List of Common Lake Harding Fish Species [Updated]
Lake Harding is situated along the Chattahoochee River between West Point Lake and Lake Eufaula, right on the border of Alabama and Georgia. The lake’s average depth is 32 feet (9.8 m), though waters plunge to over 100 feet (30.5 m) deep near Bartlett’s Ferry Dam. Due to its location along a major river, the reservoir is littered with rapids and small waterfalls.
Nearly 5,000 acres (20.2 km2) of Lake Harding’s watershed constitute the Blanton Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Harris Country, Georgia. WMA visitors can look out for bobcats, bald eagles, white-tailed deer, cottontail rabbits, bobwhite quail, waterfowl, and songbirds. This vast lake also contains numerous islands within its waters, the most notable of which is Houston Island, which features the ruins of a lake house.
Though the impoundment of Lake Harding has been essential in generating green power in nearby neighborhoods, the lake’s ecology has suffered immensely. Dam construction along the Chattahoochee is believed to have contributed to declines in many threatened fish species, including the Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus), Alabama shad (Alosa alabamae), Atlantic needlefish (Strongylura marina), and American eel (Anguilla rostrata). Still, recreational fishing in the lake has remained superb, and fishing licenses from both Alabama and Georgia are recognized.
Compared to other reservoirs along the Chattahoochee River, Lake Harding is an unfrequented fishing spot. Lower rates of fishing on the lakes have made for better angling, as species like largemouth bass are less pressured and can grow to mammoth sizes. The Chattahoochee River boasts record-breaking shoal bass, blue catfish, and brown trout. Crappies are also numerous throughout the lake. There are three public access boat ramps on the Alabama side of the lake at Halawakee Creek, Chattahoochee Valley Recreation Park, and near the dam itself.
List of Fish Species in Lake Harding
1) Redear sunfish (Lepomis microlophus)
The redear sunfish loves nothing more than to sink its teeth into a crunchy snail shell! Also called shellcrackers, redears use their tough pharyngeal teeth and powerful muscles to crush snail shells and feast on their slimy flesh. They are the only sunfish species to feed predominantly on gastropods, though their diet also includes insect larvae and water fleas.
Unlike their showier relatives, redear sunfish have plain, light green bodies mottled with brown markings. The redear gets its name from its colored operculum (gill cover), which features a circular, black spot rimmed with bright scarlet. Young fish are striped with dark vertical bars that dissipate as they age. Breeding males turn darker during the spawning season when their pale yellow undersides transform to black.
Redears are elusive fish loved by anglers seeking a challenge. Outside of their breeding season, redears retreat to benthic waters and are difficult to find. Additionally, they’re picky eaters, rarely biting at artificial lures. The best baits for attracting redears are their natural prey, such as snails and other invertebrates.
2) Longear sunfish (Lepomis megalotis)
Longear sunfish are a spectacular species prized by fish lovers simply for their astounding beauty. These yellow-orange fish are speckled with a brilliant turquoise pattern that radiates through the dorsal and tail fins. Their extended gill covers sport a broad black mark and are lined with white. Male longears display an even more spectacular show of color when spawning. In this season, their undersides and median fins become bright orange, and their pelvic fins turn blue-black.
In the fish world, the length of a male longear’s gill cover determines his social standing. Males with longer ear flaps are dominant among their peers and are more likely to gain the attention of females. From March to August, colorful males use their tails to excavate gravel on the lake’s floor and form a nest. Male bluegills that have been unsuccessful in finding a mate employ an unconventional approach to ensuring their reproductive success. These crafty males, known as sneakers, will imitate females and enter the nest of a paired sunfish couple during spawning, fertilizing some of the real female’s eggs.
3) Shoal bass (Micropterus cataractae)
Despite their name, shoal bass are not true bass, but are actually members of the sunfish family. Fish in the genus Micropterus are collectively known as the black bass, and nearly all species are cosmopolitan game fish. The shoal bass is an exception, as it is endemic to the Apalachicola River drainage that runs throughout Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. Shoal bass in Alabama are considered imperiled. Lake Harding populations are of particular conservation concern, having largely faced population decline throughout the Chattahoochee River.
Shoal bass in Lake Harding occupy niche habitats consisting of shallow areas 1 – 2 m deep, where water passes swiftly over rocks. They also occupy shoals, which are sandy bars of land submerged in the lake. Shoal bass are intolerant of reservoir habitats due to their fluctuating conditions and limited range. To help understand how reservoir habitats can be improved to facilitate shoal bass, the movements of 40 fish in Lake Harding were monitored by scientists for 9 months in 2010.
4) Spotted bass (Micropterus punctulatus)
Spotted bass, also known as Kentucky bass, are among the smaller black bass species, averaging only 12 – 17 inches (30.5 – 43.2 cm) long. They have gold-green bodies divided laterally by a broad, black band running from head to tail. Irregular blotches dot their backs, and uniform rows of minuscule spots line their white bellies. These rows are the defining feature from which the spotted bass’s name is derived. Like other sunfish, spotted bass have dorsal fins with anterior spines and posterior soft rays. Spotted bass can be difficult to differentiate from other black basses, partly due to their ability to hybridize with them.
Spotted bass live in Lake Harding’s deeper, flowing waters, where they sometimes form schools. They particularly enjoy congregating near steep-sloping banks in the lake, where they seek refuge in underwater vegetation and structures. Spotted bass are ambush predators, meaning that they lie in wait to swiftly siphon up any prey that crosses their path. They feed on crayfish, small fish, and aquatic insects.
5) Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)
Largemouth bass are one of the most cherished sports fish in the United States, enjoyed by anglers for their hulking size and thrilling fighting spirit. Largemouths are found in the reservoir’s slow-moving, shallow areas, and rarely associate with spotted bass. They are solitary, generalist predators that eat nearly any live prey, including fish, mollusks, amphibians, and insects. In aquatic food chains, adult largemouths are almost always the hunters and rarely the hunted, thanks in part to their spiny, protective dorsal fins. Largemouths aren’t invincible, though, and vulnerable young fish are snacks for catfish, crappies, and shorebirds. Adults are occasionally captured by bald eagles.
Largemouths are strikingly similar to spotted bass, but can be distinguished by observing their mouths. Largemouths have wide, gaping jaws that extend beyond the posterior of the eye when closed. They also lack the tooth patch and ventral dotted lines present in spotted bass.
Largemouth populations in Lake Harding have seen an uptick in recent years because of the growth of waterthyme (Hydrilla spp.) throughout the lake— a valuable hideout for this species. Anglers preparing to fry their next largemouth catch for dinner should note that fish caught in Lake Harding’s dam forebay should be consumed no more than twice a month due to mercury accumulation. The Georgia Fish Consumption Guidelines advise limiting fish over 16 inches (40.6 cm) long to one meal per month.
6) Striped bass (Morone saxatilis)
Unlike largemouth and spotted bass, striped bass are “true bass” in the Moronidae or temperate bass family. They are the biggest species in this group, with massive bodies that reach lengths of 3 feet (91.4 cm) in adulthood! Striped bass are naturally anadromous, meaning that they spend most of their time living in the ocean but migrate to freshwater to spawn. During expansive dam construction across the United States in the early 1900s, striped bass were found to be capable of spending their entire lives in freshwater when they were trapped in reservoirs. Since then, they have been stocked in lakes across Alabama for recreational fishing.
Striped bass, or stripers, spawn from March to April in flowing tailwaters and rapids throughout the reservoir. Rushing waters are necessary for the reproductive success of this fish, as eggs are temperature sensitive and will die if they sink into the cold thermocline. Their diets shift as they age, with larvae eating zooplankton, juveniles feeding on small insects and crustaceans, and adults maintaining a piscivorous diet. Stripers have long lifespans, living as long as 30 years.
7) White bass (Morone chrysops)
White bass bear nearly indistinguishable likeness to stripers. They possess silvery bodies, separated dorsal fins, and numerous horizontal stripes, though the stripes on a white bass are broken and faint. White bass, however, reach nowhere near the size of their striped relatives, attaining lengths of only 15 inches (38 cm).
White bass inhabit open waters near the surface and midway through the water column, where schools of fish enthusiastically hunt shad. They chase prey to the surface of the lake, spurring an outbreak of splashes that helps anglers to locate them. White bass spawn from March to April in moving waters 2 – 8 feet (0.6 – 2.4 m) deep. Unlike the eggs of striped bass that necessitate consistent buoyancy until they hatch, adhesive white bass eggs promptly sink to the bottom of the lake, where they stick to rocks. Each spawning period yields innumerable numbers of white bass fry, as one female can lay up to 900,000 eggs per season!
8) Hybrid striped bass (Morone chrysops x Morone saxatilis)
Hybrid striped bass are an artificially produced hybrid of the striped bass and the white bass, first crossed in the 1960s. Since then, the hybrid striped bass, also known as the wiper or palmetto bass, has become a chief species used to maintain Alabama’s winter fisheries, as it remains active when other fish are dormant.
The appearance of the palmetto bass is an intermediary between its parent species. Wipers are deep-bodied like their white bass parents, but possess two tooth patches on their tongues like the striped bass. Up to eight broken stripes line their flanks. The colors of a hybrid striped bass vary widely depending on environmental conditions, and fish can be any gradation of silver to black dorsally.
The growth of hybrid striped bass is determined by numerous factors, including temperature, food availability, and water quality. Wipers grow fastest when temperatures are 77 – 80.6 °F (25 – 27 °C). Young hybrids exhibit rapid growth, the rate of which declines continuously once fish reach 2 years old. Unlike striped bass, hybrids are a short-lived species, with an average life span of only 5 – 6 years.
9) Black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)
Black crappie fishing in Lake Harding is best from February to April during the pre-spawning season. In these months, black crappies, which usually occupy the deeper water column, form massive schools and invade the lake’s shallows to feast on shad. Black crappies in a feeding frenzy will eagerly bite at any artificial lure or live bait that resembles a minnow. At other times of the year, black crappies can be caught in their resident depths using trolling divers or sinking plugs.
In April spawning, black crappies nest on clay or sand substrate under the protection of aquatic vegetation. They breed in colonies, with nesting sites no greater than 23.6 inches (60 cm) apart. The proximity of nests facilitates the black crappie’s polyandrous mating strategy, in which one female may lay eggs in the nests of multiple males per spawning season. Mating season ends when water temperatures drop below 57.2 °F (14 °C). Males guard eggs until they hatch, and care for newborn fry for a few days.
The Georgia Fish Consumption Guidelines advise restricting the intake of black crappie over 12 inches (30.5 cm) from Lake Harding to once per week, as fish may be contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
10) White crappie (Pomoxis annularis)
White crappies or papermouths resemble black crappies, with humped backs, metallic light green bodies, protruding lower jaws, and large dorsal and anal fins. Both species are moderately sized at 10 – 20 inches (25.4 – 50.8 cm) long in Alabama. White crappies can sometimes be distinguished from their relative species by their overall lighter pigmentation, as well as by the vertical bands that run down their sides. Unfortunately, this method of identification isn’t always reliable since crappies become darker during the spawning season, and black and white crappies readily hybridize. Fish enthusiasts can accurately tell the two species apart by observing the number of dorsal fin spines—white crappies only have 5 – 6, while black crappies possess 7 – 8.
Papermouths are more tolerant of murky water than black crappies. Even in areas of low visibility, white crappies can utilize a unique form of intermittent visual scanning called saltatory searching to locate prey. They target different sources of food throughout their life cycle. Juveniles feed on small invertebrates like aquatic insects and zooplankton, while adults are primarily piscivorous, feeding mostly on bait fish.
Harvest of crappies less than 9 inches (22.9 cm) long is illegal throughout Alabama. The combined daily creel limit for black and white crappies in Lake Harding is 30 fish per day.
11) Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)
The bluegill’s name is derived from its blue-black gill covers. They are slab-sided, swollen fish, with oval bodies and narrow tail peduncles. This unusual profile is referenced by the species epithet, “macrochirus”, meaning “large hand”. Bluegills are dark green to olive, but their coloration varies depending on their location and the time of year. Spawning males have iridescent purple sides, while those guarding eggs have red bellies. Phenotypic (visual) variation between individuals is so vast that there are numerous subspecies, with constant scientific debate surrounding their classification.
Bluegills spawn over a lengthy six-month period from April to September. Males chase females and make grunting noises to attract them to their nests. They are prolific breeders, with one female capable of producing an astonishing 81,000 eggs per spawn! Reservoirs with bluegills must be carefully managed to prevent overpopulation, as numbers can easily spiral out of control to the detriment of other fish, as well as bluegills themselves. As such, Lake Harding has a liberal creel limit of 50 bream (sunfish) per day, including other species like redears.
12) Yellow perch (Perca flavescens)
Yellow perch are unmistakable fish with golden bodies and 6 – 8 tiger-like stripes. Adults have bright red-orange pelvic and anal fins, the intensity of which increases in breeding males. Even the eggs of these fish are impossible to miss, as females lay countless eggs encased in a continuous, tubular ribbon that can measure over 6 feet (1.8 m) long! Perhaps the only inconspicuous period of this species’ life is as a young fish, when their bodies are dull brown and fins are not pigmented.
Yellow perch are native to the Mobile Basin but have been introduced to Lake Harding. They are an important species for recreational fisheries not only as a popular game fish, but also through their indirect contribution as a forage fish for other lake fauna. Larval and juvenile yellow perch are key prey for black basses and pickerel. They are one of the most beloved panfish in Alabama, renowned for their sweet, flaky meat. They are great targets for inexperienced fishers because of their willingness to bite almost any small bait. Like hybrid striped bass, yellow perch actively feed throughout the winter and make for great ice-fishing.
13) Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)
Channel catfish are nocturnal, slippery creatures that lurk in the many holes and crevices throughout Lake Harding. Channel catfish are adored by risk-taking anglers who drag fish out of their hiding spots using nothing more than their bare hands! This extreme form of fishing is called noodling and is named after the way in which a fisherman uses his arm like a giant noodle to entice catfish to bite. While noodling sounds like fun, novice anglers should avoid the practice, as channel catfish have retractable spines in their dorsal and pelvic fins that can cause serious injury.
During the night, channel cats emerge from their holes to hunt for food using the four pairs of sensory barbels on their heads. These whisker-like appendages are the origin of the catfish’s common name. Channel catfish are bottom-feeding omnivores that suck up any food they can find with their large, ventral mouths, including fish, insects, seeds, and algae.
14) Blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus)
Blue catfish are perfect targets for anglers looking to capture a truly gargantuan fish. They are the largest members of the North American catfish family, growing up to 24 inches (61 cm) long. Though superficially similar to channel catfish, blue catfish have slate-blue backs that are never marked with spots.
Unlike relative species, blue catfish favor deep, swift channels in which they capture food. The only time that blue catfish venture into Lake Harding’s calm backwaters is during their breeding season. Catfish form pairs using chemical cues from pheromones, and both parents look after their young.
Blue catfish are fantastic game fish with delectable meat. There is no limit for catfish harvest in Lake Harding for small fish, though anglers are only permitted to take one catfish over 34 inches (86.4 cm) long per day.
15) Chain pickerel (Esox niger)
Chain pickerel or chainsides are the largest pike species native to Alabama at 30 inches (76.2 cm) long. Their common name comes from the reticulated pattern on their sides that resembles the links of a chain. Chain pickerel are almost alien in appearance, with their long, straight bodies often described as torpedo-like. They have stretched mouths lined with many sharp teeth, and a dark tear-like streak running below each eye.
Chain pickerel are solitary and active at any time of the day or night. During the daytime, they lurk motionless in quiet, deep waters up to 9.8 feet (3 m) below the surface, while at night they move to the lake’s shallows. They feed mostly in the early morning and late afternoon, when they wait in underwater cover to ambush prey. Young pickerel eat dragonfly and mayfly nymphs, while adults transition to a predominantly piscivorous diet once they reach around 5.9 – 15.7 inches (15 – 40 cm) long. If fish-based protein is scarce, chain pickerels will cannibalize each other to avoid starvation!
Chain pickerel have few natural predators, though they constitute a significant portion of the bald eagle’s diet. Humans are the principal hunters of pickerel, which are prized simply for their bizarre appearance. The daily harvest limit of chain pickerel in Lake Harding is 15 fish per person each day.
16) Grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella)
Grass carp are massive, ravenous omnivores that can consume their weight in food every day! While juveniles feed on tiny invertebrates and crustaceans, adults eat a herbivorous diet consisting of plants like waterthyme (Hydrilla spp.), waterweeds (Elodea spp.), and bladderworts (Utricularia spp.). Many of the plants consumed by grass carp are unwanted in U.S. waterways, leading to the importation of this species in the 1960s to control invasive vegetation.
Unfortunately, grass carp populations have spiraled out of control since their introduction, and have had damaging effects on aquatic ecosystems throughout the United States. Carps are generalist feeders that indiscriminately feast on local and invasive vegetation. This has led to significant declines in native aquatic plant populations. Additionally, the nutrients released by the feces of grass carp cause excessive algal bloom (eutrophication), which subsequently decreases water quality and oxygen concentration.
Though grass carp prove damaging when in excess, controlled populations are valuable as game fish and in managing invasive plants. In order to maintain a healthy level of carp in Alabama waters, only sterile grass carp are stocked in lakes. Lake Harding produces massive carp, including a record-shattering 54-pound fish captured in the reservoir’s shallow waters.