North Alabama Linesides

Two of the Cotton State's top striped bass fisheries are found on lakes Lewis Smith and Weiss, but the similarities end there. Here's a closer look at these dissimilar bodies of water.

By Jeff Samsel

Bruce Holcombe was having fun watching my attempts to scribble down notes. Every time I pulled out my pad of paper and pen and began to write something down, one of the reels' drags would start screaming for my attention. Eventually I got enough notes for my story, but between sentences I ended up landing 15 striped bass and missing nearly as many - all in about four hours.

Of course, Holcombe, who has been guiding on north Alabama's Lewis Smith Lake for 14 years, kept quite busy that day as well. He was doing all the real work, keeping us over the fish, baiting several lines with live gizzard shad, putting the lines in place and netting fish for me.

Smith Lake supports what most anglers consider the state's premier landlocked striped bass fishery. Over the two decades that striped bass have been in this mountain lake, striper fishing has grown enormously popular, with many anglers traveling to the reservoir from other parts of the state with hopes of hooking into a really big fish.

A couple hours' drive east of Smith Lake, another vast Alabama impoundment also supports an intriguing saltwater stripe fishery. Unlike Smith, however, Weiss Lake has never earned a wide-ranging reputation as striper water. A reservoir on the Coosa River, Weiss is far better known for its world-class crappie fishing than for stripers or any other sportfish.

Although Smith and Weiss lakes are both noteworthy striper lakes, and they are located in the same general part of the state, the two reservoirs couldn't be more different. In addition to being completely different in character, these two lakes support striper fisheries that are quite dissimilar.

Bruce Holcombe displays a striped bass from Lewis Smith Lake. He thinks the catch rate is as good as it has been in the 14 years he has guided there. Photo by Jeff Samsel

LEWIS SMITH LAKE
May is prime time for catching big stripers on Lewis Smith Lake, according to Bruce Holcombe. Having fished for Smith's jumbo stripers since the fishery was established in the 1980s and having put the current lake-record striped bass in his boat, Holcombe knows a thing or two about big-fish time.

The lake-record fish, which was caught by Nick Bailey on a mid-April guide trip with Holcombe two years ago, weighed 46 pounds.

"We only caught four fish that day," Holcombe recalled. "The other three weighed 22 pounds, 26 pounds and 28 pounds and were all caught on topwater. The big one took a big gizzard shad."

Holcombe believes his catch rates have gone up over the past few years, and he has not noticed any correlating declines in the overall quality of the fish. Smith Lake's reputation clearly is built on the number of trophy striped bass it kicks out. During the spring, Holcombe expects to see at least one 20-pound-plus fish in the boat on roughly every other trip, and any rod that goes down on the impoundment is apt to yield a 30-pound-plus saltwater stripe.

Beyond being the best time of the year for catching giant stripers, mid-April to mid-May brings the best topwater bite of the year to Smith Lake, with the fish blowing up on huge topwater jerkbaits "V-waked" slowly across the surface, or on plugs that "walk the dog." Holcombe often has clients fish topwater plugs all day this time of year.

Stripers typically don't school during May, but they do look up for their food. Therefore, blind-casting across areas where Holcombe expects stripers to be is the order of the day, and the big fish seem to come from nowhere.

Holcombe spends most late-spring days working vast flats and tapering points, usually putting all baits in less then 10 feet of water. He invests the bulk of this time in the Ryans Creek arm of the lake because numerous broad flats tend to hold heavyweight stripers in April and May.

In addition to fishing topwater lures, Holcombe pulls one or two big live gizzard shad behind the boat most of the time this month. Depending on the bottom depth and where the stripers have been holding, he might pull the live baits on free lines, allowing them to go where they will, or he may add a balloon to one or more lines to control the depth at which the baits swim.

A combination of gizzard and threadfin shad keeps the striped bass well fed on Smith Lake. Even when the stripers are following big schools of threadfins, though, gizzard shad are Holcombe's preferred live-bait offerings. Beyond the fact that gizzard shad are bigger bites, Holcombe has found that gizzard shad are easier to keep alive, both in the bait tank and on a hook.

During spring, Holcombe fishes primarily with large shad - often 10 or more inches long. Because gizzard shad are difficult to catch from Smith Lake and traveling to other lakes to catch them is impractical, Holcombe buys the shad he uses for bait.

The guide spools fairly heavy conventional baitcasting outfits with 15-pound-test line. During spring, he adds no hardware to his line beyond a 4/0 Octopus-style hook. If he wants to suspend the bait at a specific depth, he also adds a balloon, which he inflates to the size of a baseball and ties around the line when he ties off the balloon.

He puts out a lot of line so the boat doesn't spook the fish and then lets the baits go where they will. Holcombe free-spools the reels, but with clickers engaged. When reels start screaming, he wants anglers to get the rods as quickly as possible and set the hook like they are trying to yank the fish right out of the water.

"With all that line out, you have to set the hook hard, with a big swing," he stressed.

Smith Lake impounds 20,120 acres in the hills of Walker, Winston and Cullman counties, with its acreage spread among several long lake and river arms. Deep water abounds throughout the reservoir, with depths of 200-plus feet not uncommon. The water is clear compared to most Alabama lakes, but not quite as clear as it was only a few years ago. Fertility has increased with more development around the lake and in other parts of its watershed.

Abundant deep water is a boon to the stripers, which find thermal refuge well below the surface during the hottest days of summer. Large stripers, especially, require fairly cool water, and a lack of decent summer habitat is a major limiting factor for big-fish production on a lot of Southern lakes.

Smith Lake gets stocked with only Gulf-strain saltwate

r stripes, which grow faster than Atlantic-strain fish. Smith was first stocked in the early 1980s and was the test lake for the Gulf strain. Today, Alabama uses only the Gulf fish, largely because they are more tolerant of warmer waters than are Atlantic-strain fish.

Smith Lake is stocked with 40,000 to 65,000 stripers per year. The target stocking rate is one fish per acre. However, the specific number is determined annually based on the density and makeup of the lake's threadfin and gizzard shad populations.

For the first five or six years that the stripers were in Smith Lake, no one targeted the fish. By the time anglers began catching them - usually while targeting black bass - some of the lake's saltwater stripes already weighed more than 10 pounds.

Word then began spreading about the exciting new action, and the popularity of Smith Lake's striper fishery grew with that first crop of fish. In fact, it didn't take long for Smith Lake's reputation as a trophy striper destination to spread well beyond the Alabama border.

While Alabama's state-record striped bass, which weighed 55 pounds, came from the Tallapoosa River, most anglers consider Smith the premier destination in the Cotton State for trophy stripers. Veteran anglers like Holcombe believe there are state-record-caliber stripers in the lake and that it is only a matter of time before someone manages to hook and land one.

For guided fishing on Smith Lake, call Bruce Holcombe at (256) 724-2081 or check out his Web site, at www.alabamaoutdoors.net/smithlake.html.

For more information on marinas, area lodging and other angling services, call the Cullman Chamber of Commerce at (800) 313-5114 or log onto www.cullmanchamber.org.

WEISS LAKE
Weiss Lake has almost nothing in common with Smith Lake. While a couple of major tributaries flow from mountainous areas, Weiss' shoreline is generally gently sloped and has an abundance of shallow water. It is also highly fertile, and its waters are often stained. Weiss Lake impounds the Coosa River in the northeastern corner of Alabama. A small portion of its 30,000-plus acres spills over into Georgia.

Sometimes called "The Crappie Capital of the World," Weiss is obviously better known for its crappie population, which indeed serves up very good fishing. Many anglers don't even know that Weiss Lake has stripers in it, yet it actually offers very good fishing for the species. Some local anglers know a lot about the striper fishery, and the lake has gotten increasingly popular with area fishermen from Alabama and Georgia alike over the past few years.

Unlike Smith Lake, Weiss does not produce a lot of trophy fish. Stripers in the 3- to 7-pound range dominate the population, according to Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (DWFF) data. Quality fish of 15 to 20 pounds do show up from time to time, but real giants are almost unheard of.

The most distinctive thing about the Weiss Lake striper fishery is that it is self-sustaining. While the DWFF and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources have stocked stripers in the lake at various times over the years, it has not gotten any regular releases for more than 10 years. All the stripers that are in the lake now were naturally spawned, which makes Weiss one of only a handful of inland waterways in the entire country where significant striped bass reproduction takes place.

Anglers began speculating that stripers were reproducing in Weiss Lake several years ago simply because they caught too many small fish, even in years when no saltwater stripes had been stocked. The DWFF also suspected that some natural reproduction might have been occurring, but they also knew that stripers could have escaped from upstream lakes in Georgia. Genetic testing eventually showed some young fish to be Gulf-strain stripers, and only Atlantic-strain fish were ever stocked in Carters and Allatoona lakes, upstream in Georgia.

Over the past year or two, striper fishing has not been as easy on Weiss as it had been for several years, which most likely is attributable to a couple of major factors. Top on that list is probably fishing pressure. While the lake's reputation as a striper fishery still hasn't traveled terribly far, it definitely has not been a secret among locals.

A decade ago, uneducated fish schooled like mad all over the lake and would attack any kind of lure. Today's Weiss Lake stripers are more low-key, and anglers pretty much have to fish with live shad to enjoy consistent success. A lot of fishermen also have learned about key fishing areas, and with the ever-increasing popularity of jet-powered boats, some anglers can follow the stripers way up the rivers and creeks to areas that used to provide refuges.

A second factor probably has been the return of water to the area over the past year. High waters all last year, after a few years of drought conditions, have forced stripers and striper fishermen alike to make major adjustments.

Of course, the adult striper population on Weiss Lake is likely to vary more from year to year than that on many other reservoirs simply because of annual differences in the quality of spawning conditions. String a couple of poor spawns together, and the population seems like it is in a major downturn a few years later. Most striper lakes produce a certain level of fishing fairly consistently over the years because they get stocked with the same number of fish at the same time annually.

The Georgia Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) monitors the striper population that runs up the Coosa River out of the lake each spring and even collects some brood fish from the Coosa. No reductions in the numbers of quality fish that have made the run were apparent last year, according to Kevin Dalmier, a Georgia WRD fisheries biologist.

By May, Weiss stripers have finished their spawning run and returned to the lake, but they won't yet have been forced into summer haunts. Instead, they can show up virtually anywhere in the impoundment and could be anywhere from the surface down to the bottom. Most anglers use live shad and fish in the lower ends of creek and river arms, keying on points. Down lines and flat lines both come into play, but flat lines generally produce the most fish.

While schooling action is not as spectacular as it was several years ago, you are wise to keep a topwater plug nearby and be ready to throw it if any fish come up. A white or chartreuse bucktail is also a good lure to have on hand for any fish that give away their location. In fact, even when stripers are busting baitfish all over the surface, a bucktail often produces more and larger fish than a surface plug.

Because conditions are good all over the lake during May, the stripers wander a lot, based on movements of baitfish schools. You are wise to ask questions in bait shops before heading out and to take note of areas that a lot of other boats are using. Once in a general area, pay close attention to your electronics and adjust presentations until you locate the fish.

During the

summer, quality habitat becomes much less widespread, and fish concentrate much more. Prime dog days areas are close to the dam and well back up in cooler tributaries like Little River, where the fish find pockets of thermal refuge.

Because Weiss Lake's striper population is self-sustaining and has only been noted in recent years, no one really knows how much it will fluctuate or how the fish will fare under various conditions and increased fishing pressure. For now, there appear to be plenty of stripers left in the lake.

On Weiss Lake, anglers may keep up to 30 white bass, yellow bass, stripers or hybrids in any combination, with no size restrictions. No reciprocal agreement between Georgia and Alabama covers Weiss Lake. Anglers must either be licensed by both states or stay on the proper side of the border.

For more information on the fishing, contact JR's Marina at (256) 779-6461. For details on lodging and other fishermen's services, call the North Alabama Tourism Association at (800) 648-5381 or log onto www.northalabama.org.



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