Ever caught a five-bass bag that beat 25 pounds? Neither have I — but a surprising number of anglers in north Alabama have in recent years, thanks to the amazing productivity of two lakes on the Tennessee River chain: Guntersville and Pickwick.
Though the lakes are separated by nearly a hundred miles and by two other lakes (Wheeler and Wilson), they fish similarly. And both are likely to produce a whole lot of quality bass this spring.
HOW TO FISH THE BIG G
Guntersville looks particularly promising after several tournaments there last year produced numerous 25-pound sacks. All those 5-pounders will be close to a pound heavier in 2019, and there’s likely to be a sprinkling of 7- to 8-pounders mixed in. No other lake in the state so consistently turns out quality largemouths.
Pre- And Post-Spawn
Guntersville benefits from an amazing variety of bass habitat, including thousands of acres of hydrilla, milfoil and coontail, and the biggest problem for visiting anglers is that it all looks good. The larger fish, however, tend to school tightly, and if you’re off by a hundred feet you’re out of luck.
Finding funnels that concentrate the fish as they move into and out of spawning areas can be a key to big catches pre- and post-spawn, as evidenced by B.A.S.S. pro Randy Howell’s legendary 29-2 catch at the Spring Creek Bridge. He caught his fish almost without moving his boat to win the 2014 Bassmaster Classic. (The Livingston Lures “Howeller” was the soon-to-be-famous crankbait.)
There are a lot of these causeway bridges on the lake, thus a lot of funnels — be there when the bass are pouring through and you may have the fishing day of a lifetime. Spots to try include the Highway 69 bridge on Brown’s Creek, the above-mentioned Spring Creek Bridge on 431, the Highway 79 Bridge at North Sauty, the Highway 227 bridges at Short Creek and Town Creek, and the Highway 67 bridge at South Sauty.
Sometimes the fish are out in the current or under the span; sometimes they’re on the riprap on either side. A medium-running crankbait or squarebill is usually the ticket for fishing these areas, either in shad colors, or in “Guntersville Orange,” which is a sort of dark pumpkin color favored locally. The notorious multi-hook Alabama Rig also works well, for those willing to mess with all those stickers — swimmertail jigs in shad colors, about 4 to 5 inches long, usually do best on these rigs.
Tips For Fishing The Spawn At Guntersville
Bass pro Gerald Swindle lives near the lake and is a master at catching the fish in April, when most are in the shallows in spawning mode.
“The fish at Guntersville see a lot of lures during the spawn,” Swindle told me. “So many times you just have to tease them into taking, maybe keep changing lures until you find one they want, change presentations or angles or action — eventually you find the combination that gets them to bite, especially the big females.”
Swindle said that unweighted soft plastics, wacky-rigged or Texas-rigged, are among his favorites during the spawn.
“When you’re fishing bass you can see, you may have to pull off and rest them for a while to get them to bite after they’re turned down a lure or two,” said Swindle. “It can be frustrating, but if you stick to it and keep a low profile so the fish don’t see you, eventually you can fool most of them.”
The major creek-bays are the prime spawning areas, with North Sauty and South Sauty two of the most productive. Town Creek, Minky Creek and Seiboldt Creek are smaller but also turn on at some time each spring, and Brown’s Creek, on the west side of the town of Guntersville, is huge and highly productive. The bay known locally as “Alred’s,” adjacent U.S. 431 just north of the river channel bridge, is also a great spot for spawners. (The ramp here may require a half-mile walk for use during prime time due to limited parking, however.)
As in most bass lakes, the bass pick spawning spots with a bit of extra cover — a stump, stickup, laydown, rockpile, boat dock or other structure will be a bass magnet in spring. With normal rainfall, Guntersville will be clear in the shallows in spring, allowing easy sight-fishing. But that not only goes for you but for everybody else.
The trick is to spot the beds, mark them on your GPS, and then go back an hour later, move into range in complete silence and then cast to them from maximum range—your odds go way up when you stay well back from the beds. (Don’t have a GPS? Cut short lengths of wild bamboo and stick them on the edge of the beds to mark the spots when you return. Just don’t forget to remove them after you fish the spots or everyone else will know where the fish are holding, too.)
Two major places to stay here are Guntersville State Park Lodge, which has lakefront cabins as well as a large mountain-top resort hotel and restaurant overlooking the lake, and Goose Pond Colony near Scottsville, with a complete tackle shop as well as multiple ramps and lakeside cottages. Both locations also offer golf courses, if you want to take a day off the water, and Guntersville State Park also has a zipline running down the mountain for the kids — or for you, if you’re adventurous. There are numerous boat and kayak rentals around the lake — Town Creek Fishing Center is one of the best. If you need tackle, Waterfront Tackle, on Highway 79 between Scottsboro and Guntersville, has an amazing selection, as does Paul’s, on Highway 69 west of Guntersville.
PICKING UP BASS ON PICKWICK
Lake Pickwick, which begins at the Lake Wilson Dam and meanders through Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, has an interesting mix of smallmouths and spots along with the largemouth—in fact, it’s one of the best lakes in the Southeast to connect with a smallmouth of 5 pounds or more.
The lower lake spans several broad valleys where the channel plunges to 25 to 35 feet, but the broad shoulders are so shallow they become fully weed-bound as warm weather arrives. Winding through these weedbeds are submerged creeks and ditches, and these areas, particularly on channel swings, can get stacked up with largemouth during the pre- and post-spawn migrations. It’s occasionally possible, in late March and early April, to set up on one of these spots and catch a dozen or more fish in the 3 to 4-pound class on lipless crankbaits like the Redeye Shad or Rat-L-Trap, or on squarebills like the Bill Lewis Echo.
Once the spawn begins — as early as mid-March, as late as the second week of April, depending on weather — the largemouth will be in water 1 to 4 feet deep.
Pickwick is noted for occasionally producing some truly enormous bass; in 2012, local angler Lance Walker caught a slob that measured 27 1/8 inches long and had a girth of 24 inches. The formula puts the bass at somewhere between 14.5 to 15.7 pounds — Walker photographed and released the fish, so we’ll never know for sure. Plenty of 10-pounders have also come from the lake in recent years.
McFarland Park has the largest set of ramps and docks on the lake, and it’s the origin of most of the big tournaments. Natchez Trace Boat Ramp is a good mid-lake launch location, while on the lower lake, J.P. Coleman State Park north of Iuka, Mississippi and Pickwick Landing State Park north of Red Sulphur Springs, TN have large, high-quality ramps, waterfront lodges and cabins, camp grounds and restaurants—they’re ideal spots to hang your hat during a visit.
Smallmouths At Pickwick
If you want smallmouths, the choice is easy—concentrate pre-spawn on the first half-mile of the river directly below the dam that stretches across the river from Florence on the north side to Sheffield on the south side. The terrain below this dam is shallow, jumbled rock, holes and cuts, particularly on the north side of Jackson Island, which sits about in the middle of the flow.
It’s ideal smallmouth habitat and combined with the steady flow of baitfish through the turbines it creates a feeding station like no other when the generators are running. (Note there’s a fine line between running too little to turn on the bite and running too much for safe boat operation—visit https://www.tva.gov/Environment/Lake-Levels/Wilson for the daily generation schedule.)
Prime time for the smallmouths is pre-spawn, late February and March, but some big ones are also caught in early April. Captain Steve Hacker is one of the best-known smallmouth guides here, and he’s particularly expert in catching big fish when the run is on below the dam.
“Fish with lures that will tick bottom, like jigs and swimbaits with enough weight to get down in the current,” advises Hacker. “Cast upstream and let the water bring the lure back to you or cast across the current and let it sweep into the holes.”
Hacker also likes crankbaits, selecting those that bump bottom depending on which section of the tailrace he’s fishing, with bigger lures for the holes, smaller lures on the ridges.
Muscle Shoals Boat Ramp, on the south side of the flow off Reservation Road, is the nearest ramp to this action.
Smallmouth move out of the fast water to spawn, usually the first week of April. Captain Roger Stegall is known for finding the big ones then, with some of the best action coming on downriver creeks that run out of the steep, wooded valleys where the shorelines are gravel and rock rather than mud. A swim jig or standard jig that can be “swept” in short, sideways pulls along bottom is one of his favorite rigs.
When the smallies are moving into the bedding areas as well as when they’re leaving, it’s possible to connect with them on topwaters, spinnerbaits and crankbaits, and the action can sometimes be fast — smallmouth are aggressive feeders when they’re schooled up.
Licenses At Pickwick
Since the lake winds through three states, fishing license questions obviously arise. Fortunately, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee have reciprocal agreements — if you’re licensed in one, you’re good for all three on this lake. The only place this does not apply is south of the Southern Railroad Bridge on Big Bear Creek.
TROLLING FOR CRAPPIE AT PICKWICK AND GUNTERSVILLE
Most North Alabama crappie anglers head to the shorelines to fish for spawning crappie around brush, laydowns and other cover in April, but smart anglers on the Tennessee River lakes do well by slow-trolling offshore around shad schools at depths of 10 to 15 feet, particularly on the bays created by larger feeder creeks like Bear Creek and Yellow Creek at Pickwick, and South Sauty and Town Creek at Guntersville. The numbers may not be as high as those produced by shoreline anglers, but the average size is larger on these offshore fish, with 12-inchers fairly common.
Lure choice is a matter of depth — the idea is to select a jig that will get down within 2 to 3 feet of the bottom at a speed of about 1 to 2 mph, the lowest speed on most electric trolling motors. Weights of 1/8- to 1/32-ounce are usually best, with a 1- to 2-inch swimmer tail. Of course, letting out more line gets the lure deeper, as does choosing a thinner, lighter line: 6-pound braid, with a 3-foot length of 8-pound mono as leader, is a good choice.
Offshore crappie most often are found around schools of shad, which are easy to locate on even basic sonar in either lake. The crappie generally hang just under the shad, and when your lures go through the bait, the rod tips bend.