Alabama's Best Bassin'

The fishing for spots, smallmouths and largemouths is great in the Cotton State, which is loaded with places where you can tangle with members of the feisty black bass family. Let's have a look at some of the top waters for this year.

Bill Nolen (l.) and Charles Whitehead of Alexander City show off a spotted bass double on Elkahatchee Creek at Lake Martin. Photo by Stephen E. Davis

By Eileen Davis

Alabama offers bass anglers the best fishing in the nation. With largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass action almost too good to believe, it's no wonder four of the five waters featured in this year's forecast are regularly chosen as national tournament sites.

After speaking with a number of fisheries biologists and anglers, and reviewing the quality rankings provided by the Bass Anglers Information Team (B.A.I.T.) report, Alabama Game & Fish selected the best of the best in our state. Electrofishing samples and tournament results show an up trend in three of our picks, with the remaining two offering exceptional fishing for spotted bass.

LAKE GUNTERSVILLE
"The word is beginning to spread that Guntersville is back," reports Dan Catchings, district fisheries supervisor for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (DWFF). "Fishing has really rebounded."

Located near the city of Guntersville and stretching 82 miles to the northeast of the city along the Tennessee River, Lake Guntersville covers 69,100 acres. Not only is it our largest lake, but it also is by far the most popular fishing destination for Bama tournament anglers. According to recent B.A.I.T reports, 75 percent more anglers compete there than on our second-most-popular water.

All other factors being equal, Guntersville's success is linked to its aquatic vegetation.

"The grass provides nursery areas and acts as a refuge for smaller fish," says Catchings. "However, too much grass makes it difficult for bass to feed and results in slower growth rates. For several years, the coverage rate has remained constant at 20 to 22 percent, which is optimal."

So just how good is the fishing? The heaviest total weight in BASS Master tournament history was taken in April 2002 on Guntersville, where pros brought in an astonishing 5,645 pounds, 4 ounces of bass. One could easily claim Lake Guntersville as the best bass lake on the continent.

In both local and national tournaments, five-fish limits weighing more than 20 pounds are common. And the fishing continues to improve.

"With the numbers of 15- to 18-inch fish that we saw in our last electrofishing samples," Catchings reports, "the lake should now have a lot of fish above 18 inches. We will begin to see a number of trophies too. The lake is at a peak that we would like to prolong as long as possible."

One of the best times of the year to fish, which is confirmed by the record-setting weight from the tournament pros, is April. Given typical weather conditions, you find bass in pre-spawn, spawn and post-spawn patterns on various parts of the lake.

With all three phases of spawning occurring, just about any style of fishing produces bass. However, one of the most consistent and effective patterns is to fish the ditches and creek channels the bass use to move to and from the spawning areas. These act as funnels to concentrate the fish before they scatter on the flats. Equally important, these locations are constantly replenished with bass as more fish make the transition.

Depending on where the majority of the bass are in their reproductive cycle, fish primary and secondary points leading into the flats. Select a crankbait or spinnerbait that's effective for searching the water where the sides of the point drop off.

When you find fish, switch to plastic worms or lizards to thoroughly cover the point. Texas-rig your lures for depths less than 9 feet; deeper water requires a heavier-weight Carolina rig.

For current fishing information on Lake Guntersville, visit Waterfront Grocery and Tackle on State Route (SR) 79, or call (256) 582-6060. For guide service, call Charles Slaton at (256) 593-7249 or (256) 572-6217.

PICKWICK LAKE
"Pickwick Lake is world-renowned for its fine smallmouth bass fishing," says Donny Lowery, fisheries scientist for the Tennessee Valley Authority. "Its notoriety as the 'Smallmouth Bass Capital of the World' is justly deserved. Fish in the 5- to 8-pound category are common in spring."

Lowery has spent 26 years researching and analyzing Pickwick. It's also where he fishes for smallmouths when he is not working.

"We sampled eight of the past nine years there," he said, "and we have seen a steady upward stair-step trend in our catch rates. Using our electrofishing gear, the catch rate in 1999 was 27.5 bass per hour. Last year it increased to 53.6 bass (per hour). That's almost a fish per minute!"

Additionally, reports from tournament weigh-ins show a steady increase in average weight since 1999. Except for Guntersville, the B.A.I.T. report shows that anglers spent less time at Pickwick to catch a bass weighing greater than 5 pounds than anywhere else.

In the northwest corner of the state, and downstream on the Tennessee River from Guntersville, Pickwick Lake flows northwest for most of its 49-mile length. About 25 percent of its lower waters belong to Mississippi and Tennessee. Fortunately, the best smallmouth fishing is in Alabama.

The best times to fish are spring and fall, according to Lowery. The best fishing for trophy bronzebacks is the last week of February and the first two weeks of March.

"The first 10 to 12 miles below Wilson Dam are prime smallmouth water," says Lowery. "It's a long tailwater that includes Seven-mile Island, which is partially submerged and provides an abundance of good habitat like gravel bars and stumprows."

As you might expect, successful smallmouth anglers know how to read and fish current.

"When the dam is producing hydropower," Lowery notes, "fishing is great for smallmouths - they love current. Like all black bass, the smallmouth is an ambush feeder. The flow stimulates feeding activity because it moves baitfish near rocky points and gravel dropoffs.

"If the current is rolling, look for structure near deep water," he continues. "Even when they feed in the shallows - they run in to get shad off the flats - dropoffs and ledges are always nearb

y."

The best lure for spring is a 4-inch smoke-colored grub rigged on a 3/16-ounce jighead. Small crankbaits and spinnerbaits are effective search baits. For clear water, use spinning gear to cast these lures on 6- or 8-pound-test line. Use 8- or 10-pound-test in stained water.

In the fall season, look for tight balls of shad and then cast topwater lures or spinnerbaits over, through and under these schools. Use 12-pound-test line on bait-casting gear for this pattern.

For current fishing information at Pickwick, drop by Gray's Tackle Shop in Sheffield or give them a call at (256) 383-2716. For guide service, contact Steve Hacker by telephone at (256) 760-8090, or e-mail at info@smallmouth.com.

LAKE JORDAN
The consolidated B.A.I.T report covering 1986 through 2002 rates Lake Jordan as the best overall lake in the state among tournament fishermen and the top lake in the category of pounds per angler-day.

"Jordan is always consistently high in the B.A.I.T report," says fisheries biologist Jim McHugh. "It's very fertile, very dynamic, plus it offers a great combination of largemouth and spotted bass fishing. It's always a real good lake in numbers and size of fish, and so that translates into anglers catching higher pounds per day."

As the last impoundment on the fertile Coosa River, Jordan often leads the other reservoirs in its drainage.

"Relative to the other lakes on the Coosa, I am not sure why it tends to come out on top. It could be that Jordan gets less pressure. Anglers who fish Jordan are primarily from Elmore and Montgomery counties, while upstream lakes get a lot of pressure from Birmingham and outside the state."

Water entering Jordan from the Mitchell Dam flows downstream for more than 18 miles before reaching the old Jordan Dam. However, most of the water now flows through a canal into Power House Lake. Alabama Power Company created the canal and lake with the addition of the Walter F. Bouldin Dam, which is southwest of the original dam. This new dam has more efficient generators.

"It is not necessary for Jordan's tournament anglers to target largemouths over spots for their weight advantage," McHugh points out. "A 4-year-old bass from Jordan will measure 16 inches, whether it's a largemouth or a spot. Their growth rates remain the same up through about age 5. Other states, because they have the Kentucky instead of the Alabama subspecies (of spotted bass), would find our growth rates unbelievable."

The best place to catch Jordan's chunky 2- to 4-pound spots in is the upper lake, which is riverine. Look for schools of threadfin shad holding close to the bank trying to escape from the current. Jigs and short-arm spinnerbaits with a single Colorado blade fished below the shad draw tremendous strikes from Jordan's hard-fighting spots.

The most productive spring largemouth waters are located on the lower lake in the northern coves of Power House Lake, along the north shore of Blackwell Slew and in Weoka Creek. In these traditional spawning areas, you find bass in the grass either feeding or bedding during their reproductive cycle.

Because of the grass, a floating worm rigged without a sinker works best. An excellent technique is to "walk the dog." After casting the worm deep into the vegetation, impart the slow side-to-side action to the bait, keeping it just below the surface.

Public access is available at Bonners Landing, located on the west shore near Holtville off SR 111, and at the Rotary Landing, located on the east shore near Jordan Dam off U.S. Highway 231.

For current fishing information, call Stoddard's Bait & Tackle in Wetumpka at (334) 567-7509.

LAKE MARTIN
In the last B.A.I.T. report, Lake Martin rated high in the percent of anglers catching fish and in the number of bass harvested. It was, however, near the bottom in the category for average weight. Its place in these categories has remained constant since 1986, when the program began. So why select Martin as one of the best bass lakes for 2004?

If you like your bass fishing fast and furious, or if you want to fight with scrappy spots when the bass in our other lakes have lockjaw, this is the reservoir. On a recent late winter trip, we frequently caught doubles and the action never slowed. Regardless of the season, tossing the right lures can lead to 50-fish days.

"Martin is a great place to take the family fishing," says McHugh, "and it's a very popular winter tournament destination. Anglers come down from northern states where it's too cold to fish. The spots remain active during winter. We attribute Lake Martin's success to the fact that it's a big lake with a large population of spotted bass."

Located 40 miles northeast of Montgomery on the Tallapoosa River, Martin provides a clearwater environment favorable to spots. It has an abundance of rocky points, humps and saddles - structure perfect for a fish that is genetically more closely related to the smallmouth.

To find bass in March, start your search on main-lake points at depths of 10 to 15 feet. If you fish nothing but points, you will experience excellent fishing. Spots do not hold on every point, but once you connect, look for similar points to establish a pattern.

As water levels and temperatures rise in April, spots move into the lake's large bays and creeks. Look for active fish in 6 to 10 feet of water on gradually sloping secondary points. When searching secondary points, fish every blown-down tree, as they nearly always hold fish.

Fish points with 4-inch finesse worms or slim-diameter 7 1/2-inch worms in green pumpkin color. For main-lake points, rig them Carolina style with a sinker heavy enough to counter strong March winds.

In late April as Martin reaches full pool, two more patterns develop. The first is fishing brushpiles next to private piers and is well known. The second is to target the saddle between humps and is often overlooked. Spots aggressively feed on baitfish moving through such funnels created by the humps.

Fish piers and brushpiles with either a Texas-rigged worm or a 1/4-ounce jig-and-pig. Use small to medium-sized crankbaits to fish the saddles.

For current fishing information for this impoundment, visit Lake Martin Bait & Tackle on U.S. Highway 280 or call (256) 329-9107. To book a guide, call Barry Holdridge at (256) 234-2960.

MOBILE DELTA
In all quality indicators listed in the B.A.I.T report, the Delta ranks near the bottom. Visiting anglers, who find conditions there foreign compared to their home lakes, catch few fish. Consequently, the report reflects that lack of success.

Tides, salinity, river currents and broad shallow marshes perplex eve

n the most experienced anglers.

As might be expected, though, the home team has the advantage of learned skills and knowledge, and that combination catches fish.

"During spring and fall, when the fishing is good," says Joe Zolczwnski, district fisheries supervisor, "local anglers do not have any problems catching large numbers of bass."

On a good day, anglers fishing the lower Delta can catch 50 fish with an average weight of 1 1/2 pounds. Fishing the upper Delta reduces your catch by half, but the bass weigh 2 to 6 pounds each.

"We have a peak in the bass fishery about every five years - the very best of fishing," says Zolczwnski. "We are approaching that peak now. Given good weather, I predict very good fishing in 2004."

Anglers and biologists alike divide the Delta into upper and lower sections, with Interstate 65 as the boundary.

"We view the upper and lower Delta as separate entities," reports Zolczwnski, "because there are differences in the two areas. The lower Delta is more characterized by slow-moving streams and rivers with large shallow bays. The upper Delta has many more small streams in wooded areas with blow-downs and stumps. Of course, it's also less affected by salinity than the lower Delta."

On the other hand, the lower Delta is less affected by high water, which frequently occurs during spring. The key to a successful trip is in knowing whether you should fish above or below I-65.

To make a decision, track the river stages at Coffeeville and Claiborne dams. The best fishing on bays affected by the Alabama River occur when Claiborne's river stage is 15 to 20 feet. Likewise, the best fishing on waters influenced by the Tombigbee occurs with water levels of 4 to 10 feet at Coffeeville. Flood stages for the rivers are 42 and 29 feet, respectively. If both rivers are high, fish the lower Delta.

Since there is very little difference in water depth, temperature or available cover in the bays, water clarity becomes the most important factor in catching bass above I-65. On the lower Delta, tidal flow is a key to success.

"It's essential to fish the rise and fall," says Zolczwnski. "This is when bass feed. As a general rule, the first two hours on an incoming or outgoing tide are best."

Buzzbaits, spinnerbaits, jerkbaits and small crankbaits are effective lures for spring fishing.

For current fishing information, visit Quint's Hardware & Sporting Goods in Saraland, or give them a call at (251) 679-1300.



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