During a nippy fall some years ago, my brother, Archie, only wore a lightweight coat and smoked one of his nasty, cheap cigars to force himself to stay awake. He’d worked late and gotten up early to go fishing at the mouth of Lost Creek above the Bankhead Dam on the Warrior River. He fished where the old river ledge and a sunken creek ledge merged out at the middle of the river.
“I was wearing those spotted bass out,” Archie recalled. “On just about every cast, I caught spotted bass weighing from 1 1/2 to 4 pounds each, fishing a shad-colored Mann’s Little George. As soon as that lead-head spinner hit the water and started to fall, a bass would take it. If I didn’t catch a bass on the fall, I’d hop the Little George up off the bottom. Then as it began to fall back, another spotted bass would take it.”
However, his fishing partner for the day wasn’t hooking anything. Archie finally gave his partner one of his Little George lures. Then, one after another, the two men caught and released spots.
“I was down to my last Little George, and my fishing buddy already had broken off the bait I’d given him,” Archie remembered. “This was one of the best days of bass fishing I’d ever had in my entire life.”
While battling a 5-pound spot right up to within arm’s reach of the boat, just as the bass came within inches of Archie’s hand, the 10-pound-test monofilament line touched the fire end of his cheap cigar. The big spot went free.
“I threw that cigar in the water and swore that it would be the last time I’d smoke anything that would cause me to lose a fish,” Archie explained.
Particularly if you avoid cheap cigars, the Warrior River lakes in West Alabama can still provide some of that type angling.
Recovered from Pollution
Industry waste, coal mining and municipal dumping once made the Warrior River the poster child for polluted waters in the state of Alabama. Years of abuse nearly strangled the river.
However, thanks to the Clean Water Act passed in 1972, with goals that eliminated releases of high amounts of toxic substances into waterways, the Warrior River made a strong, healthy comeback. Only Holt still suffers from problems relating to surface mining pollution.
“Due to surface mining, some of the tributaries that feed the Holt Lock and Dam almost have been destroyed,” Moss explained.
Today, overall, the stream offers superb bass fishing for both spotted and largemouth bass.
Jerry Moss, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries district fisheries supervisor for the west-central-west Alabama, has sampled Holt and Bankhead reservoirs for more than 27 years, making him the hands-down best authority for fishing information on the Warrior River. Not only has Moss studied the river intensely since his undergraduate days at Auburn University, he also has fished it.
Where To Fish The Warrior
My dad historically caught fish out of the old Warrior River by fly-fishing, trolling a bobber with a silver spoon or casting topwater lures at first light. In his younger and stronger days, my dad would take a cane pole with about 12 inches of line tied to a surface lure and jigger-pole fish the Warrior. With the tip of his pole, he’d flip water in front of a large surface bait. While shaking the pole to make the water flip, he’d run that big surface bait around the edges of weeds, lily pads, stumps and logs. This tactic enabled my dad to catch good numbers of nice-sized bass, even during the fall.
Today, the Warrior River has a “segregated” bass population. Although largemouth bass like my dad once caught still swim in the river, spotted bass have become the dominant species, especially out on the main river.
“Bankhead and Holt once were sections of the Warrior River, and both lakes still have river-like characteristics today,” Moss said. “Before the river was backed up to form Bankhead and Holt lakes, this area had a lot of rocky shoals, waterfalls and rocky bluffs.”
Even though the appearance of the river changed with the building of the Holt and Bankhead dams, the habitat in the old Warrior River didn’t change.
“Before the dams were created, the Warrior River provided ideal habitat for spotted bass, and even today, the main section of the river still has spotted bass,” Moss emphasized.
Spotted bass prefer to concentrate around shoals, dropoffs, bluffs and currents. But largemouth bass favor more static water conditions with less current and more vegetation. You find most of the largemouths in Bankhead and Holt in the tributaries and in the slack water, like coves off the main river.
“There’s some overlap between spotted bass and largemouth habitat on Holt and Bankhead,” Moss added.
Moss suggested that anglers target spotted bass this month on the Warrior. Spots are more active than the largemouths, and as the water cools off, the spotted bass feed more aggressively than the largemouths.
“Spotted bass prefer the threadfin shad, but they still will eat sunfish, crawfish, minnows and any other type of bait they can ambush,” Moss advised.
To catch spotted bass, Moss recommends using jigs, plastic worms and spinnerbaits. Shad-colored crankbaits, such as a Rapala Shad Rap or a Strike King Series 3 in sexy shad, really can turn on the bass bite in October and November. Warrior River fishermen toss shad-colored spinnerbaits at this time of year as well.
When current moves through the lake, main-river points and secondary points, as well as humps and drop-offs, can pay off in spotted bass dividends for anglers fishing those lures.
Swimming a worm or a jig through the grass, the logjams and the tree stumps always yield fall dividends for largemouth fishermen.
Later into the fall, the bass fishing at the Warrior River continues to improve.
“To find spotted bass and largemouths, fish the sheer rock bluffs,” Moss advised. “Many times you find structure on those walls that you can’t see underwater without a depthfinder. Anytime yo
u can locate areas where the structure breaks the current, you find nice-sized spotted and largemouth bass. Too, there are humps and lumps out on the main river that can provide good fishing for fall anglers.”
The regular anglers on Bankhead and Holt reservoirs are often hushed-mouthed about where they fish, and what they catch.
Also, you won’t find Bankhead or Holt in the Bass Anglers Information Team report. For inclusion in the annual B.A.I.T. report, a lake has to have hosted at least five bass-fishing tournaments during the year. For the last reporting period, Bankhead Lake only had three tournament reports, and Holt had four reports. This lack of inclusion in the B.A.I.T. report doesn’t mean these two lakes don’t home plenty of fish.
The roughly 10,000-acre Bankhead Lake has made a comeback in the last 20 years from the days of rampant pollution.
“When the paper and the steel mills and the surface mines were booming, they poured a lot of pollution into the river,” Moss said. “The Black Warrior got its name partially because whenever you put a boat, a canoe or a float tube in that river and pulled it out, it came out black.”
In the past, Bankhead Lake had high pollution rates. However, neither the Locust Fork nor the Sipsey Fork of the Warrior feeding it were nearly as polluted. In fact, the Sipsey Fork had some of the cleanest water in Alabama.
“There are several good creeks where you can find nice-sized largemouths,” Moss said. “One of my top largemouth hotspots is White Oak Creek. Frileys Creek and Prescott Creek are also excellent for catching largemouths. You find the best largemouth fishing in the middle or the lower section of Bankhead.”
Holt Lock And Dam
Holt Lake covers about 3,000 acres and just like Bankhead is a flow-through lake. That means that rather than spreading out into a true reservoir, roughly the same amount of water is allowed to in as flows out. Thus a narrow riverine impoundment results that just overflows the old river channel. Moss explains.
“So, there’s very rarely much water fluctuation — generally about 1 to 1 1/2 feet annually,” Moss explained.
Because of this factor, the bass in Holt usually get off a good spawn every year. Holt has 65 miles of shoreline with an average depth of about 36 feet, making it relatively deep compared with other lakes. This steep-sided shoreline is very conducive to spotted bass.
“You’ll probably catch 70 percent spotted bass to 30 percent largemouths in Holt,” Moss advised. “Some of the best areas to fish are around Rocky Branch.”
Although Holt Reservoir holds good-sized spotted bass, the spots in Bankhead tend to be slightly bigger.
“I’ve seen 4- and 5-pound spotted bass come out of Bankhead, but the spotted bass at Holt tend to be more in the 2- to 3-pound range,” Moss reported.
Overall, the habitat in Holt favors the spots, and it holds fewer largemouths.
“Over the years, surface mining has had a dramatic negative impact on the tributaries in Holt,” Moss explained.
Davis, White Oak and Peques creeks traditionally had great places to catch largemouth bass.
“But there has been a lot of spoilage from surface mining that has washed down into these tributaries and almost filled up these creeks all the way down to their mouths,” the biologist added, “causing this section to lose much of the largemouth habitat.
“Holt is still a great fishery,” he continued, “but it’s primarily a spotted bass fishery. Jigs, plastic worms, grubs, crankbaits and spinnerbaits produce best at Holt. Anglers primarily fish dropoffs, humps and ledges in this lake.”
Below Holt Lock and Dam, Lake Tuscaloosa that’s on the North River and empties into the Warrior, has some extremely clear and clean water.
When fishermen talk about lakes in west-central Alabama, they generally include 6,000-acre Tuscaloosa with Bankhead and Holt. This impoundment was created in the 1960s to supplement lakes Nichol and Harris as the water supply for the towns of Northport and Tuscaloosa. Since water capacity was the main concern, Lake Tuscaloosa’s bed was cleared of structure during construction.
The resulting impoundment has as much spotted bass habitat as Holt and probably rivals Bankhead in backwater habitat for largemouths. The bass population is a bit more balanced with spots making up 60 percent, and largemouths composing the remaining 40 percent of the black bass stock.
Most anglers go small, use “sissy” baits on Lake Tuscaloosa for the spotted bass. That’s because the water is so clear. Choices like 4-inch Slider worms, drop-shot rigs and Bitsy Bug-type jigs are most common. The Strike King Compact spinnerbait also catches spots on this lake.
When you’re fishing for largemouths, if the weather remains warm this month, you can flip and pitch in the willows and the grass in the tributary and backwater areas. For flipping, use natural colors like green pumpkin and motor oil creature baits or plastic worms. Another option is compact do-nothing baits like the Strike King Rodent.
Because the water is extremely clear, more than likely you need fluorocarbon line or leaders regardless of the location or species of bass you are targeting on Tuscaloosa.
“Carrolls Creek is one of the best places to catch spotted bass on Lake Tuscaloosa,” Moss offered. “Binion Creek and Turkey Creek are good creeks to fish for largemouths.”
Search for largemouths at the upper end of the lake in the shallow water, and look for spotted bass in the lower end in deeper water in the water.
Five bass-fishing tournaments took place at Lake Tuscaloosa in 2008, and the lake ranked well in the B.A.I.T. report.
“This lake is extremely clear and highly infertile. I don’t understand why a number of bass tournaments are held here when both Holt and Bankhead probably home more bass than Lake Tuscaloosa does,” Moss mused.
Regardless of that appraisal, Lake Tuscaloosa ranked second in percentage of success, No. 16 in average bass weight, first in bass caught per angler per day, eighth in pounds of bass caught per angler, ninth in hours fished to catch a bass over 5 pounds, and fifth overall among the 20 lakes ranked in the B.A.I.T report.
When you fish the Warrior River, you find Tuscaloosa, Holt and Bankhead very different in size, water quality and the places where you catch bass. But with the right tactics, anglers can catch quality-sized largemouths and spotted bass from any of these three lakes in the fall.