Bama's Best Smallmouth Fishing?

The Cotton State can lay claim to some of the best bronzeback waters in the nation in Pickwick and Wilson lakes. So which is the better fishery? (February 2006)

Roger Stegall has been guiding anglers to smallies like this one on Pickwick Lake for more than two decades.
Photo by John E. Phillips

I vividly recall a day that Jerry Crook, a top smallmouth guide from Birmingham, and I spent in fishing the tailrace of Wheeler Dam on the Tennessee River's Wilson Lake. All day long we'd been catching smallmouth bass that weighed from 1 1/2 to 4 pounds each -- and then something really big took the threadfin shad I was drifting along the bottom.

Setting the hook, I saw the tip of my rod dive to kiss the foamy whitewater escaping from the generators of the powerhouse at the base of the dam. The big fish stripping line off my reel made it seem as if I'd hooked a southbound freight train. The first time it came out of the water, I couldn't believe its width and length. It was the biggest smallmouth I'd ever hooked!

Time seemed to suspend while the battle raged. Each time the fish came to the surface, I thought I might lose it, but the hook held fast. Finally, with the smallie less than 30 feet from the boat, it wallowed on the surface as if spent, but then headed straight to the bottom, leaving me to take up slack quickly as the bronzeback ran toward the boat.

Once I felt tension on the line again, I added a little pressure. However, the line went slack yet again! The big smallmouth gathered all its strength and came straight from the bottom and into the sky above. The fish exploded upward less than half a step from the boat as it jumped almost higher than my head.

Like a frozen frame from a movie, the image of that gorilla-sized smallmouth twisting in the air is still with me today. Unfortunately, that mental impression was my only reward: The hook came out of the fish's mouth while it hung in midair before me.

That's not the only great memory I have of fishing the Tennessee River for smallmouths in North Alabama. The main reason for that is this part of the state holds two of the best smallmouth lakes in the world -- the two sisters, Wilson and Pickwick lakes

A former world-record smallmouth came from the upper reaches of Wilson Lake back in October 1950. My wife's great uncle, Hugh McLellan, was in the boat with Owen F. Smith of Fairfield when he caught that 10-pound, 8-ounce smallie.

But Wilson doesn't host all of the big-fish action for smallmouths. Pickwick is noted for giving up numbers of "hawgs" of up to 7 1/2 pounds each year.

ONE TWIN SISTER

Personally I've found the best smallmouth fishing on Wilson Lake right below Wheeler Dam.

"I like to fish live shad minnows on a No. 1 hook with a piece of lead about 12 to 18 inches up the line," explained guide Jerry Crook. "The smallmouth like to hold where two currents collide. If two generators are running at the same time, the spot where those two currents hit each other will be less swift than on either side of that groove. That's where the smallmouth often stack up."

Crook also fishes on the side of any eddy created behind large underwater boulders. When fishing the tailrace of Wheeler Dam, you hear fishermen talk about catching smallmouths either "high" -- close to the dam between the face of the structure and the small island just south of the center of the dam -- or "low" -- in the area downstream of the island.

Whether you find the smallies feeding high or low will depend on the amount of current coming through the dam. But regardless of which spot they're in, most often the best method for catching the bass involves drift-fishing with live shad minnows.

Some humps, ledges and rocks farther downstream give up some smallmouths as well, but the premier hotspot for big bronzebacks at this time of the year lies at the foot of Wheeler Dam.

THE OTHER SISTER

As remarked above, I've always considered Pickwick Lake to be the twin sister to Wilson Lake. Physically close to each other, and of the same parentage -- the Tennessee River -- they are most readily distinguished by current: That coming through Pickwick seems stronger. And when you move downstream to Pickwick, you find the fishing different as well. In the upper reaches of Pickwick, anglers catch a number of smallmouths at the base of Wilson Dam using the same technique of fishing with live shad that works below Wheeler Dam. But most of the bronzeback action on this impoundment takes place farther downriver.

Knowing when to fish is easy: whenever current's coming through the reservoir, the more the better. But, you really need a good map and a GPS receiver to know where to fish. With those you can locate and record the drops into the old river and creek channels, flooded humps and underwater bars. Water moving over these features makes them smallmouth honeyholes.

Pickwick also features a similar but much more exotic kind of bottom structure: The lake floor is dotted with ancient Indian mounds. During the summer months many years ago, my brother, Archie, would put on his scuba gear and dive on the Indian mounds. He explained that archaeologists had done some hurried excavations of the site just before the lake was filled. Archie described these digs as not very sophisticated, looking as if a backhoe had been used to dig a trench through the middle of the mounds. He also noted that some really big smallmouth bass were holding on the edges of those old trenches. Like the other bottom breaks, these are best fished on moving water.

A few years ago, I got the chance to fish Pickwick Lake with Larry Nixon of Bee Branch, Ark., who's one of the country's top professional bass anglers. It was a trip that emphasized the need to have current for successful bassin' on the impoundment.

Nixon has fished Pickwick in so many national tournaments that he's quite familiar with the venue. "Since there's no current running, let's fish this little creek channel with a Strike King Bitsy Bug," Nixon suggested, tying on one of the jigs. In four hours of fishing, we landed 10 smallmouths weighing up to 5 pounds and one largemouth that tipped the scales at 6 l/2 pounds. Despite that impressive catch, Nixon assured me the fishing would be even better in the afternoon, when the current was expected to pick up in the lake.

After lunch, back on the lake, we headed to a spot in which a shallow bar rose up to 5 or 6 feet deep right on the main river channel. We cast and retrieved Bitsy Bugs for about an hour and didn't get a bite.

"Current's startin

g to come through the lake," Nixon eventually announced.

The words had no sooner come out of his mouth than he made a long cast, hopped the jig on the bottom twice and then set the hook. He had on a monster smallmouth on that weighed 7 1/2-pounds when finally brought to the boat!

As I was busy with my camera, taking pictures of the big smallmouth, Nixon interrupted my fidgeting. "Put that camera down," he advised. "These fish are turned on, and you need to be fishing."

Following his instructions, I soon had my jig in the water. Quickly a fish almost jarred the rod out of my hand. When that battle ended, I had a 6 l/2-pound smallmouth at the boat. By the time the fishing ended at dark, we had caught and released more than 100 pounds' worth of smallmouths ranging in size from 2 l/2 to 7 l/2 pounds -- and all from that one bar.

"In all my years of fishing, I've never caught more or bigger smallmouth than we have today," Nixon said. Pretty impressive, coming from an angler who has sampled the best of North America's bass waters!

PICKWICK'S "MR. SMALLMOUTH"

Fishing guide Roger Stegall, of Iuka, Miss., has been plying the waters of Pickwick Lake for more than 20 years, during which he's learned a lot about the habits of the impoundment's bronzebacks and located any number of the lake's smallie hotspots. Among the skills that he has acquired is that of regularly putting his clients on big smallmouths weighing over 5 pounds. Some of those fish also top the 6- and 7-pound marks. Stegall's best personal smallmouth weighed in at 8 pounds. Each year Stegall and his clients catch and release about 150 smallmouth bass that weigh 5 pounds or more.

When it comes to the best lure for Pickwick smallmouths, Stegall proved that he's a man for all seasons, mentioning jig-and-grub combos, spinnerbaits, Zero worms, crankbaits and jerkbaits. What he casts depends on the conditions.

"My favorite grub for Pickwick smallmouth is a smoke color with blue glitter, or chartreuse with silver glitter," he offered. "I like to fish the Strike King 3X grubs because they stay on my hook longer, and I don't have to constantly replace them."

Most fishermen believe that you have to give a grub a lot of action to get a smallmouth to take it, but Stegall depends on the grub's natural movement as he retrieves. "I cast out and let it hit the bottom," he said. "I bring my rod up to the 10 o'clock position and make eight or 10 quick turns of the reel handle, which causes the grub to look like a minnow swimming off the bottom. Then I stop reeling. The grub will swim toward the bottom instead of falling vertically.

"When I see slack in my line, I know the grub has hit the bottom. I then reel 10 more times and stop the grub again. You don't always feel the bite when the grub is swimming back toward the bottom. That's why you need to use high-visibility line to see the bites you aren't feeling.

"Often when the smallmouth attacks the grub, you see your line move sideways or the line twitch. Even though the bite's small, and you don't feel it, you may be hooking into a 6-pound smallmouth."

Although Stegall fishes a spinnerbait all year long, he considers it especially deadly in the early spring, preferring a 3/4-ounce size. "I take the front blade and the beads off the spinnerbait, and I don't use a trailer-hook," he explained. "My favorite color is a No. 5 gold blade with a chartreuse skirt. Or, if the water's clear, I'll use a chartreuse-and-white skirt.

"When I cast out a spinnerbait while fishing for smallmouths, I'll let it fall on a tight line and swing like a pendulum to the bottom. That way I can feel the blade turning as it falls, and many times, I'll get a strike on the fall." Once the bait hits bottom, he begins fishing it the same way he fishes the grub.

Another of Stegall's tricks for catching big smallmouths at Pickwick is to use a Carolina-rigged worm on humps, dropoffs and ledges. Instead of the conventional plastic worm or plastic lizard, he fishes the cigar-shaped Zero worm. "Most people haven't caught on to fishing a Zero on a Carolina-rig," he remarked. "But I promise you this rig will catch big smallmouth, especially on secondary ridges and points and on humps out in the middle of the lake that are about 10 feet deep."

When Stegall finds the smallmouths holding in shallower water of around 4 feet, he relies on the Gray Ghost bleeding crankbait made by Strike King. Smallmouths generally prefer either a medium retrieve or a medium stop-and-go retrieve.

"The stop-and-go retrieve is so important at this time of year because I believe that the retrieve makes the bait look like a shad that's gotten away from the school and is trying to decide where it should go next," Stegall suggested. "Many times an isolated shad like this offers an easier meal to the smallmouth than a shad swimming with a school.

The subtle strategy changes that Stegall suggested can aid you in catching smallmouths. "One mistake that many people make when fishing jerkbaits for smallmouth is that they believe the jerkbaits need to be fished really fast," he noted. "But if you have ever watched a school in the wintertime and seen the shad dying off, they just barely twitch as they flutter to the bottom. When a fish is dying, it won't be jerking and jumping through the water quickly.

"I cast the Wild Shiner jerkbait out and crank it down hard for about 10 cranks before stopping it and letting it sit still. Then I use my rod tip to pull it slowly, like you pull a Carolina-rigged worm across the bottom. I can feel the bait wobbling really slowly. Next I take up my slack, and once again pull it slow with my rod tip. I have a lot of hard hits from big smallmouth when I'm using this technique." Using that jerkbait method, Stegall caught a 7 l/2-pound smallmouth last year.

"My favorite color is chartreuse with a black back when the water's cold or has a little bit of color to it. I start using this tactic when the water temperature is 48 degrees. When the water's clear, I'll fish a clown color that has a lot of red in it, or chrome with a blue back, or chrome with a black back."

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