Overlooked Bass in Northeast Bama

Many anglers never seem to get past the major reservoirs in their search for bass action. Along the way, they miss out on these North Alabama fishing holes!

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Kevin Dallmier

North Alabama can hold its own with the bass fishing found anywhere in the country. Legendary Cotton State lakes like Guntersville, Wheeler and Wilson are not only popular with anglers, but they are also frequent tournament trail stops. There is a price for fame, though. Along with the reputation comes the competition. All of these lakes see heavy use, both from locals and from anglers hitting the road in search of Alabama's best bass fishing.

Bigger is not always better. Especially along northeast Alabama's rural routes, you can find fishing equal to, if not better than, that found on the big lakes. Let's take a look at a few of these hidden bass fishing treasures.

Our first stop is Dekalb County Lake, or Sylvania Lake, as it is sometimes known. According to Pete Little, the lake's area manager, Dekalb County may have one of the most overlooked bass fishing lakes in north Alabama.

"The lake was built in 1968 through a grant to the county," Little said, "to bring fishing opportunities to counties that didn't have any major waterways. Sylvania is the nearest town, so that is how the lake got its original name. In the mid-1970s, the state assumed responsibility for the lake and renamed it Dekalb County Lake.

"The lake is 120 acres with a maximum depth of about 45 feet, and it has two boat ramps and two fishing piers," he continued. "The area also has a campground with water and power hookups. We have rental boats available, or folks can bring their own boats, as long as they use just their trolling motor."

On any given weekend, there may be three to five boats bass fishing on the lake. During the week, it is more likely to be just one or two. The low use is surprising considering the quality of the fishing.

"The lake-record largemouth weighed 14 pounds, 10 ounces," Little said. "The record stringer was five fish that went 12, 10, 9, 8 and 7."

Incredibly, according to the manager, those five fish came on consecutive casts, and on the sixth cast the angler got broke off by a fish that looked even bigger than the 12-pounder!

"A good angler shouldn't have a problem catching 10 fish on any given day," Little offered, "and the average size will be about 3 pounds. A good day can be 30 fish or more, all nice keepers, and we have plenty of 6- and 7-pounders out there too."

The intensive management the lake receives explains the good fishing. The lake is regularly fertilized, and it's managed to make it fishermanfriendly.

"Last winter we put out 250 Christmas trees," Little said. "Most stumps were cleared when they built the lake, and the ones that weren't have mostly rotted away. The lake has plenty of cover to fish, though, with downed trees and weeds all around the lake, several coves and points, and some good dropoffs too."

The manager went on to recommend that summer anglers start the day with plastic worms and spinnerbaits fished around shallow cover, and then switch to crankbaiting offshore structure as the sun gets up.

Summer hours on Dekalb County Lake are 6 a.m. to dark for boat fishing and from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. for bank-anglers. A nominal fee is charged to fish the lake or launch a boat.

Dekalb County lake is one mile north of Sylvania off County Road (CR) 47. The area manager's office can be reached at (256) 657-3000.

Moving east off Sand Mountain onto Lookout Mountain, DeSoto Lake is found within DeSoto State Park. The area is named after Hernando DeSoto, the Spanish conquistador and explorer who passed through the area in 1540. An entrepreneur created the lake when he built a hydroelectric dam just above DeSoto Falls on the West Fork of the Little River in the mid-1920s. Once the generator was installed, the project provided electricity to Fort Payne, Mentone, Valley Head and Collinsville, plus the village of Menlo just across the Georgia line.

DeSoto isn't your typical lake with still waters and shallow coves. Because of the steep hillsides leading down to the river, the long, narrow lake closely follows the river's original path. The lake runs from the dam several miles upstream to a low-head dam just above the Alabama Highway 117 crossing. Like many mountain lakes, DeSoto's waters are extremely clear and aquatic vegetation is common.

To see what the lake has to offer anglers, let's talk to Mike Sellers of Menlo, Ga. Mike is a regular on DeSoto, and he has some tips on what it takes to catch fish from these virtually unknown waters.

"Fishing these lakes is different," Sellers said. "When I first moved to the area from Mississippi years ago, people told me you couldn't catch fish out of these mountain lakes. They said that Lake Weiss was the place to be. Weiss is good, I won't argue that, but DeSoto was so close to home I just kept fishing it until I figured it out.

"Once I had learned some hard lessons, I found out that not only can you catch fish, but you can catch some big fish. In fact, DeSoto probably has the best average size of any of the lakes I fish. You won't load the boat with a lot of fish, but what you do catch are going to be good, solid fish, with the potential for a real mule.

"The key," Sellers added, "is to downsize your baits and fish lighter line. That isn't news to today's fishermen, but back in the 1970s that wasn't exactly how most of us fished. Those were the days of pool-cue rods, heavy line, drags locked down, and big baits. In this clear water, though, those techniques just don't work."

A 6-inch Texas-rigged plastic worm is Sellers' first choice for fishing on DeSoto Lake. With it, he works shallow cover like blowdowns or deeper weedlines. Another good choice, especially for quality fish, is a buzzbait. In the clear water, the fish jump all over that noisy surface lure. Since the fish aren't pressured, topwater fishing isn't limited to just early and late in the day, either. The lake has given up some really good fish to buzzbaits in the middle of the afternoon.

"If you get some lookers on the buzzbait, but they won't commit to strike, try a stickbait," Mike suggested. "Throw it as tight to cover as you can and then work it back real slow. If they won't come out of the cover to hit it, you probably can coax some fish up out of the deep weeds."

The last item on the angler's list of DeSoto favorites is a spi

nner, but not your standard safety-pin-type spinnerbait.

"I grew up fishing a Snagless Sally spinner," Sellers said, "and it works just as well now as it did back then. The in-line spinner comes through cover really well, and for some reason it seems to be more effective in moving water. DeSoto usually has some current, so maybe that explains why the Snagless Sally is so good up there."

The angler also believes most bass you catch will be largemouths. But go far enough up the lake and you will be sure to run into redeye bass. Redeyes are stream fish, and they find the upper lake's current and rocky bottom to their liking.

Mike's approach to fishing the lake is simple.

"I just launch my johnboat at the ramp by the dam and then head upstream as far as I can go, which is the little dam above the Highway 117 bridge. The pool just below the little dam is always good for a few fish. From there, I fish back downstream, using the trolling motor to skip from one side to another to hit whatever looks fishy. Fallen trees are always good, and there are a few places where shallow bars come out off the bank a little ways. Any shallow bar or pocket is something you definitely want to hit."

DeSoto State Park is located in Dekalb County near Fort Payne. From I-59, take the Fort Payne/Scottsboro exit and head south on State Route (SR) 35 through downtown Fort Payne. Follow SR 35 up Lookout Mountain, and at the top of the mountain turn left onto CR 89. Follow CR 89 five miles into DeSoto State Park.

In the same neighborhood as DeSoto Lake, but a totally different fishery, is the Little River. In fact, DeSoto State Park is within the 14,000-acre Little River Canyon National Preserve. The National Park Service operates the area to protect and manage one of the deepest and most extensive canyon and gorge systems in the eastern United States.

Flowing approximately 30 miles before entering Lake Weiss, Little River drains an area of roughly 200 square miles in northeastern Alabama and northwestern Georgia. The river is unique because it flows on top of Lookout Mountain for nearly its entire length.

The national preserve is a huge chunk of public land and offers great fishing for spotted and redeye bass, with maybe a few largemouths thrown in too. Most fish weigh a pound or two, but the trophy potential is there. My personal-best spotted bass, weighing nearly 5 pounds, came from Little River on a hot July afternoon.

Besides the fishing, the best thing about the canyon is the canyon itself. The gorge is 12 miles long and drops as much as 500 to 600 feet from the bluffs down to the river. The view is truly breathtaking and not something you expect to see in the Deep South. Fishing the canyon is an experience that shouldn't be missed. To say the canyon has a foreboding air is somewhat of an overstatement, but it is definitely not your usual fishing hole. Hike into the depths of the canyon, and the fishing is just part of the experience.

At the turn of the century, local lore suggested that no white man had ever successfully gone into one end of the canyon and come out the other end. Dogs would go as far as the canyon mouth and then steadfastly refuse to go any farther. Both these phenomena were attributed to the belief that the Cherokee Indians had once mined lead in the canyon, and the location of the valuable mine was to be kept secret at all costs. Other legends from the era describe a lone Native American who would suddenly appear on one of the high canyon rims, stand motionless gazing out over the canyon for hours, and then in a blink of an eye vanish. The canyon was also reported to be a refuge for Cherokees who escaped forced relocation and the Trail of Tears.

True or not, those stories may come back to mind if you spend much time on the shadowy canyon floor. Don't be surprised to catch yourself glancing up at the canyon rim, looking for that lone Native American.

Legends and lore aside, what part of the Little River you fish is a matter of choice. Just upstream of the canyon and Little River Falls is the area known as Blue Hole. To reach this popular swimming and fishing hole, take the first dirt road on your left when headed east past the falls on SR 35. To get below the falls, use the parking area on the right just past the falls. A steep, difficult descent gets you to the water.

Moving down the canyon on SR 176, there is a series of eight overlooks. Several offer hiking access into the canyon. The Lower Two Mile Trail, primarily used by kayakers to reach the river during the spring whitewater season, is a good access point. Eberhart Point, with picnic tables, grills and restrooms, is another good entry area. A 3/4-mile hike gets you to the river. Once in the canyon, you can choose to fish upstream or downstream. Just remember that only a few trails lead out of the canyon, so you will likely have to retrace your steps to get back to the one you hiked in on.

The easiest access, and perhaps the stretch with the most big fish, is the Canyon Mouth Day Use Area, a short distance upstream of where Little River runs into Lake Weiss. The area is a favorite for picnicking and swimming. An easy hike gets you away from most of the activity and to some good deep holes filled with stout spotted bass and feisty redeyes.

For some fishing tips, let's touch base again with Mike Sellers, who likes to fish Little River when the dog days of summer slow down the bite on DeSoto and other area lakes.

"Wading Little River is my favorite summer pastime. The banks are overgrown and rough going, so wading the river is the best way to fish and get from one hole to another. A light spinning outfit with 6- or 8-pound line is all you need. The water is usually clear, so light line helps prevent spooking fish and handles small lures better.

"Nothing beats Little River's spotted bass for topwater fishing," Mike noted.

For this angling, he suggested 4-inch soft-plastic jerkbaits, downsized surface poppers or stickbaits, and maybe a small hard jerkbait. Standing waist-deep in the cool water on a hot day and seeing a spotted bass come blasting through the surface to smash one of these is about as good as it gets.

"The best places to fish," Sellers offered, "are the deep sides of the holes. Most holes have a deep side and a shallow side. The shallow side is easy wading. The deep side can be over your head just one step off the bank. Wade the shallow side, casting to the deep side.

"The closer your lure lands to the bank, the better. Sometimes there is a narrow ledge just a foot or so wide right at the bank. Underneath the ledge, the bank is undercut and deep. That is where the big spots hang out in the shade, waiting for the current to sweep bait right to them.

"Most days the fish hit topwater baits, but you may have to go to the soft-plastic lure and let it sink right in front of their face if they aren't real aggressive."

If Little River doesn't sound like your typical bass fishing trip, you're rig

ht - it isn't. If standing in cool water surrounded by wild country while casting topwater plugs to aggressive bass sounds like fun, though, it might be for you. Summer is when the water is low enough to safely wade and warm enough to be comfortable. From the Fourth of July through September is best.

If you choose to fish in the canyon, be careful. Little River rocks have to be the slickest found in the world. Felt-soled wading boots are best. Cell phones don't work in the canyon, so you are on your own and should always fish with a buddy.

Located east of Fort Payne, Little River and its canyon can be reached from SRs 35, 176 and 273. A nominal access fee is required at some access points. Only day hikes are allowed in the canyon; overnight stays are prohibited.

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