West Bama Bassin'
September 28, 2010
The lakes on the lower Warrior and Tombigbee River drainage provide plenty of fishing water. Here's what the bass action is like in July on these reservoirs. (July 2008)
Shan Schoenrock of Aliceville caught this 8-pound largemouth from Aliceville Lake on the lower Tenn-Tom Waterway.
Photo courtesy of Shan Schoenrock.
Summer patterns for bass on the lakes of the lower Warrior and Tombigbee rivers are as predictable as the weather in July. The methods and techniques for finding and catching bass this month rely on the tremendous numbers of baitfish found throughout the lakes.
As a result, most bass easily satisfy their hunger by waiting for prey to pass within their target zone, while others -- often smaller fish of similar size -- form schools to follow shad in open water. Both feed heavily, but the former use less energy.
The mystery lies not in summer patterns but in being in the right place at the right time. The abundance of forage reduces competition for food, so discriminating bass become more difficult to catch. Get it right, though, and the action is as hot as fishing in a hatchery pond.
"In July of last year," reported Shan Schoenrock of Aliceville, "I caught over 100 bass in one morning on Gainesville. It was incredible! I had three or four days where I caught bass on every cast. The best times are the first few hours of daylight and the last two hours in the evening."
Schoenrock is a well-known winning tournament angler who competes in open tournaments. His amazing success on Gainesville doesn't represent a typical day on the water, yet it does show what's possible on Gainesville, Aliceville, Warrior, Demopolis and Coffeeville reservoirs when everything comes together.
Between Aliceville and Demopolis lakes on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, Gainesville Lake stretches for nearly 47 miles from dam to dam. Its 6,400 acres lie north of Interstate 59 and west of Tuscaloosa. In addition to the Tombigbee, Gainesville is fed by seven creeks and the Sipsey River.
Gainesville is a river-run lake with limited backwater areas and 200 miles of shoreline. To straighten the winding waterway for barge traffic, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged eight cutoffs, which added a few miles of shoreline, and enhanced the habitat in the remaining horseshoe bends.
"If I had to choose a favorite," Schoenrock said, "it would be Gainesville. It is currently producing more and bigger fish." He credits the lake's superior fishing to a lack of pressure from anglers, especially tournament fishermen. Even so, winning tournament weights decease to just above a 3-pound average in summer.
The summer pattern Schoenrock used to generate those high numbers of bass works not only at Gainesville but also at any river-run lake with an inundated river channel. "Look for an old river ledge with stumps or an area where erosion has created a hump in 6 to 8 feet of water," he offered. "The best places are a combination of humps with stumps. Often, water has removed the dirt below the stumps, but the roots are still holding in the firm bottom. If you could see underwater, it looks like a hotel for fish."
As long as this structure or cover is close to deep water, Schoenrock said, it doesn't matter whether it's in a bend of the river or on a straight run. Nor does current matter for the pattern to work. "You can find these places with a depthfinder," he explained, "but often I find them by keeping my eyes open. I've found many good fishing holes by watching for fish busting the surface."
According to Schoenrock, you find humps along the edge of the river channel covered with hydrilla or milfoil. These hold fish -- but it's better if the humps can't be seen to passing anglers. "Avoid visible cover," he cautioned. "By July, fish in visible cover have seen just about every bait imaginable. It's hard to do, but try to find places not fished by every passing angler."
Schoenrock's lures for fishing humps include DT-6 and DT-10 crankbaits by Rapala and 10-inch worms rigged Carolina- or Texas-style. All are fished on 12-pound-test monofilament. The Carolina rig has a 4-foot leader with a 1/2-ounce sinker, while the Texas rig has a 1/4-ounce pegged sinker.
"To trigger strikes, try to run the crankbait into the stumps," said Schoenrock. "And if the fish are suspended, the long leader on the Carolina rig often triggers a bite."
The Corps has seven public boat ramps on Gainesville. Schoenrock recommended Cochrane Recreation Area for the upper end, Vienna Access Area midlake, and Long's Landing on the lower end.
Upriver from Gainesville, Aliceville Lake is the first reservoir in Alabama on the Tombigbee River as it enters the state. For the 15 miles from the Stennis Lock and Dam in Columbus, Miss., to Hairston Bend Cut-Off, the 8,300-acre lake is riverine. At that point, the reservoir rises beyond the riverbanks to create expansive grass flats with an abundance of wood cover. It then meanders another 13 miles before reaching the lock and dam at Pickensville. The lake's shoreline totals 148 miles.
Nearly 10 years have passed since largemouth bass virus swept through the state. According to Jay Haffner, District III fisheries biologist, LMBV hit Aliceville hard. Fortunately, the fishery recovered, and now ranks as one of the top five lakes in overall quality in the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries' Bass Anglers Information Team report.
"Aliceville has rebounded and has rebounded nicely," Haffner stated. "The reservoir has terrific habitat. Historically, it has always yielded some very big bass, and I think it will continue to do so."
This month, Shan Schoenrock's primary Aliceville pattern is exactly the same as the one he goes with at Gainesville. But early in the morning, he may fish a topwater lure. The early-morning bite is often critical to winning a summer tournament, he said. "By July, most of the aggressive fish are chasing shad around the river to places where they can surround them to feed," the angler explained.
With large balls of shad roving the lake, it's not at all surprising that bass follow bait, but Aliceville's big bass hold on structure rather than forage in open water. Accordingly, Schoenrock heads to underwater humps to work a topwater lure in the stillness of first light.
"Always keep a topwater lure and a crankbait ready," he recommended. "If small fish are feeding on the surface, often bigger fish hold around them. Fan-cast with a crankbait to catch those bigger fish."
Schoenrock's topwater lure is a walk-the-dog bait, a Sammy by Luck Craft in sizes 100 or 115 that he fishes on 12-pound-test mono.
Creek mouths are another key structure for early-morning topwater fishing. Fish often feed on the surface above dropoffs created by the creek flowing into the river. Schoenrock usually positions his boat over the river channel and makes long casts toward the creek.
Since it's summer, expect Aliceville's winning tournament weights to hit the same 3-pound average as is turned out at Gainesville -- although you never know when an angler may weigh in a 7-pounder caught in the morning.
To fish Alabama's section of Aliceville Lake, launch your boat at the Raleigh Ryan Access Area on the west side of the river across from Pickensville.
Downriver from Gainesville, the Corps created Demopolis Lake by damming the Tombigbee River a couple of miles west of the city of Demopolis and just below the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior rivers. The lake extends 53 miles upstream on the former and 48 miles on the latter. Nearly all of these miles are riverine.
As the largest reservoir in the Tombigbee-Black Warrior drainage, Demopolis covers 10,000 acres and offers 500 miles of shoreline. Amazingly, this run-of-the-river lake provides exceptional habitat.
"It's my favorite lake," Haffner said, "because of its diverse habitat. Demopolis has more creeks per river mile, more backwaters -- and it has plenty of laydowns and weeds. The weeds along the shoreline are abundant, but nowhere near a nuisance level that discourages fishing. We have water-willow, water primrose and cutgrass -- weeds that start at the edge of the water and grow out."
Demopolis has had a 14-inch minimum-size limit on bass for 13 years, and state biologists have sampled the lake often to evaluate if it's improving fish size and catch rates for anglers. Biologist Jay Haffner is pleased with the results so far.
"The long-term trend is relatively positive," he reported. "In 2007, our electrofishing catch rates for bass over 12 inches, over 14 inches and over 15 inches were at all-time highs. There are more fish over 12 and 14 inches in Demopolis Reservoir than we have ever seen before.
"We also did a creel survey, and catch rates were very satisfactory for bass anglers. Anglers routinely report catching 10 to 30 fish a day. Somewhere between a third and a half of those fish are over 14 inches."
According to Schoenrock, the primary pattern in July involves hitting the stumps and humps on the river ledges with crankbaits. However, the abundant weeds growing along the shoreline offer anglers a morning bite. "Flipping the thick grass mats growing out from shore is effective for big bass," he advised, "but anglers must be realistic when fishing in July. You aren't going to catch a limit; it's not for numbers of fish. You're looking for a few good bites.
"Any grass in 4 to 6 feet of water is worth fishing. Often it grows on bends and over flats in the creeks off the river."
Schoenrock's favorite lure for flipping grass is a Zoom Brush Hog creature bait.
The 16 public access areas guarantee that worthy fishing spots are never far from a boat ramp. The City Landing in Demopolis is a great place for launching into fish the lower lake.
Upstream from Demopolis, Warrior Lake has a surface area of 8,580 acres and a shoreline running some 300 miles. In the lower third of its 77 riverine miles are plenty of creeks and backwater areas.
The Corps built the Warrior Lock and Dam six miles southeast of Eutaw, with the dam separated from the lock. The dam is just inside a turn in the river at the beginning of a horseshoe bend, while the lock is part of the cutoff canal.
Last spring, District III biologists sampled Warrior's bass fishery and obtained excellent results. "I was blown away by how good that stretch of river is looking right now," Jay Haffner reported. "I found plenty of young fish and medium fish in our collection. Fertility is moderately high at Warrior.
"Also, the quality of backwater habitat is good in Warrior Reservoir. We have plenty of laydown wood, stumpfields and some decent grass beds."
Speaking from an angler's perspective, Schoenrock corroborated Haffner's research, noting that the lake produces solid numbers of 2-pound bass.
As you'd expect, Schoenrock targets the same subtle bottom structures on river ledges when he fishes Warrior, but he also includes creek mouths as part of his primary pattern. Despite fishing pressure from other anglers, Schoenrock fishes creek mouths anyway, feeling that such areas are enormously productive.
As he does on humps in the river, Schoenrock first teases aggressive, early-morning bass with a topwater lure and then switches to a crankbait. He uses the same lures as before.
"Position your boat in the river," he said, "and make long casts toward the creek mouth. Try to find where the fish are holding. Sometimes, bass move shallow early and then move deeper as the sun rises. However, the best place to find fish in July is the point created where the creek cuts into the river channel."
Schoenrock recommended maneuvering your boat so that the crankbait works the submerged point from every angle. "The only way to determine if a creek mouth holds bass is to fish it," he asserted. "Cover a lot of water. In July, fish congregate in these areas."
Those fishing the lower lake should note that the Corps offers complete recreational facilities at Jennings Ferry, which is on the east side of the lake off County Road 14. Further upstream, but still on the lower third, is the Old Lock 8 ramp on CR 36.
Two ramps are available on the upper lake: Fosters Bridge, about eight miles southwest of Tuscaloosa, and Moundville Access, off State Route 69.
Ninety-seven miles downriver from Demopolis on the Tombigbee, this 8,800-acre run-of-the-river lake near the community of Coffeeville boasts 300 miles of shoreline. All of Coffeeville's backwater is limited to the lower section of the lake in Clarke County, and most is in the Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge.
Fortunately, both bass and anglers thrive in the lake's riverine environment. Silas' Anthony Skinner, who has fished Coffeeville for 19 years, spends about three days a week on the lake. In this time, he has perfected a productive summer pattern for river-run largemouth bass.
"Look for isolated treetops that extend into deepwater," he explained. "If the riverbank is crowded with submerge treetops, bass have too many places to hide. An isolated treetop concentrates the bass and the bait -- so well, in fact, it's possib
le to catch as many as nine fish from one tree."
Skinner focuses his efforts on mature trees submerged on a bank meeting specific criteria. "Bigger trees hold more fish," he remarked. "They provide a current break, and often hold floating trash that attracts fish. Also, look for treetops near subtle changes on the bank, especially places where a clay bank runs into gravel or rock. But most importantly, the top of the laydown must rest in water at least 8 feet deep."
To pick apart a treetop, Skinner chooses Series 300 Bandit crankbaits and 6- or 8-inch Zoom lizards. He prefers shad colors for the former and watermelon, junebug and pumpkin colors for the latter. As for line, Skinner fishes crankbaits on 12-pound-test monofilament and lizards on 65-pound-test Spiderwire Stealth.
If barges are locking through and current is running, Skinner approaches the treetop from downstream and makes long casts with the crankbait. He works the outer limbs before moving closer. "The biggest mistake anglers make is moving to the tree before working its edge," he offered. "If they catch a fish from the shallow water along the trunk, it spooks fish holding in the limbs. Instead of possibly catching six fish, they only catch one."
After fishing the outside of the tree, Skinner thoroughly searches the remainder of the laydown by flipping a lizard rigged Texas style with a 1/4-ounce sinker. "With a light sinker," he explained, "the lizard falls so slow that fish inhale the lure before it reaches the bottom. Last July, I caught a 6-pound, 4-ounce bass flipping a treetop with the 8-inch lizard."
According to Skinner, it usually takes a 3-pound average to win a summer tournament. He won one tournament last July with five fish weighing 15.8 pounds.
Skinner recommended launching at Lenoir Landing east of Womack Hill.
For current information on fishing Coffeeville, visit Anthony Skinner at A&D Sporting Goods off SR 17 in Gilbertown, or call (251) 843-5885.
Find more about Alabama fishing and hunting at: AlabamaGameandFish.com