The Southwest For Largemouths
September 28, 2010
Here are three options for some bassin' this month in this corner of the state. The conditions may vary, but the action is equally hot! (May 2009)
Distinctly different, the waters of southwest Alabama offer bass anglers the adventure and challenge of fishing extremely diverse habitats. Nowhere else in our state do you find a fishing destination that includes tidal creeks, undeveloped riverine lakes and a national wildlife refuge.
Casting crankbaits in creek mouths is a pattern that works for big largemouths on Coffeeville Lake this month.
Photo by Stephen E. Davis.
In this corner of the state, winning tournament anglers have developed specific techniques for catching bass from the contrasting habitats of the Mobile Delta, Claiborne and Coffeeville lakes. Their late-spring patterns for largemouth and spotted bass may surprise you.
Last May, brothers Jerry and Randy Casey of Saraland won a Fish'n Fever tournament with five largemouth bass weighing 14.64 pounds. This was the heaviest five-fish stringer on that trail last year. Two years before in March, they won the two-day Fish'n Fever Mobile Boat Show bass tournament with 26.09 pounds. Amazingly, they won both tournaments fishing the same pattern.
Furthermore, the brothers did not make a long run to the sweet water of the upper Delta, which is known to produce winning stringers in May.
Instead, the Caseys chose a very short trip to fish the lower Delta in places like the Dog and Fowl rivers. Their pattern, especially in May, requires specific habitat not found throughout the Delta's 20,323 acres of water. They fish clear-water creeks with small drainage areas that have limited flats covered with aquatic vegetation. Perfect places to sight fish for bedding bass.
"In May," Jerry Casey revealed, "fishing can be tough. We try to fish for bedding bass through the month. It's my primary pattern in May. When we won the tournament last year, we looked for and caught those fish off beds. We had a great day!"
According to Casey, limited spawning habitat in the creeks and rivers where they fish prolongs the reproductive cycle.
"Every time one group moves off the beds," he explained, "another moves in to take their place."
To find bass in the lower Delta, Casey searches for beds at depths of 3 to 4 feet.
"Look in gin-clear water," he instructed, "and the thickest grass you can find. The grass is mostly milfoil. When you spot a fish, make sure she is locked onto the bed and will not move. Sometimes, a bed will hold two or three fish weighing up 4 pounds."
When Casey finds a promising fish, he positions his boat near the bed with the sun shinning on his back and then sets an anchor at the bow and stern.
"We concentrate on each fish that we want to catch," Casey pointed out. "It can be slow fishing. Often, it takes 20 to 30 minutes for a 3-pound bass to bite. When you catch the first fish, it may take another 20 minutes for the second fish to return to the bed."
To catch bedding fish, Casey fishes a floating, soft-plastic minnow vertically, but it's not a traditional presentation. He rigs the minnow Texas style on 12-pound-test Big Game Trilene with a 3/4-ounce egg sinker. Casey fishes the rig by placing the sinker in the bed, which is not far from his rod tip. Once in the nest, lowering the rod tip allows line to feed back through the sinker, and the minnow floats to the surface. Raising the rod tip pulls the minnow down to the sinker.
"The technique we use is very effective." Casey revealed. "When the lure is swimming down to the nest, it looks like the minnow is eating the eggs. You can sit on a bed within a length of your rod and eventually she will become agitated and inhale the minnow. Once it's in the bed, she cannot stand it. It's amazing to watch them."
Depending on the sow's mood, Casey said lizards and tube baits might draw strikes faster than the minnow. His biggest fish using this technique weighed 5 1/2 pounds.
Tides greatly affect finding and catching spawning bass on the lower Delta.
"When the water is at low tide and rising," Casey explained, "the fish hold in the grass not far from the beds. They return as soon as the water rises. On the other hand, the fish are sometimes difficult to see on the beds at high tide, so it's important to know the locations of the beds.
"There are times when they will not bite until the tide changes. We have waited six hours without a bite, and then when the tide changes, catch a limit of very nice fish in 30 minutes. But you must know from pre-fishing an area that they are going to bite during that time frame."
Casey says fishing is best 30 to 40 minutes before high tide and about 20 minutes after the tide changes. He reserves this time to target his biggest fish.
One environmental condition that kills bed fishing for the Casey brothers is rain. Fortunately, muddy water clears quickly from the creeks on the lower Delta due to the small areas they drain.
"Rain has drastic effects on the clear water," Casey cautioned. "If we can't see them, we can't catch them. The creeks remain clear most of the time, but if it rains on Thursday or Friday, water visibility decreases for the weekend and it hurts sight-fishing."
For current fishing conditions or information on their tournaments, visit Fish'n Fever Tackle in Saraland on U.S. Highway 43 South, or telephone (251) 675-6030.
"I really enjoy fishing for spotted bass on Claiborne Lake," Greg Shehan of Uriah said "Fishing for largemouths is good, but you can catch spots nearly year 'round on Claiborne Lake."
Shehan's skill at catching spotted bass made the difference last year while fishing with the competitive Monroe County Bass Anglers, where he earned the top position to become their Angler of the Year.
Fortunately for Shehan, the club's home waters are mostly riverine and provide excellent habitat for spotted bass. When built, Claiborne's lock and dam did little to change to the appearance of the Alabama River, as it failed to flood the river's steep banks. It did, however, raise water levels enough to create more miles of underwater ledges than an angler could fish in a lifetime.
Additionally, the river-run nature of Claiborne contributes to current f
low, which triggers spots to feed. The Claiborne dam does not generate electricity, but upstream the Millers Ferry Dam does, so it controls routine water flows though the Claiborne.
The Alabama River's fertile water flowing through Claiborne's riverine habitat supports high numbers of spotted bass, with some reaching 5 pounds. Shehan said on a good day, anglers might catch 20 to 30 fish weighing 1 to 2 1/2 pounds from one ledge. His biggest fish so far weighed 5 pounds.
In May, Shehan begins each day by fishing creek mouths, which he considers community holes. Nearly everyone fishes this classic structure on Claiborne, but maybe not as thoroughly as Shehan. First, he targets aggressive fish, and then he searches the top and bottom of the water column.
"Ease up the creek mouth," Shehan instructed, "and determine current flow. If they are pulling water, keep the boat in deep water and cast onto the flat of the creek mouth. Most success comes from throwing shallow and retrieving into deep water. It's the same path taken by baitfish.
"If the water is rising and flowing into the creek, move into the creek mouth and cast into deep water. Retrieve the lure over the ledge and onto the flat."
Shehan's first cast is with a Series 300 Bandit crankbait. It's also his go-to bait if nothing else is working for him.
"Throw the crankbait to draw a reaction strike," Shehan continued. "I may cast to one spot for 15 minutes, and I cast into cover that most anglers would not fish with a crankbait. You want the bait hitting trees, rocks and digging into the bottom. I do lose a lot of lures."
If the crankbait does not produce a fish, Shehan switches to a spinnerbait. He said the lure is especially effective if shad are flipping on the surface. Then, depending on the current, he completes his search of the water column by fishing the bottom with either a Carolina-rigged Paca Craw by NetBait or a 1/4-ounce CHAMP football jig inserted into a Zoom 5-inch worm.
When Shehan has eliminated creek mouths as a pattern, he moves to ledges. These ledges are the original shoreline of the river. As the lake fills, these flats become inundated. In May, Shehan fishes ledges 12 to 15 feet deep. The underwater shelf may extend out from the visible shore 15 to 20 yards before dropping into the river channel.
This river expert said the best fishing occurs when current, cover and shad are present on the ledge. He remarked that productive ledges are not limited to the outside bends of the river, but can happen anywhere you find these conditions.
"If the water is not moving and the bait is not there," Shehan explained, "spots drift off into deep water and suspend. This makes spotted bass difficult to catch. However, the opposite is true when the water is moving and baitfish are on the ledge. In this situation, the current positions the fish in the current break created by the cover."
As with creek mouths, Shehan's first lure is a crankbait. If the ledge is too deep for the Bandit, he uses a Norman DD-22. Chartreuse is his favorite color for these lures, which are fished on 15-pound-test Big Game Trilene. If necessary, he switches to Carolina- or Texas-rigged soft plastics for a slower presentation.
"A spotted bass will break your heart faster than anybody or anything," he summed up, "because they are here today and gone tomorrow."
For current fishing conditions on Claiborne Lake, visit Hall's Tackle Box on State Route 21 just south of U.S. 84 near Monroeville. Their telephone number is (251) 575-4354.
From the many public ramps maintained by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Shehan recommends launching at either Haines Island or Isaac Creek to fish the lower lake.
In some respects, Coffeeville Lake is similar to Claiborne. It's the last lock and dam on a large river that flows into the Delta; it's riverine, and the water supporting the fishery is fertile. The significant difference, though, is the 4,000-acre Choctaw National Refuge. Approximately one-half of the refuge is creeks, sloughs, lakes and backwaters.
Located near the community of Gilbertown and 43 miles west of Claiborne, Coffeeville Lock and Dam forms the second-largest reservoir on the Black Warrior/Tombigbee Waterway and covers 8,800 acres over a length of 97 miles.
With backwater available on the lower lake and the dingy to muddy water on the river-run main lake, anglers on Coffeeville target mostly largemouth bass.
"Typically," advised Charles Owen of Gilbertown, "when you fill your livewell here, you can't see the bottom of the tank -- that's during periods of clear water. Even in summer when the river is at its best, the water is dingy."
Owen lives 15 minutes from the river and fished Tombigbee's muddy water before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the lock. His experience serves him well while competing successfully in local tournaments.
"In south Alabama," he explained, "the patterns for largemouth bass are the same in May, June and July. The water warms quickly in May, so usually the bite for big fish is in deeper water of 12 to 15 feet."
In May, Owen begins his day by fishing refuge backwater, which has many small passageways leading into lakes full of cypress trees, grass, blown-down trees and swamps. Aquatic vegetation includes primrose, alligator weed and water hyacinth. Owen concentrates on the latter.
"On Coffeeville," he explained, "there are only five major creeks with sloughs, but Okattuppa Creek has a half-dozen sloughs with water as deep as 7 feet. Work grass and wood. If shad are present, you will find fish and probably catch a limit, but the bass may not be heavy enough to win."
Owen first fishes the edges of the hyacinth to pick up aggressive fish, and then he switches to pitching or flipping into holes in the dense vegetation.
"My first lure is always a spinnerbait," Owen offered. "It's flash and vibrations are important for fishing dingy water. If that doesn't draw a strike, try a shallow-running crankbait. Lastly, pitch a Texas-rigged lizard in the open water between the hyacinths. It's hard to fish, but anglers can pull some big fish from under the dense mats."
Owen is quick to abandon this early-morning pattern if his lures don't draw a bite.
"Your first stop on the way out of a creek is at its mouth," he instructed. "Whether it's at a creek mouth in the refuge or where a major creek joins the river, post-spawn fish stage at these junctions."
Current flowing into or out of creeks turns tight-lipped bass into aggressive feeders, but Coffeeville's current is sporadic, as it is created by traffic using the lock. If you are fishing a tournament, this makes decisions difficult when you have fish l
"Before a weekend tournament," Owen recalled, "I fished a creek mouth and immediately caught a couple of 3-pound bass. During the tournament, I was the first one there and after fishing it hard for 90 minutes finally caught a 12-inch fish. I went up the river and returned at 11 o'clock. My buddy was there, and he had just caught a bass weighing 7 pounds, 15 ounces. It was the biggest fish I've seen this year."
Owen fishes creek mouths with Series 200 and 300 Bandit crankbaits in either chartreuse or crawfish colors.
Like Shehan, during midday, ledges are Owen's primary pattern in May. And even though he targets largemouths instead of spotted bass, his technique is the same. He fishes as deep as Shehan, but he also includes water as shallow as 7 feet.
If Owen is unsuccessful fishing ledges, he moves to blowdowns and starts working cover next to the bank where it enters the water.
"Start shallow and work deep," he instructed. "Thoroughly work all depths from 3 to 15 feet. Not searching from top to bottom is the biggest mistake fishermen make. Keep an open mind until you know where they are holding on the cover."
To pick up aggressive fish, Owen's first lure is a spinnerbait, followed by a crankbait.
"That suits my personality;" he revealed, "I like to fish as fast as possible. The last lure I use is the plastic lizard."
For probing the lower depths of blowdowns, Owen rigs his lizard Texas style with a 3/8-ounce sinker and fishes it on 50-pound-test braid.
For current fishing information, visit A&D Sporting Goods off SR 17 in Gilbertown, or call (251) 843-5885. Owen recommends launching at Lenoir Landing east of Womack Hill or at the Service Park off U.S. 84. Lenoir is just above the refuge, and the Service Park is near the dam.