Bassin' In The Heart Of Dixie

Alabama's loaded with fine waters for tackling largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. Let's take a look at some that should offer fast action this year. (March 2007)

Chris Rutland hoists a spotted bass taken on Jordan Lake on a spinnerbait. That's Jordan Dam in the background.
Photo by Stephen E. Davis.

This is Alabama. No other place offers bass anglers a better opportunity for catching largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. In fact, our lakes are legendary. Largemouth anglers in South Africa, Spain and Japan who have never even visited here have heard of Eufaula and Guntersville. Smallmouth anglers in Canada envy the huge bronzebacks of Pickwick Lake.

Our only remaining international secret may be the 6-pound spotted bass in Jordan Lake on the Coosa River. Since Jordan is a small reservoir on the Coosa chain, it has avoided major publicity.

These are not the only places to fish in our great state, but they are some of the best available on the planet.

LAKE EUFAULA

Like the heavyweight boxer in the "Rocky" movies, Lake Eufaula has had its ups and downs, but in the end it always delivers a knockout. Following its impoundment by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s, Eufaula gained national attention with photos of anglers straining to lift stringers of 7- to 10-pound largemouth bass. It was a tremendous fishery throughout the '70s, declined into the mid-'80s, recovered into the mid-'90s, and then was decimated by largemouth bass virus in 1996-97.

Fortunately, that was the bottom.

"We had a tremendous year-class of bass in '98," reported Ken Weathers, District VI fisheries supervisor for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, "and found that with the 16-inch limit, we had traded having a high abundance of fish for a lot slower growth rate. Due to the slower growth and the loss of so many fish from disease, we lowered the size limit to 14 inches in November 2000.

"We sample the lake every spring and fall," he continued. "Last spring, 46 percent of the fish collected exceeded that 14-inch limit. There are not a lot of 8- to 10-pound fish, but we are seeing good numbers of 4- to 5-pound fish."

Stretching for 87 miles on the Chattahoochee River from just below Phoenix City to the Walter F. George Lock and Dam, Lake Eufaula covers 45,181 acres with 640 miles of shoreline. It's a fairly shallow lake with a fertile watershed.

The lake's shallow water is a cornerstone of Eufaula's great fishing, yet it is a worry for biologists.

"When hydrilla was found in Eufaula about 10 years ago," Weathers explained, "it was a real concern, because more than 70 percent of the lake is less than 10 feet deep. The first eight years it grew in patches, and then last year it jumped to more than 1,000 total acres."

According to Weathers, as long as the aquatic vegetation doesn't exceed about 20 percent of the lake's surface area, it's beneficial to both the fishery and anglers. The weeds provide a nursery for small fish and edge cover where anglers can catch bass.

The abundance of shallow water also makes Eufaula sensitive to cold fronts, especially in March. Well-known tournament angler and guide David Cole of Eufaula has fished the lake for 43 years. He said bass move to the shallows in late February when water temperatures reach 52 to 55 degrees, but get lockjaw often.

"If we get a strong cold front," Cole noted, "it affects fishing for two or three days, and then they will start biting again.

"In March and April, the fish are very shallow and the fishing is unbelievable. It has really improved with the increase in aquatic vegetation. Last spring, it took a 4-pound average or better to place in a tournament. A 5-pound average can win, but not every time."

In spring, Cole's favorite lures are spinnerbaits and shallow-running crankbaits. He works both through the vegetation.

"Look for small patches of alligator grass covering a 10- to 12-foot area," Cole advised. "Cast a spinnerbait past the grass and buzz it across the surface. When the bait reaches the edge, let it fall vertically. If there's a bass in the grass, he will take it on the fall every time.

"Use a Mann's 1-Minus to fish submerged vegetation, and jerk it hard when it makes contact with the grass; then pause. That's when he's going to nail it."

Cole and Weathers both recommend fishing Cowikee Creek. Cole also fishes Hatcheehubbee and Little Barbour creeks.

Lake Eufaula has a growing population of spotted bass, and there's no minimum length size limit on that species. In fact, Weathers encourages anglers to harvest spots and legal-size largemouths to promote growth rates.

To book a day of guided bass fishing on Lake Eufaula with David Cole, call him at (334) 687-7229.

LAKE GUNTERSVILLE

Known worldwide for great bass fishing, this Tennessee Valley Authority impoundment is located near the city of Guntersville and stretches for 82 miles to the northeast along the Tennessee River. The lake covers 69,100 acres and has about 16,500 acres of aquatic vegetation -- both Eurasian water milfoil and hydrilla. That exceeds optimum coverage, but the bass fishery has not suffered.

Dan Catchings, District II fisheries supervisor, said Guntersville is in good shape and the fishery is stable. That's great news since the lake offers superb angling.

According to Catchings, Guntersville's fruitfulness comes from a combination of factors.

"The Tennessee River is a productive river with an abundance of good habitat," Catchings pointed out. "There are a number of prominent tributaries with good habitat, the aquatic vegetation provides a nursery for young fish, and there are decent populations of forage fish -- threadfin and gizzard shad. We are getting good young bass coming into the population each year, and we are getting good growth.

"In fact, the growth is excellent for all ages, except the age-5 fish. By the time they reach age 5, they are starting to compete with some of the older bass, so their growth slows a little."

From his electro-fishing samples, Catchings reported that 45 percent of the lake's bass measure 15 to 20 inches, which is exceptional compared to lakes statewide. And bass in the next higher category of 20 to 25 inches show an incr

ease in their population size.

"The percentage this year is 5 percent," Catchings said, "which is up a percent from '04. This category holds bass from 4 1/2 pounds and larger. When a bass reaches 25 inches, it weighs about 7 or 8 pounds."

Even though bass in the 15- to 20-inch category form the highest population density on the lake and are great fun to catch, it's the bass in the larger category that win tournaments.

"In spring," observed full-time guide Tim Chandler of Owens Cross Roads, "it typically takes 24 to 30 pounds to win a tournament."

Chandler added that the fish in late February and early March are in a late-winter pattern, and anglers can find them in hydrilla at depths from 4 to 10 feet on main-lake ridges.

"Guntersville has ridges from its headwaters all the way down the lake," Chandler offered. "Some are just below the surface, and some are islands with trees. But as you move down the lake, the tops of those ridges become deeper. The ridges lie parallel to and on each side of the river channel."

Chandler fishes ridges by slow-rolling a Booyah spinnerbait through the grass-covered humps. Most strikes occur when the lure hangs on the grass. If you catch a largemouth, work the ridge thoroughly, as the fish tend to form loose groups.

As the water temperature warms into mid-March, Chandler looks for pre-spawn bass in the backs of creeks.

"Fish the middle of shallow pockets, places with scattered grass left over from last year," he said. "Plan to search a lot of pockets, because you'll find many do not hold bass. Then, all of a sudden, you'll pull into a warm pocket, and bass are everywhere.

"As the water continues to warm, waves of bass move into the pockets to spawn. By the middle of April, so many fish have spawned they will strike just about anything."

Chandler does not target spawning fish. Instead, he works the shallows with either a spinnerbait or a Cotton Cordell Spot to attract strikes from aggressive fish.

From his long experience of sampling the lake with electro-fishing gear in spring, Dan Catchings recommends fishing Brown, Short and Town creeks.

Spotted bass fishing is available on the upper section of the lake, but it's not a significant component of the fishery.

For a guided trip with Tim Chandler, call him at (256) 655-8292 or e-mail culnby8@netzero.com. His Web site is MilldrillaFishing.com

JORDAN LAKE

"Jordan is like other Coosa River impoundments," reported Chris Greene, District IV fisheries supervisor. "The Coosa River has many forage species, good fertility and good growth rates, and therefore fish reach those bigger sizes.

"We find that growth rates are absolutely astonishing for black bass. It is far and above the statewide average. It's even approaching some of the maximum growth rates that we have seen statewide when compared to historical data."

As the last downstream reservoir on the Coosa, Jordan often tops the other lakes in its drainage in the annual Bass Angler Information Team report.

"I don't have a good explanation for why Jordan seems to lead the other impoundments on the Coosa," Greene said. "It's a little smaller, maybe not quite as well-known, and it's not as close to some of the metropolitan areas."

Located a few miles northwest of Wetumpka, Jordan stretches for 18.4 miles and consists of 6,800 acres with 188 miles of shoreline. The lake offers excellent fishing for both largemouth and spotted bass, but it's the latter species that reaches maximum potential.

"In the last six years," said Chris Rutland of Wetumpka, "my partner and I have probably caught 100 spots weighing 5 to 6 pounds. Every March and April, we usually catch eight to 10 of those. I've caught several weighing more than 6 pounds, but a bunch just short of 6. Busting 6 pounds is hard!

"March is mostly pre-spawn, and then they spawn in April. When you catch them, that's the biggest they are going to be all year. They are so fat."

Nearly everyone who fishes for spots knows some of the best fishing is in the current below a dam. But you will not find Rutland there.

"If they are running water," Rutland observed (regarding Mitchell Dam at the headwaters of Jordan), "you can catch fish. But without a current, the spots do not feed. Downlake, the current doesn't affect the bite nearly as much, as the fish are not totally in tune with just feeding when there is current. If you present your bait correctly on the lower lake, the fish will strike."

According to Rutland, all of Jordan's spots move shallow between mid-March and the end of April.

"The fish look for a hard bottom in water 10 feet deep or less to spawn," Rutland related. "Look for hard clay, pea gravel or both. Most of the bottom is sandy, though. I've used the Aqua-Vu (underwater camera) to search the bottom, and I've found that most of the points running into the lake do have hard bottoms.

"In March and April, you get so many bites along those banks."

Rutland fishes points with a Zoom Finesse Worm fished on either a 1/8- or 1/4-ounce shaky or slider head. He shortens the worm by pinching it off at the egg sac. He fishes the lures on spinning gear spooled with 8-pound-test monofilament.

When Rutland targets big fish, he backs off from the points and casts either a 1-ounce spinnerbait or a deep-diving crankbait that runs at a minimum depth of 15 feet. He fishes these on 20-pound-test.

"Big fish hold in the 8- to 12-foot range," Rutland said. "Use a slow retrieve, keeping the lure on the bottom, and the spots will hit it very hard. The fight is unbelievable when you set the hook."

For current fishing conditions on Jordan Lake, call Stoddard's Bait & Tackle Shop in Wetumpka at (334) 567-7509.

PICKWICK LAKE

In the northwest corner of the state, Pickwick Lake flows northwest for most of its 49-mile length on the Tennessee River. About a quarter of the lake's lower end is shared by Mississippi and Tennessee.

"Its fame as the 'Smallmouth Bass Capital of the World' is justly deserved," reported Donny Lowery, fisheries scientist for the TVA. "Fish in the 5- to 8-pound category are common in spring."

According to Lowery, one of the best smallmouth guides on Pickwick is Steve Hacker of Florence. Hacker has fished the lake for 23 years and worked as a full-time guide for nearly as long. His decision to specialize in smallies was easy.

"Pound for pound, no other freshwater fish compares to a smallmouth," Hacker said. "When anglers catch them with me, they say the same thing."

For Hacker, the best action for trophy fish is from Thanksgiving though the first part of April. This period is not going to produce the best stringer weights of the year, and during hard winters fishing may shut down. But it does offer anglers their best opportunity at a single big fish.

As the days become longer and water temperatures increase into the 50s, fishing activity increases. Yet fishing can remain tough.

"Fishing here is dependent on the TVA and their release schedule," Hacker reported. "If they cut the flow, then fishing is very tough instantly, even though you have caught fish day after day. Usually, the stronger the current, the better the bite."

Under normal water conditions, which he defines as a 24-hour discharge rate of 40,000 to 70,000 cubic feet per second, Hacker concentrates on fishing offshore structure -- at least a quarter-mile from the bank.

The lures Hacker uses for these conditions are compact and create as little drag as possible. Most of the time, the jigheads weigh 1/4 ounce.

"Whether you use a bucktail jig, a Twister Tail grub, or a tube lure with the lead head in the tube, the lure is streamlined, so it doesn't catch as much water," he explained. "This allows a feel for the bait, so you can detect a strike better."

Hacker fishes these lures by using the trolling motor to either hold his position or control his drift.

"Cast upstream at a 45-degree angle to give the bait time to sink," he instructed. "By the time it passes the boat, the lure is pecking the bottom as it swings past in an arc. When the current lifts the bait, it's time to reel in and start the drift again."

According to Hacker, it's not important for offshore structure to create a current break, but it's paramount that the structure have a hard bottom. Gravel, rocks or shells produce, but mud bottoms do not.

"In late February and early March," Hacker continued, "the fish start moving out of their winter holes, and you find them at depths of 16 to 20 feet. As the water warms into the low to mid-50s, the fish pull up even shallower into 12 to 14 -- maybe as shallow as 9 feet. Later into March and April, smallmouths are on a pre-spawn pattern and feed heavily."

A few words of caution were also added by the angler.

"Pickwick has a well-deserved reputation for damaging lower units and fiberglass. There are many unmarked rockpiles and stumprows that lie just under the surface."

For guided smallmouth action on Pickwick Lake, contact Steve Hacker by phone at (256) 760-8090, or e-mail him at info@smallmouth.com. His Web site is located at SmallMouth.com

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