Cotton State Spring Smallmouths

Fishing for bronzebacks in the northern part of the state can be exciting sport. Here are some places where you can cast a line into this exciting action!

By Anthony Campbell

The Tennessee River valley in the northern part of the state is the only place in Alabama where smallmouth bass are native. The Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries' Fisheries Section has experimented with stocking the fish in other parts of the state, but they never really took hold, and those stockings ended years ago.

When anglers go smallmouth fishing in Alabama today, they head to one of three lakes - Wheeler, Wilson or Pickwick.

Tee Kitchens is a Guntersville-based guide and Chris Stephenson is a tournament angler from Vestavia Hills. Both are experienced smallmouth anglers who know the Tennessee River impoundments. Let's take a look at their tips for locating and catching bronzebacks on the three lakes.

Tee and Chris have different, but equally effective, approaches for fishing Pickwick. Tee uses artificial lures. Chris fishes live bait.

Both men target the tailwater area below Wilson Dam, using the convenient boat launch at McFarland Park. The more current they find flowing, the better they like it.

"I once fished five straight days there and used 14 packs of Zoom Super Flukes," Tee said. "I caught 23 pounds of fish the first day."

He likes to fish the shoreline pockets around the islands just downstream from the dam. He uses worms, flukes, grubs and large white spinnerbaits with double gold willowleaf blades.

"We look for eddies in the swift water," Tee said. "If you see where the water looks kind of slack, that's where we throw."

Chris Stephenson displays the kind of smallmouth he finds along the Tennessee River. Photo by Anthony Campbell

Tee's biggest fish using the tactic is a 6 1/2-pounder.

"It wouldn't do for me to live over there," Tee said. "It's real exciting fishing. It's really a year-round thing below the dam. They do a lot of night fishing in the summertime."

Chris Stephenson throws a lot of artificial lures when he's on Wilson or Wheeler, but on Pickwick you need to use live bait.

"You can use a cast net to catch your own shad up in the end of the barge canal by McFarland Park," he noted. "You need a round bait tank to keep the bait alive once you catch them. They've got to continue swimming to stay alive. They bunch up in corners and die if you try to keep them in your livewell."

On his best day in February on Pickwick fishing live bait, Chris took 10 fish that weighed 77 pounds. He was tossing 4- to 5-inch shad into eddies below the dam around Jackson Island.

"A lot of people run up to the dam, toss their bait out and drift backwards," Chris said. "I fish a little differently. I like to position my boat in calm water, toss my bait into the eddies and bounce it downstream."

The trick is to be able to make long casts. That's why he fishes almost exclusively with spinning rods so he's able to get more distance.

"Let the wind dictate what you do," he added. "It doesn't matter if it's blowing east or west. Let the bait flow with the wind. That big old shad will be moving so slowly that the smallmouth can't help but clobber it."

This slow presentation takes more fish for Stephenson than drift-fishing, which he thinks makes the bait move too fast.

Chris uses a No. 2 bait hook run through the nostrils of the shad. A single split shot is placed about two feet above the bait.

The smallmouth spawn generally happens around mid-March. For that reason, the late February to early March time frame is when smallmouths are at their heaviest.

"If I were fishing Wheeler for smallmouth in February, there's one place I would go - Second Creek," Chris Stephenson said. "I would fish for them like I was fishing for largemouth. I'd throw a crankbait, live bait or a pig-and-jig around the bluffs."

Fishing in Second Creek is outstanding when the water temperature is running 50 to 55 degrees, he added.

"You can find smallmouth moving into the creek to spawn under those conditions. There are a couple of old roadbeds in there that are good locations."

Stephenson likes to fish white jigs in that area also. He dips the tail of his pork rind trailer into chartreuse dye.

"It mimics the yellowtail shad," the angler noted. "The dye has garlic scent, and they knock the fire out of it. We see a lot of baitfish in Second Creek. I once threw the net to try catch some and pulled up a 6-pound smallmouth. So I know both baitfish and smallmouth are in the creek."

"Wilson Lake can be just as good as Pickwick and Wheeler," Chris Stephenson said.

When making that statement, he has history on his side. The state-record bronzeback, which also is a former world record, was caught in Wilson just below Wheeler Dam in 1950. That fish weighed 10 pounds, 8 ounces.

"On Wilson in February," the angler continued, "I generally look for pre-spawn staging areas. I like flats in 20 to 25 feet of water with some kind of brush, plus clay or pea gravel bottoms. I like the water temperature to be in the 40s. Forty-eight or 49 degrees is ideal. The current is not as much a factor as it is at the other lakes."

Stephenson fishes for the smallies just as if he were targeting largemouths. He likes to bump 3- to 4-inch grubs on the bottom with 6-pound-test line.

"The lighter line cuts the water better," he said.

The Tennessee River's smallmouth hotspots get a good bit of pressure from both local and visiting anglers.

"Most people like to fish on pretty days, but you don't have to have nice weather to catch the fish," Chris said. "I like to go when it's cloudy or misting rain or even sleeting a little bit. No one else much fishes then and you've got it to yourself."

He was practicing for a tou

rnament on Wilson several years back when he caught his best smallmouth ever, an 8-pound, 6-ounce monster.

"It was 22 degrees," he noted.

The one condition he tries to avoid is muddy water, and you can get that some at this time of the year.

"If it's muddy, you can still get below Wilson Dam and catch fish around the rocks," Chris added.

A lot of people target Tennessee River smallmouths in the fall but not the spring. Chris Stephenson prefers the spring.

"The fish are a little harder to find in the spring, but they're easier to catch once you find them," he argued. "You can generally find them in the backwaters of Jackson Island below Wilson Dam. There's liable to be bunch of them in one pocket. If you hit it right, it can be phenomenal."

Chris likes to fish with medium-heavy spinning rods so he can make sweeping hooksets.

Smallmouth fishermen should stock their tackle boxes with spinnerbaits, pig-and-jig combos, various colors of grubs, and live bait rigs.

"Don't be afraid to try something new," he said. "If they're not biting smoke-colored grubs, try bluegill or lemon-pumpkin or cotton candy. You might be surprised at what happens if you throw something they haven't seen a lot before."

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