Big stripers, black bass and more golf are close to hallowed grounds of Augusta
AUGUSTA, Ga. - The cast Craig Johnson made was pretty much like any of the dozen others he had made up to that point. A long throw to a drop-off in one of the many little coves of massive Strom Thurmond Lake. The baitfish were schooling in the little coves, but the big fish that moved with them hadn't appeared interested in anything we had tossed at them, either artificial or live.
But, as any angler knows, the ways of fish can be mysterious - maddening even - and on this cast something struck like a mini-freight train. Johnson, a guide and professional bass fisherman, set the hook and gave out a sound that was partly surprise, partly laugh. The business end of his baitcaster bowed with the weight of something heavy, and his line sang through the cold, December waters.
"This is a monster," Johnson said.
Johnson played the fish for a few minutes, working him closer to the boat. The water erupted six feet off the port side and the fish briefly showed itself - a big thing, with dark, longitudinal stripes along its sides.
After several more minutes, Johnson had him in the boat. He held it up: a 12-pound striper, or striped bass, also known as a rockfish. Stripers, regarded as ferocious fighters, are coastal fish that swim up freshwater rivers to spawn, but they are occasionally found in landlocked bodies of water, like Thurmond Lake, which is full of them.
"This is a huge lake," Johnson said at the start of the trip. "And it has some big fish."
Indeed, on both counts. The lake, also known as Clarks Hill, is more than 70,000 acres with a mostly pristine shoreline of 1,200 miles, the second-biggest man-made lake east of the Mississippi. The Army Corps of Engineers built it between 1946 and 1954 as part of a flood control hydropower and navigation project.
It has become one of the most popular recreational lakes in the southeast, mostly because of the fishing. Stripers, black bass, bream and catfish, are among other species caught in the lake, with a state record blue catfish of 62 pounds caught at Clarks Hill reservoir.
The 12-pounder Johnson caught is not uncommon; stripers in the 20- to 30-pound range are caught with some regularity, some much larger. Catching a fish of that size in southern freshwater lakes is quite a treat.
The fishing on this late fall day started out slow, but picked up toward twilight. As darkness fell, we had the striper, plus six more bass - one of five pounds - to our credit. All were returned to the lake.
If you're looking to blend in a little fishing with golf, Augusta, home of revered Augusta National, is a fine place to do it. Aside from the big lake, the Savannah River has big stripers, too, as well as bass and the usual freshwater species. There are numerous small lakes and ponds that give up some big fish.
Not just Augusta National
Most people think "Augusta National" when golf and the city are mentioned in the same breath. But the area has some other fine golf courses, prompting Golf Digest to rank it as one of the top metro areas in the country, along with Aiken, S.C. So when the lunkers aren't biting, here are a few worth your time and effort:
• Mount Vintage: With green fees of around $65, this is a terrific bargain. The greens at the semi-private club are difficult, especially for the first-timer, but the rest of the course is very playable, even with the considerable elevation changes, and even with its slope rating of 138 from the black tees and 130 from the blues.
There's enough water to keep it interesting, and plenty of risk-reward options, like a number of doglegs that can be cut. It's a very picturesque course, with tall, stately Carolina pines and only a smattering of homes along the perimeter.
• River Golf Club: The River Golf Club is one of those admirable golf courses risen, literally, from the rubbish heap. It sits on the site of an abandoned railroad yard and former illegal dump, a 5-iron over the Savannah River from Augusta.
The River has some nice, bentgrass greens, one of a handful of courses in the Augusta areas that features them. The price is right, too. Green fees are $42 weekdays, $40 Fridays and $55 weekends. Winter rates are about $5 cheaper. The River was named one of the top five new affordable golf courses in America in 1999 by Golf Digest.
• Jones Creek: This is a quality golf course - more than 6,900 yards from the back tees - and is well laid out on the 520-acre site. Neither the greens nor the elevations are as dramatic as some other Augusta area courses, like Mount Vintage for example, but it will still throw enough elevation at you to keep it interesting. The fairways twist and turn and have excellent movement. In fact, hitting the ball off the tee is your main challenge here.
"It has demanding tee shots," Head Professional Pete Carroll said. "To score well here, you have to be in the fairway. You don't necessarily have to hit your driver all day. It can be a different course from day to day - it's not drive, chip and putt all the time."
• Goshen Plantation Country Club: This may be the best bargain in the Augusta area, with green fees of $29 weekdays, including cart, and $39 on weekends. It has one of the best practice areas anywhere, with a 400-yard driving range with good targets, and a short game area that lets you practice even fairway bunker shots.
The front nine has some nice elevation, though not as dramatic as some other areas courses, and its greens are probably the best in Augusta aside from Augusta National.
• There are also a couple of excellent private clubs in the area, if you happen to have reciprocal arrangements from your club: Sage Valley and Champions Retreat, which consists of three nines by Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
February 3, 2006