bottomed shoreline, you are just as likely to step into a 10 foot hole off the back side of a ledge.

The Fly Fishing

    Whether you want to fish with floating flies or bugs, with nymphs or streamers, the Coosa has fish and water to accommodate.  Because the Coosa is a tail-water with significant fluctuations in flows, it is not really an insect rich stream but it does remain cool and comfortable all summer long.  However, there are pretty good populations of damsel and dragon fly nymphs as well as crayfish in the river, so # 8 and #6 Woolly Buggers replicate these well.  Since most dragon and damsel fly nymphs are in the water for one to two years, these nymphs are available to fish year round.  Most any top-water bug you can use for bream or bass will work well when fished properly.  In low-light conditions, big bass will hold tight along shorelines of the in-between waters, especially in weedy areas.  Well-placed and patiently fished deer hair bugs or big foam poppers will take some nice bass. On the streamer side, the river is loaded with shad and other baitfish so most streamer patterns work well.  All three of these techniques—top-water, nymphs and streamers are effective when fished in the right place at the right time.  For most fishing, a 9’, 5, 6 or 7 weight rod is suitable.  If all you want to target are the plentiful bream in the in-between water, lighter rods with floating line and poppers are ideal.  But if your quarry is big spots, stripers and hybrids, a heavier rod with sinking tip or better yet full sinking lines are the most effective.

    Big spots love the deep plunge pools prevalent in all the shoal areas, as well as the swift, but rocky channels that rush over the falls.  Both these areas can be difficult to fish when wading or rock hopping, but easy when fishing from a properly positioned kayak, canoe or drift boat and using the right technique.  The plunge pool is my favorite target.  There is always a distinct seam between the rushing water and a back eddy.  Sometimes these areas, although they don’t look deep, can be very deep, up to 4 to 6 feet in some cases and hold enticing underwater ledges.  These seams are most effectively fished from downstream, casting a big nymph or woolly bugger upstream on the inside edge of the seam.  The fly can be slowly bounced along the bottom or allowed to sink, then stripped back aggressively.  In both cases, it is imperative that the fly get to the bottom.  This is why full sink lines work well here.  Using a short (3’), stout (1X or 0X) tippet-leader of tied directly to the end of the fly line ensures the fly stays deep in the water column.  If the leader is too long, the fly tends to ride up in the water column.  As in most nymphing, when the fly stops or the leader twitches, set the hook.  It might be a rock, but most likely it’s a fish.  If you are not occasionally hanging up on the bottom, you’re fly is not getting deep enough.

    The water that Spots love, especially in low-light conditions, are the swift, rocky runs that precede the drops over falls and chutes.  These tail-outs are food funnels that bring lots of insects and wayward bait fish right to the bass.  These areas are best fished from above using traditional streamer swinging techniques.  I generally position the kayak about 30-40 feet above these tail-outs and off to one side or another.  Cast the streamer slightly upstream, mend the line as necessary to allow the fly to sink and swing and strip it through the tail-out zone.  The Clouser Deep Minnow is an excellent pattern for these areas because they are very effective baitfish imitations and not prone to get hung up on rocks and snags.  Fish these tail-outs right up to the edge where the water flows over the falls or into the chute.  Many times, bass are holding right on this edge.

   For the most part, I’ve found the Striped Bass and Hybrids to locate mostly in the deep (10’-15’), fast runs at the base of each major shoal, especially in the warmer months. To reach the fish in these runs, you have to get the fly deep.  Full sink lines and short leaders are the ticket.  Position your kayak or canoe in the eddy water on one side of the run and cast your fly across the run and upstream to the head of the run.  Mend the line to allow the fly and line to get to the bottom.  Swing and strip the fly aggressively through the run.  These runs need to be fished very thoroughly to ensure you present your fly to all the available water.  It is not uncommon to make 20-30 casts in a big run before a fish is taken.  Clouser Deep Minnows and big Woolly Buggers are my favorite flies for these big runs.  Surprisingly, some of the largest Bluegill I’ve taken have come out of these deep runs.

 

Favorite Patterns

          -(left) #6, 8 Black, Olive, Brown Wooly Buggers with Fluorescent Orange Flash

          -(middle) #4, 6 Clouser Deep Minnows—Chartreuse/White, Blue/White, Black/Orange

          -(right) #6, 8, 10 foam poppers/hoppers—Yellow/Black, Brown/Tan, Black/Tan with Green Antron Bellies

Flows

Alabama Power currently has mandatory minimum flow releases from Jordan Dam for whitewater boating and aquatic enhancement of the Coosa and Alabama Rivers below the dam. Alabama Power has been operating Jordan Dam under minimum flow requirements since the late 1960's. These have been modified from time to time with the most recent modification implemented in May 2000. The following release schedule is in effect:

  • From April 1 through May 31, Alabama Power releases continuous base flows of 4,000 cfs for 18 hours per day from 3:00 p.m. through 9 a.m. For the remaining 6 hours, Alabama Power should release an 8,000 cfs pulse flow from 9 a.m. through 3 p.m.
  • Beginning June 1 through June 15, Alabama Power reduces the continuous 4,000 cfs base flow at a rate of 66.7 cfs per day, and the daily 8,000 cfs pulse flow at a rate of 133.3 cfs per day.
  • From June 16 through June 30, Alabama Power ceases release of the daily pulse flow but continues to release the continuous base flow reducing it to 66.7 cfs per day.
  • From July 1 through March 31, Alabama Power releases a continuous minimum base flow of 2,000 cfs regardless of inflow.
On weekends only from June 16 through October 31, Alabama Power releases flows of either 4,000, 6,000, or 8,000 cfs continuously from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Access

    Public access to this part of the Coosa is limited to essentially three public sites and two commercial sites.  The first public access is an unimproved launch site on the east side of the river at Jordan dam.  This is reached from Highway 231 via the Jordan Dam Rd.  This site is where all the kayakers and weekend canoeists launch their day trips.  Five miles downriver at Corn Creek Park, there is another public access at the mouth of Corn Creek just below the Pipeline Falls section.  Corn Creek is a small wilderness park with picnic tables and such.  About ½ mile below Corn Creek is the Southern Trails outfitter launch site with its campground.  Just below the Southern Trails site, the river travels under highway 14 and makes the 90° turn to the southwest.  Tucked into the shoals about halfway to Wetumpka is the Coosa River Adventures outfitter launch site.  Both Southern Trails and Coosa River Adventures rent canoes and kayaks on the Coosa.  Coosa River Drifters, a fly fishing guide service, offers guiding fly drift boat fly fishing trips on the Coosa.  Finally, 7.5 miles from Jordan Dam is Crommelin's Landing Boat Ramp (ADCNR) at Gold Star Park in Wetumpka.  This is a well maintained city park with good parking and facilities.

Outfitter Links

Coosa Outdoor Center (Southern Trails)

Coosa River Adventures

Coosa River Drifters

Taking Care of Yourself and Your Gear

    Although I am repeating myself, the Coosa from Jordan Dam to Wetumpka is a big river.  It is relatively remote in the sense that once you are on the river at the dam, its five miles before there is an easy way to get off the river.  The banks are steep, tree-lined and overgrown with lots of poison ivy.  The rocks are sharp and at times slippery.  As the name Moccasin Gap suggests, water moccasins and copperheads are not unusual sights along the river.  For safety reasons, I wear my life vest 100% of the time, even when I am wading because the flows of any tail-water can always change suddenly.  Felt sole wading shoes make dragging the kayak up through the shallow shoal waters much safer and easier.  A good set of open finger gloves designed for fishing keeps paddling blisters at a minimum and prevent cuts when you grab rocks or handle fish.  The gloves, as well as wearing a long sleeve shirt prevent sunburn during the heat of the day while preventing a lot of insect bites in the early morning and evening hours.  Although not unique to the Coosa, wearing polarized glasses and a wide brimmed hat make wading and kayak maneuvering easier in the shallows because the bottom can be seen much more clearly.  Finally, make sure you secure your gear when navigating the bigger sets of falls.  If you spill and drop a rod or tackle bag in the Coosa, you will likely never see it again.  The depth, visibility and current will surely send it out of reach very quickly.

Don’t Ignore the Coosa River as a Serious Fly Fishing Opportunity

    The Coosa River will probably not make it into a top 100 fly fishing destinations list.  It is just not that glamorous.  But, the opportunity to catch good numbers of Spotted Bass, big Striped Bass and Hybrids, and loads of scrappy bream using traditional fly rod techniques in a river as beautiful as the lower Coosa, is not to be ignored.

 

 

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