Lake brings tourists, anglers, residents

Published 4:34 pm Thursday, February 2, 2006

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2005 “Gone Fishin'” special section of The Post-Searchlight.

Local fisherman and storyteller Jack Wingate was here “before the lake backed up” and knows many secrets of Lake Seminole as well as its history.

The Jim Woodruff Lock and Dam was completed in 1957 and created Lake Seminole, which is over 37,500 acres in size. The existence of the lake has transformed both local recreation and economy.

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Wingate said the area where the lake is now located was his playground as a youth and said the fishing then was “fantastic”. Fishing then was controlled by flood waters. When the water was muddy and fast, fishermen could expect to find large numbers of catfish and striped bass. The catches were especially good on Spring Creek, he said.

Another common fish in the old days was the sturgeon, a tourist to the Bainbridge area, Wingate said. Large numbers of sturgeon would swim upstream from the Gulf, lay their eggs and then swim back. The dam has now blocked their passage but they used to swim up near Albany, feeding throughout their two-way journey. One of the unusual aspects of a sturgeon is that is doesn’t have a normal mouth, Wingate said. Instead, it has a pointed snout with an extendable tube that it uses to suck in grass and algae as it scrubs along the bottom of the water.

A type of striper fish known as the rock fish was also abundant before the lake’s creation. The rock fish was called so because “it already knew what rock he was gonna break you off on”, according to Wingate.

Most of the fish available for catch these days are the result of stocking efforts, Wingate said. Yellow perch and tilapia are new to the area. Yellow perch, a speckled fish with green stripes and some bronze/red coloring, came from upstream and were originally brought to Georgia through stocking. They have taken over some fishing spots such as the Fish Pond Drain and can also be found in plenty near Sealey’s Landing, he said. Tilapia are a tasty fish that are often grown in commercial aquaculture. They were introduced to southern North America but are native to South America and Africa.

Hybrid bass weren’t around before the lake, although a fish called the sandy bass was. Hybrids were obtained from breeding female stripers with the sandy bass, also known as the white bass. These days, hybrids are among the most popular fishes to catch on the lake, a true “ice-chest filler”, Wingate said.

The horticulture of the lake has changed over the years, Wingate said. The exotic aquatic plants known as Eurasian milford and hydrilla aren’t native. Hydrilla was intentionally put in local waters because a store in Bainbridge wanted to sell the plant because of its attractive appearance in the water. The plant stayed and kept growing and now is both a help and a bother to boaters because of how thick it can grow. Fish often hang out near clumps of hydrilla but boat motors are easily tangled in the floating plant. The Eurasian milford was possibly brought to the area on boats and trailers that brought it from other bodies of water.

The trees found around the lake now have sprung up since the lake’s creation and look different from the old trees, which were greener in general, Wingate said. The pines, oaks and cypress trees present before the dam all eventually died off to be replaced by the pines and cypress trees that exist today.

Area recreation has changed significantly over the years as a result of the lake, Wingate said. He said he often went swimming in the lake as a youth. One of the rites of passage to become a man was to swim under a ferry cable that ran across a wide point on the Flint River.

“You’d swim under the ferry cable across to the other side, rest a bit and then go back under,” Wingate said. “You had to swim in a straight line at a 45 degree angle or you wouldn’t make it…it must have been about 150 yards to the other side of the river.”

He said he doesn’t like to swim in the lake anymore because of the danger of alligators.

“Before the lake backed up, you seldom saw an alligator because people killed and ate them,” Wingate said. “Nowadays, people are scared to kill them after the government took over [their protection].”

While fishing was the main pastime on the river in years past, a wide variety of activity is now found on Lake Seminole and the Flint River, Wingate said. Air boats, jet skis, boat racing and crew are among the sports that have grown in popularity since then. The presence of the lake has created awareness for the river and Southwest Georgia, he said.

“The lake is sort of like the tail wagging the dog as far as property values around here go. Property near here was $30 an acre before the lake backed up. Now, it goes for no less than $30,000.”

Wingate estimated about 50 boat houses can be found on the lake now, with even more boat traffic just passing through the lake on their way up and down area rivers.

The sport of bass fishing has grown in leaps and bounds over the year as well and Lake Seminole is now a prime spot for competitive fishermen. Wingate went to one of the first bass tournaments, one called Scott’s Tournament after Ray Scott, the founder of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS). After the tournament, Wingate called Tom Hudson, the head of the local Chamber of Commerce and asked him to invite Scott to the lake. Scott eventually did come and big-money competitive tournaments began to be held at Lake Seminole, although Wingate himself was barred from fishing events held there because he was a local guide. Wingate fished about 12 of the first major BASS tournaments before he decided to settle down and raise a family, although he continued to fish the occasional event over the years.

Wingate explained that fishing tournaments by themselves do not usually make a profit. The publicity that tournaments generate brings in the money that makes it desirable to hold them year after year. People hear about winning catches and decide to come fishing at the lake themselves, he said. In the early days of trophy bass fishing, about one to two major tournaments were held each year at the lake, bringing about 100 boats to compete at each one. Tournaments at the lake increased significantly in number around 1999, when Wingate said the food chain that had been decimated by the 1994 flood began to bounce back and fish populations grew. In the past few years, it’s not unusual to find two or three tournaments a week going on at the lake, with about five major pro bass tournaments held each year. The prizes have grown in size too, with tournaments such as the Bass Fishing League events now giving as much as $5,000 to the winner and over $10,000 in total cash prizes.