Lake Chatuge, a popular TVA reservoir at the Hiwassee River in Clay County, N.C., and Towns County, Ga., once was known as a prime smallmouth bass lake, second only to Fontana Reservoir — but not any longer. Anglers seldom see smallmouth bass, and the few that are caught mostly are at the Georgia section of the lake. Instead of being a top smallmouth bass fishing destination, Lake Chatuge now is considered the mountain region’s top spotted bass fishery.
Smallmouth and spotted bass are in the black bass family and are similar in physical features and fighting ability. Spots can be identified by the evenly arranged rows of black spots below the dark lateral line on their sides.
Although smaller than smallmouth bass, spots are more aggressive and obviously more adaptable. During recent years. spots have overwhelmed traditional smallmouth spawning areas at Chatuge, hogged food resources, and even interbred with smallmouth, creating a hybrid that apparently fits no particular niche.
Spotted bass are in the lake as a result of unauthorized or accidental stockings, said David Yow of Asheville, fishery research coordinator for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
“They first started showing up in creel surveys in the early ’80s,” Yow said, “and they’ve gradually displaced the smallmouth population.
“In the early ’80s, the lake’s black bass population was one-third largemouth bass and two-thirds smallmouth,” Yow said.
Now it’s mostly spotted bass. Smallmouth now make up only a small percentage of the total black bass population.
In response to complaints about the loss of smallmouth bass, the Wildlife Commission, U.S. Forest Service and TVA initiated measures in 1997 to try to stop the population decline. Spawning benches were placed in key locations around the lake to attract smallmouth, and brush hides were scattered around the lake to help protect young-of-the-year smallmouth.
“By improving spawning habitat,” Yow said, “we hoped to improve spawning.”
Biologists hoped the brush hides would help young-of-the-year smallmouths survive their first winter and have a higher probability of reaching adulthood. The corrective measures, however, did little to slow the spread of spotted bass. Instead of continuing to fight a losing battle, biologists now are managing the lake as a spotted bass and largemouth fishery.
While most fishers seem ambivalent about the loss of smallmouth, a few die-hard smallmouth fishers mourn their absences.
Jack Cabe of Franklin, who fishes at Chatuge from April through October, said spotted bass have ruined the once excellent smallmouth fishing.
“There are only a couple of places on the lake where you can still catch smallmouths,” he said, “and that’s on the Georgia side.”
Cabe said he prefers smallmouth bass over spotted bass because “smallmouth are a lot more fun to catch.”
Yow said Lake Chatuge is the only high mountain lake with a significant spotted bass population. Although the average size of a spotted bass is a one-half pound vs. 1 pound for a smallmouth bass, spotted bass are an aggressive and plentiful game fish. They can be caught with a variety of baits including dry flies, streamers, spinners, small plugs and spoons, nightcrawlers and minnows. Also, they can be caught at the same kinds of habitat where smallmouths are found.
In addition to its reputation as a top spotted bass lake, Chatuge is the only mountain lake containing “whiterock” or Bodie bass, a white bass-striped bass hybrid. Although a few hybrids still show up in creels, hybrids no longer are stocked in the lake, and since hybrids can’t reproduce, they eventually will die out.
“I’ll be happy to see the hybrids go,” said Anne Lee of Lee’s Country Store, a bait-and-tackle shop near the lake. “(Hybrids) roam all over the lake and eat their weight in fish. Fishermen like to catch them because of their size, but they ruin the other fishing.”
As for phasing out hybrid bass, Yow said Georgia and North Carolina wildlife agencies have opted to manage the lake strictly as a black bass fishery.
The hybrids were introduced into the lake by Georgia wildlife officials to control an accidental stocking of gizzard shad, which grew too quickly to be controlled by other measures. After the hybrids ate up the unwanted gizzard shade, they began consuming great quantities of other stocked forage fish intended for other species.
Yow said the surviving hybrids will continue to get bigger. The state record hybrid (17 pounds, 7 ounces) was caught in Chatuge in 1996. Hybrid catches in the 7- to 11-pound range still are fairly common.
Even with the loss of two key game fish, fishery biologists believe Lake Chatuge will have a healthier and more balanced fishery. In addition to spotted and largemouth bass, Chatuge has crappie, walleye, white bass, trout, bream, yellow perch, and catfish.
Best fishing seasons occur during spring and fall.
The lake has two full-service marinas at the North Carolina side — Lake View Cottages and Marina and Chatuge Cove Complex at N.C. 175 near Hayesville.
Jack Rabbit National Forest Recreation Area, which includes a campground with 101 camping sites, swimming area, rest rooms with hot-water showers and a public-access boat ramp, is at the N.C. side of the lake in the Nantahala National Forest. Some of Jack Rabbit’s sites overlook the lake.
Access to the campground and lake is at U.S. 64 (about 6 miles east of Hayesville). Take State Road 175 to State Road 1155 and follow the signs.
For additional information about the campground and lake, contact Tusquitee Ranger District, telephone (828) 837-5152.
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