Live Bait For Wilson Smallmouths

There is no better way to tempt a game fish than with live bait. If it's bronzebacks you are after, there is no better place to cast that bait than Wilson Lake.

Jerry Crook displays the kind of smallmouth bass he has been catching from Wilson Lake for years.
Photo by John E. Phillips

The water boiled only a few inches from flooding over the top of the gunwale into the old cypress boat where I sat on a cushion in the bottom, wearing a life preserver. I used a Penny's dog food can to bail water from the leaky rental boat that we had paid a dollar a day to use. The backdrop of the scene was provided by the hum of my daddy's 3.5 Wizard outboard engine, which started with a cotton crank cord.

Those first memories of fishing for smallmouth bass in the upper reaches of Wilson Lake, just below Wheeler Dam, are treasured ones. In more-recent years, I remember a giant smallmouth breaking my line in the air on a jump right off the stern of the boat, the fish soaring high and coming close as it escaped. I can't remember a year of not having gone to Wilson Lake in search of big smallmouths.

During those years, the best stringer of smallmouths I ever saw was caught by Nolen Shivers of Birmingham and one of his fishing buddies. That was in the late 1970s, and they had 10 smallmouth bass in the cooler that weighed a total of 98 pounds on the scale. Back in those days, fishermen viewed smallmouths as eating fish rather than a prize you played with and threw back.

In more recent years, my No. 1 fishing buddy and mentor on Wilson Lake has been Jerry Crook of Birmingham. He guides on the lake and has been fishing primarily live bait below Wheeler Dam for more than 25 years.


To catch smallmouths on live bait below Wheeler Dam, drift with the current. Then your boat and the bait are moving at about the same speed. This makes the bait swim just above the river floor and occasionally tap the bottom.

"If you're hanging the bottom too much, you have too much lead on," Crook notes, but adds that "if you're not touching the bottom and not getting any bites, you don't have on enough lead."

Most anglers fish for smallmouths on two areas of the tailrace -- high and low. When you fish high, you motor your boat up to the face of the dam in front of the turbines and drift back to the hydroelectric power line towers about a quarter-mile downstream. When you fish low, you start your drift at the towers or at the lower end of the island that is just south of the mid-point of the dam. From either starting point, drift downstream for a quarter-mile to a half-mile.

"When you're fishing high, you're looking for the 'slurp' line," Crook says. "The slurp line is where dead water meets fast water, or where two converging currents from two separate turbines hit each other. When those two currents collide, they create a slack-water groove, and those grooves, or slurp lines, are most often where you locate smallmouths."

A west wind that blows harder than 7 or 8 miles per hour offers the most difficult weather condition when you're fishing for smallmouths here.

"When you have that west wind, your bait will be drifting at the same speed of the water," Crook explains. "However, that wind will hold you back and stall the boat. Then the lead on your line will cause the bait to drop faster than it should, and you'll stay hung up the whole time the wind is blowing. You won't be able to feel the bite, you won't know where your bait is in relationship to the bottom, and on a west wind you're not going to have a very good day of fishing as a general rule."


Jerry Crook always uses spinning tackle for this angling, and he suggests keeping a finger on the line while you fish.

"When you feel that shad jumping around, you know something is about to eat him, but you can't feel the shad moving if you don't have your finger on the line," Crook instructs.

When the smallmouth takes the bait, Crook advises that you drop your rod tip, let the fish take the slack out of the line, and then use a sweeping motion to set the hook. But be aware that hooking a big smallmouth does not mean you will boat that fish.

"Usually when you hook a smallmouth, it will come up, jump and then dive for the bottom," Crook says.

Most anglers lose their fish right after the bass makes that run for the bottom.

"The smallmouth will turn around and run at the boat," Crook relates. "You have to take up line quickly. Just as the smallmouth gets to the boat, it almost always dives under the boat."

When the fish heads beneath the boat and turns sideways, it combines its strength and the force of the current to often break the line or pull the hook free.


To learn more about fishing for smallmouth bass on Wilson Lake go online to Next follow the prompts for Fishing, then Reservoirs and finally Wilson Lake.

To book a day of guided fishing for smallmouths on the impoundment, contact Jerry Crook at (205) 608-0933 or (205) 243-6198.


"To solve this problem, I flip the anti-reverse switch on my reel so I can reel the spinning wheel backwards and give up line," Crook explains.

That allows him to not only maintain pressure on the fish, but also to be able to play out more line as needed and at a faster rate than the drag would allow.

If you manage to compensate for the hard charge of the smallmouth under the boat, do not think the fight is over. A big smallmouth usually makes two or three such runs downcurrent or under the boat. And these fish often suddenly go airborne anytime during the battle.

"I've had on a smallmouth I've been fighting under the boat come up and jump in the boat behind me!" Crook noted.


"The threadfin shad is the natural forage of the smallmouths at Wheeler," Jerry Crook says. "The threadfins in this area of the Tennessee River seem to grow faster and get bigger than they do on any other lake in the state."

Ordinarily, you can use a cast net to catch the threadfins where they run in schools along the riprap on the south side the lake at the dam. Unfortunately, anglers find getting threadfins below Wheeler Dam in June difficult. This is because these shad are very tough to keep alive in captivity, so bait shops do not sell them. In the wild, this is the time when they usually go up the feeder creeks to spawn.

If you cannot locate live shad, Crook suggests making do with live minnows, which you can purchase at bait shops. The most convenient bait shop is at Fishermen's Resort, just below the dam and about a half-mile inside Big Mance Creek.

"I fish the shiners or the shad on 10-pound-test line," Crook explains. "I use plain shank hooks, and the bait dictates the size of the hook. Depending on the size of the bait, I fish with either a No. 1/0 or a No. 2/0 hook. I hook the live shad or minnow from the bottom lip up through the top lip. About one to two feet up the line from the bait, I'll have a No. 4 split-shot. Depending on the current, I may use from one to three split-shot up the line."

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

Recommended for You

Fishing How-To

Your Guide for the Best Catfish Baits

G&F Staff

If you've been catching catfish with the same method for years, it's time to change it up and...


Upon Further Review: 70-Year-Old Catfish Record Voided

G&F Online Staff - May 22, 2019

Experts agree record channel cat caught in 1949 was actually a blue catfish.

Trout & Salmon

How to Catch the Biggest Trout in the Stream

David Paul Williams

Several factors need to be evaluated before reaching a conclusion about what fly, lure or...

See More Recommendations

Trending Stories


Upon Further Review: 70-Year-Old Catfish Record Voided

G&F Online Staff - May 22, 2019

Experts agree record channel cat caught in 1949 was actually a blue catfish.


How To Make Your Own Catfish Dough Bait

Keith Sutton - August 04, 2015

When it comes to fishing baits, you won't find a more unusual variety than the strange brews...


Find and Fish Bluegill Beds Efficiently

Terry Madewell - May 22, 2019

You can catch bluegill faster with these strategies.

See More Stories

More Bass


Small Waters, Monster Bass

John N. Felsher

Think small when looking for big bass this spring in Mississippi & Louisiana.


How Well Do You Know Black Bass?

Pete Robbins - June 10, 2019

It's more than largemouths, smallies and spots. Here's a guide to America's black-bass...


32-Year-Old Brook Trout Record Falls in Va.

G&F Online Staff - May 30, 2019

New record longnose gar was also reported in Virginia.

See More Bass

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.