Alabama is the heart of bassin' country, as it boasts a number of excellent lakes where anglers can expect both fast action and quality fish throughout much of the year.
Damon Abernathy, the fisheries development coordinator for the Alabama Wildlife & Freshwater Fisheries Division, says his most recent survey of tournament anglers shows the average size of bass is going up substantially at many lakes around the state. He thinks possibly because of droughts in 2007 and 2008, which created a sort of "new lake" effect on some waters when the rains returned to flood the shorelines once again.
"The amount of time for tournament anglers to catch a 5-pound bass dropped significantly this year at several lakes, and we had more of them reported," said Abernathy. "In fact, the take of reported fish 5 pounds and over was up almost 65 percent."
The only dark spot in this picture is Lake Wheeler, on the TVA chain between Huntsville and Decatur, where angling success and fish size actually dropped significantly in the survey year. Abernathy said a continuing lack of weed cover is the primary problem in this lake.
Guntersville, located in the northeast, is one of the best lakes in Alabama, in the nation in fact. While this 69,000-acre lake does not produce the easy fishing it did when hydrilla first got into the system, anglers who know the prime spots and tactics commonly bring in livewells loaded with 5-pounders, with an occasional 8-pounder thrown in.
Even a few 10-pound fish are weighed in every year, mostly in early spring. Fortunately, most of the fish caught in tournaments held on this hard-fished lake are released unharmed after weigh-in, so it continues to produce year after year.
Prime time at Guntersville is roughly from late February through April. The pre-spawn bite, as the fish move shoreward and begin to feed around causeways, weedbed edges and riprap shoreline, can be phenomenal on lipless and diving crankbaits. Fish often are schooled tightly at this point, so those who luck into a school can bring 4- to 5-pound fish on every other cast for a time.
Depending on how fast the weather warms up, fish begin moving to shallow spawning bays and island edges in March, with this action accelerating after a few bright, sunny days. By mid to late March, spawning is at full peak, continuing for the next several weeks, particularly around the new and full moons.
The spawning action is primarily targeting visible fish with soft plastics, but because of the heavy pressure, fish are tough. Pro angler Gerald Swindle, who lives not far south of Guntersville, has evolved a tactic of teasing fish into biting by making dozens of casts with an un-weighted crawfish or wacky-worm from many different angles and different speeds. He sometimes leaves a particularly tough fish all together and comes back an hour later to try again — it can be a challenge but since anglers are looking at the fish the whole time, it can be a lot of fun, too.
For the post-spawn bite at Guntersville fish move out to ledges, deep weeds and rocks near the spawning grounds. At this point, soft-plastic swimbaits are a good choice, as is ripping a lipless crankbait through scattered weeds. Squarebill crankbaits also do some damage in water to about 4 feet deep at this time of year.
While the spring bite is clearly the big attraction at Guntersville, skipping weedless frogs across moss mats in the fall can be phenomenal when a big fish blows a hole in the mat to take the lure down in a welter of foam.
Pickwick, like Guntersville, is a Tennessee River impoundment. But unlike Guntersville, it has a very good smallmouth bass fishery — both in numbers and size — mostly in the first mile of water directly below Wilson dam.
This stretch of the lake is a lot more river than lake, with fast flowing rapids around long stretches of exposed water, as well as barely submerged boulders at some stages of water release. This highly oxygenated water, along with the steady flow of dizzied shad and other edibles coming through the dam, create perfect habitat for smallmouths, particularly in February and March when the water is chilly.
Anglers bounce jigs dressed with soft-plastic craws along the rocky bottom, or run small crankbaits and swimbaits down to bounce off the boulders. The fast-moving water creates a rapid drift through the runs, though those with powerful trolling motors and a knowledge of eddies can hold position. It's challenging fishing, but highly productive. Note that only smallies over 15-inches long are legal for harvest or weigh-ins throughout the TVA system in Alabama.
Pickwick is also noted for large largemouths, with Pickwick ranking 12th nationally as a bass fishery in a recent B.A.S.S. survey. The largemouth fishing is mostly downriver where the lake broadens out to several miles wide, with numerous large side bays stretching off into the hills.
Some of the very best action on the main lake is found at the tail end of the bars along the river channel, particularly where there are large shell beds. Big schools of shad often gather in these areas, and the bass home in on these baitfish. A crankbait or large swimbait is usually key — choose one that will run deep, ticking the bottom on occasion. Large flutter spoons also work well at Pickwick. When the action on faster moving baits slows, switching to a Carolina- or Texas-rigged crawfish or worm sometimes turns the fish on again.
As in all the TVA lakes, current is key at Pickwick. When the dam gates are open and the water starts to move, fish gang up on the bars and channel edges, usually over shell or rock bottom, and begin to feed — always be aware of current flow, which can be found at www.tva.com/Environment/Lake-Levels, when visiting these river impoundments.
Until about 10 years ago, this ultra-clear lake northwest of Birmingham was considered one of the toughest lakes in Alabama to fish, producing mostly small spotted bass, though it also had plenty of big stripers from state stockings. However, the illegal introduction of blueback herring has turned the lake into an outstanding bass fishery.
Today, there are more spotted bass, as well as bigger ones, in the lake than at any time since it was first impounded. Stripers and largemouths are also growing fast. And the pattern that works best makes it clear that the fish are homed in on the herring — cast a swimbait, deep-diving crankbait or a jigging spoon close to the herring schools to catch numerous spotted bass in the 4- to 5-pound class and stripers to around 20. Herring typically hold close to the many vertical rock banks along the lake, as well as off larger points and open water humps.
To be sure, state biologists have legitimate reasons for concern about the invasive species, as they say that herring compete for food with game fish in younger stages, and may in fact eat young game fish. The concern is that as the herring population continues to bloom, it will crash the bass fishery in the lake — largemouths are particularly susceptible, though spots seem to co-exist with the invaders.
Be sure to leave heavy tackle at home because of the clear water, and don't net the blueback herring for bait, it is highly illegal.
Lake Eufaula, sprawling over 45,000 acres on the border with Georgia, is a steady producer. Abernathy notes that in prior years, it was common for only a few fish over 5 pounds to be reported by bass clubs. But in 2014, that number skyrocketed to 221 bass of 5 pounds or more.
The spawn typically peaks around mid-March, which is the best time of year to connect with a big, heavy female. After spawning, fish typically move out to brushpiles and other cover in 8- to 10-foot depths to feed on shad and rebuild strength, before easing to deeper channels and humps as the weather heats up.
Eufaula is more affected by runoff than Guntersville and Lewis Smith because it has lots of relatively flat farm country around it; a big rain event can turn most of it very muddy overnight. The lake clears from the dam upstream, so best fishing is likely to be on the downstream arms right after a downpour.
The lake typically goes up 3 to 4 feet to summer pool in spring, which floods the shoreline weed beds and makes the tactics of flippin' and pitchin' very effective. In winter, the water goes down and the fish pull off the bank. Action then is likely to be found on stumps and brush in 4 to 8 feet of water.
Local experts say the shallows here warm very fast after a few warm and sunny days. Anytime the shallows get into the 60s, it can spark a major movement of hungry fish from the channels into the flats on Eufaula.
Lay Lake is a 12,000-acre impoundment of the Coosa River near Montgomery, which has been heavily stocked with Florida largemouth bass, particularly in the Beeswax Creek area. According to Abernathy, 50 percent of the fish in that part of the lake now have the fast-growing Florida genetics.
"It remains to be seen if these fish will eventually grow into Florida-type giants," said Abernathy. "Of course, we don't have the same habitat or the long growing season here, but these fish do have the potential to get significantly larger than our native largemouths over the years."
Lay, Mitchell and Jordon, all on the Coosa, are primarily narrow riverine lakes, and much of the action keys on strong current flow around bends, riprap groins, channel edges and humps for both largemouth and spotted bass.