Early-Season Bronzebacks

The Tennessee River in North Alabama is the only place in the entire Cotton State where you can fish for smallmouth bass.

Smallmouths are cousins to the more prevalent largemouth bass found throughout Alabama. Obviously, they have a smaller mouth, as the name implies, and they're more of a brown color, while largemouths are greener. Smallies are sometimes referred to by the nickname "bronzebacks."

They don't get quite as big as largemouths, prefer running water and rocks to still water and weeds, and are known as ferocious fighters.

A lot of Alabama anglers target smallies on the Tennessee in the fall, but early spring -- February and March -- also offers outstanding opportunities. Like their largemouth cousins, these fish are in a pre-spawn pattern at this time of year.

Smallmouths are in deep water in February and early March. They like a strong flowing current and relate to rocks, stumps and long, sloping points.

The Tennessee River has historically produced outstanding smallmouth fishing in North Alabama, with a former world-record smallmouth being taken here. Depending on whom you talk to, the smallmouth fishing on parts of this river -- particularly Pickwick and Wilson lakes -- may not be what it once was.

"We've got some problems with gill-netting and some water quality issues," explained Troy Jens, a longtime Tennessee River bass guide and founder of Concerned Anglers of Alabama (CAA), an organization that tries to help resolve some of the problems.

"We had some concerns on Guntersville that we were able to get addressed, and now we're turning our attention to some of the problems at Pickwick and Wilson," he said.

On the other hand, Keith Floyd, the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries district biologist for northwestern Alabama, disagrees that there are serious problems.

"If you talk to some anglers, they might tell you that smallmouth are on the decline," he pointed out. "But the fishing is still pretty good in this area. It can be downright spectacular at times."

WHEELER LAKE

State fisheries surveys on Wheeler Lake have shown more largemouth bass than smallmouth bass, but Floyd said you have to know where to look to find the smallies.

He prefers the lower end of the impoundment for targeting smallmouths. Most of the fish will be on rocky points.

"There's a lot of that type of habitat there," he noted.

Guide Troy Jens said Wheeler might actually be the best of the three smallmouth lakes on the Tennessee River right now.

"The big smallmouth in Wheeler are along bluff walls downriver in February and March," Jens offered. "I've had a lot of success on them fishing with a suspending jerkbait."

Any color that mimics a shad is good. Jens also likes clown and tiger roan color schemes.

"There's not a whole lot of pressure on these fish on the bluff walls," he added. "But there are some real monsters, some 7-pounders, that hang out there. Seven pounds is big when you're talking about a brown fish."

Smallmouths are sometimes also picked up in the bluff areas immediately below Guntersville Dam in the upper end of Wheeler Lake.

"It's more of a spinnerbait pattern that they're caught on there," Jens said. "You work the spinnerbait along the bluff walls."

His biggest fish in that area has been a 6 1/2-pounder. He also uses the spinnerbait when he fishes Wilson and Wheeler lakes farther downstream.

WILSON LAKE

There's a 15-inch minimum size limit on all black bass on Wilson Lake, biologist Keith Floyd said.

"As a result, anglers can expect to catch a lot of smallmouth bass in the 13- to 15-inch size range," he pointed out. "The limit protects those smaller fish. But a lot of larger fish also show up on Wilson."

Many of the fish are picked up on submerged islands in the Wilson Dam tailrace in early spring.

"They sort of hold in those areas," the biologist said. "People also catch smallmouth in some of the pockets and creeks."

Live shad minnows caught in the vicinity of the dam are good baits. You can drift the shad with the current below the dam or sink them close to the bottom with a split shot in other parts of the reservoir, according to Floyd.

He separates the bait and the weight with about 18 inches of line.

"You want to reel it back real slow, like you're fishing a Carolina rig," Floyd explained. "You want that bait to swim around. The bass will hit it hard. It's a fun way to fish."

Guide Troy Jens isn't fishing Wilson as much as he once did, because of a drop in the number of fish being caught there, he said.

"It used to be easy to catch 40 or 50 fish a day over there," he noted. "Now you're lucky if you catch four."

When he does hit Wilson, he likes to fish artificial baits rather than the live bait that is so prevalently used in the tailrace there.

"I like to fish a 3 1/2-inch tube bait," he offered. "Watermelon is a good color. I also use a 1/4-ounce jig. I use my depthfinder to look for rockpiles and fish around them."

Jens also throws spinnerbaits when he's looking for big smallmouths.

Jimmy Mason, a BASS Tour pro who lives in Rogersville, said jerkbaits can also be pretty good on Wilson in the spring.

"I focus on the steeper bluffs below the (Wheeler) dam," Mason said. "The more current coming through the dam, the better. I like to fish with a 6A Bomber and I count it down to the depth I want it."

Mason also likes to fish grubs. He starts out with a 1/8-ounce jighead, but moves up to a 1/4-ounce if conditions dictate.

Good colors for grubs include smoke-and-silver, green-and-purple and chartreuse salt-and-pepper. He uses the brighter colors when the water is dirty or off-color.

While Jens thinks the fishing has really dropped off on Wilson, Mason still likes the smallmouth action there.

"I think Wilson

might actually be the best of the three lakes right now," he said. "But Wheeler is not bad either."

PICKWICK LAKE

Pickwick is the granddaddy of all the Tennessee River lakes when it comes to producing both numbers of smallmouth bass and quality smallmouth bass. More big smallies are probably caught here than in any of the other reservoirs.

"The area just below Wilson Dam gets fished a lot, but it produces a lot of fish," Floyd said. "There are a lot of rockpiles in that area that the fish relate to."

Again, drifting a live minnow is a good tactic, one just about any fisherman can try. Anglers use cast nets to catch the bait up next to the dam.

The best baits will be 4 to 5 inches long. You need a round bucket or bait tank to keep the shad alive, as they tend to bunch up and die in the corners of square livewells.

As a rule of thumb, the fishing is better when there's more current flowing.

"Drifting with bait is a very effective way to fish," Floyd said. "It's the way I fish when I go there."

Regulars at Pickwick say the tactic is just as effective in the fall as it is in the summer. It's almost a year-round sport.

Fishermen who prefer to use artificial baits can pick up smallmouths on worms, flukes, grubs and spinnerbaits tossed around eddies in the swift water.

Don't be surprised if you pick up some other fish while you're after smallmouths. Big stripers are notorious for hitting baits intended for smallmouths below the dam.

Jimmy Mason fishes artificial baits when he targets smallmouths at Pickwick.

"In February and March, the smallmouth are just starting to come up to get ready for the spawn," he stated. "Most of the fish are going to be on points and sloping bars. They will be on the steeper bluffs and points earlier in the season. They go to the more gradual points as the season progresses."

You can usually see the points on the contour of the shoreline and then use your electronics to pinpoint the exact places to fish.

Mason likes to throw grubs and suspending jerkbaits, but he uses the big-lipped, deep-diving baits earlier in the season.

"Colors that are always good are clown, gold with a blue back, and silver with a blue back," he said.

He uses the shinier colors if the water is cloudy or stained.

The smallmouths begin to get in shallower water when the temperature gets above 50 degrees.

"I use a wobble jerkbait in that situation," Mason said. "I only fish it about 6 feet deep. The smallmouth come up on it if they're deeper than that. I always tell people to let the fish tell you where to run your bait."

He counts it down to the proper depth using a "one one-thousand, two one-thousand"-type count.

The retrieve is critical, Mason emphasized. He jerks it and then gives it a long pause on his retrieve.

Mason noted that fishing pressure always seems to be on the increase on Pickwick. Like Troy Jens, he's concerned about gill-netting on the lake.

"Even though they're trying to catch rough fish," he said, "they stretch these nets across spawning grounds, and they can't help but catch some smallmouth too,"

If you like to fish on bluebird spring days, smallmouth fishing on the Tennessee River might not be for you. Mason prefers to target smallmouths on Pickwick when the weather is at its worst.

"I like to fish on a cloudy, windy day," he admitted. "My perfect smallmouth day has a high temperature of maybe 40 degrees and winds of 10 to 15 miles per hour. It seems like the fish are up higher on a day like that, and I'm going to throw the grub at them a lot more."

GUNTERSVILLE LAKE

For years, it was thought that smallmouth bass simply did not exist in Guntersville Lake. That began to change about six to eight years ago when bronzebacks began to show up more and more frequently in the impoundment.

But make no mistake -- the largemouth bass continues as the king of Guntersville Lake. There are perhaps thousands of largemouths caught there for every smallmouth that is landed.

While biologists now acknowledge the presence of smallmouths in Lake Guntersville, they say that reservoir doesn't have the rocky riverine habitat necessary to ever produce bronzebacks in great abundance.

Few anglers actually go out and target smallmouths on this impoundment. Rather, smallmouths are caught incidentally by anglers fishing for largemouths.

An interesting development regarding smallmouth fishing did occur last July on the lake. Terry Slaten of Boaz was fishing a Carolina rig in 22 feet of water a mile out from Waterfront Grocery when he caught a 6-pound, 8-ounce smallie. It's believed to be a new lake record for smallmouth bass.

"The place I caught mine was in a part of the river where people have told me you can't catch a smallmouth," Terry mused.

He was fishing with Boaz-based guide Dave McKinney, who thought Terry had a drum when he first hooked the fish.

"It went down and stayed down," Slaten recounted. "It took me about five minutes to get it in."

He almost turned the fish back, but then decided to have it mounted.

Terry and Dave caught seven bass that day. All the others were largemouths, and none was bigger than the smallmouth.

If you're an Alabama largemouth angler in need of a new adventure, you might want to look into this smallmouth fishing on the Tennessee River.

SUMMING IT UP

The bite is on right now whether you hit Wheeler, Pickwick or Wilson. Anglers wanting a proven producer might want to try Pickwick. Those looking for an overlooked opportunity may want to hit the lower end of Wheeler.

And who knows, you might even land a new lake-record smallmouth by accident while you're fishing for largemouths on Guntersville.

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