Cotton State Fall Fishing
September 28, 2010
Now that the weather's cooled off, angling is picking up all over the state. Here are some autumn options you don't want to miss! (November 2007)
Russ Lane is hoisting a good spotted bass from Lake Jordan.
"Thank goodness for hunters and golfers," my husband said as we crossed the deserted parking lot to the boat ramp. It was mid-morning, the day after Thanksgiving, and it looked as if we had the entire lake to ourselves.
Just a few months earlier, waiting in line to use that same ramp was like sitting on the tarmac at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta during a snowstorm.
Nevertheless, the lack of boaters on the lake in November and December was but icing on the cake. Our reason for being there was the great fishing.
Across our state, the declining water temperatures and daylight stimulate predatory fish to feed aggressively in preparation for the impending cold winter. Savvy anglers, whether fishing for panfish or trophies, wait with great anticipation for this seasonal action to begin.
Here are a few of the places -- and species -- that offer great fishing for the remainder of the year.
"My best 30-fish stringer on Guntersville was in November," recalled Alex Rawleigh of Hazel Green, "and it weighed 64 pounds. Three fish weighed more than 3 pounds, with the largest weighing 3.4 pounds.
"Guntersville has some monster crappie."
Rawleigh has fished the 69,100-acre lake located in the northeast corner of our state, for 30 years. He enjoys fishing for most of the species swimming in the Tennessee River, but crappie fishing from late October to mid-December is the highlight of his angling year.
For most of those years, Rawleigh has kept a log of fishing conditions when searching for bass, bream, crappie and sauger. A review of his records revealed that he occasionally caught trophy-size slabs in November with a 1-ounce jig-and-pig while fishing bluff walls for bass.
"I was catching crappie that weighed nearly 3 pounds," he explained. "While recording a trip and looking at the map after a week of fishing, I discovered every time I caught crappie, it was where the river channel swings into the bank."
To test the pattern, Rawleigh decided to try it in a different location 20 miles away -- and found similar structure on his map.
"Not knowing what to expect," Rawleigh admitted, "I cast my jig. When it reached a depth of 18 to 20 feet -- bingo -- the line jumped and a big slab came into the boat! In 30 minutes, I had a limit in an area I had never fished before. I knew that I had stumbled onto something special."
To duplicate Rawleigh's success, follow the Tennessee River channel on your map to where it makes a sharp bend toward shore and back out again. On the map, tightly stacked contour lines above water level show bluffs.
Above water, Guntersville's bluffs loom as fractured rock walls with cedar and pine growing tenaciously along their edges. In places, you'll see deep cuts where the wall has collapsed. Below water, the bluffs' staircase steps down into the channel with a collection of blown-down trees and boulders from above. These are mixed with debris washed down by the current.
Rawleigh pointed out that current flow is critical, as it positions the shad and crappie behind current breaks on the rock wall. It takes about two hours of current to concentrate the fish.
"As you approach the bluff," he explained, "you'll see large balls of baitfish 18 to 20 feet deep on the depthfinder. And you see bigger returns just below the shad. Ninety percent of the time, these are crappie."
To tempt these deepwater slabs, Rawleigh casts a 1/16-ounce jig rigged with a 1 1/2- to 1 3/4-inch soft-plastic body. He uses a 5 1/2-foot ultralight spinning rod spooled with 4-pound-test monofilament in fluorescent blue.
"Work the jig by counting down to where the fish are positioned on your depthfinder," he said. "Then twitch the line, let it fall, and repeat. The crappie position themselves nose up and move up to take the jig, so you won't feel the bite. But you will see your line snap or jump. That's why I use fluorescent line. You must watch your line to catch fish."
Rawleigh said that as the water cools, crappie move deeper. In early November, look in water less than 15 feet deep. But by late December, they may be as deep as 40 feet.
For current fishing information on Guntersville, drop by Waterfront Grocery and Tackle on State Route 79, or call them at (256) 582-6060.
Largemouth & Spotted Bass
According to the 2006 Alabama Bass Anglers Information Team (B.A.I.T.) annual report, Lake Jordan ranks as the top lake in overall quality indicator rankings.
The report went on to say that last year, Jordan showed great improvement in bass fishing and exceeded its previous 20-year peaks for bass per angler-day and pounds per angler-day.
Not only is Jordan a great all-around bass destination, it offers some of arguably the best spotted bass fishing found anywhere. Fortunately, good catches of both largemouth and spots are possible during November and December.
"Other than February," said Russ Lane of Wetumpka, "mid-November to mid-December is my favorite time of the year to fish Jordan."
Lane is a professional bass angler who honed his skills on the 6,900-acre lake, located north of Wetumpka. He is now a competitor on the BASS Master Elite and Majors trails and a two-time BASS Masters Classic qualifier.
"It's just before the coldest part of the year," Lane continued. "So the shad are less active and easier for the bass to catch. They're feeding aggressively, getting ready for water temperature to drop into the high 40s.
"The average largemouth or spotted bass will weigh in the 3-pound range, and you could expect to catch spotted bass weighing more than 4 pounds and largemouth around 5 pounds."
Lane's primary patterns pivot on flowing water. Like Rawleigh, he said that current is essential for success, but only in the case of spots. Alternatively, when the tu
rbines are still, Lane switches to fishing for largemouths.
"This time of the year, the most important factor for spotted bass is current," Lane confirmed. "And the best current flow occurs in a 3- to 5-mile stretch below the Mitchell Dam.
"Many anglers think that spots move to the bank in the current, but that's not necessarily true. That time of year, big fish use bottom structure -- anything that breaks up the current flowing across the bottom -- and they may be 20 feet deep."
Small points along the banks that extend to the bottom, or rock piles in the middle of the river, often hold big spots. Of course, presenting a lure that deep in a strong current requires the right lure and technique.
"Use a 1-ounce Vicious spinnerbait rigged with two No. 4 willow-leaf blades," Lane advised. "It's important that the entire bait, including the blades, be a chartreuse color."
To cast the heavy lure, Lane uses a 7-foot rod for distance and 16-pound-test Gamma fluorocarbon line for depth.
"Start with your boat upstream from the bottom structure you want to fish," the angler advised. "Then make a long cast against the current. By the time your boat drifts back across the current break, your spinnerbait should be on the bottom.
"The spots strike so hard that they knock slack in your line," he cautioned.
To target Jordan's largemouths, Lane transitions to piers and boat docks. If it's sunny, he skips a 3/8-ounce Vicious jig rigged with a twin-tail grub into the darkest shade beneath docks.
Under overcast conditions, Lane swims the jig, using a hopping motion, down the sides of the pier. He said the fish hold on the back or front corner, and that you'll see the strike.
For current water and fishing conditions, call Big Fish Bait & Tackle in Wetumpka at (334) 567-7509.
On Nov. 11 of last year, Michael McDonald won the American Red Cross Causeway Classic Trout tournament with a three-fish limit weighing 11.26 pounds. His biggest speck tipped the scales at 4 1/4 pounds.
The tournament is one of two fundraisers the Red Cross holds each year in either late October or early November. Organizers have found it's a perfect time to fish for speckled trout.
McDonald, who loves the competition of trout tournaments and has targeted the species for 10 years, agrees.
"When the water temperature starts to drop around the end of October," the angler explained, "shrimp move out of the bay and into the rivers as far as the salinity will allow. And the trout will follow the bait."
McDonald added that trout are also following their instincts to seek the deep holes where they winter.
"Deepwater holes hold fish because they provide the salinity trout need," he noted.
Though the Red Cross bills its event as a causeway tournament, McDonald prefers to fish the smaller rivers flowing into the bay south of Mobile -- places like the Fowl and Dog rivers and the Theodore Industrial Canal. In fact, his biggest fish so far was a gator trout that came from the canal and weighed 8 1/2 pounds.
Anglers can expect high numbers of fish in November and December, but may have to cull many short fish. McDonald said to expect the average keeper speckled trout to weigh 2 1/2 to 3 pounds.
Changing conditions -- water temperature, salinity and forage -- keep the trout moving and anglers scratching their heads. McDonald said the fish may be on the bottom of a deep hole one day, and the next, working the flats or suspended near a dropoff.
He begins a new day on the water by fishing where he caught fish last. If that does not work, McDonald is quick to move to an adjacent flat or to another deepwater sanctuary.
"Deep holes are good in November and December," he emphasized. "And since it doesn't get that cold, the trout move onto the flats to feed during the day."
McDonald said the depth of a deep is relative to its surrounding terrain. In the Industrial Canal, a "deep" hole may be 40 feet, but a hole next to a flat may only be 10 feet deep.
To find and catch fish in holes, McDonald bumps plastic grubs on the bottom. This avid trout angler also uses the time-tested method of slow-trolling over the holes, as it allows him to cover water quickly.
Depending on the current and depth of the water, McDonald's jigs weigh 1/4 to 3/8 of an ounce.
He fishes them on 12-pound-test monofilament tipped with an 18-inch fluorocarbon leader with the same strength rating.
If fish are suspended on the edge of the holes or on the flats, McDonald relies on a silver, 1/2-ounce Rat-L-Trap to eliminate unproductive water. He caught his big fish on the lipless crankbait.
"A Rat-L-Trap is a great locator lure," McDonald said, "because you can cover so much ground by making long casts with a 7-foot rod. Use a steady retrieve. Speckled trout will often strike when the lure snags grass and then breaks free."
For tournament information, call the American Red Cross Alabama Gulf Coast Chapter at (251) 438-2571, or visit their Web site at www.redcrossalcoast.org. Their next tournament is scheduled for October 27, 2007.
LEWIS SMITH LAKE
"When fishing in November, the biggest mistake anglers make is not being in the right area of the lake," said Bill Vines of Morris, who has been guiding for striped bass on Smith Lake since 1988. "They keep going back to the same places where they caught fish in the summer, not realizing that stripes migrate back to where they were in the spring."
As water temperatures decline, gizzard and threadfin shad leave the lower lake and move up the rivers and creeks. They are closely shadowed by striped bass.
"The first part of November," Vines continued, "there will still be a few fish down the lake. But by Thanksgiving, the majority of the stripes will be at least halfway up the lake or creeks.
"And by December, the stripes will be in the top third of the creeks where they will spend the winter."
As the migration progresses, Vines said stragglers join to form schools, which are easier to find and catch on the 21,200-acre highland lake. He said it's one of the best times of the year for catching striped bass.
"Even on a slow day," he noted, "you can catch 15 fish, but a trip usually produces 20 to 30 fish. An average fish weighs 9 to 12 pounds. Many weigh 18 to 20 pounds, with an occasion
al fish weighing 30 pounds."
One behavior making stripers easier to catch from November through the first half of December are the schools' tendency to bust shad on the surface. Vines said to expect to see surface-feeding times change as the water cools, with stripers feeding in the morning in early November and late in the afternoon in December.
When you see fish tearing through shad corralled on the surface, Vines recommended watching their path as they surface, submerge and then surface again.
"If you watch them," he pointed out, "you will see they always move in one direction. Instead of moving into the fish, try to anticipate their direction so you are waiting for them. You will not spook them, and you will have a better chance of catching more fish."
To catch top-feeding fish, Vines casts a 7-inch Cotton Cordell Red Fin on a 7- or 7 1/2-foot rod and uses a steady retrieve so that it makes a V-shaped wake. If that doesn't draw a strike, he switches to quick jerks.
"You hope to find them jumping," he said. "But even so, they will not jump all day. Eventually, they go down, and you'll have to use your depthfinder. This time of the year water levels are usually down about 15 feet from the winter drawdown. So look for the fish 20 to 30 feet deep over the submerged treeline."
Vines explained that when the lake was built, construction crews cleared the lake bottom of timber, from the shoreline out to a distance of 50 feet. So the edge of the treeline is not far from the bank, and the tops of those trees are about 35 feet deep.
The veteran guide fishes for suspended stripers using two downlines and two freelines. The former are rigged with a 2- or 2 1/2-ounce sinkers with a 3- to 4-foot fluorocarbon leader. The depth of the downline is determined by the fish shown on the depthfinder.
Vines fishes his freelines 50 to 75 feet from the boat. One is rigged with a slip cork to keep the baitfish from swimming too deep. He baits them all with 6- to 7-inch gizzard shad on a 3/0 or 4/0 circle hook.
"If you have a couple of downlines and two freelines -- one with a cork -- you pretty well have the water column covered," Vines advised. To book a guided striped bass trip, call Bill Vines at (205) 647-7683, or you can visit his Web site, www.stripe-fishingheadquarters.com.