While everything points to great Alabama bass fishing in 2018, some areas are better than others. Here are four lakes to consider this year.
In the current Bass Anglers Information Team (B.A.I.T.) annual report prepared by Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Biologist Kyle Bolton, information submitted by tournament clubs and trails show Alabama's bass fishery continues to improve.
For the last eight years in a row, all five quality indicators that make up the B.A.I.T. report have stayed above the 31-year average in the history of the report.
"In the most recent report," said Bolton, "which is 2016, success by anglers increased four percent compared to the average for the last 18 years. In addition, average weight increased seven percent, the number of bass weighed in per angler-day increased 19 percent, and pounds per angler-day increased 23 percent. Also, the number of hours to catch a big fish declined 20 percent, which is good."
All this shows that across the state, bass fishing is awesome, whether discussing largemouth, smallmouth or even spots.
R.L. HARRIS (WEDOWEE)
In 2016, Harris set records for pounds per angler-day at 7.1 pounds versus a lake average of 3.81 pounds, and the hours to catch a 5-pounder decreased to only 88 hours; the statewide average is 259 hours.
"Harris has always been good in terms of big fish," said Mike Holly, District II fisheries supervisor. "It's a lake I look forward to sampling because I know I am probably going to get my hands on an 8-pounder and occasionally a 10-pounder."
In addition to the state's exceptional 2008 year-class, Holly reports Harris had good recruitment from 2010 through 2013. When Holly samples the lake, the number of fish measuring more than 20 inches averages 12 percent, which is triple the state's average.
"Harris has a lot of 9- to 11-pounders," said Jackson Bonner, Lake Wedowee Tournament Trail director. "There are not a lot of 6- to 8-pounders, but we are catching more 4 1/2- to 6-pound fish. Anglers can catch their once-in-a-lifetime fish. In fact, Harris probably holds the next state record."
Since Harris's waters are deep and clear, Bonner claims the best fishing occurs from February through May, when the fish are near the shore. When bass move offshore, Bonner says fishing is poor.
"When water temperatures reach 57 to 60 degrees in February, fish move shallow and the fishing is incredible," Bonner exclaimed. "In early spring, target fish up the Little Tallapoosa River in muddy water with the warmest temperature. You are not looking for one or the other; you need both. Target shallow rock piles near the channel, where bass can change depth quicker than backing out to deeper water.
Once the water warms, anglers should move downstream on the river channel, looking for flats leading to steep banks to fish the transition area between the flat and the bank in water 6 to 8 feet deep, especially around isolated cover.
Bonner's favorite lure to fish both locations is a Bagley Balsa squarebill crankbait, which he casts over rock piles and wood cover. Reaction strikes come when the squarebill deflects off targets.
Bonner also recommends fishing the rocky banks between the SR 431 Bridge and the Swagg Boat Ramp, especially with a 1/2-ounce black and blue jig.
MOBILE-TENSAW RIVER DELTA
For the past five years, the Mobile Delta has improved in three of the quality indicators on the B.A.I.T. report. Average weight, bass per angler-day and pounds per angler-day are on long-term upward trends.
Tournament angler and guide Wayne Miller (251-455-7404) attributes the better fishing to improved habitat, which keeps getting better the longer it has been since the last hurricane negatively impacted the Delta.
According to Tommy Purcell, District IV fisheries biologist, one reoccurring environmental event beneficial to the Delta's bass fishery is freshwater flooding in spring. The high water allows young bass to grow protected in flooded areas.
Miller says the best times to fish the Mobile Delta for largemouth are from May through July and October to mid-December. From May to July, spring floods have receded and forced bass from the swamps, bottomlands and marshes into the bays, creeks and lakes between the Mobile and Tensaw rivers. The latter fishing period occurs when white shrimp begin their migration into the middle Delta, where they become forage for largemouth.
"May is a phenomenal month to fish," said Miller. "Anglers this month can experience good fishing all over the Delta if water levels are stable. Especially good is the area between Tensaw Lake and Gravine Island. This stretch has expansive lakes and creeks off both the Mobile and Tensaw rivers."
On the water, Miller targets wood cover in the form of cypress trees, logs and treetops with buzzbaits, spinnerbaits, lizards, frogs and jerkbaits. He says buzzbaits and jerkbaits will catch fish throughout the day, but work best under low-light conditions.
"My favorite time of the year to fish is during the white shrimp migration," said Miller. "It is the most productive time of the year for catching numbers of fish. In a half-day of fishing, we will easily catch 100 fish."
Miller says the best time for fall fishing is during a strong incoming or outgoing tide, while the worst time is when there is a nip tide.
When fishing near the Causeway, the guide recommends targeting creekmouths, grass edges and logs. Upstream on the cypress lakes, he recommends fishing around the trees. Miller fishes these areas with artificial or live shrimp.
LEWIS SMITH LAKE
For the second consecutive year, Smith Lake has placed second in the B.A.I.T report for overall quality. The bass fishery was first in pounds per angler day and near the top in all other indicators except for the hours it takes to catch 5-pound bass. In this category, it ranked near the bottom.
"Recent sampling indicates that the growth of both Alabama and largemouth bass in Smith is very slow after age five," said Chris McKee, District III fisheries biologist. "This results in few bass over 5 pounds in the fishery. But the numbers of 3- and 4-pounders are very good and that is reflected in the indicator for pounds per angler-day and bass per angler-day."
The area had good year-classes in 2012 and 2013, and the recruitment of these year-classes should contribute to better fishing, with fish measuring between 16 and 18 inches.
As for largemouth bass, McKee says recruitment has decreased. Electofishing catch rates in 2016 dropped to 13 per hour, a decrease of nearly 50 percent. Auburn University is currently studying the decline.
"The B.A.I.T. report is accurate for those two years," said Wesley Sams, tournament director for the Smith Lake Dam Winter Wildcats (firstname.lastname@example.org), "but winning tournament weights have decreased since then. I do not know if the fish have adapted to the lures we are using or if the blueback herring introduction has changed bass behavior. It could very well be that the lake has not suffered a decline."
Sams' favorite months to fish Smith Lake are March and November. In March, he targets pre-spawn bass staging on structure, while the focus in November is on baitfish.
"When fishing for pre-spawn bass," Sams said, "the fish will be heavier as they are full of eggs and are feeding heavily in preparation for the spawn. If you fish from daylight to mid-afternoon, it is possible to catch 40 to 50 bass."
Sams targets both largemouth and spotted bass on long, red-clay points facing the main lake when water temperatures reach into the mid-50s. To fish points, he retrieves a 1/4-ounce roundhead jig rigged with a 6-inch worm across the bottom at depths of 15 to 25 feet deep.
In November, Sams says the key for catching largemouth and spotted bass is to pinpoint baitfish near rocky shorelines on the main lake or at creek mouths. In this pattern, baitfish trumps structure. He uses side-scan sonar to locate baitfish.
Even though Sams searches for baitfish, his lure of choice is a 1/2-ounce football jig rigged with a Zoom No. 11 plastic chunk, which mimics crawfish. He reports this pattern will produce a mixed bag of 20 to 30 largemouth and spotted bass in a day of fall fishing.
For the third year in a row, Wilson Lake has remained on top in the overall quality indicator rankings on the B.A.I.T. report. Tournament angler and guide Cameron Gautney (www.shoalsbassguides.com) believes Wilson's exceptional standing is due to the lake's size, which results in less fishing pressure than the other lakes on the Tennessee River.
Gautney's favorite time to fish for largemouth is from May through July, and his favorite times to fish for smallmouth is February through April and again from late September into November.
For largemouth, Gautney targets offshore fish. He uses side-scan sonar to look for large schools of bass holding 15 to 25 feet deep on underwater islands and long, deep points on the upper three-quarters stretch of the main lake.
"I will watch my sonar for days before making a cast," Gautney said. "I mark as many schools as I can before returning to catch them."
To catch offshore bass weighing more than 4 pounds, Gautney's go-to lures are Z-Boss 22 and 25 deep-diving crankbaits. His only focus is aggressive fish. If he does not catch a fish after a dozen casts, he moves to the next school.
For smallmouth, Gautney's favorite pattern happens in fall and involves explosive heart-stopping strikes on the surface. Topwater walking and wake baits worked over long tapering points produce 30 to 50 schooling bronzbacks a day. As with largemouth, he searches points with side-scan sonar before fishing.
In spring, the guide relies on a variety of patterns. One of the more consistent pre-spawn patterns is on main lake and secondary points in Shoal Creek, where he uses jigs, umbrella rigs and crankbaits.
Another of Gautney's springtime patterns targets the gaps in bluffs. Springs and creeks flowing into these gaps deposit sediment for spawning smallies. Large pockets produce best. He works pockets by fan casting Rat-L-Traps and Senkos.
There are, of course, many other lakes, as well as rivers and creeks, where anglers can pursue bass, along with many other species. These are just a few to consider this year.