Finding A South Alabama 'Hawg'

If it's a 6-pound largemouth you want to hook, try these spots in South Alabama. It's lunker country! (January 2009)

Last January, Ryan Ingram of Phenix City caught a 10 1/2-pound largemouth bass on a deep-water ledge on Lake Eufaula. Within minutes, his fishing partner hauled another hawg into the boat; it weighed more than 9 pounds.

The author looks on as Danny Walden tries to boat a wintertime largemouth from shallow water at Millers Ferry.
Photo by Stephen E. Davis.

To the west, also in January, David Hagan of Clanton pulled a 9-pound, 7-ounce bass from an ugly brown patch of hyacinth floating on 49-degree water at Miller Ferry.

Biologists and anglers agree that these lakes offer the best chance of catching bass weighing 6 pounds or more from south Alabama waters in January. But it's not like fishing any other time of the year.

"It's not a very good month to fish overall," reported Damon Abernethy, supervisor of fisheries development for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. "Catch rates are low, but your chances of catching a really big fish are pretty good in January. If you can stand the cold, you can do real well in winter. I prefer to fish when it's cold."

Abernethy pointed out that bass are cold-blooded, which makes them less active and less likely to strike in cold water. In fact, biologists have found a largemouth's metabolic rate falls by a third of its previous rate for every 18-degree drop in body temperature. As their temperature falls from 60 to 50 degrees, the time to digest a meal of shad may increase from four days to six days. Though digesting food at an ever-slower rate, however, bass continue to eat through January and appear healthy, well nourished and ready to spawn in February.

Also, observations by biologists have confirmed what anglers have learned in their laboratory of hard knocks: Bass grow increasingly sluggish as water temperatures fall to 50 degrees, and markedly more so in the mid-to-upper 40s.

Both Ryan Ingram and David Hagan mark the break point for good fishing at 50 degrees. The former reported that water temperatures on Lake Eufaula normally range from 50 to 54 degrees in January, while the latter said that Millers Ferry runs a little colder, 46 to 53 degrees. These temperatures remain warm enough to keep largemouths biting through January.

This difference in water temperatures does, however, see the two anglers approach their respective lakes with different methods and techniques for locating winter hawgs.

LAKE EUFAULA
"By far," Ingram offered, "Lake Eufaula is your best opportunity to catch a 6-pound bass in the southern part of the state. It's leaps and bounds above any other lake around here."

Ingram qualifies as an expert on Lake Eufaula's bass. Having fished the lake for 23 years, he frequently wins or places near the top of the tournaments that he enters there. In the last several years he's won 50 local tournaments. Recent national and regional wins on Eufaula include the American Bass Anglers Grand Slam Series, the B.A.S.S. Masters Southern Tour, the ESPN Outdoor B.A.S.S. Masters Series and the Southeastern Stren Series.

"Fish form groups in January and February just like they do in the heat of summer," Ingram observed. "If we have a cold January, you can catch 20 to 25 fish a day and about half of those will weigh between 5 and 7 pounds. The fish may hold on the same ledges as in summer, but deeper. And the larger the group, the better your chances of catching a big fish."

Since bass on these ledges are of various sizes, and as big fish behave more as individuals, Ingram refers to the aggregate as a "group" rather than as a "school." The species may vary as well. "While fishing a ledge in 20 feet of water," he remarked, "you might catch a three-finger bluegill, an 8-pound bass or a 25-pound catfish. Everything is there together."

In winter, bass seek structure that provides food, security and a stable environment. As water temperatures drops on Lake Eufaula, fish move deeper and form even larger groups as the availability of ideal structure decreases. Instead of 75 possible spots holding bass at a depth of 20 feet, perhaps only 10 spots will be available at 28 feet.

Ingram advised anglers to look for fish on ledges or humps 20 to 28 feet deep. To fish structure and cover at these depths, he targets the lower section of the main lake below White Oak Creek.

"On that end of the lake," he noted, "it's basically impossible to catch a fish except in the cold winter months." He went on to remark that anglers can find fish by searching the depths with sonar, or by dragging a lure on the bottom. When using sonar, he looks for groups of bass, but, he admitted, it's often difficult to read fish hugging the bottom.

Ingram's fishfinder lure is a Texas-rigged 10-inch plastic worm in a dark color behind a 3/4-ounce sinker. "You could use a jig-and-pig," he explained, "but a worm just works better. Many anglers don't believe bass will bite a worm that early in the year, but it's the best way to find largemouth when it's cold on Lake Eufaula.


"Fish form groups in January and February just like they do in the heat of summer. If we have a cold January, you can catch 20 to 25 fish a day and about half of those will weigh between 5 and 7 pounds. The fish may hold on the same ledges as in summer, but deeper. And the larger the group, the better your chances of catching a big fish." --Ryan Ingram on Lake Eufaula
 

"Keep your boat in 20 to 25 feet of water and drift down the ledge. If you have a light wind, drift along the ledge, dragging the worm on the bottom. You may cover a good distance before getting a bite. When you do, stop and fish. Maybe it's the only bite you'll get -- or it could be 100 bites."

Especially in winter, bass hold in a location for a reason, so it's worth your time to work an area thoroughly before moving on.

If you're fishing for fun, Ingram recommended, work the ledge vertically with a 3/4-ounce Hopkins jigging spoon. The spoon is an efficient deep-water tool, but Ingram avoids the lure while fishing tournaments, as he loses too many fish on the way to the boat. Instead, this tournament champion prefers to slow-roll a 1 1/2-ounce Ledgebuster spinnerbait with a large willow-leaf blade just inches off the bottom. Ingram believes that the lure gives him an edge for catching big fish: It fooled his 10 1/2-pounder last year

.

The key to fishing the heavy spinnerbait is keeping it close to the ledge. "In winter," Ingram said, "the fish are stuck to the bottom. They often have mud on their bellies when they surface. When proficient at fishing a single willow-leaf spinnerbait in deep water, you occasionally feel it bump the bottom. If you can't feel the blade turning, let it fall to the bottom and then pick up the retrieve again."

A critical aspect to fishing deep ledges is boat position. "For every ledge on Lake Eufaula," Ingram noted, "there's a place where proper boat position will produce more strikes. If there are a few fish, it may make the difference between catching one and catching none. If it's a large group, it may make the difference in catching 10 fish or catching 50."

Distance, angle and current determine Ingram's position relative to the ledge. "In winter," he continued, "do not position your boat too close to the side of the ledge: the only fish you will catch are the active fish on top. Allow enough distance to work both the top and side of the ledge.

"Also, consider the angle of your casts. If you make a cast straight into the ledge, your lure will only cover a small section, but if you cast at an angle, the lure covers a larger area. Plus, you are able to keep the bait on the bottom longer."

Ingram always positions his boat on the downriver side of the ledge. As bass face into the current, this allows a natural presentation of his lure. It also permits him to fish the spinnerbait from shallow to deep while it remains near the bottom longer.

When fishing ledges in winter, Ingram pointed out that anglers frequently make two mistakes: fishing too shallow and putting too much pressure on a group of fish. "If you find a group of fish," he cautioned, "you can catch them for months, or you can ruin them in a day. With enough fishing pressure, they either stop striking lures or they move.


"If you find shad in the bend of the creek channel, the bass will usually hold near the bait. Fish a jigging spoon vertically if the water is clear enough for the fish to see the spoon. Always have a rod rigged with a spoon." --David Hagan on Millers Ferry
 

"When I caught the 10-pounder on the south end of the lake, we had been catching a mixed bag of spotted bass and smaller largemouths. The fish quit biting so we fished a few more places and returned. On the first two casts, we caught one over 10 and another over 9."

For current fishing information on the reservoir, call Young's Big Mouth Shop at (334) 687-3200, or visit them at 1203 North Eufaula Avenue in Eufaula.

MILLERS FERRY
David Hagan has fished Millers Ferry since 1971, and so knows more about catching its coldwater bass than anyone on the Alabama River. Anglers from Camden to Selma love bass fishing, but few leave the deer woods in January to wet a line, although Hagan said he's beginning to see more fishermen on the lake.

"In the '80s," the fisherman recalled, "I could ride for 40 miles on the lake and never see another boat. Now that anglers realize how much fun they can have, I sometimes see a dozen boats by midmorning.

"Winter is my favorite time of the year to fish because it's just more fun to catch big fish. A five-fish stringer that weighs 20 pounds in winter only weighs about 12 pounds in summer. You catch fewer fish in winter, but you catch quality fish."

Hagan's big-fish structure differs greatly from Ingram's over at Eufaula. Like Ingram, he concentrates on the lower section of this lake, but avoids the main channel. At Millers Ferry, he's found, the best fishing is in creeks with expansive flats.

Creek arms produce better than the main channel on Millers Ferry because the water's colder. Reservoirs on the Alabama River have lower retention times -- the amount of time that the lake holds a particular unit of water -- and are consistently colder. Additionally, creeks with broad flats and stained water warm much faster than the main lake during a warming trend.

When deciding which creeks to fish, Hagan said, spawning flats are the key to success. Find where bass reproduce and then backtrack to locate nearby deep-water structure. Pine Barren, Mill and Shell creeks are examples of the type of structure that produces in winter.

"Spawning flats are the secret," Hagan revealed. "All the lake's big fish relate to spawning flats. If there's a bend in the creek 30 feet deep with a spawning flat nearby covered with 4 feet of water, 90 percent of the time you find them in the channel. When the water warms up, the fish move vertically in the channel and then swim onto the spawning flat."

Hagan described an ideal winter fishing spot as a creek channel 15 to 30 feet deep with an outside bend close to the bank. Additionally, a migration route connecting the creek bend to the spawning flat makes it even better. A feeder creek, a ditch or depression offers security to bass moving to and from the flat plus perfect concealment from which to ambush bait moving across the route. As always, the more cover you have on the creek channel, migration route and spawning flat, the better the fishing.

Surprisingly, Hagan pointed out, the temperature swings possible in January might induce bass to suspend deep in the channel on the migration route, or even to roam the flat.


"If you find shad in the bend of the creek channel, the bass will usually hold near the bait. Fish a jigging spoon vertically if the water is clear enough for the fish to see the spoon. Always have a rod rigged with a spoon." --David Hagan on Millers Ferry
 

The last ingredients necessary for success are low current flow in the creek and the presence of shad. If Hagan doesn't see shad on his sonar or flipping on the surface, he doesn't stop to fish. "If you find shad in the bend of the creek channel," he advised, "the bass will usually hold near the bait. Fish a jigging spoon vertically if the water is clear enough for the fish to see the spoon. Always have a rod rigged with a spoon."

Of all Hagan's winter patterns, vertical jigging for fish in the channel requires the slowest lure presentation.

If bass are not in the channel, Hagan searches the top of ledges and sides of the channel on both the outside and inside curve of the bend. The inside curve forms a point at its apex.

"Fish positioned on top of the ledge are actively feeding." he emphasized, "If they are on the sides, they strike but not aggressively. The fish on top of the point are easiest to catch."

Hagan targets bass in both situations with a dark colored jig-and-pig weighing 3/8 t

o 3/4 ounce. For maximum visibility and vibration, his pig is supersized. This lure produces most of his big fish.

"If fish are aggressive," he stated, "you can fish faster, so use a heavy jig. For really cold water with lethargic bass that won't move far to hit a bait, use a light jig. It stays in the strike zone longer because you can work it slower."

To work the sides of the creek channel, Hagan positions his boat so that the jig moves at an angle to its sides. And though bass behavior is neutral, he often catches big fish in deep water with this presentation.

Depending on the movement of fronts and the length of warming trends, Hagan reported, fishing conditions can quickly change on Millers Ferry. "At times, water temperatures increase by 6 or 7 degrees on those flats," he said, "but a 2- or 3-degree swing can mean the difference between an empty and full livewell. After a few warm days, shad move up on the flats and bass follow them. If I find shad flipping on the surface, I can catch bass."

Hagan targets fish on migration routes by tossing a crankbait, jig-and-pig or spinnerbait perpendicular to its direction. As his lure breaks over the edge of the drop -- even if it's only a matter of 18 inches -- it often triggers a reaction strike from fish.

"Fish the ditch going back to the flat," instructed Hagan, "because they are aggressive and easy to catch. When bass swim out of the ditch, they scatter over the flat to hold under vegetation and next to wood cover."

It's here that Hagan caught his 9-pound, 7-ounce bass from hyacinth in 49-degree water. Air temperature was 38 degrees. He searched the ditch out to the flat and then switched to a 1 1/2-ounce jig to flip the thick cover. "She was under the hyacinth enjoying the warmth and feeding on crawfish," he recalled. "She had whiskers sticking out of her throat, so you know why she was there. I released her back into the hyacinth hoping I would catch her again during a tournament."

When you find largemouths on the flats, enjoy the experience. Hagan observed that as soon as the next cold front rolls across Millers Ferry, it's back to the channel to fish for suspended bass until the next warming trend. Fortunately, the trends linger a littler longer as we move toward spring.

For current fishing conditions at Miller Ferry, visit McDonald's Grocery & Sports Store on State Route 221 in Camden, or phone (334) 682-4523.

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