January 19, 2017
By Steven Johnson
The only thing better than a road trip to a legendary big-bass lake to enjoy the lake's finest offerings would be a much larger road trip with stops at a bunch of great bass lakes. With such thoughts in mind, we've selected top bass fishing destinations from all over the South. Read on and then get that calendar handy so you can start planning!
1. LAKE GUNTERSVILLE Alabama
Forage-rich, expansive grass flats front the channel of the Tennessee River, making 69,000-acre Lake Guntersville a largemouth factory that yields tremendous fishing year after year, despite the pressure that naturally comes from its fame. The Big G is fairly fertile and highly diverse, creating plentiful fishing opportunities.
Claim To Fame: Legendary for summer/fall frog fishing and for the giant largemouth bags it regularly yields through the cool months, Lake Guntersville stands as a favorite stop for many touring pros. It's also where Paul Elias introduced the Alabama Rig to the bass fishing world during an FLW Tour event in 2011.
Tips: Early in the year, throw a lipless crankbait over remnant submerged grass or work an umbrella rig near steep, rocky banks and creek mouths. Once the grass mats develop, the vegetation dictates much about the bite, and it is time to break out your flippin' stick and frog rod.
Facilities: Access to this big lake, lodging and good food are plentiful, especially around the towns of Guntersville and Scottsboro, and from Lake Guntersville State Park. Alabama Mountain Lakes (northalabama.org) is a good source of planning information.
2. LAKE MILLWOOD Arkansas
Four rivers feed 30,000-acre Lake Millwood, which is tremendously fertile, thick with timber and vegetation, and, not surprisingly, loaded with chunky largemouth bass.
Claim To Fame: This southwest Arkansas lake is known both as a dependable producer of a high-quality bass and as a place where you might catch an absolute giant. Between its timber-lined channels, the oxbows off its rivers, and the open water in the lower end of the lake, Millwood is known as a lake that offers outstanding variety.
Tips: When everything is right, Millwood fishes like it appears it should — like a giant farm pond. Because so much of the lake offers quality bass habitat, though, patterning is critical. Knowing bass are using trees often isn't enough. You have to figure out that they are on, say, vertical trees of a certain size that are close to bends in the main river channel.
Facilities: Millwood State Park offers a full-service marina and more than 100 campsites. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recreation areas provide additional access in numerous areas.
3. LAKE ISTOKPOGA Florida
Sometimes overlooked for the Kissimmee Chain to the north or for Lake Okeechobee to the South, 28,000-acre Lake Istokpoga is nevertheless one of the finest trophy bass lakes in the Sunshine State, and the fishery is currently in excellent condition.
Claim To Fame: Just in the past three years, this big, shallow lake has yielded 237 TrophyCatch bass. To qualify for this program, bass must weigh at least 8 pounds. They also must be released, and so those fish were all put back in the lake! In addition, this lake's normal largemouth catch-rate is among the highest in Florida.
Tips: Soft plastics produce well in this classic Florida lake. Fish traditional Texas-rigged worms early and late in the day and punch the thick vegetation, which creates a lot of shade, through the middle of the day. Also, keep a topwater lure or soft-plastic jerkbait handy when you fish Istokpoga, and watch for bass running shad.
Facilities: Several fish camps and four public ramps provide good access to Lake Istokpoga. The Greater Sebring Chamber of Commerce (863-385-8448) is a good source of area information.
4. LAKE HARTWELL Georgia, South Carolina
An impoundment of the Savannah River, 56,000-acre Lake Hartwell offers a relatively new, high-quality spotted bass fishery and an excellent largemouth population. The lake is also exceptionally diverse in its habitat offerings and has a great forage base that includes blueback herring, threadfin and gizzard shad, bluegills and crawfish.
Claim To Fame: Hartwell has long been a favorite lake of local anglers and a popular tournament venue because of its diversity and the quality of its bass, but it has gained national notice in recent years as a popular tour stop for professional fishing organizations, and one that typically produces well for the pros.
Tips: Most of Hartwell is clear enough to offer outstanding sight-fishing during the spring. Once bass move off the beds, blueback herring dictate much about the fish's behavior. From late spring through fall, keep a big walking topwater lure tied at all times, and don't hesitate to throw it in the middle of the day.
Facilities: Between Corps of Engineers recreation areas, state and county parks and private marinas, access to all parts of Lake Hartwell is outstanding.
5. TOLEDO BEND Louisiana, Texas
A huge impoundment along the Texas/Louisiana border, Toledo Bend spreads across more than 181,000 acres. It has a complex shoreline and outstanding structure, with countless creeks and points and endless bass habitat that ranges from shallow, grass flats to open-water channel drops and humps. It is one of the nation's most legendary bass destinations and has been producing excellent fishing for decades.
Claim To Fame: Toledo Bend has taken top billing on Bassmaster Magazine's Top 100 Bass Lakes for the past two years because of its overall excellence and tremendous trophy potential. Toledo sealed that ranking with 139 certified 10-pound-plus bass in 12 months and insane numbers of 30-pound-plus tournament limits.
Tips: Shallow-running square-billed crankbaits and spinnerbaits offer very good prospects during the spring, when the fish are around shallow cover. Also fish red lipless crankbaits over submerged grass early in the spring, and flip shallow cover any time spring rains and consequential stain push bass deep into the cover.
Facilities: More than 70 boat access points, including parks, marinas, resorts and simple launch ramps, provide good access to all parts of Toledo Bend.
6. PICKWICK LAKE
Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee
An impoundment of the Tennessee River that covers 47,500 acres, Pickwick Lake offers flippin' and frog fishing like Guntersville and ledge fishing like Kentucky Lake, but gets less acclaim than either.
Claim To Fame: Pickwick has long been famous for its thick-bodied smallmouths, and many tournaments over the years have been won with brown fish bags weighing in the mid-20s. However, the largemouth fishing is even better than the smallmouth fishing, with good overall quality and double-digit-weight fish caught every year. A few years back, a 16 1/2-pounder was caught and released in Pickwick's lower end.
Tips: During the spring, drift the Wilson Dam tailwater with swimbaits for smallmouths or flip bushes in the backwaters for largemouths. As the season progresses, follow the fish out to the Tennessee River channel and fish ledges and humps. When the bass are on the river, water flow, color and level dictate how to fish.
Facilities: The best access to Pickwick is around Muscle Shoals and Florence, Ala., in the upper half of the lake, from J.P. Coleman State Park in Mississippi and in the Pickwick Dam area in Tennessee.
7. LAKE OF THE OZARKS MISSOURI
An impoundment of the Osage River that is also fed by three other rivers, Lake of the Ozarks impounds 52,000 acres. Its shoreline is complex, with countless points and coves, and thousands of docks line its shores.
Claim To Fame: Incredible consistency is the hallmark of Lake of the Ozarks. In part due to steady water levels, this lake almost never suffers from a poor year-class, and endless docks provide cover for young bass. What that means to fishermen is that bass numbers remain excellent year after year, and that size distribution tends to be really good.
Tips: Pay attention to the wind and focus on banks that the wind hits directly. These banks typically hold more forage, and the fish feed more aggressively. Because Lake of the Ozarks has so many docks, some kind of "dock pattern" is always happening. Think about which banks would be best without the docks to help you decide where to fish, and then try to find the most productive docks on those banks.
Facilities: Nine public boat ramps and several marinas provide boating access to all parts of Lake of the Ozarks.
8. FALLS OF THE NEUSE NORTH CAROLINA
Covering only 12,000 acres and never the site of major national tournaments, Falls of the Neuse Lake doesn't have a big national reputation. Locals know, though, that this impoundment of the Neuse River supports a fabulous population of hefty largemouths, including some legitimate trophy fish.
Claim To Fame: Falls Lake produces double-digit-weight bass every spring. Just as important, this forage-rich lake yields a tremendous number of bass in the 3- to 6-pound range. With a shallow-stumpy upper end and a deeper, rocky lower end, it also offers great variety to bass fishermen.
Tips: Early in the year, cast a jig or a white spinnerbait around super-shallow cover (of which there is an abundance) and keep moving. As spring progresses, focus on spawning pockets, looking for fish if the water is clear and the skies are sufficiently sunny and calm. After the spawn, most bass move away from the banks and relate more to points and channel breaks.
Facilities: Falls Lake is undeveloped, but Falls Lake State Recreation Area includes seven access areas that provide boat ramps and several opportunities for lakeside camping.
9. LAKE OF THE ARBUCKLES OKLAHOMA
Although fairly small at 2,300 acres, Lake of the Arbuckles offers huge trophy bass potential. Florida-strain largemouths, which enjoy good deep and shallow habitat and find plenty to eat, are the main attraction in this Southcentral Oklahoma lake, but smallmouths also grow large and provide a fun bonus.
Claim To Fame: Locals had been quietly watching Florida-strain bass mature in Lake of the Arbuckles for several years, but word spread much farther after a couple of tournaments in 2013 that yielded 40-pound-plus winning bags. The lake-record weighed 14 1/2 pounds, only 5 ounces shy of the Oklahoma state-record largemouth.
Tips: The best bite occurs early in the spring or even on mild late-winter days. Suspending jerkbaits and jigs fished slowly offer good prospects for big pre-spawn bass. After the fish spawn, they move deep in this clear lake, and in part due to very heavy pressure, they can become tough customers.
Facilities: Lake of the Arbuckles is located within the Chickasaw National Recreation Area. Four boat ramps provide access to different parts of the lake, and three of the four have campgrounds nearby.
10. KENTUCKY LAKE Kentucky, Tennessee
A huge reservoir, which covers more than 160,000 acres and impounds 184 miles of the Tennessee River, Kentucky Lake offers many kinds of fishing as well as high-quality opportunities for catching largemouths, smallmouths and spots.
Claim To Fame: Kentucky Lake is the ledge-fishing capital of the fishing world, and people travel there from all over the country every summer to throw big crankbaits and spoons or drag jigs over main river drops. Several excellent year-classes in the current largemouth population create a big population with an outstanding size distribution.
Tips: During the spring, when bass are spawning and feeding shallow, flippin' flooded bushes in bays will produce big catches. Once summer arrives, move to the main channel and use electronics to find groups of fish relating to structures that are adjacent to the main channel and that provide depth changes and current breaks.
Facilities: Some riverine stretches are pretty remote, but access is good in many areas, including Camden and Paris, Tenn., several points within Land Between the Lakes, and near the dam.
11. SANTEE COOPER SOUTH CAROLINA
Although actually two distinct reservoirs, lakes Marion and Moultrie are normally viewed collectively as the Santee Cooper lakes or simply as Santee Cooper. Collectively, Santee Cooper encompasses more than 171,000 acres, with vast grassy backwaters and extensive timber. Excellent habitat and plentiful forage that includes multiple shad and herring species support a tremendous bass fishery.
Claim To Fame: Santee Cooper actually is most famous as the original home of landlocked striped bass and as a factory for giant catfish, but tournament bass anglers know that if you fish there during the spring you'll need at least 25 pounds to even think about being competitive, and you might need far more.
Tips: Everything looks "bassy" at Santee Cooper, so it's important to find current, inundated ponds, ditches and other features that set apart the best spots and to pattern which trees or types of grass the bass are using any given day. Fish the grass with a plastic worm or bump the trees with a crankbait.
Facilities: Santee Cooper is a true fishing destination with plentiful fish camps that offer launch ramps, food, lodging and more, and several public ramps add access. Santee Cooper Country (santeecoopercountry.org) is an excellent resource.
12. LAKE CHICKAMAUGA TENNESSEE
Multiple factors, including regular Florida bass stockings since 2000, special regulations, and outstanding habitat and forage have helped 36,000-acre Chickamauga to develop into one of the nation's elite trophy largemouth destinations.
Claim To Fame: Chickamauga has yielded many teen-weight bass in recent years, including a state-record largemouth, which weighed 15 pounds, 3 ounces and was caught in 2014. This lake also has rewritten many tournament record books and yielded crazy numbers of 30-pound-plus tournament catches, including a few that approached 45 pounds! Rogne Brown and Tim Carini earned national attention in 2014 with a 49-pound, five-fish limit.
Tips: Early in the year, it's tough to top an umbrella rig (three-hook limit). Once the water returns to full pool from winter drawdown, the bass move into bays and creek arms and the spawn dictates everything about their locations and behavior. Later in the year, as the grass forms mats on the surface, frog fishing and flippin' move to the forefront.
Facilities: Forty boat ramps, including several that are part of marinas with full angler services, offer excellent access to all parts of Chickamauga. Dayton offers a good base camp area with good facilities and is convenient to excellent bass fishing.
13. LAKE FORK TEXAS
Fed by streams that drain fertile farmland, loaded with timber and diverse vegetation, offering great deep and shallow habitat, and managed for trophy largemouths since the time it was built, 27,264-acre Lake Fork could be considered the ultimate trophy largemouth lake.
Claim To Fame: Thirty-two of the 50 biggest bass ever weighed in Texas, including No. 1, and 7 of the Top 10, put Lake Fork in a class of its own. Since 2010, Lake Fork also has yielded 14 ShareLunker fish, which must weigh more than 13 pounds.
Tips: Many ponds, which were stocked before Lake Fork was filled in order to kick-start the fish population, remain as hidden gems for Lake Fork bass. Extensive timber, most of which is broken off at the normal water line, produces some of Fork's best fishing. If the fish don't bite, though, don't be shy about shifting gears. These bass can be tough customers, but the lake's diverse habitat provides many options.
Facilities: More than 20 boat ramps, some of them part of marinas that offer lodging and other services, provide plentiful access to Lake Fork
14. BUGGS ISLAND Virginia, North Carolina
Plentiful forage and a tremendous amount of cover that gets flooded when the lake is full, help 49,000-acre Kerr Reservoir (Buggs Island) support very high numbers of bass and very good average size year after year.
Claim To Fame: Buggs is best known for its bushes, which get flooded every spring and after big rains at other times and which offer outstanding flippin' and pitchin' targets. While bass rarely reach true trophy proportions in this lake, most fish are fat and healthy, and bass in the 2- to 5-pound range are very plentiful.
Tips: If the bushes are flooded, a flippin' stick and a jig or a Texas-rigged creature bait will be your best friends. Also keep at least one rod rigged with a square-billed crankbait or a spinnerbait to draw reaction strikes from fish in the bushes. When water is lower, structural features such as points, humps and turns in creek and river channels become much more important.
Facilities: More than 30 boat ramps provide good access to most of Buggs Island. Clarksville Virginia, which is near the lake's midpoint, offers good options for lodging and other angler needs.
15. NEW RIVER West Virginia, North Carolina
Most famous for rapids and towering canyon walls through New River Gorge, the New begins as a high-elevation creek best suited for wading and grows into a powerful river as it flows northward through three states. The greatest common denominator throughout the New River's run is excellent smallmouth bass fishing.
Claim To Fame: The lower half of the Virginia portion and the entire West Virginia run produces a better caliber of smallmouth bass than do most Appalachian streams, including some genuine giants. New River veterans know that any given bite could turn out to be a 5- or 6-pound smallmouth bass.
Tips: Watch water levels. Low flows serve up the steadiest action. High flows can slow the bite and make navigation challenging, but they also yield some seriously big bass. Best bets from mid-spring until well into the fall are topwater lures, crawfish-imitating crankbaits and various soft-plastic offerings.
Facilities: New River Gorge National River borders 53 miles of river in West Virginia and provides many access points. New River Outdoor Company (newriveroutdoorco.com) in Virginia and Adventures on the Gorge (adventuresonthegorge.com) in West Virginia offer guided fishing, lodging and much more.