April 04, 2018
Hundreds of lakes, rivers and streams provide abundant Alabama fishing opportunities for all kinds of tastes.
The combined length of Alabama streams, from tiny tributaries to major commercial arteries, measures an estimated 132,000 miles. That's more than halfway to the moon. On top of that, numerous lakes total more than 500,000 surface acres, not to mention uncountable ponds scattered across the state.
These lakes and streams are home to 38 percent of the freshwater fish species found in North America. Alabama anglers can catch many freshwater game species, including rainbow trout, without having to travel far.
One of the best smallmouth bass lakes in the nation, Pickwick Lake produced the Mississippi state record smallmouth, a 7-pound, 15-ounce fish. This 47,500-acre reservoir is in three states, running 53 miles along the Tennessee River from Wilson Dam in Florence to Pickwick Dam at Counce, Tenn. The lake retains its riverine character through Alabama, but spreads out in Mississippi.
"Pickwick is both a river and a lake," explained Jimmy Mason, bass pro from Rogersville. "At the upper part, from the Natchez Trace Bridge to Wilson Dam, it's a river. From the bridge toward Mississippi, it turns into more of a typical reservoir."
Smallmouth prefer more current, deeper water and rockier bottoms than largemouth bass. Although anglers can catch smallies anywhere in the system, the best fishing typically occurs in the rocky tailrace near Wilson Dam. From the dam to the Natchez Trace Bridge, the river flows around several islands and over rocky shoals, sandbars and other objects that create excellent smallmouth habitat.
When the water flows through the dam, current can kick off a feeding frenzy, with smallies waiting behind current breaks to snatch morsels flowing down the river.
"Typically, smallmouth go a little deeper and get in the eddies," Mason explained. "Smallmouth will stay in those eddies until it's time to spawn. In the spawning season, smallmouth get behind the gravel bars to look for sandy gravel flats out of the main flow. I like to fish close to the flow, but still outside of it. I look for anything that breaks the current, like a rock pile, sand and gravel bars or islands."
Smallmouth bass might hit anything that tempts a largemouth. In fact, Pickwick anglers often catch smallmouth and largemouth in the same areas with the same lures. Since smallmouth typically feed upon threadfin shad or crawfish, use baits that simulate these forage species, such as spinnerbaits, crankbaits, swimbaits, jigs or soft-plastic temptations. Drifting with the current and dropping live shad vertically just above the rocky bottom can also produce fish.
An Alabama license allows anglers to fish from dam to dam. A Tennessee or a Mississippi license only allows anglers to fish certain parts of the lake.
GUNTERSVILLE LARGEMOUTH BASS
Perennially atop any list of excellent bass destinations, Lake Guntersville produces many largemouths exceeding 10 pounds and countless fish in the 3- to 8-pound range. It even holds some big smallmouth and Kentucky spotted bass.
"Without a doubt, Lake Guntersville is one of the premier bass lakes in the nation," said Mike Iaconelli, former Bassmaster Classic champion. "It's an amazing numbers lake, but can also produce giant bass."
Guntersville snakes 75 miles along the Tennessee River through northeast Alabama into Tennessee. The largest lake in Alabama covers about 69,100 acres and drops to about 60-feet deep in places. Throughout the lake, vast flats grow thick with milfoil and hydrilla.
"Guntersville is such a great lake because it has so much grass," Iaconelli explained. "Most milfoil grows in 2 to 3 feet of water with some down to about 7-feet deep. The hydrilla goes all the way out to about 12 feet. People can catch bass out of hydrilla or milfoil, but I love to fish areas where those two grass types mix."
In the warm spring air, few lures can tempt bass hunkered down in thick grass like plastic frogs rigged weightless. Some anglers use 3/0 to 5/0 wide gap hooks with the points inserted into the plastic to make them weedless. Other frogs come with hooks already attached. These hooks generally turn upward so these baits can skitter across entangling cover. Either type can produce adrenaline-pumping action.
"Nothing is more exciting than a big fish blowing up on a topwater bait." quipped Jake Davis, Mid-South Bass Guide Service (www.midsouthbassguide.com). "In many places on Lake Guntersville, weeds get so thick that it's impossible to get any other bait besides a frog through it."
Some frogs slowly sink and others float. With floaters, the "hop and pop" technique works effectively. With this method, let the frog sit on the surface a few moments and then pop it vigorously. Pause again. When approaching a thick grassy patch or lily pad, "crawl" the frog over the vegetation and again pause briefly.
With sinking frogs, use the "stop, sink and go" approach. When the frog hits an open pocket, let it sink a few seconds before pulling it back to the surface or across pad tops. As the frog slowly sinks, its appendages twitch and quiver, driving bass nuts.
WEST POINT STRIPERS
In the right spot, action can come fast and furious on West Point Lake as striped bass gather in great concentrations over deep holes. Anglers typically place several rods in holders to fish multiple baits. When one fish takes a bait, it kicks off a feeding frenzy as others compete.
"We need to keep baits in the water," remarked Guide Joe Mines, (www.joeymines.com). "As long as the bait stays in the water, fish stay interested. If we don't drop baits back down fast, stripers lose interest and go elsewhere looking for a meal."
On the Chattahoochee River, West Point Lake covers 25,900 acres straddling the Alabama-Georgia line near LaGrange, Ga.
The lake runs about 35 miles along the river channel and drops to more than 90 feet in places. The deep water near the dam typically holds the most stripers.
Mines usually fishes with live shad just off the bottom. Stripers often congregate near ledges, humps, old roadbeds, creek channels or other bottom contours about 20- to 30-feet deep. Sometimes, he vertically jigs spoons.
"West Point Lake has an abundance of stripers because it has a tremendous baitfish population," Mines explained. "I like to use a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce jigging spoon. After finding the fish, get directly over them and drop the spoon straight down to the bottom. At the bottom, barely move the spoon. Don't jerk it or make wide strokes. Just barely bump it off the bottom about 6 inches."
However, sometimes, stripers start schooling near the surface.
When that happens, he breaks out the bucktail jigs. After the fish dive deep again, he may drop the spoon down to the bottom again.
MILLERS FERRY CRAPPIE
Millers Ferry Lake consistently ranks among the best crappie lakes in the nation. Officially called William "Bill" Dannelly Reservoir, the Alabama River impoundment covers 27,280 acres of Dallas and Wilcox counties near Camden. The lake offers anglers about 500 shoreline miles, including about 105 miles of the old river channel.
"Millers Ferry Lake is one of the best crappie fishing destinations in southern Alabama," proclaimed Dave Armstrong, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources biologist. "The lake generally produces good numbers per angler trip. In surveys we've done, about 15 percent of the crappie we collect in Millers Ferry are 12-inches long or longer with some in the 15- to 16-inch range."
Millers Ferry provides abundant cover for crappie. Depending upon water temperature, crappie in April might head up on flats or stay in the deeper river channels. Many anglers follow the old river channel, scanning with electronics to locate brush piles, fallen trees or other structure.
For deeper fish, send down a jig baited with a live minnow to brush piles or next to drop-off edges. When crappie move up on the flats, tempt them with live minnows or jigs under slip corks in 6 to 8 feet of water. Let live bait swim about 3 feet under the cork.
"I like to use both jigs and minnows," said Joe Dunn. "I play around with different colors to see what fish want, but I like blue with some chartreuse or electric chicken when the water is clear. Popsicle is another hot color. It's kind of a bluish purple with some pink. We catch some 1.5- to 2-pound crappie just about every time we go. Some people catch some 3-pounders."
MOBILE-TENSAW DELTA CATFISH
A labyrinth of rivers, tributaries and wetlands, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta spreads across about 250,000 acres along the Mobile and Tensaw rivers near Mobile. The delta can produce giant blue and flathead catfish, but few anglers intentionally target these river monsters.
"Quite often, I'll fish on a Saturday night and not see another boat," commented Glenn Flowers with Flathead Catfish Hunters Guide Service (www.cathunters.net). "The lower Mobile-Tensaw Delta covers a lot of water and it's full of fish. The entire system is a very fertile resource with lots of baitfish, mussels, shad and bluegills for catfish to eat. The waters around Fisher's Island are pretty good for catfish. Bottle Creek is another good area. The northern end of the Tensaw River is another good place to go."
Blue and flathead cats can both exceed 100 pounds. Blues can tolerate salinity better than other catfish species, so they thrive in brackish estuaries.
"Mobile-Tensaw Delta system has a phenomenal amount of blue cats," Flowers said. "We catch a lot of 40- to 50-pound blues. The system also produces many 60- to 70-pound fish. The Alabama River has a lot of big flatheads. I heard of some up to 93 pounds."
To catch big catfish, anglers can't just pull up to a bank, throw out a bobber holding up a glob of nightcrawlers and expect to catch a monster. With such a rig, they might catch some small blue catfish and channel cats, but for giant whiskerfish, anglers need to specifically target them with large baits and heavy tackle.
Blue cats eat almost anything, but big ones prefer fresh fish. They eat live mullets, skipjack and gizzard shad. They also slurp up fish chunks off the bottom. Voracious predators, flatheads typically eat live prey, such as bluegills, bullheads and other fish. They hang around woody cover where they can ambush anything that swims past.
Of course, these suggestions don't cover all the fishing opportunities available across Alabama. However, they might give sportsmen some ideas on where to fish this spring.