Lake Guntersville fishing is great for bass, crappie, catfish and more in the Cotton State.
By Greg McCain
Long known as one of the premier bass-fishing destinations, Lake Guntersville, a sprawling Tennessee Valley Authority reservoir in northwest Alabama, absolutely exudes fish-catching potential, covering 69,000 acres as the largest impoundment in the state.
Along its extent, which runs from near the city of Guntersville to Nickajack Dam in Tennessee, the lake features just about any type of fishing imaginable.
“Guntersville is a great all-around lake,” said guide Mike Carter (www.anglingadventures.info), who pursues mainly bass and crappie on the lake. “Everyone knows Guntersville for its bass fishing, but it can be equally good for other species as well.”
Like any lake, the fishing can be cyclical. In particular, the bass fishing has experienced some downward trends over the past five years, although positive signs suggest another bass bonanza ahead. The fishing, especially for crappie and catfish, are consistently good.
“The secret is just now getting out,” said crappie pro Kent Driscoll. “Until a few years ago, very few people thought about Guntersville as a crappie lake. Everything was about bass. That’s not the case anymore.”
Bass fishing can be roughly divided into five seasons: the winter “trap” bite, late-spring, early-summer ledge bite, the late-summer swoon and fall frog fishing. Of course, these categories can be sub-divided with various niche techniques and presentations.
The new year typically marks the start of another bass season on Guntersville. The winter bite is subject to the vagaries of the weather, but the cold usually doesn’t negatively impact bass, which remain in feeding mode when the water temperature stays above 42 degrees.
The “trap” bite presentation, where anglers search with lipless crankbaits, remains a constant in cold-weather months and into the spring spawn. Once fish are located, anglers often a variety of presentations, especially swimbaits, squarebill crankbaits, jerkbaits and jigs.
While the spawn provides shallow-water and sight-fishing potential, many anglers await the migration of bass from skinny waters to the ledges and deep grass edges. Guide Donald Johnson (www.donaldjohnsonfishing.com) rarely ventures shallow, instead choosing to intercept transitioning pre- and post-spawn largemouth in 8 to 12 feet of water. May is perhaps Johnson’s favorite month to bass fish on Guntersville, and as fish gradually work deeper, Johnson follows them out to depths of about 25 feet.
“I think that approach is just more reliable,” Johnson said. “I can consistently target the bigger bass that Guntersville is best known for in the mid-range depths in the spring and then fish deeper schools through the summer months.”
As the water warms in late summer, bass fishing often becomes a grind. Last year rated as an exception with better catches reported in the late summer and early fall.
A variety of approaches still yield some bass, but some of the best catches come from early morning topwater presentations. Later in the day, fish hold on grass edges out to about 20 feet, and can be caught with swimbaits, big worms and other plastics.
Pro Tip: Bass in the Grass
However, no type of fishing is more anticipated on Guntersville than the fall frog bite. The best frog fishing usually occurs from late September through early November. The heaviest tackle, which almost always includes braided line up to about 60-pound test, is necessary to winch bass that explode out of the grass mats. The frog bite wanes in November, and the bass-fishing cycle starts again in the winter.
Now a decline in the overall bass fishery on Guntersville is a common lament among anglers. Starting about five years ago, the numbers of fish in the 3- to 6-pound range appeared to decrease. Many decried the state of the fishing, and indeed statistical evidence suggested a decline in the bass population. Even local biologists acknowledge lower bass numbers. Keith Floyd, District II biologist for the state Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, noted “a decline in bass density.”
While theories abound about the cause of the lower bass numbers, Floyd attributes the lower catch rates to the natural cycles of the lake.
“Everybody over there has been riding the dream the last seven years,” Floyd said. “(The bass fishing has been) the best it’s ever been. We’re in the average mode right now. As long as we maintain the average, I’m satisfied with that. That may not be what fishermen want here, but the bass population has been at or above the long-term average.”
Even in a so-called downward trend, the best fishing remains exceptional at times; a 40-pound, five-fish limit of bass won an early 2017 tournament. Even better is that bass fishing is likely to explode again in the coming years, with excellent spawns in 2016 and in 2017 pointing to that conclusion.
Spawning surveys conducted last June revealed exceptionally large numbers of fingerling bass. Normally, seining surveys in spawning areas yield an average of six to 10 bass per attempt; last year’s results averaged well over 20. Combined with improved catch rates of smaller fish over the last two years, the survey results indicate good things ahead.
“There are some positive signs,” said Carter. “We are definitely still concerned, but hopefully the lake is beginning to rebound. Of course, there are still quality fish in the lake and with the improved numbers of smaller bass, hopefully there are good things ahead.”
While Guntersville will likely always be known as a bass lake, the fishing for crappie and catfish can be exceptional as well.
The traditional techniques of casting for shallow fish in the spring and trolling through the winter and spring are good ways to catch limits of crappie. However, at least three different approaches utilized by Guntersville anglers make the crappie fishing unique.
First, fishing on the bank around the multitude of bridges and causeways provides a reliable approach, especially through the winter and early spring. The bridges serve as funnels as crappie slowly make their way toward spawning grounds in the spring.
The bridge fishing usually starts around Thanksgiving and continues well into the spring. Likely spots include the bridges over Spring, Short, Town and South Sauty creeks along Alabama 227, which runs east out of Guntersville, and Alabama 69 at Browns Creek.
Crappie also congregate along bluff walls, and adventurous fishermen often catch crappie all night long. At times, the duck boats that abound in season are the only competition for anglers.
A third, and slightly different approach, involves trolling crankbaits in the summer. While pulling crankbaits for crappie in warmer weather is not unusual, the technique is just now starting to gain widespread acceptance on Guntersville.
In the past, the abundance of grass negated some of chances to troll, but anglers have discovered how to work around the grass and catch fish. Of course, many anglers continue to rely on traditional casting methods.
“I look for fish on stumps and other structure, mainly upriver,” Carter said. “I like to feel that thump, and I feel like my clients like to catch crappie casting as well. The crappie population really thrives on Guntersville. They are very reliable for me, especially from late fall through the spring.”
Crappie Pro Brad Chappell on Lure Colors
Catfish are also available in both large numbers and large size, especially on a cool, drizzly winter day, according to local catfish guide Mike Mitchell (www.tnriveroutfitters.net), who claims that the odds of catching a fish over 50 pounds is pretty good on those days.
Mitchell anchors his boat above likely spots for winter blues, usually above underwater humps or islands, or around log jams that he identifies on electronics. He uses a spread of rods, with enough weight to hold his bait on the bottom. His preferred bait is fresh skipjack.
“Don’t expect that many bites in the winter,” Mitchell said. “But the ones that you get are usually pretty good.”
The city of Guntersville is literally bounded on all sides by the lake and caters to anglers, especially inviting visitors to participate in the bounty. Much the same can be said for Scottsboro as well, with hotels and restaurants in both cities welcoming fishing visitors.
Perhaps the best potential destination around the lake for anglers and families is Lake Guntersville State Park (www.alapark.com), just off Alabama 227 about 15 minutes from Guntersville. The park offers accommodations ranging from a campground to single rooms, chalets and cabins, a full-service restaurant and first-rate launch facilities. The park is family friendly with kid activities and eco tours conducted by staff members.
The Eagle Awareness program at Guntersville State Park, held weekends in January and February, is among the most popular events of the year.
Not far from the lake, Cathedral Caverns offers a one-of-a-kind adventure that is open every day except for New Year’s, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Tours, which traverse a 1.5-mile round trip along concrete paths, take visitors into areas of total darkness and are highlighted by spectacular rock formations.
“Regardless of what you come for, the state parks centered around Lake Guntersville offer something for everyone in the family,” said Michael Jeffreys, who oversees both Lake Guntersville State Park and Cathedral Caverns.
The same can pretty much be said for the fishing. Carter, who promotes Lake Guntersville at every opportunity, says the fishing is consistently good year ’round.
“The lake is a good destination regardless of what you want to catch,” Carter said. “You can catch bass in the morning and crappie in the afternoon. Although sometimes are probably better than others, there’s really not a bad time to come.”
Take a trip and experience everything the Lake Guntersville area has to offer. The fishing opportunities are endless, perhaps the best all-around destination in Alabama.