Fall Bassin' On The Tennessee River

Though known chiefly for smallmouth action, these two reservoirs on the river in North Alabama also harbor largemouth bass. Here's how the fishing for autumn bigmouths stacks up.(October 2007)

At the base of Wheeler Dam, guide Jerry Crook, of Gardendale, hoists a hefty Wilson Lake largemouth.
Photo by Mike Handley.

If you're a guy, picture yourself sauntering into a singles bar with two pals. On your right is Brad Pitt; Tom Cruise is to your left. Gals, substitute Angelina Jolie for Brad and Nicole Kidman for Tom. Honestly, now -- how much attention do you think you'll get?

That's sort of what it's like for the 75-mile stretch of the Tennessee River between Guntersville and Pickwick lakes. Thanks to decades of publicity by way of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, Guntersville attracts seekers of largemouths from around the country, and usually lives up to its vaunted reputation. And Pickwick is best known for its smallmouths, crappie and, to a lesser degree, saugers, it being about the only place for catching that last species in Alabama.

Wedged between the glamour twins, Wheeler and Wilson lakes are redheaded stepchildren by comparison. Which isn't to say that they're devoid of fishermen: They just don't get the same kind of respect or attention accorded their neighbors to the east and west. Wheeler ranks fairly low in most categories within the state's Bass Anglers Information Team reports, which are based on tournament results. Meanwhile Wilson hosts so few tourneys that it's not even included in the statewide rankings.

That's kind of strange, too, if you think about it. Alabama's state-record smallmouth bass, a behemoth weighing 10 pounds, 8 ounces, was pulled out of Wilson. And truth be told, the tailrace below Wheeler Dam is simply one of the finest places to fish in the entire Southeast.

Of course, Wheeler also has a reputation for quite another thing: It once gave up a world-record 111-pound blue catfish. I remember driving up to Elkmont to interview the lucky fisherman, Bill McKinley -- and mine was the first story about it!

In the great scheme of things, however, it seems that a lake's reputation in the South is based largely on the resident largemouth bass. They don't fight as hard as smallies, giant saltwater striped bass or even spotted bass. But they grow bigger; they're harder to catch, more finicky and more persnickety. Simply put, largemouths are king in the southland for those reasons.

If ever there was a time for a Cinderella story to be told, however, this is it. The stepchildren are coming of age, and their growth in popularity has little to do with bronzebacks or Mr. Whiskers. We're talking largemouths, lots of them, and not dinks. And there is no better time to connect with those fish on Wheeler or Wilson than right now. All you have to do is wait for a yellow butterfly to flit through your yard -- but more about that later.

WHEELER AND WILSON

Wheeler is four times the size of Wilson. The second-largest of all the Tennessee River lakes, it stretches 60 miles between dams. The upper end of the reservoir is mostly riverine, but it expands as it flows past Huntsville. Closer to Decatur, you find stump flats, lots of weed beds and feeder creeks. As it narrows back down at the lower end, the banks become steeper and the points longer.

By comparison, Wilson Lake is tiny. There's not as much water to cover in this 15-mile-long reservoir. But you don't need a lot of water if you have got access to one of the best tailraces in the world. Actually, Wilson doesn't even get that credit most of the time. A lot of people have wet their lines at "Wheeler Dam," never realizing that they were not on Wheeler Lake, which is upstream of the structure.

One reason these two reservoirs are slowly coming into their own as largemouth fisheries is the ever-increasing availability of baitfish -- primarily shad, both the threadfin and gizzard varieties. Anglers who don't use live bait to fish for bass had better be using lures that resemble them. Those who just want to catch fish do try live bait and you can get those either by buying them from local shops or just catch your own below Wheeler Dam.

ARTIFICIAL LURES

Springtime is just about everyone's favorite time to fish. That's when visions of big roe-filled, sow bass dance in our heads. However, the fall can be just as productive. Only instead of roe, bass bellies along the Tennessee River are full of shad.

About the time that people decide it's too cold to swim, the resident largemouths decide that it's just right. They spend more time in the shallows, abandoning the main river for the creeks, and they're eager to gorge.

Presenting a wounded baitfish before the sun hits the water is a sure bet in the fall, and the action may last even longer on overcast days. Look for this topwater bite in the mornings by fishing a Zara Spook Jr., YUM Houdini Shad or similar surface lures. Upsetting the grass beds with buzzbaits can garner some 4-pounders, and even perhaps a fish that weighs twice that.

At midmorning, head back to the flats inside the creeks to where the water is between 3 and 6 feet deep. Swap your water-walking lures for small shad-colored crankbaits or gold Cordell Hotspot. Or, if it's not windy, try flipping a TUM Megatube or crawfish around shallow-water cover, paying particular attention to wood. Traditional 1/4-ounce black-and-blue jigs could be the ticket as well.

Fishing this pattern on a good day ought to net about 20 bass or a five-fish limit approaching 13 pounds on Wheeler. Add a pound per fish if you're on Wilson Lake.

A fallback tactic might include plugging the mouths of creeks or the points inside them with crankbaits and even plastic worms.

But you don't have to hoist a 50-pound tackle box into your boat to make sure you have the perfect lure. If you're not prejudiced against live-baiting, then just head below Wheeler Dam. Here you'll discover why live baits are taboo in bass tournaments; it's because they catch "too many" fish, too easily.

THE TAILRACE

Jerry Crook of Gardendale once could've been called "Mr. Tailrace": No bigger fan of Wheeler's tailwaters could be found anywhere. Nowadays, however, his enthusiasm has waned because he can no longer guarantee those once-in-a-lifetime trips he once guided on these waters. That's not because the fish have moved. Part of the problem is because power generation is no longer as dependable.

"A lot has changed there over the years," Crook pointed out. "I believe the main reason it's so hard now is that the water schedule is so erratic. Plus, there's a ton of bai

tfish now. The fish do not have to look far for their next meal. I guess that's wonderful for the river, but it sure makes fishing tough."

Still, when mid-September arrives, Crook is back below Wheeler Dam. He believes the last two weeks of September and the first two in October are the absolute best times to be on the water there.

He never has been the typical bass fishing guide, at least not in Alabama. Instead of a 48-quart tackle box filled with $6 lures, he's content to carry only a box of hooks, a plastic margarine container full of lead weights and a 20-gallon tank of "yellowtails" -- the local name for threadfin shad.

Neither does Crook have a dozen rods strapped to a gleaming bass boat's flipping deck. When I last fished with him, he didn't even own a trolling motor. In fact, Crook prefers an 18-foot aluminum boat with a 60-horsepower outboard for guiding.

His choice of gear makes perfect sense. Having a fiberglass bass boat with a 200-horsepower outboard below Wheeler Dam would be a bit like bringing picante sauce made in New York City along on a cattle drive in the Southwest. Fishing this small piece of the Tennessee River with such a rig lets the local anglers know that you're not from around there.

"It's almost like a fraternity or a little club," Crook said, whose prowess and love for fishing there has gained him a membership. "There is no better boat for this kind of fishing."

Crook quit his job as a gasket-maker a decade ago to open up a full-time guide service. He specializes in fishing with live bait -- mostly threadfin shad he catches himself -- for both largemouth and smallmouth bass. He adores tussling with striped bass, too, but adds that they're few and far between these days.

Crook ties on a hook, ranging from a No. 4 to a 2/0 size, depending upon the length of the yellowtails he's hooking through the nose, Next he pinches on a homemade split-shot, and then makes a short cast. More often than not, he reels in a fish -- anywhere from 20 a day to 40 a day, or more.

His success was so well known, he had friends waiting in line for invitations to accompany him. Making the transition to a full-time fishing guide was a natural choice.

"I was already set up for it," he said. "I had the boat, the tackle, the know-how. I knew it was going to be tough, but I didn't do it to get rich."

He also fishes the Coosa River, mostly Neely Henry and Logan Martin lakes, but he says none can compare with the numbers of fish below Wheeler Dam in Wilson Lake.

"Now this is a dam -- 1 1/2 miles long, two locks, 60 floodgates and 11 turbines," he admired. "It makes all the rest look like science projects."

Crook said the time of day doesn't much matter, and the weather isn't that important in fishing below the dam. What does matter is if the Tennessee Valley Authority is generating power, regardless of the number of turbines running.

During the summer, TVA generally keeps the turbines churning for between seven and 12 hours a day, depending upon how much electricity is being generated above the dam on Wheeler Lake at Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant. It is the moving water that turns on the largemouths and Crook tosses his baits into that current.

When there is an absence of current or if the fish stop biting in the turbulent water, he starts drifting across mussel beds and underwater Indian mounds. These are places where he is more likely to catch smallmouths and catfish.

However, on any given day he is apt to catch drum, saltwater-strain stripers, hybrids and white bass -- all in addition to the largemouths that are his customers' primary targets.

"It's just the nature of the way we're fishing," he said. "You can catch anything that'll eat minnows."

The largemouths he catches average about 3 pounds apiece during the late summer and early fall -- small compared to other species, but still his favorite. And he releases every largemouth he catches.

Crook noted that the water nearest the mounds is usually about 15 feet deep. On top of the humps, it is only 7 feet deep.

But, as mentioned his primary tactic is to make dozens of short, quick drifts in the turbulence. Right in front of the turbine outlets, the water is 35 feet deep, but comes up to 15 feet only a few yards distant. Crook sometimes runs right to the face of the "boils," throws his bait in the deep hole, and lets the force of the water sweep him downstream for a few yards so that the strong current pulls his bait up the shelf. The whole exercise takes only a couple of minutes.

"When the fish are biting in the boils, I've been known to make that same drift 200 or more times in a very short span," he said.

The other key is in using the yellowtails for bait.

"It's the way they act all crazy whenever they're near bigger fish," the guide said of the native shad. "They get the fish to bite whether the fish want to or not."

Crook prefers to catch his own bait, by finding them bunched up in a corner of the dam structure, when he can simply scoop them up in a long-handled dip-net. He may have to throw a cast-net, or he might be required to look for them in nearby creeks. If all else fails, he buys them for $10 or more a pound.

As a last resort, he ties on a homemade lead-headed jig and adds a soft plastic Sassy Shad body; perhaps the most popular lure choice of local anglers. He also likes to use conventional spinning tackle with 10-pound-test line, but switches to a baitcaster with heavier line for fishing the boils.

The tailrace guide likes to start his day with 4 to 6 dozen shad and "the bigger the better." He puts them in his special bait bucket, to which he adds salt to help keep them healthy.

"A bad day would be to catch only 30 fish. That's 10 or 15 bass and some other fish," he said matter-of-factly. "I don't think I've ever been skunked."

There have been many days when almost every cast yielded fish. But, more recently, those days are few, outside of the fall.

Crook doesn't watch the calendar as much as he looks for the appearance of sulfur-colored butterflies.

"Everybody thinks I'm crazy, but that yellow butterfly is my signal," he said. "When they show up, the bite is on."

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