Alabama’s Coosa River
As I looked back over my shoulder at the class III rapid I had just rowed through I could not help but smile and think to myself, “I cannot believe this river is in Alabama.” Not that there aren’t plenty of beautiful places in Alabama, but I had been accustomed to erroneously thinking that all of the state’s rivers were muddy, slow-moving catfish holes. This river was as far removed from that notion as anything could be. This was a crystal clear river, 200 yards wide in places, coursing its way over and around boulders the size of small houses. The rock gardens created numerous class I-III shoals with enough long, slow pools in between to keep the scenery, and the fishing, from ever being boring. Were it not for the giant cypress trees draping with Spanish moss and the abundant elephant ears (Caladiums) growing along the banks, this river could easily pass for a big trout river just about anywhere. My delight in “discovering” this beautiful fishery was born from a mourning I had been experiencing recently. I had moved to East Alabama after spending most of my life in East Tennessee. I had fallen in love with fishing and rowing driftboats on the big TVA tailwaters in Tennessee and had guided on a few of them for several years. When I moved to Alabama I found plenty of good fishing for bass, big bream, stripers, and other warmwater fish, but most of that was from float tubes and jon boats. There was virtually no suitable river to fish out of my driftboat. Finding the tailwater portion of the Coosa near Montgomery helped me to quickly put my regrets out of my mind.
The Coosa River begins in the Northwest corner of Georgia near the city of Rome and flows Southwest, primarily through Alabama, until it reaches it’s confluence with the Tallapoosa River to form the Alabama River near Montgomery. For the purposes of this article, the portion we are concerned with is a 7 ½ mile stretch from Jordan Dam down the city of Wetumpka – nearly the lowermost stretch of the Coosa.
Aside from being one of the most beautiful rivers you may ever fish, the Coosa also supports a diverse and abundant population of warmwater fish. Bluegills, redbreasts, shellcrackers and a host of other panfish species make perfect quarry for anyone, but especially for those new to fly fishing. Tying on a nymph under a strike indicator is one method sure to produce numerous fish – it’s nearly as easy as fly fishing for trout! Small poppers and large dry flies also account for many bream.
Another interesting fish in the Coosa is the longnose gar. If sight-casting to big fish is your idea of a good time, Coosa river gar will not let you down. Gar can be seen chasing bait virtually everywhere on the Coosa and they are more than willing to eat flashy, bright colored rope flies fished on sink-tip 8-weight outfits. Just be sure to use extreme caution when handling gar as their hundreds of needle-sharp teeth can deal out nasty lacerations.
Skipjacks, carp, catfish, and occasional hybrids and stripers account for some other species that are not uncommon in the Coosa, but spotted bass are the “glamour species,” and are by far the most pursued fish on the river. If you have never given “spots,” as they are called locally a try, you really owe it yourself to make their acquaintance. Spotted bass look similar to largemouth bass (although they do not get as big) but favor water similar to smallmouth bass. They can be found in the soft hydraulic cushions just downstream of exposed rocks, along the undercuts of large rocks, in the middle of deep, swift runs, along the edges of grass, and along shady banks with overhanging branches, and exposed cypress knees. Steep drop-offs along the bank have accounted for some of my best bass on the Coosa. Casting a streamer just upstream of the drop, allowing it to tumble down, then stripping it quickly away from the bank has resulted in a number of big spots up to 5 pounds. These fish take a variety of flies including Clouser minnows, wooly buggers, poppers and sliders, hairbugs and even a variety of trout nymphs and saltwater baitfish patterns. In short, they are likely to hit many of the flies that you already have in your box. This is not to say that they are easy though. It often takes a considerable period of trial and error for those not intimately familiar with Coosa River spots to find the flavor of the day. If you fish the river regularly you will soon develop your favorite patterns, but be warned, what works today will not necessarily work tomorrow. While that’s true anywhere, it seems to really be relevant to the Coosa. Bright yellow bunny leeches may be the ticket today while black Dahlberg divers are the only thing they’ll eat tomorrow. Generally, streamers tied with tungsten coneheads work best in the fast water areas while slow sinking flies and topwater patterns work better in the pools and along the banks.
While the Coosa possesses a number of endearing qualities, one of the most endearing to me is the fact that it fishes extremely well during the heat of the summer. From late June through August, when most other southern fisheries are shut down, the Coosa is at its best. This is an especially good time to fish those surface patterns. As with so many tailwater fisheries, catching the right flow is as important as selecting the right fly. With seven dams operated by Alabama Power spread out along the course of its flow, the Coosa is, as you might imagine, a very important river in terms of power generation for the state. On many rivers power generation schedules are often in direct conflict with fishing and other recreational uses. This is not so on the Coosa where Alabama Power has been extremely cooperative since the late 1960’s. Alabama Power maintains a mandatory minimum flow release from Jordan Dam for the benefit of whitewater boating and aquatic enhancement below the dam. While the details of these releases are too extensive to describe in the space of this article, they may be examined in their entirety at the Alabama Power website at http://www.alabamapower.com/hydro/coosa.asp It is very helpful to know these release schedules before planning a trip to the Coosa. The river is navigable and fishable by driftboat, canoe, or kayak at even the minimum flow release but is much more interesting in terms of both at flows between 3,000 and 10,000 CFS. Unfortunately the Southeast is under an extreme drought as of the printing of this article and it is questionable whether this volume of water will be released this summer at all. As I type, Alabama and Georgia are in negotiations over water release on the Coosa.
Most of the land along this section of the Coosa is undeveloped private property and there are numerous islands and large boulders along the float that are suitable for picnicking or just getting out to stretch. Wade fishing is possible in several places during all but the most extreme water releases. Aside from fishing, the Coosa sees quite a bit of recreational use in terms of whitewater paddling enthusiasts. While I enjoy fishing from a driftboat the most, the river is also suited to any type of kayak or canoe. If you want to plan your own float, Coosa River Adventures rents kayaks and canoes and provides shuttle service from Jordan Dam down to Wetumpka. They can be reached by phone at (334) 514-0279, or on the web at www.coosariveradventures.com.
If you’re ready to make a break from the norm, set your sights on the deep south and find your “spot” on the Coosa.