Martin's Springtime Spots
September 28, 2010
This impoundment on the Tallapoosa River to the northeast of Montgomery is a hotspot for spotted bass this month. Here's what that May action is like! (May 2010)
Guide John Pollard of Eclectic displays the kind of spotted bass he puts clients on at Lake Martin in the spring months.
Photo courtesy of John Pollard.
Located 40 miles northeast of Montgomery on the Tallapoosa River, Lake Martin provides a clear, cool-water environment with an abundance of rocky humps and points favorable to spotted bass. Year after year, it ranks as one of the best places where anglers find success in catching fish.
The 39,100-acre lake is unique: fishermen never have a problem finding spotted bass structure adjacent to deep water. Deep water extends throughout the lake and reaches a maximum depth of 155 feet at the dam. Additionally, Martin has 700 miles of shoreline that is very irregular to create the long points where spots feed.
As for cover, the 84-year-old lake's most productive fish attractors are brushpiles, which anglers strategically sink at various depths. Similarly, docks and piers with brush submerged under the platforms make effective manmade cover along the shoreline. Of course, docks and piers are greatly affected by water levels. Alabama Power lowers the lake's water level about 10 feet by January to make room for spring rains. Depending on the rains, maintenance and water levels on other Tallapoosa River lakes, Martin usually reaches full pool of 490 feet above mean sea level in the spring or summer. The power company's goal is for the lake to reach full pool in late April, and it usually does in drought-free years.
By May, spotted bass have completed the spawn and many have vacated the shallower secondary points for main-lake points and submerged humps near deep water. Main-lake dock and piers also hold fish, especially at night. All are places where spots attack passing bream, minnows and shad.
Two anglers, who are well known for their skills at finding and catching Martin's marauders, are Chad Miller and John Pollard of Eclectic. Both operate the Bama Spots Guide Service and are winning tournament fishermen.
DOCKS AND PIERS
Because of the popularity of the lake with pleasure boaters, Miller's strategy is to fish from 4 a.m. until midmorning. This frees him from the daytime traffic and allows him to avoid anglers who fish docks after sundown. Miller's favorite time is the darkness before first light.
"There is very little competition on the lake at 4 o'clock," Miller noted. "The best opportunity to catch big spotted bass in May is around dock and pier lights at night. Occasionally, anglers catch a number of 3-pounders."
Miller targets docks on the main lake for the variety of species that feed on the baitfish attracted to the lights. In addition to spots, they may hold striped bass, white bass, crappie and largemouths. He mostly catches spots and stripes.
"Spotted bass are fierce fighters on light tackle," Miller remarked, "but it seems to take forever to land a 20-pound stripe on 6-pound-test line."
Miller's primary lures for fishing dock and pier lights are small shad-like crankbaits that dive no deeper than 5 feet or a shaky head rig consisting of a 1/8- or 3/16-ounce jighead with a finesse worm. The shallow-running crankbait catches the most species and biggest fish, while the shaky head catches larger numbers of spots.
"If spots are chasing baitfish," Miller instructed, "anglers can use the small crankbait and have a blast catching fish. If they are not aggressive, use the shaky head."
When approaching docks and piers, Miller shuts his engine off well before the sound can alert the fish to his presence. The remaining distance is covered with his trolling motor running at a constant slow speed.
"The water is crystal clear, and often fishing pressure is heavy," Miller explained. "Spots are sensitive to noise. As soon as they become aware of your presence, the fish stop biting."
The guide's stealthy approach has its rewards.
"When you pull up to a light," Miller continued, "sometimes you see 50 to 75 fish swimming in the clear water. I have everyone in the boat cast at the same time. The lures hit the water, and it's bam, bam, bam! We are all fighting fish!
"The first and best cast is to the dark perimeter around the light. Ninety percent of the time the biggest fish hold just outside the circle of light waiting to ambush baitfish."
For his first few casts, Miller uses a fast retrieve on the small crankbait to pick off aggressive fish, and then he switches to the shaky head to tempt the more cautious spots.
Miller pointed out that as long as spots are chasing baitfish under the light, anglers should continue to fish. But, usually, after landing a few fish, it's time to move to the next dock or pier. If the next light or two does not produce, Miller returns to that first dock for more fast action and will continue working this pattern until the morning light breaks the feeding chain of insects, baitfish and bass.
When fishing at night, consider safety first. Always carry a cell phone for emergencies, and always wear a life jacket while on the water.
With first light, one biological factor creates an exciting shallow-water pattern on Lake Martin.
"The shad are spawning in May," reported Damon Abernethy, Fisheries Development Supervisor for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. "They spawn the first hour of daylight next to the bank, and you can find them flipping around on the shoreline in rocks and vegetation. You will see bass racing to feed on the shad and even knocking them up on the bank. Shad would prefer to spawn in vegetation, but there is not much of it on Martin."
For anglers planning on fishing the lake for a few days, Abernethy recommended spending the first hour of the first day finding spawning areas and then returning the next day to fish.
As a guide, Pollard's strategy to finding the early-morning bite in May takes into account spotted bass behavior after they leave the shallows. He uses the latest in electronic technology to find ideal structure that supports patterns for early morning and during the day.
Specifically, Pollard uses a Hummingbird Side Imaging sonar unit to scan points as he moves at an idle parallel to the shoreline. This sonar allows him to view picture-like ima
ges of bottom structure from a distance of up to 240 feet perpendicular to each side of the boat's keel.
"The first feature to look for," Pollard instructed, "is a point leading out to a main creek channel or that has deep water leading to a creek channel. The second feature to look for is a hard bottom, which shows up really well when the Side Imaging is adjusted correctly. Large chunk rock is easy to recognize on the screen.
"Next, look for brush on the point at a depth of 10 to 14 feet just before it drops into deep water. Along with other anglers, Chet and I sink brush on points with large rocks.
"Lastly, idle to the shallow end of the same point and look for rock sitting in 2 to 3 feet of water. This is a point to fish first in the morning."
As noted, that's because of the spots' habits.
"In the early morning, spotted bass feed shallow," the guide continued. "And then as the sun rises, they follow the shad to the deeper water on the point. A point like this will hold fish in May. The question is whether they are going to weight 1 or 3 pounds. Usually, if I find a point with 3-pound spots, it's holding a number of 3-pounders."
Even though Pollard's requirements for selecting points are specific, he is able to quickly eliminate areas using Side Imaging. The guide prefers to fish points on the upper section of the lake around Elkahatchee and Sandy creeks. This area is more fertile than the lower lake. He recommends anglers find at least a half dozen points to fish.
"The water in the upper end of the lake has more color," Pollard offered, "and it has an abundance of big rock. When the water has a little color, fish relate better to structure, plus they are not as deep."
To fish rocks near the shoreline, Pollard's lures include a Secret Weapon spinnerbait, Pop-R and Zara Spook. The decision on whether to use the first two lures depends on the mood of the bass, while the Spook's job is to draw explosive strikes from big fish.
The spinnerbait has two interchangeable willow-leaf blades and a color combination of white and silver to mimic threadfin shad.
"Start the day with No. 3 blades," Pollard instructed, "and then downsize from there. If the fish are not busting the surface or they are lethargic, replace the blades with a small size. Never upsize if the bite is off on Lake Martin."
Pollard works the skinny water over the rocks as long as the fish cooperate, which may extend into mid-day with overcast skies. Then he follows the bass to the opposite end of the point.
"The spots pull out to the brushpiles on the rocks," Pollard noted. "They wait in the cover to ambush bait that passes by and are not willing to go far to feed."
With spotted bass content to wait and watch, the guide's most productive lure is a 1/4-ounce shaky head rigged with a Zoom trick worm in either green pumpkin or watermelon seed colors.
He instructs clients to fish the shaky head as if working a Texas-rigged worm, and when they feel resistance from a limb or rock, shake the rod.
If fish don't respond to the shaky technique, Pollard revealed that you can entice spots by holding the rig dead still when you feel an obstacle.
"Keep a tight line," he said. "A spot will hold the bait and then just start pulling down as he swims off."
When day breaks on the docks and piers, Miller switches to fishing submerged humps. The humps are less obvious than points, so they receive less fishing pressure.
"Most anglers do not fish humps in May," Miller explained. "But when the spots leave the beds, especially bigger fish, they move offshore to deep structure. Humps are good for catching numbers."
Like Pollard, Miller has very specific selection criteria for the structure he fishes.
"Look for humps close to the river channel with a flat, rocky top," Miller continued. "On a shallow, main-lake hump, you can throw a rock and it will sink into water 100 feet deep. Also, the top of the hump should not be deeper than 12 feet and must have brush on top to attract bream, minnows and shad."
As for the best area, Miller fishes humps throughout the lake, as long as they are next to the river channel.
"The closer it is to the channel the better," he stated. "Spots suspend on the edge of the hump in the early morning and chase bait across the flat when actively feeding. If it's cloudy, they will feed on top of the hump for two to three hours. Then as the sun rises, they move out to water 50 or 60 feet deep."
One reason Miller prefers a hump no more than 12 feet deep is for the lures he enjoys fishing in the early morning. His rods are rigged with the same shallow-running crankbait that works for night-fishing, plus he has a couple of traditional clear-water surface lures -- a Pop-R and a Crazy Shad.
Later, when the fish move off the lip of the hump to a deeper ledge with brushpiles, finesse baits work best in the extremely clear water.
Miller probes these depths with a worm rigged on a shaky head or a drop-shot rig. The jighead is threaded onto a 6-inch trick worm, while the drop-shot's small hook sports a 4-inch finesse worm. He recommends using the drop-shot rig when fishing deeper than 25 feet.
"Anglers who have not fished a drop-shop rig miss a lot of fish," Miller cautioned, "because they cannot tell the difference between the bottom and a bite. Since drop-shot rigs trigger bites from extremely tentative fish, it's a technique worth learning."
When fishing with clients, Miller scouts promising humps with an Aqua-Vu underwater camera. Better than sonar, it clearly reveals the "sweet spot" where and how bass relate to cover and structure. Miller's camera is an important tool in determining where to fish.
"With the camera," he offered, "you can quickly determine the correct depth and section of the lake to fish. When you see exactly where the bass are positioned, drop a buoy to mark the spot. Then fish a different hump to let them settle down. Start fishing where you know they are holding.
"Once you know the fish are there, it gives you the confidence to thoroughly work a specific place.
"If you use the camera, you can find fish. It doesn't mean you can catch them," he concluded.