North Alabama Bassin' Prospects

Looking for some largemouth action in the northern portion of the state? These lakes may not have come to mind instantly, but they just might fill the bill!

By John E. Phillips

To catch numbers of big bass, this is the time of year to head to north Alabama. Lunkers thrive there in the Tennessee River waters impounded in Wheeler and Wilson lakes. There is also great fishing in a couple of the area's state-owned public fishing lakes. But, of course, you have to know where and how to fish those waters. The best way to gain this knowledge is to ask the guys who have mastered the fishing on the waters.

For the Tennessee River reservoirs, Tim Horton of Muscle Shoals is a good source of information. He guided for five years on Wilson, Wheeler and Pickwick lakes, up until 2000. Then after winning $100,000 in the third B.A.S.S. tournament he fished in, Horton became a professional touring angler.

Jerry Crook of Birmingham is another fisherman who knows those lakes. Crook guides more than 100 days a year on Wheeler, Wilson and Pickwick lakes.

Let's listen to the experts as they tell us how to catch bucketmouths on the Tennessee River this month.

"On the upper end of Wheeler Lake in the Decatur area, I look for the milfoil," Tim Horton says. "The Decatur flats, as most locals call them, have big bass during this time of the year. This month, the grass should be about two to three feet from the surface. In that water between the grass and the surface, I like to run a lipless crankbait in either chrome-and-blue or firetiger colors. I like the 1/2-ounce size."

Wheeler has a lot of grass cover, especially on the upper end. It is habitat that helps grow bigger largemouths.

Tim Horton of Muscle Shoals throws lipless crankbaits around the grassbeds to fool largemouths on Wheeler Lake. Photo by John E. Phillips

Horton lets the bait tick the milfoil and while occasionally popping the bait to keep the grass off the hooks. He reports that you can use this pattern effectively all day, except during those first few hours of early-morning light, which is when he prefers to fish a topwater lure above the grass and next to shallow-water cover. If you have little or no wind on the water, the topwater action is even better just at daylight.

"If I plan to fish the lower end of Wheeler Lake early in the morning, I fish topwater lures around visible cover, like laydowns, stumps or boat docks," Horton says. "The areas you fish determine what you catch. Largemouths hold around structure and cover. They like an ambush style of feeding more than smallmouths do. Largemouth like to lie in trees and brush, in grass and around other types of cover and attack baits. Smallmouths hold in the open water to feed. They prefer rocks, ledges and current."

Horton says that if you strictly want to target largemouths you have to cast to the places they live. Of the two Tennessee River impoundments, Wheeler is the better for catching a lunker largemouth.

"I look for largemouths in the backs of coves and creeks on the lower end of the lake early in the morning."

A 1/2-ounce buzzbait also works when you fish these areas. If you work a buzzbait along the edge of grass, near boat docks and around wood cover, you can catch some nice-sized largemouths.

"As the sun starts to come up later in the morning, I move out on the points," Horton says. "The bass usually start bunching up on points in May because, as the spawn ends, they get ready to move to deep water. When I fish the points later in the morning, I prefer medium-running crankbaits in either citrus, copper-nose bluegill or threadfin shad colors. I use a medium retrieve with a stop-and-go action. I cast these crankbaits on a 7-foot baitcasting rod.

"I use a no-stretch line," he continues, "because when you use a stop-and-go retrieve, you want the crankbait to stop when you stop reeling and go when you start reeling. If you use a monofilament line, the line will have a belly in it, and also it will stretch. For those reasons, when you stop reeling, the bait will continue to move. When you start reeling, you have a delay before the bait begins to move again. You also get a much-faster hookset with a no-stretch line."

Another key to Horton's tactics is to find manmade brushpiles on the lower end of Wheeler. Local bass clubs hold numbers of tournaments on this lake. Those fishermen have built brushpiles on the points for many years. Using a depthfinder, you can locate plenty of such brush.

Jerry Crook spends more of his time fishing on the lower end of Wheeler Lake for largemouths.

"I like to fish the flats around the causeway near the Decatur boat harbor for largemouths," Crook says. "As you go downriver, you see some more flats with nice milfoil beds that also can produce some really big largemouths."

He fishes over that grass, using a chrome/blue-back lipless crankbait.

Crook also likes to fish a soft-plastic jerkbait above the grass. The popularity of this fishing tactic has increased in this area, and it works great in the grassy spots.

"I prefer a 4 1/2-inch pearl color, and I fish it on light spinning tackle," Crook explains. "I get a number of bites and have fun using this tactic. I also like to flip in the holes in the grass with a jig-and-pig."

On the lower end of the lake, Crook also targets blowdowns and the stickups on the Elk River with plastic worms or lizards.

"I'll fish with 17- to 20-pound-test line because Wheeler has plenty of 3- to 5-pound largemouths," Crook relates. "At the Elk River, I also like to use a spinnerbait through those stickups and brush.

"A worm also can work in the upper end of Wheeler," he continues, pointing out that he never goes up there to fish without a popper-style topwater lure handy. "Early in the morning, topwater lures can be deadly."

Jerry Crook uses similar but slightly different patterns for largemouths on Wilson Lake. He fishes the channels and grassbeds near Town Creek.

"I fish the edges of the grassbeds with a crankbait," Crook acknowledges. "This creek has a ton of shad that run the edges of those beds, where the bass wait to ambush the shad. I prefer to use a chrome or silver crankbait. I also carry a 1/2-ounce spinnerbait in either the white or white-and-chartreuse colors with me."

Crook also catches largemouths in the area between the No. 11 turbine and the wing wall at Wheeler Dam. He likes to have some of the turbines running on the north side of the dam. When those turbines run, a back eddy forms up against the dam. That swirling-water eddy generally attracts a big school of largemouths. With these conditions, you often see the bass busting shad on the surface. Crankbaits, worms and topwater lures all can be productive during such periods.

Also look for the submerged wing walls that come off the trash gate for more largemouths. When the north-end turbines run, you also can fish the slack-water side of the small island near the north shore. Spinnerbaits pay bass dividends when you sweep them through the current that comes off the backside of the island.

Tim Horton also likes to fish the Wheeler Dam area, but has some other good sites as well. In the dam tailwaters, Horton keys on the same places and generation phases mentioned earlier.

Here again he starts with topwater lures early in the morning, but later, when water is being released from the dam, he turns to throwing crankbaits. Long-bodied ones in firetiger or baby-bass color schemes are his standards.

"More than likely, anytime you fish in the tailrace of Wheeler Dam, you catch smallmouth, but you just have to put up with them. You can't avoid them. By fishing the slack water around the dam, you won't catch nearly as many as you do largemouth."

On the lower end of Wilson, Horton fishes Shoal, Aquavista, Fourmile, Sixmile and Sevenmile creeks. He runs into the creeks early in the morning, moving back to the mouths of the creeks after the sun rises. All the while, he focuses on primary and secondary points. Horton first fishes them with crankbaits, then turns to a Carolina-rigged 6-inch green pumpkin lizard. In stained water, he may opt for a June bug-colored lizard.

"I use a 4-foot leader from my barrel swivel to my lizard," Horton says. "I like a longer leader on a Carolina rig when I fish these brushpiles out on the points. I want to try and keep the lure a little farther away from my sinker in this fishing situation."

If you prefer having constant action, Wilson is a better choice for your bass angling than Wheeler. Catching 20 to 50 largemouths a day that weigh 1/2 pound or more is possible here.

"Because Wilson has a slot limit and Wheeler doesn't, you can catch larger numbers of largemouth on Wilson," Horton explains.

Madison County Lake, located east of Huntsville and north of U.S. Highway 72, spans 105 acres. The lake is stocked with Florida-strain largemouth black bass, which get big fairly quickly. Jack Turner is the state lake biologist for the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

"Although the lake's record largemouth, caught by Greg Cowan on April 8, 2001, weighed 9 1/2 pounds, I know this lake has bigger bass in it," he claims. "We sample this lake every year. Our electrofishing survey has turned up bass weighing 12 pounds and more in this lake."

Turner explains that during May the male bass remain on the bed, guarding the spawned fry. These male bass won't feed as heavily as they do before the spawn, but you can provoke them into biting. If you like to bed-fish, use plastic worms and grubs. In clear water, you often can sight-fish for these bass.

The Florida strain of black bass moves on and off their nests more frequently than the native northern strain. But by May, the females have almost finished spawning. They then move back to the deeper water to resume feeding.

"Early and late, I fish close to the bank," Turner notes. "Throughout most of the day, I fish away from the bank in submerged cover in 4 to 10 feet of water. You can use your depthfinder on this lake."

Being an angler as well as a biologist, Turner knows something about how to catch bass in this state lake.

"I fish live golden shiners at least 5 inches long," Turner says. "And I really prefer a shiner that's 7 or 8 inches long. I either fish it on a cork in water about 3 to 4 feet deep or I put a shot lead about a foot up the line and fish it right on the bottom."

Madison County Lake has a good bit of shallow water in which to try this method.

"You definitely have a more difficult time catching Florida bass on artificial lures than you do our native bass," he adds. "But they love large live golden shiners."

For more information on fishing Madison County Lake, call (256) 776-4905, or go to the DCNR We site, at fish/sl/madison.html. Angie and Greg Bates manage the lake. You can launch your own boat there or rent one for the day.

To reach Madison County Lake, follow U.S. 72 east from Huntsville for five miles. Then turn north on Ryland Pike Road and continue another 6 1/2 miles through the town of Maysville. Turn right onto County Lake Road and proceed one mile to the lake.

Located just off County Road 27 near Sylvania, DeKalb County Lake covers 120 acres. Originally stocked with northern bass, this lake has received some supplemental stockings of the Florida-strain largemouth bass. The lake's record largemouth weighed 14 pounds.

DeKalb County Lake has some spots where the water drops to 40-foot depths.

"At DeKalb County Lake, you find a lot of coves, long points and deep banks," Turner reports. "This lake has plenty of water willows in it that have heavy stems and bushy tops. These plants grow six inches to a foot out of the water. You see these water willows along the shoreline of this lake."

Water willows provide cover for bass, and fishing worms and crankbaits along the edges of this vegetation can prove productive. This cover also provides a spinnerbait-fishing opportunity. A final option for these areas is to flip and pitch with jigs and plastic worms.

"Don't overlook the points on this lake," Turner emphasizes. "Points are good places to start fishing anytime you go to a new lake. Crankbaits and plastic worms can work really well on these points."

DeKalb County Public Fishing Lake is located east of State Route 75 and one mile north of Sylvania. It can be reached using County Route 47.

For more information on DeKalb County Lake, call lake manager Pete Little at (256) 657-3000.

For more information or to book a day of guided fishing on Wheeler or Wilson, call Jerry Crook at (205) 608-0933 or (205) 243-6198.


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