Through time, some bass fisheries boom or bust, while others vary in quality to a lesser degree. However, if the trend of the fishery is stable or getting better, anglers can expect good fishing. To predict the best bass destinations for 2019, we contacted fisheries biologists across the state.
Kyle Bolton, fisheries biologist with Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, and author of the current Bass Anglers Information Team (BAIT) report, says bass fishing in the state has remained excellent for the past several years. The BAIT report’s objective is to gather information on bass populations from bass clubs.
“Four of five indicators improved over the previous year, which was 2016,” Bolton said. Percent success increased 0.25 percent, average bass weight increased 3 percent and the number of bass caught per angler day remained the same at 3.5. Pounds per angler day increased 2.4 percent, and the number of hours to catch a 5-pound bass decreased 13 percent. All five of those indicators were better than the five-year average.
“The number of 8 pounders caught increased from 25 in 2016 to 29 in 2017. And that is despite the number of fishing hours decreased by 28 percent, which is actually the result of receiving fewer reports from tournaments.”
COOSA RIVER: LAKE JORDAN
Compared to 2016, 15 lakes improved in overall fishing success in the 2017 BAIT report. Lake Jordan moved up 10 spots into the top five in the overall rankings. The lake also set three lake records: average weight (2.51 pounds), bass per angler-day (4.42), and pounds per angler-day (11.10).
Mike Holly, District II Fisheries Supervisor, rates Jordan as one of the top lakes in the state for Alabama spotted bass and reports the fishery has improved for both spots and largemouth.
“It’s a run of river reservoir,” he said, “with a lot of deeper rock and current breaks that provides excellent habitats for Alabama bass. The largemouth population is average for a Coosa River impoundment. Alabama bass typically make up 70 percent or more of the bass caught in the BAIT program at Jordan.
“Jordan offers a good chance to catch largemouth bass and Alabama bass over 5 pounds in the same day! And, being relatively small (6,800 acres and about 18 miles long), it’s an easy lake to cover a lot of water and figure out how to catch fish relatively quickly.”
Holly said one reason for the improvement in largemouth bass fishing might be that they are building immunities and overcoming the largemouth virus that hit the state in the late 90s through the early 2000’s.
“At Jordan, and other lakes statewide,” Holly reported, “we have had some good year classes of bass that have persisted in the fisheries to large size, and that trend is evident in the BAIT report as well. The catch rate for largemouth bass from 15 to 20 inches is as high as it has ever been at Jordan. Along with the largemouth, Alabama bass catch rates for fish over 17 inches, which is what we refer to as memorable size, was twice as high as the lake average in 2015 and stayed above the lake average in the 2018 sample.”
Holly said reservoirs are sampled at least every three years and biologists typically find consistent year class production. However, their samples did find strong year classes in 2010 and 2011 for both largemouth and Alabama bass, which are providing large fish right now. Those 7- and 8-year-old fish made up about 10 percent of their 2018 electrofishing sample. Additionally, they found stronger year classes of Alabama bass in 2013 and 2014 and an even stronger year class in 2015.
“Growth rates have always been high at Jordan,” Holly said, “and we still see fast growth of both species of bass. Both largemouth and Alabama bass reach 12 inches in two years and 15 inches in about 3.2 years. It takes several more years to get to 20 inches, and that takes both largemouth and Alabama bass over eight years.”
TENNESSEE RIVER: PICKWICK LAKE
Like Jordan, Pickwick set lake records in the 32-year history of BAIT reporting. Tournament anglers only took 80 hours to catch a bass 5 pounds or larger. The statewide average to catch a 5 pounder is 229 hours. It also set a lake record for the average weight per bass at 2.81 pounds. These lake records make Pickwick the best in state for the same quality indicators. All five quality indicators for Pickwick exceeded 2016 values and are well above the 32-year average.
For the second year in a row, Pickwick earned the heaviest average tournament winning weight with 19.15 pounds. This high average is confirmed by the lake taking five of the top 10 places for single-day tournament winning weights for the year. Even more impressive is number of big bass. Anglers brought nine bass weighing more than 8 pounds to the scales. That is more than half of the big bass weighed in statewide. The lake’s big fish weighed 10.36 pounds, and it was the heaviest tournament bass in the state.
Pickwick’s worst performing quality indicator is bass per angler day (3.05). Phil Ekema, District I Fisheries Supervisor, said the reason for the poor showing is due to the 15-inch minimum length limit on largemouth and smallmouth bass. “The size limit affects the data in the BAIT report,” he said, “because an angler’s ability to weigh in a fish decreases a little when they must catch a bigger fish.”
Of the 5,509 bass weighed in during 54 tournaments, largemouth bass comprised 52 percent, smallmouth bass accounted for 39 percent and spotted bass 10 percent. This is important data for biologists, as they do not catch enough spots or smallmouth to make accurate assessments.
“Our electrofishing data,” Ekema said, “does not always correlate with the fish that are actually caught. Pickwick growth rates are average among Alabama reservoirs, taking 4 years to reach a harvestable size of 15 inches. The state average is 15 inches in 3.8 years. Recruitment into the fishery (15 inches) was at the Alabama average with 24.5 percent of the bass sample greater than or equal to 15 inches.”
As for abundance, Ekema said they captured largemouth bass at a rate of 57.6 per hour in 2018, which is higher than the lake average, but below the state average on 59.4 per hour. And for mortality, he estimated an annual rate on 34 percent, which is very good. “Largemouth bass in Alabama rarely exceed 10 years of age,” Ekema said, “and we captured six fish age 10 or older. The 2008, 2012 and 2016 year classes appear strong. Average lengths for those year classes are 18, 16 and 11 inches respectively.”
Ekema expects the 2008 and 2012 year classes to dominate the tournament catch for 2019, and he predicts 2020 to be a good year for catching keeper-size bass.
CHATTAHOOCHEE RIVER: LAKE EUFAULA
For 2019, anglers who target big bass should plan to fish Lake Eufaula. In the 2017 BAIT report, the lake took four of the 10 places in Alabama’s top 10 tournaments for big bass, and it produced four 8 pounders. The report also charts electrofishing results for the percent of largemouth over 20 inches, which is about 5 pounds. Lake Eufaula far exceeded other lakes in this category. Ken Weathers, District IV Fisheries Supervisor, said the latest electrofishing results from spring 2018 show 6.7 percent of bass are over 20 inches.
“The abundance of big fish is a lot higher than normal,” Weathers said. “It takes bass 8 to 10 years to reach 8 pounds, and most reservoirs are not fertile enough to have that kind of forage base.”
In addition to available forage, Eufaula’s bass have an opportunity to reach old age. “Mortality was 33 percent for ages two through 10,” Weather said. “That is really low and goes along with the low harvest numbers in the creel survey. The survey of 287 anglers showed they only harvested 28 bass. Nineteen of those were largemouth. They released 1,336 bass.”
Weathers reports good growth rates, with largemouth reaching 16 to 18 inches (2 to 3 pounds) in about 3 years. Compared to the statewide average, abundance is also high with a catch rate of 118.9 fish per hours of electrofishing. Last year it was 87. Weathers believes these numbers will be negatively affected by the 2018 year class.
“We hardly had any shad spawn this year,” he reports. “Threadfin spawn was really low. Usually when that happens, we don’t get good recruitment on young bass, so I don’t expect a lot of young bass coming into next year. When this happened in the 90s, before we got a lot of aquatic vegetation, you would see a crash. That is when we had those big ups and downs in the bass fishery.
“Ever since we have had the 14-inch size limit and a lot of aquatic vegetation, which translates into a lot more sunfish, the lows have not been near as bad. I do not think we are going to see a big downturn, but anglers will probably notice bass abundance decrease a little bit. You really need a low recruitment year occasionally to keep quality up, especially if you want bigger bass.
“There are still plenty of 4- to 5-inch threadfin, and the bigger bass are going to be fine. I am expecting good quality fishing this spring. Don’t miss it!”
ALABAMA RIVER: MILLERS FERRY
Like Lake Jordan, Millers Ferry jumped 10 places in the BAIT report’s overall ratings. It came in fourth place behind Wilson, Jordan and Mitchell lakes. Millers Ferry finished near the top of quality indicators for bass per angler-day (4.69) and pounds per angler-day (8.23).
“For five or six years,” said Dave Armstrong, District V Fisheries Supervisor, “Millers Ferry has stayed in the top 10. Out of more than 30 reservoirs, that is significant. Bass are always going to be solid on that lake. Typically, they have fairly steady year classes.”
Armstrong says the watershed’s fertile black belt soils give the lake its high productivity. And as it is not located near a metropolitan area, the lake does not experience substantial fishing pressure. Additionally, Millers Ferry’s water levels and forage base are stable.
Armstrong continued, “There has always been a strong shad population, especially threadfin shad. We did shad surveys years ago and forage was never an issue. Water levels rarely fluctuate more than 2 feet, and we have never documented a poor level of recruitment for largemouth bass.”
The district last surveyed the lake in the spring of 2017 and found strong year classes from 2012 and 2015. The former are now big fish, the later will measure about 15 inches. Growth rates are a little above average with bass reaching 11.81 inches in 2.4 years and 14.96 inches in 3.8 years. In a creel survey conducted in spring 2017, biologists found strong representations across size groups up to 20 inches.
“Millers Ferry is not a place to catch numbers of trophy fish,” Armstrong said, “but it does hold some really nice fish.”
“The 2017 catch rate was not as good as the 2014 sample, however, it was above the lake average. We collected 370 fish for a catch rate of 74.4 per hour. As for spotted bass, we rarely get enough to analyze. It’s not that Millers Ferry has a poor spotted bass fishery; they are just difficult to evaluate. In the creel survey, 27 percent of angler-creeled bass were spots.”
“Adult mortality is 56 percent. For down here, that is about right. In general, the further south you go, the higher the mortality rate. Northern bass are really at the end of their preference range.”
Armstrong says Millers Ferry is the best place to go for largemouth in his district and recommends targeting the backwater creeks within 10 miles of the dam.
JORDAN LEE’S FAVORITE LURE FOR SPRING
Two-time Bassmaster Classic champion Jordan Lee from Cullman says his favorite lure for spring is a 6-inch swimbait rigged on a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce head. He fishes it on a 7-foot, 4-inch rod with a 6.6:1 reel spooled with 15- or 17-pound-test Invizx fluorocarbon line.
“The swimbait bite is an awesome bite,” Lee said. “The only reason I will not throw a swimbait is if the water is dirty. If you have water clarity of a couple of feet, a swimbait is usually the best bait.”
When working the lure over tops of submerged grass, Lee uses a slow retrieve, just fast enough to keep it from hanging. Occasionally, he gives the lure a quick jerk to clean the bait of any grass it may have collected. Lee says he can cover more water with the 3/4-ounce head, but switches to the 1/2-ounce when he needs to keep the lure above the weeds.
“With a swimbait,” Lee said, “do not set the hook as soon as you feel the bite. You want them to load up on the lure.”