February 'Hawging' in Alabama

The bites are not abundant when you're targeting bass in late winter, but odds are on these lakes the fish that do strike are big ones!

By Eileen Davis

By their very existence, 10-pound bass are exceptional. It's a weight standard by which trophy fishing accomplishments are judged. To catch one is a remarkable feat; some see it as the dream of a lifetime.

There is, after all, a great deal of luck and skill involved in catching a bass of this size. Of all the factors involved, the two most obvious are where and when to fish. Being on a proven trophy bass lake when largemouths are heavy with roe greatly improves your chances.

Many of us in Alabama believe fish do not move shallow until the dogwoods display their white flowers. If so, you may be surprised to learn that trophy anglers find bragging-sized bass building nests in Lake Jackson and Escambia County Lake during February.

On Lake Andrews, the water is still too cold for spawning bass, but the current has the same effect as the beds, as it keeps the big fish stationary.

Obviously, these three waters are places that "hawg" hunters should get to know this month!

Don Williamson of Brewton uses his specially equipped boat to fish for bedding bass on Escambia County Lake. He is holding the replica mount of his best, a 12-pounder. Photo by Stephen E. Davis.

Escambia County Lake creel records for February and March of 2003 show that anglers harvested 78 bass weighing more than 6 pounds apiece. Of those, 15 fish weighed more than 10 pounds apiece.

This record does not reflect bass caught and then released by anglers hoping that one of them might grow into a state record. Brothers Don and Karl Williamson of Brewton, who are well known for their angling abilities during the spawn, are in the forefront of those returning big fish to the lake.

Karl broke the lake record - a record he had already held since 1997 - last spring with a bass weighing 12.6 pounds and then bested it a second time with a 13.4, and a third time with a hawg tipping the scales at 14.6 pounds! For the year, Karl caught nine bedding bass exceeding 10 pounds from Leon Hines. In 14 years of fishing in Alabama and Florida, Karl has released 165 bass weighing more than 10 pounds apiece.

Karl's older brother, Don, added to the Williamson's trophy numbers last spring with bass weighing 10.4, 11 and 11.9 pounds, plus good numbers of smaller fish weighing 6 to 9 pounds.

"During my vacation last February," Don said, "I set a goal to catch one fish over 5 pounds every day; fortunately, I did that."

Covering 184 acres in the southwest corner of the Conecuh National Forest, Escambia County Lake is 23 miles east of Brewton off County Road 11.

"The lake opened in 1989, and this is our best year ever," offered Joe Zolczynski, District V fisheries supervisor.

"The lake has a significant amount of relatively shallow water for spawning," he continued. "These shallows provide good reproduction of bream, which is the prey species, so the bass have forage for growth. The lake is booming and the population numbers of bream and bass are in balance."

The Williamson brothers agree with Zolczynski's assessment.

"If you sight-fish," Karl said, "you see some of the biggest bass of your life. February is a fabulous time for trophy bass."

To locate bedding bass and maximize their visibility, the brothers use johnboats rigged with what they jokingly call "tuna towers." Karl's tower measures 42 inches above the deck, while Don's is 59 inches. Karl uses a universal extension to control his hand-operated trolling motor, and Don has an autopilot. Without the towers, many of the big bass would move away from the beds before the brothers could spot them through their polarized sunglasses.

From their elevated platforms, Don and Karl spend more time searching for bedding bass than fishing. If a fish does not meet their size criteria, they keep looking. Karl's goal of catching fish heavier than 12 pounds means he spends less time fishing than his brother.

However, when they do find a trophy, all similarities in their fishing technique end. One prefers live bait; the other, artificial lures.

Using a 3-ounce egg sinker, Don anchors a 4-inch emerald shiner or bream in the bed and then moves about 30 feet from the nest to anchor his boat.

"Even though bream are the natural forage for bass in Leon Hines, shiners work much better," Don explains, "As the bass approaches, the bream puts up such a good fight that he may move the sinker out of the bed."

Don rigs his terminal tackle with the sinker on the tag end of his line, with a 6-inch drop-line tied 8 inches above the sinker. He completes the rig with a No. 2 circle hook and a 2 1/2-inch bobber.

"With the circle hook," Don instructed, "do not set the hook like a worm-fisherman. Focus on the reel and crank as hard as you can. Usually, the hook catches them in the corner of the mouth."

The length of time Don waits for the fish to take his bait depends on the size of the bass.

"If I know of a larger fish elsewhere," he said, "I will fish for 15 to 30 minutes. The 12-pounder I caught last year took 90 minutes, and the 11.9 this year took 35 minutes."

Karl, on the other hand, uses a different technique. When approaching a bed, Karl watches closely to learn what he can about the fish.

"I want to know the route she takes," Karl said. "They take the same route almost every time - that's your key as to how to set up. When she takes your lure, you do not want her moving toward the boat. Instead you want her moving away for a good hookset."

Once Karl has moved the maximum casting distance from the nest, he teases the bass into biting.

"It's unique," he said. "I don't know anyone else using this technique, which is best described as cat-and-mouse.

"Work the lure to the edge of the bed and then lower your rod tip and pull the line with your fingers. Slowly move the lure, feeling for a root or anything to hang on. When the lure is hung, tighten your line and rapidly tap your rod handle. This will transmit vibrations t

o the lure, making it wiggle. Repeat the tapping erratically and then turn your reel handle hard one revolution and immediately hit free spool.

"The dancing lure gets her attention, and the lure popping off the bottom draws a reaction strike. Ninety-nine percent of the time, she will strike when you turn the reel handle. Simultaneously you see your line moving off."

Karl's only lure for bedding fish is a 4-inch worm with a No. 1 or 2 split shot fished on 50-pound-test line.

For current fishing information on Escambia County Lake, call lake manager Clyde Chandler at (251) 809-0068. From Feb. 1 through June, the lake is closed on Thursdays.

Thirty-four miles east of Escambia County Lake and straddling our border with Florida, the northern shoreline of Lake Jackson holds a scenic park in Florala. It's a treasure for the city. Yet, the lake's natural beauty offers more than a place to picnic.

Lake Jackson's spring-fed waters, with its abundance of bulrushes, lily pads and maiden cane, provide anglers with an opportunity to catch trophy bass.

Michael Newman, District VI fisheries supervisor, reports the presence of giant fish.

"While taking electrofishing samples," he said, "we have collected bass weighing up to 16 pounds.

"The lake does not have a high poundage of bass, because of competing species like chain pickerel, bowfin and gar. Additionally, bass grow slowly until they are large enough to eat rough fish; then they do fairly well. The problem is growing fish to that size. It also means that a big bass has plenty to eat."

Consequently, Alabama and Florida limit anglers to five bass greater than 12 inches, with only one fish allowed measuring more than 22 inches.

The lake's gin-clear waters, though, require specialized fishing techniques to find and catch big bass. Bo Caraway of Florala is one angler who has met the challenge and recently joined the Lake Jackson 10-pound club by boating an 11-pounder.

"The best time to fish Jackson is during a full moon," Caraway said, "especially the week before. Nevertheless, if we have a typical winter, you should start looking for bedding fish after the first few days of warm weather in February."

Caraway said the only two environmental conditions to consider on the lake are cold fronts and wind.

"When a cold front rolls in," he noted, "the change in barometric pressure causes the wind to blow, so the waves will not allow sight-fishing. Often, the wind will lie the next day, but the drop in temperature will have driven the females off the beds."

Unlike at Escambia County Lake, anglers may fish Jackson at night. In fact, that is when Caraway catches most of his fish.

"I would prefer to fish during the day," he said, "but wind is less of a problem at night. Finding a calm day in February is difficult, and if you catch a calm night, you've got to go."

With a spotlight rated at 1 million candlepower, Caraway searches for beds in water up to 8 feet deep. He said the south side of the lake produces the biggest fish but that moss makes spotting fish difficult.

Caraway also observes how the bass departs her nest.

"If a big bass casually swims off," he said, "she will quickly return. A fish that departs the bed like a dart may take an hour or a day to return. In either case, mark the bed with a cane pole tipped with reflective tape so you can ease back to check on her return.

"When you have found and marked a trophy fish, back off and cast your lure four feet past the bed. Your lure will feel rough as it moves through the grass and then smooth as it enters the bed. Every 20 seconds twitch your rod tip."

The lure at the end of Caraway's line is either an 8-inch black worm or lizard rigged on a 4/0 hook with a 1/8-ounce sinker. His fishes his Texas-rigged lures on 17-pound monofilament.

Caraway always carries a camera and scales on these trips.

"When you've caught both the male and female off the bed," he says, "put them both back. You feel better about it."

The Florala State Park campground, on the northeast side of the lake, offers an excellent ramp with ample parking and a pier for your convenience. It also has 23 campsites with full hookups. Camping is $15 per night with a 15 percent discount for seniors. Park Ranger Vicky Zinner recommends making reservations by calling (334) 858-6425.

A second ramp is available off State Route (SR) 85. For current fishing information, call Home Boy's Country Market at (334) 858-6584.

When biologists sample the tailrace below Lake Eufaula, they find a smaller bass population than in the remainder of the lake, but they also report that these bass are huge. Through the years, anglers have confirmed their observations.

The late Joseph Wichowski of Ozark twice caught 10-fish limits weighing more than 120 pounds! In six years of fishing, Dean Baker of Daleville caught 80 bass weighing more than 10 pounds. And longtime river angler Ernie Calande from Ozark has caught his share of hawgs, including one that tipped the scales at more than 12 pounds.

"If you are going for trophy bass," says Calande, "I wouldn't fish anywhere else. The tailrace consistently produces bass weighing more than 8 pounds for me."

Biologists differ in their opinions on how the big bass arrived in the tailwaters. One said the bass came out of Lake Eufaula during periods of high water, and another thought large bass move upstream to take advantage of the dense schools of shad. Yet another claimed it's because of a natural upstream migration. However, all agreed the tailrace holds some of the biggest bass in the lake.

Lake Andrews begins at the Walter F. George Lock and Dam on the Chattahoochee River and ends about 26 miles to the south at the George W. Andrews Lock and Dam. The area that consistently produces the biggest bass lies upstream of the SR 10 bridge, which is about a mile below the dam.

Like most of the lake, this upper mile has vertical banks, but unlike the lower lake it has very few blow-downs or obstructions. Strong currents routinely sweep this mile clean. As water is released from the dam, the tailwater can rise six feet in an hour. Irregularities in the riverbank, creek mouths, the island below the dam, and manmade structures provide the only breaks in the current.

In this small part of the Chattahoochee, where flowing water is king, the key to finding bass lies in your skill to read current. Any pl

ace - no matter how small - in the water column that offers the fish relief has the potential to hold a trophy. Many of these breaks are obvious as the water forms an eddy, but sometimes it's only a small hole in the bank caused by erosion. Find these holes during periods of low water when the generators are not producing electricity.

Calande prefers to fish when the generators are running, as the current forces the bass to move into the current breaks. Like Baker and Wichowski, Calande also finds that big bass bite better at night - even during February's chilly darkness.

"Fishing is always more productive at night," he said. "During a full moon, you can fish your heart out during the day and not catch a fish. There is a 45-minute lull before dark, and then the fish turn on."

For night-fishing in February, Calande's top lures are 10- or 12-inch plastic worms, 7-inch lizards, and jigs with pig trailers.

"I catch the majority of my fish on soft-plastic lures rigged either Carolina style or Texas style," Calande said. "A large, dark presentation works best, so I prefer black, black and grape, or June bug colors. The jig-and-pig in black and blue also produces big fish under these conditions."

To draw strikes from the lakes' biggest fish, Calande works his baits through eddies slowly, making sure the lure's path follows the current for a natural presentation.

Public access to Lake Andrews is available near the upper dam at Franklin Landing, just off SR 10. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers charges a fee of $2 per day for using the ramp, or $25 for an annual permit that expires on Dec. 31. Annual permits are available at the Walter F. George/George W. Andrews Natural Resources Site Office, located on SR 39 north of Fort Gaines, Ga.

Alabama and Georgia recognize the licenses of both states; however, the agreement does not cover the creeks flowing into the Chattahoochee River.

For current fishing information, visit Rhett Taylor at Taylor Citgo in Abbeville, or call (334) 585-5197. The generating schedule for Walter F. George is available by calling (229) 768-2424.

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