Alabama's Best Bassin' For 2009
September 28, 2010
Spots! Largemouths! Smallmouths! We've got 'em all in the Cotton State, plus outstanding destinations for black-bass action. Check out this roster of some of '09's best.
Alabama is blessed when it comes to bass fishing. Rivers, lakes, reservoirs and ponds dot our landscape, and just about anything larger than a mud puddle harbors the green fish prized in our corner of the world.
Logan Martin Lake gives up a large number of bass like the one that Mike Jones is showing off here. Photo by Anthony Campbell.
Even so, some waterways are in a class by themselves, even in Alabama. To find out the whereabouts of the premium waters, we spoke to Damon Lee Abernathy, fisheries development coordinator for the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Abernathy is in charge of the annually-published report of the state's popular Bass Anglers Information Team -- "B.A.I.T." Cooperating bass clubs submit tournament data for waterways all over the state, and those data are then used to rank the lakes for bass fishing.
The B.A.I.T. report is a handy guide to anyone who cares about bass fishing, since it provides in-depth detail on the ups and downs of tournament fishermen working waters around the state.
The data used in this story came from the 2007 B.A.I.T. report. A new report is due out in late spring of 2009 depicting 2008 data. The reports are available online from the DCNR Web site at www.outdooralabama. com.
One thing jumped out from the 2007 report: The reservoirs along the Tennessee and Coosa rivers are offering better bass fishing than just about anywhere else. According to Abernathy, both river systems are highly fertile, so it's only natural to expect such waters to produce better fishing than do less fertile lakes.
That in mind, let's look at a half-dozen reservoirs around the state that are considered topnotch fisheries.
Best of the Best
Aliceville Lake, long considered a top destination for crappie fishing, has been off the radar when it comes to bass fishing, Abernathy stated -- yet in 2007 it ranked No. 1 out of all Alabama lakes for overall quality of bass fishing.
The impoundment ranked No. 1 in bass per day per angler at 4.31 and pounds per angler per day with 8.6, No. 2 in least hours needed to catch a bass of more than 5 pounds at 124, and No. 3 in angler success with nearly 90 percent of tournament anglers catching at least one fish per day.
Covering about 8,300 acres on the Tenn-Tom Waterway in west-central Alabama at the Mississippi border, The lake Aliceville has been described as a pond with a ditch running through the middle of it, and Abernathy agreed with that as a good description of the shallow lake. It has dropoffs along the old river channel, aquatic plants and standing timber, and just about any cover an angler could want.
"Aliceville is always a good lake in our B.A.I.T. rankings and it still is," Abernathy said. "It doesn't get a lot of press because of its location, and because there aren't a lot of accommodations for hosting big-name tournaments."
That second item provides an explanation for fewer tournament reports than the biologists would like being received from Aliceville -- but the ones they do get are generally from good tournaments. "There are a lot of hyacinths in this lake, and fishermen who enjoy flipping the hyacinths just love it," Abernathy said. "It's an excellent lake."
Guntersville, the big 69,000-acre Tennessee River impoundment, ranked No. 6 in overall quality in the 2007 B.A.I.T. report. But "the Big G" was off the chart when it came to big fish, coming in at No. 1 for average bass weight -- 2.88 pounds -- and hours per bass over 5 pounds -- just 67.
Perhaps more telling is the B.A.I.T. report's side chart listing Alabama's top tournaments for big bass. Eight of the top 10 such events took place on Guntersville in 2007 between the months of March and July. The report also lists the tournaments in which 8-pound and larger bass were weighed in. Of 13 lunkers of more than 8 pounds registered in B.A.I.T. tournaments in 2007, six came from Guntersville. No other venue boasted anywhere near that number.
"Guntersville has been so good the last few years because the water and the weather have been very stable," Abernathy said. "It has been ideal conditions for the aquatic plants there, and those bass just stack up in the vegetation. The grass coverage has just been an ideal percentage for bass fishing."
Anglers catch Guntersville bass by means of a wide variety of tactics, with grass figuring heavily in many of them. Frog and rat fishing on matted grass is a preferred tactic in the fall; jig-fishing with heavyweight line works well in the heat of summer.
In the spring, before the vegetation tops out, lots of anglers like to throw spinnerbaits, worms and even crankbaits just over the top of the submerged weeds.
Some local reports of weed mats breaking up as a result of wind and wave action last fall were received. "It will still be good," Abernathy opined, "but it makes it a little tougher to find fish when you don't have the grass to fish."
LOGAN MARTIN LAKE
Best Chance For Success
Logan Martin, a Coosa River impoundment about 30 miles east of Birmingham, is a lake you don't want to miss if you just want to go catch fish and have fun. It ranked No. 1 in the 2007 B.A.I.T. report for angler success.
"Logan Martin puzzles me," Abernathy admitted. "When I go fish there, I catch a lot of small fish. I know there are people who catch good-sized fish in there -- but not me."
That exactly captures part of the allure of this reservoir: You just about know that you're going to catch something when you go there -- but big or small? You've got to wait and see.
A total of 475 tournament anglers fished the lake in B.A.I.T.-affiliated tournaments in 2007. Of those, 437 caught at least one keeper -- an astounding success ratio of 92 percent! Few Alabama lakes ever attain that kind of success rate.
A big percentage of those fish were spotted bass, with the catch rate running about 3 to 1 for spots versus largemouths.
Logan Martin is 48 miles long and covers 15,263 acres. Abernathy reported that sampling on the lake by fisheries biologists revealed that
some large spotted bass are there, but it's the smaller ones that are so frequently caught.
"The spots are just in excellent condition," Abernathy added.
In spring, the early-morning topwater bite is rewarding here. Worms, jighead grubs, crankbaits and spinnerbaits will also do the trick.
Tops For Spots
"Anytime you talk about the better bass lakes in Alabama, you have to mention Jordan Lake," Abernathy asserted. "It has been just amazingly consistent, and there are some absolutely huge spots coming out of it."
This 6,800-acre impoundment on the Coosa River 25 miles north of Montgomery is considered by many to be the top spotted bass lake in Alabama. It ranked No. 4 in overall quality in the 2007 B.A.I.T. report, winning high marks for angler success, average bass weight and pounds per angler per day.
"It's not a good summertime lake," Abernathy conceded, "but it's really good in cool weather."
The lake has a lot of humps, ledges and other open-water structure that holds bass. Shaky-head worms are preferred baits. "When you can put it all together and the bass are aggressive, it's something else," the biologist noted.
And when the bass are really aggressive, an angler can pick up fish on topwater baits, jerkbaits, spinnerbaits and just about anything else. "I fish there a lot myself," Abernathy said. "I really like it."
The spots go deep in the summer, he explained, and that's why it's not quite as good then. But Abernathy still sees locals catching fish at that time. "A lot of the fish that time of year come off brushpiles that have been placed in deep water for the bass," he said.
More Than You Think
Though long reputed to be an outstanding smallmouth lake -- particularly in the upper end at the tailwater of Wilson Dam -- there's much more to this waterway in the state's northwestern corner in Abernathy's view. "It's also an excellent largemouth fishery," he pointed out.
The 2007 B.A.I.T. report ranked Pickwick No. 2 in the state in overall quality and gave it high marks for average bass weight, bass per day, pounds per angler per day and hours per bass over 5 pounds.
While granting that it's an unscientific opinion, Abernathy asserted that grass has come into Pickwick, and, he thinks, that has helped the largemouth fishery. "Coffee Slough is a good example," he said. "There's lots of grass in there." He doesn't think it's just a coincidence that Pickwick's quality ranking has improved as the grass has shown up; he also noted that it goes hand-in-hand with the strong fishing on Guntersville, since both are Tennessee River impoundments.
"We've been doing the B.A.I.T. reports since 1986," the biologist said. "What we often see is that as the fishing quality improves, it improves by river system, not just by impoundment. When Wilson, Wheeler, Pickwick and Guntersville change in terms of quality, they tend to change together."
LEWIS SMITH LAKE
Up & Coming
What would a summary of the best bass lakes in Alabama be without mentioning at least one up-and-coming lake? One such, in Abernathy's view, is Smith Lake, the deep Cullman County reservoir covering 21,200 acres on the Sipsey River.
"The bass fishing has really improved at this lake," he remarked. "It's almost ridiculous the reports we're getting. It really shows what a slot limit can do in the right situation."
Smith is considered an infertile system, Abernathy explained, and in such waters the fish don't grow as fast. It's easy for a lot of smallish fish to stack up in the population.
A slot limit -- the one on Smith is 13 to 16 inches -- allows anglers to keep small fish and large fish and save the ones in the middle. That allows those middle-sized fish to grow a little quicker when the competition from smaller fish is reduced.
"The average percentage of bass harvested in Alabama is less than 5 percent," Abernathy reported. "Our anglers just don't keep bass. But we've got that percentage up to 12 percent on Smith and I think you can see the results."
Smith will never produce bass like those that a fertile lake such as Guntersville fosters, but, as this program shows, fishing can be improved vastly by proper management.
If you fish Smith, remember that it's a deep, clear lake where finesse fishing with shaky-head worms can pay big dividends.
"It's sort of where they invented that kind of fishing," Abernathy said. "They do well with topwaters at times there too, and I'm told they have a tremendous night bite."
According to Abernathy, what's happening at Smith shows the importance of good data and good management. He also credits the B.A.I.T. report program with helping fisheries managers gather that data for making good decisions about our state's bass fishing.
Finally, Abernathy would like to have as many participating tournaments as possible in the program, and encourages lots more anglers to get involved in the program in 2009.
LAKES THAT HAVE DECLINED
Just as the quality of fishing is on the rise in some locations around the state, it has also declined in some places.
The places in decline in the 2007 B.A.I.T. report included some big names from past years -- Eufaula and Millers Ferry. And Abernathy is predicting that another lake that has been doing well in the rankings in recent years -- Mitchell Lake -- will decline in the near future. "Water quality has declined on the Chattahoochee," he said in talking of Eufaula, "and that's a factor that generally causes the fishing to decline."
That region of the state has been in the grip of drought conditions lately. Future studies will likely look at the impact of drought on fish in places like Eufaula, said Abernathy.
In 2007, Eufaula ranked No. 15 out of 22 reservoirs rated for overall quality in the B.A.I.T. report.
Millers Ferry, another lake that has long tended to garner high ratings, fell to No. 19 out of 22 in overall quality for 2007. Abernathy's not sure about the circumstances that led to that demotion, but he noted that having only a handful of tournaments on a lake could, if those competitions were especially good or especially bad, skew results in a comparative ranking.
Millers Ferry had only 10 B.A.I.T. reports turned in during 2007, compared to 47 for Guntersville. The B.A.I.T. requires at least five tournaments for a body of water to be included in the rankings.
"We feel good about the picture we're getting from this data when we have a lot of tournaments on a water," Abernathy said.
While Mitchell has ranked very high lately -- No. 5 in overall quality in 2007 -- Abernathy feels that soon, possibly this year, that's likely to end. "We knew we had a very good year-class of bass from 2001 that have been moving through the population at Mitchell the last few years," he noted. "The high ranking there the last couple of years has just been a function of that year-class moving up. But one year-class can't last forever, and we look for the quality to decline in the coming year."