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Let's Go Fishin : Bass, Catfish, Crappie, Bream

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Guntersville : Bass 10 May Hotspots

Fish the Deep Hole For Neely’s Summer Stripes
Neely Henry is off the radar for most Alabama stripe anglers because it isn’t stocked with the big linesides. But stripers naturally reproduce in the Coosa and work their way down to Neely.
By Chuck Burns
Originally published in the June 2008 issue of AON
The author Chuck Burns with a 20-lb. example of why he’s drawn to fish for summertime striped bass on Neely Henry. Chuck’s favorite spot is a deep community hole near the dam, where stripers stack up over what is likely a spring.
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A seasoned and very accomplished expert at catching crappie told me once there was no way she would go fishing for striped bass.

I asked why, and she said, “Baby, I don’t go after ’em because they’re just too dang addictive.”

Well, she was right, stripe fishing can be addictive. Catching these big, powerful monsters off the bottom of the Coosa River in the summer is similar to pulling huge saltwater fish from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico, but without the cost of chartering a boat and tipping a deckhand.

For many years I have ventured up and down the Coosa River in search of stripers and have been fortunate to discover some really productive spots. One of the most enjoyable and fruitful locations I fish is a deep-water depression on the bottom of Neely Henry Lake. This depression is a community hole known by local fishermen that is situated just off the main river channel near Southside. The hole drops to about 25 feet below the water’s surface when the lake is at full pool, and during the summer months when the water temperatures heat up, stripers are drawn to this deep hole. When you find a sudden drop from about 17 feet of water to about 23 to 25 feet, you are over the hole.

Neely Henry is an 11,235-acre reservoir near Gadsden. It is located on the Coosa River below Lake Weiss dam and above Logan Martin.

According to the DCNR website, striped-bass fishing is best at the headwaters below the Weiss dam during spring runs and in the summer months. But that’s not the only place to catch stripes.

“Several spring-fed creeks such as Ohatchee and Cane hold lots of striped bass during the summer. Good numbers of fish over 7 pounds are being caught,” the website reads.

Those creeks attract summer stripers because of the cool water coming from the springs. Many seasoned anglers who fish the deep hole near the dam claim there is an underwater spring that bubbles from the base of this river-bottom void to cool the surroundings and attracts fish.

Striped bass, unlike many of the other species of fish swimming the Coosa, are much more susceptible to thermal stress. This susceptibility to hot weather can work to a stripe fisherman’s advantage. As the lake temperature climbs during the sweltering heat of summer, the striped bass seek out cooler water for relief. Some move into those cool creeks, while others dive deep in search of springs on the main lake.

The Neely Henry community hole is a sanctuary for striped bass looking to dodge the dog days of summer. Many, many stripe will group together and hold in the area until water temperatures drop in mid September.

I started fishing the community hole about 10 years ago while I was home from college. A year prior, my father and I had watched a big clump of boats gather across the river from his lake house. Our curiosity grew until we finally looked into the situation. Come to find out, my dad was friends with one of the fishermen who participated in the gathering of boats. My father’s friend brought us up to speed on all of the stripe-fishing action, and we started fishing the community hole regularly.

For many mornings that summer, following my education on the community hole, I would hop in an old fiberglass, primer gray, V-hull boat that I inherited from my grandfather, crank up the 25 hp 1972 Johnson outboard motor and strike out for the stripe hole. The old boat had seen better days. I had to be careful not to exert all of my weight toward the middle of the boat or my homemade fiberglass repair job on the boat’s hull would give way. My patchwork attempt covered at least half of the boat’s bottom. The wooden, red-painted seats held up well enough, although they were threatening to rot. And despite the fact the boat nearly found its way to the bottom of the Coosa on more than one occasion prior to being patched, the old Johnson never failed to fire after about 15 to 20 pulls.

When I reached my destination each morning around 6:30 a.m., I would shut off the big motor and begin trolling around in circles until my depthfinder indicated that I was directly over the stripe hole. Once I knew that I had it pinpointed, I would drop a 1/2-oz. jigging spoon to the bottom and then begin working the lure up and down to trigger a bite. By the time I caught one or two big striped bass, other boats would appear from up and down river.

We would all circle ourselves around the stripe-producing hole, carry on pleasant conversation and entice big fish to bite by dancing spoons on the river bottom. The seasoned stripe-hole fishermen referred to me as the “young man in the old boat.” I don’t remember how many stripers I caught from the community hole that summer, but I do know the fish were so plentiful I lost count.

I’ve fished the community stripe hole for several years now, and very rarely does it ever let me down. Once I hooked into a stripe so large it started pulling my boat. I would gain ground on the fish, and then it would strip line from the reel and pull away. I fought the fish for several minutes before it began to tire. Eventually, I got it to the surface where it flashed its tail at me, caught a second wind, and started seeking refuge under other fishermen’s boats. In all the commotion, my line got wrapped around another fisherman’s trolling motor. I held my rod above my head with my left hand and reached down with my right to untangle my line. Surprisingly enough, I successfully negotiated the potential fish-losing situation and landed the big striper. It was a nice fish that weighed about 18 pounds.

Community Hole Fishing Tactics

Many fishermen are familiar with catching big stripe below the Neely Henry dam or from the tailrace below the Weiss dam. When the turbines are running and the tailraces look like something more suitable for whitewater rafting than fishing, it’s time to go after the big stripers there.

Boats fight the current, dodge the rip-rap banks, and maneuver around several other vessels to get in the thick of the turbulence and then drift down river anticipating a big catch. This style of fishing is an exciting way to experience stripe-catching success, but is not what’s required to catch fish at the community hole on the main part of Neely Henry. The tactics for catching fish at the community stripe hole are a lot less strenuous and can be equally productive.

Big striped bass will lurk around the community hole starting as early as May, but they get more concentrated in June as the water temperatures warm. These stripers are easy to catch, and there are plenty for the taking. Several methods can be employed for catching these ferocious freshwater fighters out of the deep hole. Some fishermen prefer using live shad. I’ve also heard of some people using chicken livers with some success. My best lure has always been a jigging spoon.

I have experienced many days of stripe-catching success using a jigging spoon, as have the majority of people fishing at the striper hole. I prefer a 1/2-oz. chartreuse or silver/chrome Real Image spoon, or something similar. It’s important not to use a spoon that’s much heavier than 3/4 ounces. A medium-weight lure allows for enough weight to reach the bottom without compromising the lure’s flutter effect when jigged. However, I like to make a slight modification to the Real Image spoon. The treble hook that comes attached to these spoons is usually too small and will straighten while battling big stripers. I suggest replacing the packaged hook with one that is at least a size or two larger. It is also a good idea to attach a swivel between the spoon and the line to avoid line twists.

It’s important to be equipped with a good depthfinder when floating above the stripe hole. The key to landing the big fish from the hole is to stay directly over the hole. It’s easy to drift off the hole if you are not keeping an eye on your fishfinder. Although it’s easy to drift off the hole — it’s only about the size of a kitchen fly in the Talladega infield — do not mark the hole with buoys or drop an anchor to hold the boat in place. Buoy lines and anchor ropes will tangle with your fishing line when attempting to reel in a big stripe. Also, it is considered poor etiquette among many of the seasoned stripe fisherman to drop anchor. Anchoring to the bottom gives an unfair advantage and blocks the many other fishermen from moving on top of the hole. Just try to maintain your position using a trolling motor.

Just drop your spoon to the bottom, reel up two to three turns and flip the end of your rod up and down while occasionally bumping the bottom. When you feel a sudden tug, don’t hesitate, set the hook immediately and begin fighting the fish.

The rod, reel and line used for this type of fishing depend on how exciting you want your fishing trip to be. You can fish the community hole with a big broomstick-sized pole and 30-lb. test line, but I advise using a medium-action spinning rod with at least 15-lb. test line for optimal enjoyment. It is not uncommon to catch striped bass upward of 20 pounds from the hole.

The best time for targeting striped bass at this location starts toward the middle of May. The stripe fishing will peak in July and start to dwindle by September. The fish will bite sporadically throughout the day. They are most consistent with their bites from sunrise to mid-morning. However, plenty of fish can be caught throughout the afternoon until sunset. The hotter it is outside the better. The stripe are trying to beat the heat and will stack on top of each other to fit in the lake-bottom depression.

Finding the Community Hole

The community hole is easy to locate. The closest boat launch is at Greensport. If you launch your boat at Greensport, travel toward the main river channel and head upriver toward Southside. When the river starts to bend toward the north, or slightly to what will be your left, you will notice Hwy 77 situated to your right. Hwy 77 will be approximately 7/10 of a mile east of the stripe hole, which is located on the west side of the river channel. The community stripe hole is situated near the west bank of the river just outside of the Etowah County line in St. Clair County (Section 31, Range 6 East, Township 13 South on the USGS 7.5 Minute Series Dunaway Mountain Quadrangle). Using North American Datum 1927 (NAD27), 033° 51’ 10.47” N, 086° 03’ 33.22” W should put you in proximity of the stripe hole. Turn your depthfinder on, and troll around until you find a sudden drop in the lake bottom topography. Your depth finder should read about 24 feet deep once you are over the depression.

Interestingly, Neely Henry is not stocked with striped bass. So, where do the fish come from? According to Dan Catchings, District II Fishery Supervisor for Alabama’s Department of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, the striped bass are moving in from Weiss Lake.

It’s likely, according to Catchings, that young, small stripe that are 1 and 2 years old are migrating through the flood gates at the Lake Weiss dam.

Catchings reported that striped bass are able to reproduce above Weiss because it has enough river flow to facilitate a spawn. At least 80 miles of river flow is necessary for reproduction, Catchings said. Stripe eggs need to remain suspended in the water and not settle to the bottom, so a particular river flow must be maintained as the eggs float downstream. If stripe eggs get silted over, says Catchings, they won’t hatch.

Catchings noted that it isn’t uncommon to find locations along the Coosa River system where stripe seek out thermal refuges in the hot summer. However, this particular refuge on Neely Henry is one that he had not heard about before. There are also others on the lake where you can catch summer stripers.

“Generally, where we hear them being caught is in the tailrace below Weiss powerhouse dam,” he said, but he also mentioned other possibilities.

“There is a very well-known spring up near Mountainview Fish Camp down the Coosa River from where the powerhouse discharge comes in. There’s a small spring-fed creek there that stripers hole up in in the summertime just because of the cool water. People fish the mouth of that, but they’re kind of limited on access. It’s a very shallow, spring-fed tributary,” Catchings said.

For me, I prefer the deep hole down the lake — how could I not after so many lasting memories?

Several years ago I hooked into what felt like a fighting anvil. For the brief time the fish was on the hook, it pulled line from the reel hard and fast, and then in one quick, jarring tug, my line broke. I was frustrated over the losing the fish for two reasons. The first reason of course was because I failed to land the big striper, and the second was that it stole one of my hot jigging spoons.

The next morning I was back. As I dangled my spoon in the darkened depths of the Coosa, I felt a sudden and deliberate pull. I set the hook maintained just the right amount of tension, playing a game of give and take. The stripe would pull line, and then I would reel it in, and my rod would bend over to make what looked almost like a complete circle. Eventually the fish wore down. When I pulled the 20-lb. fish from the net, I noticed it had two lures hooked to its mouth — the one attached to the end of my line and the one I had lost the day before.

As summer heats up, the stripes will be heading to the cool-water holes, and I’ll be back battling big linesides on Neely Henry’s summertime stripe hole.
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