Cotton State Bass Prospects
September 28, 2010
Largemouth, smallmouth or spotted: Whatever bass you prefer, waters in every corner of Alabama harbor them. Join the author in exploring some of the year's better destinations. (March 2008).
Photo by Russell Tinsley.
Planning to spend valuable vacation days on a fishing trip? Where should you go, and when? It';s an important decision; if your boss is like mine, he';s not going to give you a second chance if you get skunked.
The "when" part is easy: March is the best month for fishing as the bass are either staging at pre-spawn locations or they are in the shallows spawning.
Our state has many great fishing destinations for largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass, so that part may be a bit more difficult. Typically, fisheries move through cycles so not every lake sizzles at the same time. To help with your decision, Alabama Game & Fish talked with anglers and biologists to discover some of the hotspots for this spring.
These are not the only places to fish, but they are sure to provide great adventures.
Aliceville Lake is like the beautiful stepdaughter in the fairy tale that works hard, receives little credit and is rarely invited to the ball. The lake has ideal habitat for largemouth bass and produces heavy limits of fish for tournament anglers, but many of these fish are not counted in Alabama';s annual Bass Anglers Information Team report. That';s because they are weighed in Mississippi.
Aliceville is the first reservoir in Alabama on the Tombigbee River as it enters the state. From the Stennis Lock and Dam, which is located in Columbus, Miss., the lake has a river-run character until it reaches Hairston Bend Cut-Off, a distance of 15 miles. At that point, the reservoir reaches beyond its banks to create expansive grass flats with an abundance of wood cover, but is still in the Magnolia State. Aliceville then meanders for another 13 miles before reaching the lock and dam at Pickensville. But, only about half that distance is on the Alabama side of the border. In total, the lake covers 8,300 acres.
Nearly 10 years have passed since an outbreak of largemouth bass virus swept through the state. In addition to killing big fish, it slows the growth of infected smaller fish. According to Jerry Moss, District III fisheries supervisor for the Alabama Division of Freshwater Fisheries, the virus hit Aliceville hard. Fortunately, the fishery has recovered and is now ranked as one of the top five lakes in overall quality in the B.A.I.T.
From a competitive angler';s perspective, winning weights are back to what they were before the virus.
"We won a tournament just before the largemouth virus hit with a seven-fish limit that weighed 32 pounds," reported successful tournament angler Shan Schoenrock of Aliceville. "Last spring we had another seven-fish limit that weighed 32 pounds. Aliceville has some big fish, and they are getting bigger.
"Since 99 percent of open tournaments are held on Columbus Lake, anglers must lock through to fish Aliceville. I don';t like to catch fish on Aliceville and take them to Columbus, but that';s what you have to do to win. On the first day of the last Stren Series tournament, there were 80 boats in the lock. The winner fished Aliceville. There';s no telling how many thousands of pounds of bass anglers have taken to Columbus over the years."
Schoenrock said the magic water temperature on Aliceville in March is 58 degrees. Below it, he targets staging bass on drop offs. Otherwise, he';s sight fishing for big fish on the beds.
His lures for fishing the colder water are 1/4- and 1/2-ounce Rat-L-Traps or 6-inch, Texas-rigged lizards.
"It';s necessary to search for them on break lines at the edge of the spawning flats or the migration routes leading to deeper water," Schoenrock said. "A Rat-L-Trap is an excellent search bait, especially for grass. If the grass is too thick for the 1/2-ounce lure, step down to the smaller lure. The bigger bait typically catches bigger bass, but I';ve caught 8-pound fish on the smaller bait."
When Schoenrock has located and caught all the aggressive fish in an area with the hydrilla, he switches to the lizard.
Aliceville';s bass are the first to spawn in the lakes in Schoenrock';s fishing area. When the water temperature rises to 58 degrees, he searches for bedding fish in water 5 feet deep or less. Always looking for a big fish to win, Schoenrock doesn';t stop for every bass.
To catch a big fish, Schoenrock may spend an hour working one bed with a lizard. Last spring, he caught two 7-pounders on the same day.
The angler also pointed out that the River Mount area produces the biggest fish. He recommended fishing Coal Fire and Pumpkin creeks as well. To fish these areas, launch your boat at the Raleigh Ryan Access Area on the west side of river across from Pickensville.
If you catch a 4-pound smallmouth in most parts of the country, it';s considered a trophy. For a tournament angler fishing Wilson Lake, it';s a decent fish that may boost his rank on the leader board. Regardless of your perspective on fish size, no other freshwater fish can match the fight of a smallmouth as it explodes into the air, flipping its body to throw the hook, followed by a running battle in deep water.
Barry Holt, successful Tennessee River guide and tournament angler, says fishermen occasionally catch 6- to 7-pound bronzebacks from Wilson, but adds that the lake holds bigger fish. Wilson produced the current state record, which weighs 10 pounds, 8 ounces.
Located between Wheeler Lake to the east and Pickwick to the west, Wilson is 15 1/2 miles long and covers 15,930 acres. The lake is unique amid other reservoirs on the river in Alabama, as it doesn';t have many broad, extensive feeder creeks.
The lower section of the lake is deep, with water depths reaching 95 feet, while the upper end is much shallower. At the base of Wheeler Dam near the turbines, the water is just 6 to 12 feet deep.
The dam stretches for more than a mile across the river, with the powerhouse on the south end and the locks on the other. Holt said the tailrace below the dam offers excellent fishing in March when the generators are running.
He fishes the tailwater using three different methods: sitting in the slack water to the side of the powerhouse and casting into the current; drift
ing in the current using his trolling motor for control while casting upstream; and casting upstream while sitting in an eddy pocket behind the unnamed island immediately downstream of the dam.
Holt targets fish waiting in the current breaks for shad to come through the spinning turbines. He does this by reading the water.
"When the water is running," the angler explained, "the current breaks -- boulders and rock shoals -- below the surface are visible because the water will be swirling. Instead of running slick, it breaks up behind those rocks, giving you a good idea of what you are fishing."
Holt';s favorite lures for fishing the tailrace are a 5/8-ounce spinnerbait with two willow-leaf blades, a jerkbait, a fluke rigged on a 1/2-ounce lead head jig with a 4/0 hook, tube lures or grubs. Of these, the spinnerbait is his primary lure.
When fishing from the slack water, Holt is casting across the current.
"Cast upstream," he advised, "and let the current work for you, just keeping your line tight enough for the blades to turn. Let it sweep around and through the rocks."
When performing controlled drifts, Holt is casting against the current.
"Cast upstream," he continued, "and maintain just enough tension on the line to stay in contact with the bait. Once it passes behind the boat, quickly reel it in for another cast."
Holt cautioned that the biggest mistake fishermen make is not controlling the boat during the drift.
"Run up to the dam," he instructed, "shut the motor off, and jump on the trolling motor to keep the nose of the boat into the current. Trim the motor up to reduce drag. You can slow the boat';s drift a lot with the trolling motor."
To fish the tailrace, launch your boat at Fisherman';s Resort in Big Nance Creek on the south end the dam.
To book a guided fishing trip with Barry Holt for the many species available on Tennessee River reservoirs, call (256) 383-7481 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit his Web site, www.fishchasers.com.
WEISS LAKE LARGEMOUTHS
Mostly in northeast Alabama but with one arm reaching into Georgia, Weiss consistently produces some of the best largemouth fishing in the state. Its waters are enriched with nutrients flowing from the watersheds of the Coosa, Chattooga and Little rivers.
The lake covers 30,200 acres of dropoffs, deep channels and stumpfields on large shallow flats. Weiss also has wide coves with grassy shorelines and numerous boat docks. Unique to the fertile reservoirs of the Coosa River, Weiss only has an average depth of 10 feet.
Jason Tucker of Cedar Bluff is a long-time guide for crappie and striped bass, but he also competes in bass tournaments. He has won the Weiss Lake Team Championship tournament six times.
That trail holds two tournaments in March, one is the first weekend and the other is later in the month. Tucker said each takes a different technique to win.
"The first weekend," he noted, "the fish are staging, but by the second tournament, all those fish have moved shallow to spawn."
Tucker is in his element when largemouths are staging at creek mouths. He';s an expert at fishing ledges and catches heavy stringers in this situation.
"In March," he said, "I hold the heaviest stringer ever weighed in at a Weiss Lake Championship tournament. I had five fish within an hour that weighed 29.87 pounds. Last March, I came in second with 22 pounds and had two fish that weighed 7 pounds apiece."
Most of the creek mouths Tucker fishes are places where he has sunk brushpiles to attract fish. He prefers hardwood and places the piles on high spots on the ledges with the brush extending over deepwater.
"Out of 30 brush piles," he admitted, "only two may produce fish."
To fish ledges, Tucker relies on a 1/2-ounce spinnerbait with double willow-leaf blades, a jig-and-pig and a 1/2-ounce Rat-L-Trap.
"During the first part of March when the water is cold," Tucker explained, "the fish are not aggressive and will not chase your lures.
"Don';t throw and wind the Rat-L-Trap. Pump the lure by letting it fall to the bottom, rip and repeat. Often, fish inhale it on the way down, or they will suck it off the bottom."
To fish the spinnerbait, Tucker casts to the top of the ledge and allows the lure to sink to the bottom. His retrieve is slow; just fast enough to keep the blades turning.
When the water warms, Tucker said the fish change locations quickly.
"If the water temperature on the surface is 58 to 60 degrees," he pointed out, "the fish move shallow. When it cools off at night, they pull out and suspend. Then when it heats back up during the day, they move back up to feed and find places to spawn."
Since not all fish move shallow at the same time, Tucker looks for a bite at the creek mouths first and then works along the migration route to the shallows. He uses a Rat-L-Trap on the secondary points and at the mouth of the coves leading to the shallows. On the flats, Tucker uses the same spinnerbait to work wood cover.
According to Dan Catchings, District II fisheries supervisor for the DWFF, two good spawning areas to fish are Cowan Creek near Pruett';s Fish Camp and the lower end of Little River near JR';s Marina.
For current fishing conditions or to book a guide trip with Jason Tucker, visit J.R.';s Marina on Little River or call (256) 779-6461. Also check out their Web site at www.jrsmarina.com
LAKE MARTIN SPOTTED BASS
According to the B.A.I.T. report, Lake Martin';s catch rate of bass per angler-day has skyrocketed during the past three years, and mirrors that the lake provides excellent fishing.
The spotted bass are abundant, but not big. A large spotted bass here weighs 4 pounds. In this case, it';s the numbers that matter. Fishing on Martin is fast and furious when the spots turn on in March.
"Martin is a lot of fun to fish when the spotted bass start spawning," reported successful tournament angler Mike Keel of Auburn. "Cast after cast, you can catch 20 to 30 fish from just one little gravel bar."
Located 40 miles northeast of Montgomery on the Tallapoosa River, Lake Martin';s 39,000 acres supports a large population of spotted bass. Its deep, clear, infertile water and rocky structu
re provide an environment favorable for spotted bass.
Hopefully, when you read this, we will have moved beyond last year';s drought, and Lake Martin is beginning to refill to full pool in its normal cycle, which is controlled by Alabama Power Company.
Keel said winter draw downs provide spots with clean gravel for spawning and at the same time create a silt line about 15 feet below the surface at full pool.
"Fishing is better when the lake is up or within 5 feet of full pool," Keel explained. "When they drop the water, rain run-off washes silt from the exposed surface. The view from an underwater camera is unreal. A rocky point looks beautiful, but when you reach a depth of 15 feet there';s nothing but sand."
Points are important to Keel. They provide his winning pattern in March.
"Lake Martin has hundreds and hundreds of these long -- they are not easy to recognize -- flat tapering points that just get slightly deeper and deeper," he said. "When you reach the end of the point, it drops off into a creek or river channel."
Keel recommended fishing points on the lower section of the lake. His favorite areas are Little Kowaliga and Parker creeks and the smaller creeks that feed them.
"In March," the angler advised, "look for secondary points. The spots stage on the dropoffs and spawn on top of the points. At the beginning of the month they are usually staging. The depth varies because you never know what the water level is going to be in March.
"But as soon as the water rises, look for fish on top of the points."
Keel arrives ready to fish with his rods sporting Carolina- and Texas-rigged lizards. He also uses 3/8- to 1/2-ounce spinnerbaits and shallow running crankbaits.
"The only time I use the Carolina rig," he admitted, "is when it';s too windy to fish a Texas rig. You can also kill them on a spinnerbait with small willow leaf blades when it';s windy."
Keel works each point searching for spawning fish on top and staging fish on the drop.
"In March," he said, "fish the point from the top down to the drop. Keep the boat off the drop in 15 feet of water so you can cast to the top of the point.
"If you are not familiar with the lake, take the time to learn the lake in winter when the water level is down. You can learn more by riding around when the water is down, than you';ll ever learn in practice."