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Chasing Tailrace Trophies at South's Top Smallmouth Lake

At Tennessee's Pickwick Lake, live-baiting for bass is the name of the game.

Chasing Tailrace Trophies at South's Top Smallmouth Lake

Smallmouth bass in the 5- to 8-pound range, and occasionally even bigger, are common at Pickwick. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

Even from hundreds of yards away, we could feel the power of the roaring water gushing through just two gates in the dam and churning white as it flowed over rocky shoals.

"Fishing is always better when the dam is generating current," says Brian Barton, a fishing guide from Muscle Shoals, Ala. "Anyone fishing when the dam is not generating current is not fishing at the prime time."

Growing up fishing brackish marshes and sluggish bayous meandering through humid cypress swamps on the Gulf Coast, we called any moving water "tide," and it changed directions twice a day. Here, even the powerful outboard motor struggled to hold its place as we idled closer to Wilson Dam. The massive concrete structure separates Pickwick Lake from Wilson Lake at Florence, Ala. Pickwick continues another 53 miles along the Tennessee River to the Pickwick Dam at Counce, Tenn.


Pickwick can produce monster largemouth bass, including a 14.58-pound fish caught in 2012, but most people come for the giant smallmouths. Each year, anglers catch brownies in the 5- to 8-pound range and occasionally bigger ones. Just across the Wilson Dam in Wilson Lake, Owen Smith set the Alabama state smallmouth record with a 10.5-pounder in 1950. Downstream, Thomas Wilbanks caught the Mississippi state record at 7 pounds, 15 ounces while fishing Yellow Creek, a Pickwick tributary, in 1987.

Anglers can catch lunker largemouths and smallmouths anywhere on Pickwick Lake, but for huge smallmouths, Barton likes to stay within a few hundred yards of Wilson Dam. In the tailrace, he drifts past numerous rock piles, sandbars, humps and other current breaks that might hold fish.

Smallmouth and largemouth bass both commonly hide near obstructions and face upstream as they look for any succulent temptations carried by the current. When the Wilson Dam gates open, current dislodges bottom-dwelling creatures and stirs up baitfish, kicking off a feeding frenzy. When bass see something they like, they dash out to snatch those delicious morsels before returning to their lairs by the structure.

"Current concentrates bass toward the top or the head of structures, making it much easier to find them and catch them," Barton says. "A smallmouth will nose right into the current. It will get in front of a rock pile and fight the current when it's in a feeding mode. Largemouths typically like to get behind a rock or some other current break to wait for something to come floating by them. When the current kicks on, shad school up tighter and that puts bass in a feeding mode. Without current, fish spread out and can be hard to find."


More accustomed to tossing largemouth lures into lily pad patches, weed beds and fallen trees in shallow, placid waters, I eagerly anticipated Barton showing me a different way to fish. To any hungry bass, nothing looks more enticing than something it already wants to eat and expects to find, like a struggling threadfin shad.

"Fishing with live bait is a highly effective way to catch both largemouths and smallmouths," Barton says. "In tournaments, people can't fish with live baits or troll because those techniques are so effective. As a guide, I'm not under those restrictions, so I can fish any way that's legal. I always want to fish the way that puts the biggest fish in my boat to make my clients happy. When bait fishing for bass, people get a bent rod so much more often than when fishing with artificials."

Early on the day I fished with him, Barton threw his cast net for fresh shad. With a livewell full of assorted baitfish, we motored as close to the dam as the roiling currents allowed. Then, Barton rigged up two medium-action spinning rods with just hooks and no weights. Fishing with reels spooled with 8- or 10-pound-test high-visibility green monofilament line so we could better detect bites, we each hooked a live shad through the lips.

When drifting threadfin shad, hook the bait through the lips to allow it to swim naturally. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

When drifting, a shad hooked that way will swim more naturally downstream. However, when he spots bass attacking shad on the surface, Barton inserts the hook just behind a baitfish's dorsal fin and under the spine to give it the more erratic action that a wounded fish makes.

"I prefer to fish with threadfin shad, but I'll use whatever we can put in the baitwell," he says. "On the Tennessee River, shad spawn in April and May. They reach their peak size in the spring before they spawn, so I use bigger baitfish, about 4 to 5 inches long, on a Number 1 or 1/0 hook. In the fall, I like to use 2- to 3-inch shad on a Number 4 hook."

We tossed our baitfish as far upstream as we could cast them and let the current do the rest. Ideally, a baitfish should hover just off the bottom and move at the same speed as the current. During an extremely strong flow, Barton attaches a split shot to the line about a foot or two above the hook to keep the bait close to the bottom.

"Most people think fishing with live bait is just ‘idiot fishing,'" Barton says. "Anyone can just throw it out and drag it behind the boat until a fish bites, right? That's not true. There is an art to bait fishing. I match the weight to the current flow. The size of the bait, line size and weight all need to match up, so the rig does what it's supposed to do. If I use too much weight, it will hang up. If I don't use enough weight, the bait will float above the strike zone."


Before long, both of our rods doubled over with big fish. At times, even a giant bass might just slurp in a bait. Instead, these two hammered those juicy shad. After vigorous fights, Barton landed a largemouth and I caught a smallie. Pickwick straddles the ranges of many fish species, so anglers never know what might hit when a bait touches the water on any given day.

"I fish for largemouths the same as I do for smallmouths near the Wilson Dam," Barton says. "Frequently, we catch a largemouth and a smallmouth right next to each other on the same structure. Sometimes, we'll mostly catch smallmouths and other times mostly largemouths. We've had days when we've caught more than nine species. Besides smallmouths and largemouths, when fishing live shad on the Tennessee River, we might also catch spotted bass, drum, buffalo, flathead, blue or channel catfish, crappies, white bass, stripers, possibly even a walleye, sauger or yellow perch and other species."

When the dam isn't generating current, Barton makes his own by pushing slowly downriver with the trolling motor. Pickwick Lake also contains ancient, now submerged, Indian mounds made from discarded mussel shells. During periods of slack current, the guide frequently anchors around shell mounds, rock piles, old jetties or other structures and fishes live shad on a Carolina rig. He slips a 3/4- to 1-ounce sinker on the line and ties a 3- to 3 1/2-foot fluorocarbon leader to a swivel. As the line slips through the sinker, a baitfish can swim more freely. Barton tosses the rig right behind or as close to structure as possible.

"Carolina-rigging is a good way to fish a rock pile, shell mound or other structure when the current isn't moving," Barton says. "Fish will usually be in a small area around those types of structure. When I see some fish on the electronics, but they are not biting, I'll scoop out 4 or 5 shad from the livewell and toss them into the water as chum. That usually gets bass stirred up. The fish will come up to the surface and hit the shad."



Downstream toward Mississippi, the lake widens and spreads out into a typical mid-South reservoir with numerous points, islands and feeder creeks. Pickwick anglers can also fish Bay Springs Lake, which covers about 6,700 acres near Tishomingo, Miss. The only lake entirely within Mississippi containing smallmouth bass, Bay Springs Lake connects to Pickwick through Yellow Creek.

You might also fish on the upstream side of Wilson Dam. Wilson Lake runs 15 miles from the Wilson Dam to the Wheeler Dam near Rogersville, Ala.

Anglers can check the Pickwick, Wilson and Wheeler generation schedules at To book an adventure with Barton, call 256-412-0969 or visit


The region offers plenty of sightseeing attractions for when you’re not chasing bass.

Pickwick Lake touches three states: Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. An Alabama fishing license allows anglers to fish from the Wilson Dam to the Pickwick Dam. A Tennessee or a Mississippi license only allows anglers to fish certain parts of the lake. For Alabama license information, visit

While in northern Alabama, you can find food, lodging and other facilities in Florence on the north side of Pickwick Lake or in Sheffield, Muscle Shoals and Tuscumbia on the south side.

Pay homage to hunting dogs at the Coon Dog Cemetery. (Photo by John N. Felsher)

For the adventurous, spend the night in a grain silo converted into a condominium at the Seven Springs Lodge near Tuscumbia. While staying at the lodge, head down into the canyon to visit the Rattlesnake Saloon ( and dine inside an ancient natural rock outcropping. The western-style saloon offers such items as snake eyes and tails (stuffed jalapeno peppers and green beans), rattlesnake eggs (fried jalapeno poppers) and monster burgers.

Music lovers might consider a visit the Alabama Music Hall of Fame ( in Tuscumbia. Visitors can also see where Helen Keller was born ( During the summer, Tuscumbia holds a Helen Keller Festival to honor the amazing woman.

Not far from Tuscumbia, pay homage to hunting dogs at the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard, more commonly known as the Coon Dog Cemetery. Open to the public, this sacred ground on Freedom Hills Wildlife Management Area near Cherokee honors hundreds of coon dogs buried there.

For area information, contact the Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau ( or Florence-Lauderdale Tourism at

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