If you throw it, they will bite.
Fishermen who subscribe to that theory – at least the ones who put it to the test – stand a very good chance of having their monofilament stretched during the “dead” months of December and January, when the Heart of Dixie’s boat ramps are mostly empty. Their tackle boxes need only be small, their clothing big, and their chilling runs across the water short. But the die-hards who brave the elements to wet a line are apt to play tug-of-war with some beefy bass.
It’s not quite the pre-spawn, which falls in February in north Alabama, and the spawn itself is another two or three months distant. As cold and muddy as the water might be, however, the bass have to eat. If you can find them, give them what they want and, most importantly, get off your duff and on the water, so you can catch bass while others are dreaming of spring from their armchairs.
Three of Alabama’s best lakes for wintertime bassin’ are Guntersville, Weiss and R.L. Harris Reservoir (also known as Lake Wedowee). If you want to hook some bass on any of them, remember the words sun, shallow and slow. Fish in the shallows when the sun is shining and move the bait slowly.
Hudson isn’t a fishing guide. He isn’t a professional fisherman, at least not yet. But the 35-year-old advertising salesman proved last spring that he’s a fishing force to be reckoned with on Guntersville. Not only did this “bassaholic” land the largest bass ever recorded during a tournament on Alabama waters, but he (along with his partner) also registered a five-fish creel that was the heaviest ever amassed.
By 8:30 that March morning, Hudson and partner Alex Wheeler had put 22 pounds of bass into their livewell and were feeling pretty good about placing in the company tournament. Less than a half-hour later, they culled a 2-pounder to clinch the record for the heaviest five-fish stringer – 34 pounds, 13 ounces – ever seen during a fishing competition here.
Photo by Jon Howse
Donnie had been slowly pumping a Norman DD-22 crankbait when the taut 12-pound-test line went suddenly slack.
“Even if it hadn’t been a fish, hook-sets are free, right? So I jerked. Afterward, I just knew that I’d hooked a drum,” Hudson said.
Like a muscled-up super-carp, the fish, bent on never seeing the light of day, surged forward and swam under the boat. Hudson had no idea what he had hooked until the behemoth largemouth rolled under the surface. Almost in a trance, he battled the fish and brought it to the boat three times in five minutes before his partner could grasp its maw and haul the bass aboard.
“I don’t get excited as a rule,” Hudson said. “But that shook me up. I didn’t even want to look at it. I told Alex to put it in the livewell.”
After two hours of listening to Wheeler rattle on about how the fish would surely weigh more than 10 pounds, Hudson decided that he wanted to see for himself. When the scales went beyond 14 pounds, the guys were just as bug-eyed as the flabby sow bass.
They spent the rest of the excruciatingly long hours until 3 p.m. trying to keep the water in the livewell fresh. When the bass was finally weighed on the official scales, she registered 14 pounds, 3 ounces.
You’d think that Hudson, after pulling off such a feat, would herald springtime on his favorite lake, yet he’s not about to overlook the rest of the year. Before he boated the 14-pounder, Hudson’s fondest memory of fishing Guntersville was of a Christmas Day trip during which he caught 45 bass before breaking for lunch.
“The spring is awesome at Guntersville, but you can catch bass there in the winter as well,” he said. “You’ve probably heard that some fish are shallow the year ’round. Well, that’s absolutely true.”
This shallow-water philosophy is shared by many of the lake’s regular visitors. Internet chat rooms are full of reports from anglers claiming to have caught most, if not all, of their bass in 1 to 5 feet of water during January – whether they’re using spinnerbaits or crankbaits.
While Hudson knows that big Colorado-bladed spinnerbaits and some crankbaits work wonders at Guntersville, his favorite cold-weather lures are the classic black-and-blue jig-and-pig and 6-inch lizards, the latter fished on a Carolina rig.
“If I don’t get bit on a jig, I’ll go to a Carolina rig,” he noted. “If I’m convinced fish are there, I’m going to throw a dark-colored lizard before I leave a spot.”
Back-to-back days with temperatures in the 60s, which are not that uncommon in January, lure Hudson to the lake. He typically launches later in the morning, well after sunup, and usually heads toward the middle of the lake, close to Town Creek.
“There’s no point in getting out there early and beating the ice out of your rod’s eyes,” he continued. “I go later in the day, after things have warmed up. That’s when the fish are going to be more active anyway.
“You have to look at it as wintertime being the opposite of summer. The fish are seeking warm water, not cool, so they’ll be in the shallows. And the pockets warm up first.”
For the same reason, a lot of anglers concentrate around riprap and bridge pilings, which absorb and radiate the sun’s heat.
Even with a few days of sunshine and moderate temperatures, however, it’s important to remember that the water is still cold. The smaller spotted bass might not be affected as much, but largemouths are often sluggish. In other words, slow presentations like flipping a jig or pulling a Carolina rig across the bottom work because the resident largemouths like not having to chase their supper.
That’s why Hudson likes a 3/8-ounce jig. It falls more slowly than the bigger 1/2-ounce versions. Like most fishermen who toss a jig in winter, he prefers pigskin trailers over plastic ones. That’s because he believes the fish hold onto the natural trailer longer.
Before moving on to the second of our three lakes, it should be noted that Hudson’s catch, both singularly and as the anchor of a 34-pound limit, is not yet reflected in the most current tournament report published by the state. Even without it, Guntersville took the top spots among 23 reservoirs in the “average weight” and “hours per bass over 5 pounds” categories in 2001.
Yet outside of the locals who can navigate the hazard-ridden channels of the old submerged farmland in their sleep, few outsiders know that Weiss coughs up some of the year’s biggest largemouths during the winter drawdown. It is a time when few tournaments are held here, but largemouths up to 10 pounds turn up!
“Knowing where to go and what to throw is all it takes to connect with these tackle-testing hawgs,” stated Reed Montgomery of Birmingham, whose livelihood as a fishing guide depends on such knowledge.
Of course, you have to know how to get there without sacrificing your outboard’s lower unit too. The lake’s level is at its lowest this time of year, maybe as much as six feet below normal pool. Even navigating Weiss during full pool can sometimes be like following an obstacle course. For every stump and rock pile that is visible, count on there being three more hiding below the water’s surface.
“Believe me, I know, and so do the folks at Birmingham Boat Repair,” Montgomery added. “Get a map, study it, watch for channel markers, and pay close attention to your depth-finder. Always wear your life jacket and an attached outboard motor kill switch. It might just save your life.”
Even if you’re familiar with the lake’s curve and its numerous creeks in the spring and summer, it’s another fishing hole in the winter.
Navigational obstacles aside, one should look at the lake as if it were any other of the six Coosa River impoundments. Most of the largemouths are in the shallows, along the flats and in the pockets. They are in the warmest possible water, out of the main icy current and shielded from the north winds. Fortunately for both fish and fisherman, the baitfish also congregate in these areas.
Montgomery throws lipless crankbaits, spinnerbaits and jerkbaits – lures that most resemble the baitfish that the bass are likely to inhale for their midday, and possibly only, meal. The biggest largemouths hold tighter to cover, perhaps slightly deeper, and they’re not going to burn much energy chasing lures.
“Usually the bigger and much wiser bass must be coaxed to bite,” he said. “Big lures get their attention fast. Casting from several different angles with bottom-bumping lures might be necessary.”
Montgomery also ties on 6- to 12-inch lizards using Texas or Carolina rigs, big artificial crawfish or tube baits, and oversized jigs tipped with large pork chunks or plastic crawfish trailers. Fished slowly, these just might solicit the one strike you can expect from a seemingly disinterested hawg.
To experience this kind of fishing and to save your outboard, you can book a guided trip with Montgomery by calling Reed’s Guide Service at (205) 787-5133 or e-mailing him at ALABASSGYD@aol.com.
In its heyday, Harris Reservoir yielded some unbelievable bass, with a few topping 16 pounds. A story even circulated a few years ago that a 17 1/2-pounder, which would have been a new state record, was found floating dead there. Nowadays, bass weighing in the teens are not as common – replaced by hordes of smaller, but not necessarily “small,” fish. Keepers, by tournament standards, are plentiful.
The current 13- to 16-inch slot limit (you cannot keep a largemouth or spotted bass between these sizes) was placed in effect almost a decade ago. It was designed to protect the bass in that “slot” and therefore reduce the number of smaller fish. It has taken a long time, but the numbers of big fish are climbing.
Growth rates are improving, as is the plumpness of bass, according to state fisheries biologists. They attribute these improvements directly to educated anglers who are harvesting bass smaller than 13 inches.
The 2001 Bass Anglers Information Team (B.A.I.T.) report, the annual summary of tournament results reported to the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, supports the lake’s weight improvements. Still, Harris has a long way to go to catch other, more popular and frequented reservoirs. The lake’s highest marks came in the “hours per bass over 5 pounds” and “bass per day” columns.
Yet the slot limit remains, perhaps because its lowest B.A.I.T. rankings were in the “average weight” and “pounds per day” categories.
The upper portion of the lake is mostly river channel, where classic ledge fishing produces bass – especially in the summer, when the fish are going to be found near deep water. The bottom two-thirds, from the power line crossing on the Tallapoosa River arm of the lake near the hamlet of Ofelia to the dam, provide more of the habitat usually associated with bass. Here’s where you find numerous flooded feeder creeks, sloughs and points that hold largemouths.
One look is enough to hook a bass fisherman on Harris Reservoir. It has standing timber, bluff walls, clay and rocky shoreline, plus points, stumps, blowdowns and underwater roadbeds – perfect for both largemouths and spotted bass. The problem is, when you go there during the winter, you have to fish in water up to 8 feet shallower than it is in summer.
The spotted bass can be found hugging the main-river points from 1 to 10 feet deep, sometimes by the hundreds. These feisty bass, which are caught schooling in warmer months, are more apt to hit Texas-rigged worms and shad-colored crankbaits. The actual depth depends on the presence or lack of cloud cover. The best bet for snagging a largemouth is to flip black-and-blue jigs into shallow-water cover.
It might be easier to wait until mid to late February to start your search for a hungry, roe-filled sow with an attitude. But if you want to get the jump on thousands of bass fishermen in Alabama, have your tackle loaded and your boat ready for when we’re blessed with tw
o or three days of pleasant weather in January.
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