Winter Bass in the Cotton State

When it turns cold in the winter, many anglers choose to sit by the hearth rather than take to the water. If you would prefer to get outside, these lakes offer good options for bass fishing this month.

By Mike Handley

Given the choice between thumbing a television remote to watch reruns on "The Outdoor Channel" or thumbing a baitcaster and seeing your rod threaten to break under pressure, would you really rather sit indoors and grow fat this winter? If you live in Minnesota, perhaps the former would be more appealing. Alabamians, however, face the very real possibility of tussling with beefy bass without being bothered by recreational boaters and biting insects. Meanwhile, your truck might be the only one at the ramp . . . your outboard the only sound echoing across the lake.

And the best part is that you don't even have to rise at an obscene hour. We can even shed our heavy jackets by the time the fish start biting, since the internal battery that fuels their appetite is usually dead until it's recharged by the sun.

After two decades of picking the brains of the Heart of Dixie's best fishermen, not to mention a bit of my own trial and error, I've learned a thing or two about bass fishing on our many great bodies of water. While the winter season might not be my favorite, I cannot ignore the huge fish I've seen taken this time of year.

To be successful in cold weather, there are five points that seem to be as close to absolutes as I've found. After we consider those points, we'll look at where to try them out and find some of the Cotton State's best wintertime bassin'.

WINTER FACTS
First of all, while the somewhat feistier spotted bass might be bunched up in 15 to 20 feet of water, largemouths rarely are deeper than 10 feet. In fact, they're usually in 6 feet of water or even shallower when the surface temperature is close to 50 degrees.

Next, regardless of your choice of lures, fish very slowly. If you have reason to believe that the fish are there, keep trying. A lethargic bass might pass up the offering eight or nine times before snapping it up on pass No. 10.

Slow-rolling a spinnerbait at 15- to 20-foot depths attracts spotted bass on Lay Lake. Photo by Mike Handley

If you're looking at fishing a place you've never visited, consider the geographical difference from your home waters. On the Tennessee River lakes this time of year, the bass are definitely in a pre-spawn mode. In central Alabama, they're much closer to spawning, and in the Mobile Delta, they might even be on the bed.

Just because you can't see the grass or weeds doesn't mean there is none there. Although not nearly as thick as the vegetation later in the year, shallow-water beds attract and hold baitfish. The surrounding water also warms more quickly than deeper haunts, meaning that bass are probably nearby - often along the closest break or underwater ditch. You can bet that they'll be in the vegetation at some point during the day.

Finally, since bass are more comfortable and therefore more active when the water temperature is in the high 50s and 60s, look for places that warm up first. These include sun-drenched banks, boat docks with natural or manmade cover, boat ramps and riprap.

All that said, here are some of the best places for hooking a trophy bass when talk of the Super Bowl is still fresh.

LAKE GUNTERSVILLE
These day, whenever I see a snapshot of an Alabama fisherman hoisting a bucketmouth bigger that is bigger than a football, one word comes to mind: Guntersville. I'm usually right, and chances are the fish was caught while most of us were stoking the furnace.

While the standard wintertime bass lure for almost anywhere is a dark jig tipped with a similarly colored pork trailer, that jig-and-pig combo might well be at the bottom of the list for savvy Guntersville anglers. The top two choices are crankbaits and spinnerbaits with natural baitfish color schemes. Forget the bright colors. The only flash you want should come from a camera when you get back to the dock.

"Fish them slowly," advised Jamey Sickafoose of Dora, the last guy I saw in a photo with a 10-pound largemouth. "When you think you're doing it as slowly as you can, slow down even more."

He seduced that wintertime 10-pounder with a spinnerbait.

Lake Guntersville has a well-deserved reputation as one of the nation's leading big-bass lakes. The northern half - from Scottsboro upstream to the Tennessee state line - is the lake's narrowest swath, and really nothing more than a wide river. The real "hawgs" aren't usually caught in this stretch, but there are plenty of bass on the downstream side of the many shoreline blowdowns. They also prowl the deep slopes of the main channel.

The downstream half of this nearly 70,000-acre lake is nothing like the upper end. Here is where the Tennessee River spills well beyond the original riverbank. There are a lot of shallow backwater flats filled with stumps and milfoil. Numerous creeks spill into it, and there are even rock bluffs overlooking deep water on this end. Under those rocky bluffs, schools of both largemouths and spotted bass lie in wait.

For these fish, which are quite deep this time of year, a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce black jig can do the trick, as long as you allow it to fall to the 15-foot mark or even deeper. But you don't have to dive to those depths to find the bigger fish.

If you're looking for rod-benders, stay south of Scottsboro and seek out the underwater grassbeds and ditches. You can't see the grass this time of year, but it's there just below the surface. Almost any lure worked methodically and slowly can be a bass magnet - even a plastic rat, which is considered a springtime bait.

Other great places to target when the water is 50 degrees or colder are any patches of riprap, which absorb the sun's warmth, or the stumps along the main-channel break.

Six-inch black or purple plastic worms will do the trick when bounced around the riprap. Traditional jig-and-pigs work as well.

Many top-notch bass pros have come to Guntersville during the winter and fished these stump fields with shad-colored crankbaits. They try to actually bump the structure repeatedly, sometimes drawing the all-important strike on that umpteenth pass. If the bass don't seem to be along the river channel, motor into the larger creeks and target stumps on those channels.

Numerous free boat ramps and private marinas can be found all along this 75-mil

e-long reservoir.

ALICEVILLE LAKE
If ever there was a proverbial dark horse on any list of Alabama's greatest bassin' waters, it has to be Aliceville Lake. You might fish all day and never get a bite, or you might well return to the landing in Pickensville with the biggest largemouth of your life. In any event, you are going to be impressed by all the gorgeous, bassy-looking habitat.

The one thing that this stretch of the Tombigbee River needs to make it a worthy wintertime destination, other than its beefy Florida-strain bass, is receding floodwaters. I learned this from the former proprietor of a bait shop in Aliceville, who kept track of the fishing traffic and anglers' catches on Aliceville and Gainesville lakes for more than 20 years.

"It's always better after a flood," swore Major Kizzire of Pate's Bait Shop, pointing to Polaroid snapshots of 9-, 10- and 13-pound bass hanging on his wall of fame, all of which were boated in late January and February.

Fishermen, lakeside homeowners and bait shop owners aren't particularly happy whenever the Tombigbee swells beyond its banks. It usually takes a long time for the floodwaters to recede. But afterward, the bass fishing can be fantastic!

About the only downsides are that new sandbars often block entry to bass-infested backwaters and the bass habitat itself can change. In other words, underwater ditches are filled, brush is washed downstream, and the mouths of small sloughs and creeks can be either filled in or blown out.

Dalton Bobo of Northport, the only Alabamian to fish the 1997 BASS Masters Classic on Logan Martin Lake, spends a lot of time on the Tombigbee River reservoirs. He fishes both competitively and as a guide on both Aliceville and Gainesville.

"The two lakes have a lot of flooded timber, backwater sloughs and big bass," he said. "But Pickensville (the name many local anglers use for Aliceville) has bigger fish as a rule. It's a much shallower lake.

"Especially in February - and on up through May, really - there are some real big ones pulled out of Pickensville," he added. "Some weighing up to 13 pounds are caught near Rivermont and Davis Creek every year."

LAY LAKE
Dalton Bobo might live next door to the bass-infested Black Warrior River and within an easy commute of the Tombigbee, but his favorite bassin' destination is Lay Lake, which requires a bit more of a drive.

"If I had to pick one lake that I enjoy fishing the most, it would probably be Lay Lake," he said. "I could fish it year 'round and be successful. And you're just as apt to catch big spotted bass as largemouths."

That's one heck of an endorsement from a guy who's posted big tournament wins at lakes Demopolis, Eufaula, Holt, Pickwick, Gainesville and Tuscaloosa.

Though Lay is perhaps best known for its springtime opportunities, the reason it sits at the top of Bobo's list is the wintertime opportunities with a spinnerbait. Like many of the state's other popular destinations, it's the myriad flats and weedbeds on Lay that make it appealing.

MILLERS FERRY LAKE
It is no secret that largemouths like to move into or near shallow water flats when the days are shorter and colder. So it makes perfect sense that a place like Millers Ferry Lake, with lots of backwater, is a great place to wet a line in January. Although the fishing is decent on the upper end of this reservoir on the Alabama River near Montgomery, it's downright fantastic downstream of Selma, where the river extends well beyond the main channel.

Millers Ferry, properly known as William Dannelly Reservoir, has always been considered one of the state's best big-bass havens. Still, a lot of fishermen miss out on some of the year's hottest action by staying home during the coldest months.

That's fine with David Hagan of Selma, who discovered the wintertime potential of this 100-mile-long impoundment shortly after moving to the area more than three decades ago. This tournament angler said the fish often stage in 6 to 10 feet of water, waiting for the sunlight to warm the flats.

The best time to fill a livewell, he said, is from 9 or 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., after the sluggish bass have had a chance to warm their blood and regain their appetite.

It's also not uncommon to find fish, most often spotted bass, bunching up along sunny, vertical banks sheltered from the predominant wind. The lure of choice in this usually murky water is a white or chartreuse spinnerbait. If the water is clear, which is rare, try a shad-like color.

Above all, remember not to rip the lure along like you would in the springtime. Slow is the rule!

Another point to consider is that while the bass in more northern lakes are several weeks away from spawning, the breeding season is much nearer at Miller Ferry. It all depends on the weather and water conditions.

"In February, you can fish pre-spawn, spawn and even post-spawn, depending upon the weather," Hagan noted. "If the weather cooperates, it's fantastic."

Some of the best places to slow-roll a spinnerbait this time of year include the mouths of Mill and Shell creeks (on the lake's lower end) and Buzzard Roost, a shallow, timber-filled creek that's a perennial spawning ground for both spotted and largemouth bass. Buzzard Roost lies between the public boat ramp at Gees Bend and Bogue Chitto Creek.

Millers Ferry has enjoyed both good and bad years bass-wise, but it's generally regarded among the top 10 in any poll. In 2001, it was tops on the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries' Bass Anglers Information Team (BAIT) charts among the 23 lakes that hosted tournaments. It ranked first in the "percent of success" and "overall" categories; second in "hours necessary to catch a bass weighing more than 5 pounds"; and No. 6 for "pounds per angler-day." It finished No. 7 for "bass per angler-day" and No. 10 in the "average weight" column.



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