Spring Bassin' On Lake Eufaula
September 28, 2010
This reservoir in east Alabama on the Chattahoochee River has been a veritable bass factory for many years. Join the author in seeing if that is still the case.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
I was not in Texas when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. Yet Oswald's grimace and the utter chaos of the moment are as burned into my brain as the visages of Marilyn Monroe's wind-lifted skirt, the plantings of the American flag on the moon and at Iwo Jima, and of a smiling Harry Truman holding up the newspaper proclaiming his defeat. Photographs are powerful medicine.
One of the many black-and-white images tucked into the slide show of my memory evokes the fish market smell of a pre-politically-correct weigh-in at a bass tournament on Lake Eufaula. It was 1968, the first time Ray Scott brought his fledgling Bass Anglers Sportsman Society to those waters. Catch-and-release was not practiced, and the anglers' limit was 15 fish.
Live, dead and dying bass were stacked almost like firewood. Huge fish, too, with eyes like giant marbles in need of polishing. John Powell of Montgomery took first place with 15 largemouths totaling 132 pounds. As unbelievable as that sounds, Blake Honeycutt bettered it the following year with a 15-fish stringer that tallied 138 pounds, 6 ounces -- the heaviest catch ever recorded anywhere before the limit was knocked down to a more acceptable five fish.
Such routine results are what made Alabama's Lake Eufaula the undisputed bass fishing capital of the world in that era and a 16-time stop on the BASS Masters tournament trail. Even after a five-fish limit and catch-and-release were incorporated into the rules, the Chattahoochee River reservoir continued to wow anglers.
Back in 1996, a time when many thought the 46,000-acre lake was used up, Bobby Padgett of Columbus, Ga., showed everyone that it still was capable of yielding breathtaking stringers. Even after nearly three decades of unprecedented pressure on the fishery, Padgett's three-day creel of 15 fish registered 77 pounds, 9 ounces.
Jackie Thompson of Eufaula was among the first to capitalize on the lake's reputation to build a successful guide service. He has now been at it for nearly 40 years, through good times and bad. Since Thompson's first season on the water, the majority of his clients have come to Eufaula with hopes of catching a bass for the wall.
"Back when I first started guiding on this lake, I kept a boat in the slip there all the time," Thompson said. "I was sitting in it one morning, and this guy drives up in a big Lincoln automobile. He was a big fellow, and a loudmouth. He was from Chicago, Ill., traveling through, and he'd heard about the lake's reputation. He wanted to go bass fishing.
"Mr. Wilson, the man who ran the marina, heard all of this. So the big fellow and I agreed on a price. Back then, guides were getting $35 a day. He told me, 'I came down here to catch a trophy fish. If I catch an 8-pound bass the first hour we're out there, I'll be ready to go. That's what I've come for -- an 8- to 10-pound bass!'
"I've been around a lot of people who like to run their mouths," Thompson continued. "I took him out to a ledge. About 20 minutes after we got there, he caught a bass that weighed 8 1/2 pounds. When he caught the bass, I picked up the trolling motor. He asked me, 'Where we going?' I told him, 'We're going to the marina!'
"Then he said to me, 'What are you going up there for?' And I answered, 'You told me when we left the marina that if I put you on an 8-pound fish, that my day would be over.'
"That rascal sulked up, and he didn't say another word until we got to the marina. He went inside and started complaining: 'This guy wants me to pay him $35, and we've only been out there an hour and a half.' He asked the guy in charge, 'Do you think I should pay him?' and Mr. Wilson said, 'You better pay him, or I'm going to call the police!
"He paid me, got in his car and left," Thompson said with a grin. "I'll never forget that. He'd just caught the biggest bass he'd ever seen. You see all kinds."
That 8-pound bass might take more than an hour and a half to find these days.
Putting a quintet of 5-pounders into a livewell might not be as easy as it once was on Eufaula, but the lake still ranks No. 3 among Alabama reservoirs for "average weight" and fewest hours invested to hook a bucketmouth surpassing the 5-pound mark. That's according to the most recent Bass Anglers Information Team report, published by the fisheries biologists of the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, who draw their conclusions from tournament results.
The lake began to have problems in the late 1980s, and the catch rate fluctuated wildly. Bass fishing became as cyclic as it is for crappie. In addition, sampling indicated that the bass were in poor shape and growing much more slowly. One guy even wrote, "Eufaula is dead!"
In 1992, Georgia and Alabama biologists ultimately agreed to impose a 16-inch minimum length limit for largemouths in hopes of seeing more young bass reach maturity. It obviously worked, as Padgett's eye-popping haul in 1996 proved.
Sampling in 1993 revealed an abundance of mature largemouths, although their weights were not impressive. But then, following the '97 spawn, a die-off of adult bass occurred. Largemouth bass virus was deemed the culprit.
Things are looking up now, however, and the 16-inch minimum length restriction has since been lowered to 14 inches. Furthermore, as the lake's population of spotted bass has climbed as well, many biologists recommend catching and keeping as many of the spots as possible.
Nevertheless, it does not take a limit of 5-pounders to win a tournament at Lake Eufaula these days. A respectable five-fish creel weighs between 15 and 18 pounds in the spring -- and that might well be anchored by a hawg that tips the scales at 6 to 7 pounds.
A year ago, a 17.99-pound bag of bass cinched a win. Those fish were hugging the thick weed lines inside Grass Creek, on the north side of the main creek channel. Both spinnerbaits and a 1/4-ounce jig did the trick by 10 a.m. Another top finisher opted for buzzbaits in 2 feet of water at the back of Little Barber Creek. Spinnerbaits also were responsible for a 10-pound bag a mile up Uchee Creek, and a pumpkinseed-colored Texas-rigged lizard proved deadly in the flats near the Florence Marina.
It took slightly bigger hauls to win when the BASS Masters returned to Eufaula in recent years. Denny Brauer managed a one-day catch of 19 pounds, 2 ounces, and his catch was ecli
psed that day by rookie Bink Desaro's 24-pound, 5-ounce load. Brauer wound up winning the event with a three-day tally of 76 pounds, 14 ounces, bettering Desaro's 76-pound, 11-ounce three-day total.
That tournament featured lots of fishermen using lots of patterns. Spinnerbaits, flukes and finesse worms rigged on jigheads were responsible for many limits. But it was the flippers and pitchers who fared the best in the stained, 70-degree waters.
Brauer has finished in the top 20 three times at Eufaula, winning outright twice. His latest victory came while fishing a jig with a chunk trailer.
"I was fishing stuff so ugly that it wasn't something you could put anybody on," said Brauer, who told fans all week that he had no special fishing spots or even a set strategy. "I had never fished that area before, and I was catching fish there the first two days.
"They quit biting at about 9 a.m., because the water was dropping. I was pitching to the edge of some vegetation, pitching to grass or anything that would come along. There were so few bites to be had, though, that it was kind of a lucky deal."
Desaro was pitching with a black-and-blue Sweet Beaver flipping bait, punching through heavy mats of vegetation and alligator grass to find the bass lurking below.
Diehard bass fishermen familiar with the lake can find and catch bass at Eufaula at any time of the year. But their favorite time is now, which also happens to be the best period for newcomers to get their lines stretched.
It's a great time to be on the water. Not only are the turkeys gobbling on both the Alabama and Georgia sides of the river, but the alligators also are becoming more active, and the carp are noisily wallowing out weedbeds. Best of all, the bass fishing can be incredible from dam to dam.
Younger anglers may not remember the "Little George" or the original fruity-smelling "jelly worms." Too bad, since both lures -- made on the banks of, tested and proven in the fertile waters of Lake Eufaula -- revolutionized bass fishing. Their maker was the now legendary Tom Mann, who long before the likes of Denny Brauer or Rick Clunn was considered the only angler who could walk on water. Okay, maybe Mann and Bill Dance.
While Dance's favorite haunts might be the Tennessee River lakes, Eufaula was Mann's own personal backyard playground. He admits that catching back-to-back 7-pounders might no longer be the norm, but he still rates his favorite lake among the best in the world -- especially in late March and April.
"The lake is never too muddy to fish," Mann noted. "If we have huge rains, start on the lower end and work the rocks and the dam. More 12-pound bass are caught on the dam than any other place on the lake, and mostly in March, April and May. Ideal lures are plastic worms, crankbaits and spinnerbaits."
The bass might be anywhere between the bank and the boat, depending on the water's clarity. They could be right on top of the riprap in stained water, or 10 to 15 feet deep if it's clear. To hedge all bets, keep whatever lure you're fishing in the water as long as possible.
If there are no clouds and no wind, big bass can be caught with shallow-running crankbaits or jerkbaits.
If you do not find the fish near the lower dam, visit the spawning areas like Sandy, Pataula, Drag Nasty and Thomas Mill creeks. Spawned-out females are hungry and very near the beds that they have given over to the males. Mann said these huge sows can be found in almost every cove on the lake in April.
Internet users can find a topographical map of Lake Eufaula, complete with 73 marked fishing holes, among the links at www.fisheufaula.com
"White Oak Creek is also excellent," Mann added. "Every small pocket will have fish. But as the lake starts clearing, normally the lower end gets too clear and the better fishing is from White Oak northward."
Mann might be a designer of plastic worms and crankbaits, but he knows better than to dismiss topwater plugs and buzzbaits. From mid-April until mid-May, Eufaula can be a topwater man's paradise.
"Before 9:00, it's nothing to go out there and catch 50 bass," agreed Thompson, who has fished tourneys with Mann and credits him with supplying his first customers. "April is spawning time. You can catch a lot of big spring fish, but they won't weigh as much after the spawn. Eight- and 9-pound fish are common, but 10 pounds and above are rare after May. If you're looking for a really big fish, fish the last week of February up until the full month of April -- before they spawn.
"Not too long ago, I caught an 11 1/2, and (a client) caught a 10 on the same day during first week in April. Those fish were just loaded with roe. They had big old bellies on them," Thompson recounted, adding that he and his customer were flipping in 3 feet of water.
"Riverside Baits makes a floating craw. It's got pinchers impregnated with air. When it sits on the bottom, those pinchers stick right up," he said. "They call it Neon Black. It has a little bit of red flake in it and blue craws."
There's very little boat traffic on Lake Eufaula during the week. On weekends, personal watercraft can be more of a problem than bass boats. The farther you motor north in the lake, the less traffic you encounter. Nevertheless, the fish will be biting all along the Chattahoochee in the spring.