Environmental conditions can often affect Alabama bass fishing, challenging anglers to develop an effective pattern. On other days, though, it's as if there is an aggressive bass on every stickup attacking lures.
The ups-and-downs of fishing are similar to the cyclical nature of bass fisheries across Alabama, but on a much broader scale. Environmental conditions determine how many fry survive, with ideal conditions producing strong year-classes and amazing fishing.
"Good year-classes," said Damon Abernethy, assistant chief of Fisheries for the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, "don't come along often enough. We had a good year-class in 1996 that produced great fishing in the early 2000s. Then during the drought of 2007-08, we had another good year-class. Drought conditions produced an abundance of young bass, and those fish have been growing and moving through the system. As a result, we have had exceptional fishing for four to five years."
During this period, anglers on Lake Guntersville could catch up to 50 bass a day on a good day, but with the aging of the last strong year-class, fishing has started to return to normal.
"Those fish are growing old and very few reach age 10," said Abernethy. "Some are still with us, and they are big. In our lakes with low mortality, bass live a long time, so we will have an unusual abundance of big bass from that drought year-class."
For the coming season, Abernethy recommends fishing Eufaula and Guntersville lakes for largemouth, Pickwick Lake for largemouth and smallmouth, and Oliver Lake for spotted bass.
OLIVER LAKE SPOTTED BASS
"Without a doubt, Oliver is awesome," said tournament angler and guide Dustin Connell (firstname.lastname@example.org). "My best five-fish bag of spots weighed 32 pounds. I have caught four spotted bass there weighing more than 7 pounds; the largest weighed 7.6 pounds. I believe the Warrior River holds the next state record."
Located from within Tuscaloosa and stretching upstream of Holt, Oliver Lake is the smallest reservoir on the Warrior River. The riverine lake is nearly nine miles long and covers approximately 800 surface acres. Due to its steep banks, access is limited to one boat ramp.
"The primary reason for excellent spotted bass fishing on Oliver is low fishing pressure," Connell explained, "It doesn't have access areas where anglers can launch a hundred boats to hold tournaments. Another factor contributing to the great fishing there is the size of the shad. They are larger than shad on the Coosa River."
According to Connell, current is essential to finding fish on Oliver. Without current, spots either scatter or suspend, so they are difficult to locate. Current positions fish in eddies, current breaks and creek mouths. Equally important, current stimulates spotted bass to feed.
"In March, the fish will be pre-spawn, and some fish will be trying to spawn or they will be holding on current breaks in the middle of the river," Connell said. "To find bedding fish, look for places out of the current with a hard bottom, which is any kind of rock. Productive areas to fish are eddies, irregular features along the bank, seawalls and creek mouths, where the water is less than 8 feet deep."
If fish aren't in these areas, then they are around rock piles and high spots in the middle of the river feeding on shad.
To catch bass from spawning areas, Connell relies on a 6-inch 6th Sense jerkbait that dives to 4 feet on a 1/2-ounce Davis jig rigged with a Bass Attacker Goredad. For bass feeding on shad in the river, he prefers swimbaits and spinnerbaits.
In contrast to Oliver, Guntersville is an extremely popular tournament lake and at 69,100 acres is the largest impoundment in the state.
"Guntersville is definitely on my list of places to fish," said Abernethy. "Anglers are catching plenty of 10-pound bass, and there are not a lot of places where you have that opportunity other than Guntersville."
Tournament angler and guide Jordan Lee (email@example.com), reports anglers fishing for pre-spawn largemouth in March can expect to catch 15 bass a day weighing 3 1/2 to 5 pounds.
"There are a lot of 4 to 5 pound bass on the lake," Lee said. "The numbers have decreased over the years, but the quality-size fish are still there."
Lee's primary pattern for catching pre-spawn bass is to work weedlines at depths of about 8 feet on the main lake with swimbaits and lipless crankbaits. In March, he says eelgrass offers the best fishing.
"Eelgrass stays green, and is thicker than hydrilla in March, so it attracts bass," said Lee. "To find patches of eelgrass, move down the river channel and use side-scan sonar to mark the grass, and then return to fish those areas. If not, you will waste time fishing where there is no grass."
Lee spends a lot of time in the mid-lake down to Siebold, as bass stage on the river, relating to grass at around 7 to 8 feet, rather than relating to the bank.
To effectively work eelgrass, while maximizing casting distance to keep lures in the strike zone longer, Lee has 7-foot, 4-inch rods rigged with swimbaits and lipless crankbaits in 1/2- and 3/4-ounce weights. He uses the heavier lures when he wants to cover even more water.
"Mix it up between the 6-inch Shadalicious and the Red Eye Shad by Strike King," Lee said. "The only reason not to throw a swimbait is if water visibility is less than a couple of feet. The Red Eye is the best lure for dirty water. Retrieve the lures so they are in the grass, but not so deep that it gets hung."
"For both size and numbers, Lake Eufaula has been getting better every year," said Shane Powell, tournament angler. "Before the fishery improved, a 20-pound bag would easily win. Now it takes 27 and occasionally 29 pounds to win."
For anglers willing to sacrifice size for numbers, Powell recommends working grass along the shoreline with spinnerbaits and swim jigs. Powell, however, typically targets pre-spawn largemouth holding on submerged brush piles at depths of 8 to 12 feet over a firm bottom just off the main lake.
"Big females stage in the brush piles adjacent to spawning areas," Powell said, "and then move up to spawn when conditions are perfect. I don't think they stay but a couple of days before moving back to the brush pile."
Of course, while nearly every primary and secondary point will have brush, the more productive brush piles are recent, perhaps even still holding leaves; old brush looks like a lump. Also, brush that is isolated and not obvious is more likely to hold fish.
Tournament anglers and guides replenish bush piles annually and many prefer hardwood to evergreens. Powell recommends looking for brush piles on the lower end of the lake on the east side from Sandy Creek down to the dam. He says water visibility increases closer to the dam, and the area has plenty of protected sloughs with sandy bottoms.
"My first cast to the brush pile is with either a Big Bite Kicker swimbait or a 1/2-ounce War Eagle spinnerbait with a Colorado and willow-leaf combination," said Powell. "These lures will catch the bigger fish, as well as aggressive fish. Retrieve the lures so they just tick the top of the brush."
"We only have three lakes on the Tennessee River where anglers catch significant numbers of smallmouths," Abernethy said, "Of those, I don't think you can beat Pickwick if you want to catch a smallmouth weighing more than 6 pounds."
Famous as the "Smallmouth Bass Capital of the World," Pickwick is also a largemouth destination. Enhanced habitat in the form of aquatic vegetation has energized an already strong fishery.
"Over the last few years, hydrilla, coontail and the eelgrass that is starting to grow has created habitat where fish can grow and don't receive constant fishing pressure," said David Allen, guide and tournament angler (davidallenfishing.com). "This nursery benefits both largemouth and smallmouth, but it has made significant improvements in largemouth fishing. It is not uncommon to catch 7- to 8-pound fish."
Of course, the smallmouth fishing is still great, with anglers catching numerous fish 3 to 4 pounds, and the possibility of catching a 5- or 6-pounder.
Allen targets smallmouth from Wilson Dam to Seven Mile Island, saying the best fishing occurs when there is strong current in the tailrace and it's raining. Conversely, bluebird days and calm water produce poor results.
"Current is key," Allen said. "It positions the fish in eddies behind rock piles and makes them hungry. Otherwise, they scatter and are difficult to catch. As far as the rain, it's probably due to the change in barometric pressure."
To catch smallmouth, Allen positions his boat in the current below the dam for the drift line he wants to fish. As the boat drifts at 3 to 4 mph, he fires his lure diagonally upstream so it passes through the eddies, which are visible as the rocks create turbulence on the surface.
Allen's lures are a 4.5-inch swimbait by True Lock and 1/2-ounce Scrounger jighead dressed with a Zoom Fluke. On bluebird days with little or no current flow, Allen moves downstream to fish for largemouth bass staging at transition areas leading into spawning areas.
"After the first warming trend, the fish move to transition areas to forage while waiting to spawn," said Allen. "Look for them on the main lake in creek channels, ditches, main river points and stump flats at depths of 6 to 8 feet. You will find textbook examples of this habitat in front of Cane and Mulberry creeks as well as behind Koger's Island."
Allen's go-to bait for this first wave of transitioning largemouth is a 1/2-ounce Rat-L-Trap.
These are not the only places to fish in the Cotton State, but they are some of the best available on the planet. No other place offers anglers a better opportunity for catching largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass.
Research On Guntersville and Wheeler
For more than 10 years, numbers of largemouth bass greater than 500 mm (19.685 inches) on Wheeler Lake has failed to meet expectations. To determine why Guntersville Lake has consistently produced a quality trophy fishery while Wheeler has not, researchers at Auburn University explored the differences in growth rates, mortality and year-class strength of existing groups. Results of the comparison suggests that Wheeler's largemouth grew faster to age three, especially males, but achieved a slightly lower maximum size. This finding was consistent with previous Department of Conservation and Natural Resources samples from these lakes. Researchers also found Wheeler's bass consumed a higher proportion of shad and that they exhibited a higher mortality rate.
With the available data, Auburn conducted a simulation analysis to assess whether growth, natural mortality or recruitment was responsible for the differences in the relative abundance of bass greater than 500 mm. They found the differences could only be explained by a difference in natural mortality between lakes; however, researchers could not clearly identify the factors responsible for Wheeler's higher growth and mortality rates. One possible explanation could be the higher proportion of Florida strain bass on Guntersville.