Written By Reed Montgomery / Owner of Reeds Guide Service located in Alabaster, near Birmingham, Al. Phone (205) 663-1504 Internet Website: www.fishingalabama.com Also see Reed Montgomery or Reeds Guide Service and Like Us on Face book Too!
The beginning of a major cooling down period in North Alabama is now underway!
Officially, the first day of Fall in Alabama is September 22. But muggy, sweltering air temperatures can still be close to 90 degrees, as hot summertime air temperatures can linger on to the month’s end.
Actually, the beginning of the Fall season is felt more significantly around the first week of October, as cooler nighttime air temperatures plunge and daytime highs make a slow change for the better, with much cooler weather. Migrating Alabama’s characteristically deeper bass of the Summer season, to head for the feeding grounds of each lake’s shallows, to feed and fatten up for the upcoming Winter season ahead.
During this major, seasonal transformation many changes are in store, for both Alabama’s (state wide and well known population), big, Largemouth Bass and the ever-elusive, Trophy Smallmouth Bass, that are only located in these north Alabama waters. Including plenty of upcoming changes for the avid bass anglers that pursue these nomadic bass of the cool, Fall season, throughout all of North Alabama’s Tennessee River System Impoundment’s!
With night time lows dipping into the fifties and cooler days evident in the low 70’s to upper 60’s, its time to plan a bass fishing trip! North Alabama’s Tennessee River System has four, man-made Impoundment’s and each of these “dammed up” lakes has its own distinct personality. But only two of these four Tennessee River system lakes are noted, “Trophy Smallmouth Bass” impoundments!
The First Lake (of four impoundment’s), is Alabama’s largest, man-made impoundment (on these Tennessee River waters, flowing off of upstream Nick-a-Jack Lake dam), is Guntersville Lake. It is located near the northern Alabama town of Guntersville. This shallow, weedy impoundment is over 70 miles in length.
Guntersville Lake, Impounded in 1939, is full of many various types of aquatic weeds, including some often very thick and stringy looking, Hydrilla and Milfoil weeds. These thick and green, oxygen-rich aquatic weeds, can grow year round in shallow water to deeper water and it’s often a home for some Big, Trophy-sized Largemouth Bass!
But as “Trophy Smallmouth Bass Anglers” know, these little brown bass can prefer a much different habitat, than that of their much bigger cousin, the largemouth bass. One habitat that features very little aquatic weeds and more of a hard bottom. They also prefer to linger around wood and rock cover, around rocks and boulders, along deep rock bluffs, or rip-rap rocks found lined along cause ways, bridges and dam discharge waters.
Smallmouth bass also can be found along deep, main river channel drop-offs, deep off shore humps, submerged islands, old river bars, deep ledges and any irregular bottom features, including plenty of places displaying loads of prevalent current and deep water.
There have been some really big, Largemouth Bass fooled in year’s past and some weighing in the “teens“ have been taken out of Guntersville Lake, Alabama’s largest, man made impoundment. Guntersville lake is kept “at or near” normal, full pool lake level in the winter season. Which is 595.0.
Below Guntersville Lake Dam (going downstream on the mighty, Tennessee River System), is Wheeler Lake. This is Alabama’ second largest, man-made impoundment at over 60 miles in length. Wheeler Lake was impounded in 1936.
Wheeler Lake is lowered for Winter pool in the Fall season and can be down from 3-5 feet below normal, full pool lake level, by the Winter season. Until April in the Spring season when the lake is returned back to full pool. On Wheeler Lake, the full pool level is 556.0.
Wheeler Lake is another lake that notably has smallmouth bass and plenty of their preferred habitat. But still, Wheeler Lake is not so well known for harboring schools of ”Trophy size” Smallmouth Bass!
But, the next two lakes located down stream…are typical, small mouth bass waters!
A much smaller Impoundment. Wilson Lake Impounded in 1924 is only 20 miles in length. But Wilson Lake once held the World Record Smallmouth Bass. One true, Trophy Smallmouth Bass weighing close to 10 1/2 pounds, caught way back in the 1950’s! There have been numerous, “Trophy Smallmouth Bass” taken since then and many weighing in the ten pound class are now on record. Having been taken by some very fortunate or just plain “lucky” angler, on North Alabama’s Wilson Lake!
Another lake notorious for its “Trophy Smallmouth Bass” is Pickwick Lake that was Impounded in 1938. Pickwick Lake, located near the town Florence, Alabama is the last of these four, northern Alabama Tennessee River System Impoundment’s. It is about 60 miles in length, with some of the lower portion of Pickwick Lake’s waters, located in eastern Mississippi. Pickwick Lake can be lowered as much as 3-5 feet during the Winter season. It will be returned to full pool, which is 507.0 in April of the next Spring season.
Some of these lakes have many traits in common. They all have aquatic weeds and loads of wood cover and plenty of various forms of rock cover can be found on each lake. Uncommon is, only Wheeler Lake and Pickwick Lake are lowered / dropped from 3-5 feet below normal, full pool lake levels, usually lake draw down takes place in the late Fall and early Winter season’s.
Although Wheeler Lake and Pickwick Lake are kept at Winter pool throughout the Winter season, Guntersville Lake and Wilson Lake, are kept “at or near full pool” throughout the Fall and Winter season’s.
However, during the Spring and Summer Season’s, all four of these lakes are back to full pool!
All of these Tennessee River Lakes have an abundance of largemouth bass. Each lake has a few thousand schools of spotted bass. But too many anglers surprise, most are amazed at how few smallmouth bass they catch, if any, on Guntersville Lake and Wheeler Lake!
* Although both of these lakes are bound to harbor some big, smallmouth bass (after being impounded for over 75 years), some anglers never even catch a smallmouth bass on Guntersville Lake or Wheeler Lake!
Wilson Lake, Impounded in 1924 and Pickwick Lake, impounded in 1938 are Alabama’s “True, Trophy Smallmouth Bass” Lakes! They both have this one trait in common. There are more smallmouth bass on each of these lake’s, than all other lakes combined!
During the cold, Winter month’s, Wilson Lake is at full pool and it still has some aquatic weeds. Pickwick Lake is lowered about 3-5 feet every winter season, killing most aquatic weeds. That is, until these aquatic weeds slowly begin to grow, and once again they emerge in the early Spring season.
* Pickwick Lake and Wheeler Lake are both returned to full pool in April and aquatic weed growth will be very evident by the end of May.
But one thing is for sure, all of these Tennessee River System lakes have in common. That is, the weather! It’s going to get very cold, real soon, on all of these Northern Alabama lakes, including other Alabama lake’s in the mid-to-southern region as well.
A slow, cooling down period actually begins to take place around the last week of September. Prior to that, it’s been hot! This cooling down period continues on into the first week of October (as all the lake water’s slowly begin to cool), right on into the upcoming Winter season in late November into December. Soon to take place, in January and February will be the beginning of another mid-winter season and another New Year!
On each of these man-made impoundment’s, bass anglers can expect some of the best bass fishing times to be had, in notably much cool weather. Any angler can now have a really good chance to connect with a true, Trophy-sized Smallmouth Bass. Or land a huge, Largemouth Bass. Or, on some lakes, fool both bass species!
During this two-three month period (and its all according to the actual cool, night and day air temperatures), there will be constant incoming cold fronts, coupled with the ever-shortening of each day and night. Rainy cloudy days and bright, sunny high pressure days.
Both the air and water temperatures (back in late September), that were previously soaring into the upper 80’s to low 90’s, will now be dropping into the low 70’s, then the into the colder daytime highs of only the 60’s. Then, as Winter officially arrives, the low 50’s and the low 40’s! Soon, the daytime highs could only reach 50 degrees with nighttime lows in the teens!
Often accompanied by some cold, rainy weather or a chance of snow, sleet and ice!
Matching air and water temperatures, will soon plunge, and it can be very comparable, each and every week, right up to the year’s end. That is, until Winter sets in! As air temps drop into the 20’s, or even lower, in the “teens” most North Alabama lake water’s will not get any colder than the upper 30’s…or they could freeze up!
Seeing ice along the lake’s shore line and each lake’s backwaters covered in ice, could happen! But again, that’s rare, even in north Alabama in the Winter season.
In Alabama, even during mid-Winter, Alabamian’s rarely ever even see any snow or ice accumulate! So now, let’s get back to the beginning of the Fall season.
The Fall season is the beginning of a major migration of many fish species on Northern Alabama’s, Tennessee River System waters. Including one breed of some very nomadic bass, one that constantly stays on the move. A willy, little green / brown bass, that many anglers still consider a mystery bass!
Smallmouth bass have an array of pigmentation colors like no other freshwater bass! They can be a light tan color, with brown vertical stripes running along its short and often very compact body. Or they can display a dark brown back with olive green stripes running vertical along its sides. Some very beautiful smallmouth bass can even display a very distinct and often very bright, gold pigmentation color!
“The Smallmouth Bass” or “brown bass” as it is known, can be a very formidable adversary. In any anglers book! One bass, that actually many bass anglers have never even had the chance to see, to successfully land, capture in a net, or even hook into!
Much less, an angler having had the pleasure of an endured and often lengthy battle with one. One battle this leaping and jumping brown bass usually wins! As it again successfully avoids another bass angler’s advances, to try and catch it!
So, why is that? Unknown to many bass anglers (those thousands of bass anglers both in the state of Alabama and those thousands that come from afar, to tackle these “tackle testing” brown bass), these smallmouth bass can only be found in the northern Alabama waters, of the Tennessee River System!
Smallmouth Bass are also available down stream of the lower Tennessee River System waters running off of Pickwick Lake dam and in its run-off waters to smaller, mid-Alabama impoundment’s. Like Little Bear Reservoir, Big Bear Reservoir and Cedar Lake Reservoir, all found down stream of Pickwick Lake.
Blocked by dams and barge-navigated locks, these smallmouth bass are actually “trapped” here in each of these Tennessee River System lakes…that is, until they are caught or they die of natural causes, or die of just plain old age!
So let’s take a good look at the waters of the two most popular and most prosperous cool weather lake’s, for targeting some of the year’s biggest smallmouth bass. Wilson Lake and Pickwick Lake. Including the lures and techniques it takes to fool these smallmouth bass while fishing from top to bottom in the water column.
Prior to Wilson Lake being impounded in the year 1924 the uninterrupted flowing head waters of the mighty, Tennessee River System continued on downstream with no dams yet built, to stop the continuous flow. This was considered a very rocky and boulder-strewn shoal area, located near the town of Decatur, Al. Where the deeper rock bluffs found upstream, were suddenly scattered all across vast, shallow flats, now in the lake’s headwaters.
* Wilson Lake dam was the first lake impounded in north Alabama.
Just like upstream Wilson Lake, another lake was soon impounded in the early 1900’s. This was Pickwick Lake Impounded in 1938. Two years prior to that, Wheeler Lake was impounded in 1936. Later, the last lake to be dammed up was Guntersville Lake impounded in 1939.
Just like the headwaters of Wilson Lake, Pickwick Lake being created, dammed up another shallow flooded lake, covering another series of rocky, boulder-infested shoals! So even today, bass anglers can expect to see water with depths of less than 20 feet deep in both of these shallow, rocky, shoal-type headwaters found in each lake!
Both of these lower, Tennessee River System Lakes have water depths of ten feet or less in each lake headwaters during the Winter season. Both lakes have water deeper than fifty feet deep as well. Pickwick Lake can be down as much as 3-5 feet during the Winter season, calling for using extreme caution when navigating your boat in shallow water.
Current, lots of rocks and boulders, and plenty of irregular bottom features are things anglers should be constantly keeping mind, when bass fishing this winter season for big smallmouth bass, especially when fishing the headwaters of either of these lakes. Including heeding the advice from one who knows from years of fishing these often dangerous and life threatening waters!
* Use caution and always wear your life jacket when fishing or navigating your boat in and around the swift tailrace waters, located below these dams.
Smallmouth meals can vary. But it’s a known fact these smallmouth bass do eat lots of bottom dwelling crayfish and they consume baitfish of all kinds on a daily basis! So tailoring your lure offerings more towards looking like and acting like, the meals they feed on, means you’re more likely to fool a true, trophy smallmouth bass into biting.
Then…you have got to get them in the boat!
In each lake’s water column you can be targeting big, voracious smallmouth with lures that are “injured looking meals”, like top water lures. These lures fished on the water’s surface simulate the injured meals, like big gizzard shad or threadfin shad found washing through the dam’s turbines. Easy picking’s for a big ol’ lazy bass!
This can be any walking type top water lure like an old Zara Spook or the rattling three-hook, James Heddon Zara Super Spook. Or Lucky Craft’s “Sammie” and Strike King’s “Sexy Dog” (a Kevin Van Dam signature series, three-hook walker).
Popper’s like Rapala’s and old Rebel poppers are good lure choices, or many other concave mouth, popping-type top water lures will work as well. Prop-baits, like Heddon’s “Baby Torpedo” or Cotton Cordell’s “Crazy Shad”, featuring one or two propellers either on the front, the back, or both ends of these enticing offerings, are also good lure choices! Along with buzz baits and many other types of top water lures!
In the middle water column there are many types of lures that fool these big bass into biting. This can be mid-to-deeper diving crank baits, both suspending and floating model jerk baits (minnow type lures), or lipless lures like Bill Lewis “Rattle traps”, or Rapala’s “Rattlin’ Raps” or Strike King’s “Red Eye Shad.” Swim baits rigged on a jig head or even multi-lure presentations like the so noted, “Alabama Rig” can be deadly lures on big trophy smallmouth bass, even in the Winter season!
Deeper bass can be fooled on a number of lures. Spinner baits or chatter baits (bladed jigs) work great in shallow to deep water. Its all according to how deep you present these and many other types of lures, fished either in the middle water column for suspended bass or along the lake’s bottom. But anglers should keep in mind, fishing deep water around rocks and wood cover, can be costly, especially when constantly hanging up and possibly losing costly and precious lures! So bring along a plug knocker or lure retriever. It will pay for itself in one fishing trip!
It’s cheaper to fish with jig heads adorned with soft plastic lures. If you hang up (and you will in all the rocks), it’s not so costly to just break them off and then tie on another one. Texas-rigged plastics like small to large size worms, grubs, tube baits, lizards, crayfish imitations or creature baits, and beaver-type plastics. Even jigs adorned with a plastic trailer, can still be cheaper to lose than more costly lures like deep diving crank baits, spinner baits or even jigging spoons (including the bigger model spoons in 2-4 ounces weight, some of which cost 10-20 dollars apiece!) So tailor your lure selection carefully or make sure you and your fishing partner bring along plenty of spare lures!
PLACES TO EXPLORE FOR TARGETING BIG, COLD WEATHER SMALLMOUTH BASS ON WILSON AND PICKWICK LAKE’S
Below Wheeler Lake dam in Wilson Lake’s headwaters, and below Wilson Lake dam in Pickwick lake’s headwaters, lies enough water to explore all day long, on either lake. But near each dam “extreme caution” is advised for some very swift and dangerous tailrace waters, which exist here.
If you are not an experienced boater, you could capsize your boat here and drown in the freezing swift, tail race waters. Always wear your life jacket and outboard motor kill switch. It might just save yours and others lives if you do! Also stay sober, no drinking alcoholic beverages. Alcohol and boating do not mix very well at all!
There are islands, rock bluffs and creek mouths to fish on Wilson Lake. There is an island in the headwaters of Pickwick lake and even some bridge pilings on Pickwick lake for anglers to explore in these lake headwaters. Both lakes have locks and dams.
A good depth finder can show irregular bottom features that hold bass escaping the often swift current found in these lake headwaters. Old, rock bars, underwater ridges, hidden rock piles, big, isolated boulders, submerged islands and offshore hidden humps, can be located with some study of the lake’s bottom. Creek mouths and the mouths of small cuts and pockets can harbor some schools of big smallmouth bass in the Fall and Winter season’s!
Give it try during this Fall and Winter season’s! Tackle, the “Tackle-testing” and often “jumping antics” of Alabama’s Trophy Smallmouth Bass, during the cooler months of the Fall and Winter season’s! But make sure you have a good place reserved and cleaned out, perhaps above the mantel or your fireplace or in your man cave! It could be in reserve to hold the mount of, “a fish of a lifetime.” A true, tackle-testing adversary, like the smallmouth bass…one you will never forget!
Or just take a picture, get the weight and measurements of the fish and then you can let it go…to live and fight another day! A Taxidermist can build you a replica smallmouth mount with just the picture, weight and measurements!
Or just call (205) 663-1504 on Reeds Guide Service or e-mail him off his website www.fishingalabama.com to see how it’s done! “Over 40 Years Fishing all of Alabama’s Lakes for Largemouth Bass, Smallmouth Bass, Spotted Bass and some huge, Striped
Thanks and Good Fishin’ Reed Montgomery, Owner of Reeds Guide Service. Alabama’s oldest, professional – bass fishing only – guide service! Internet Website www.fishingalabama.com Like us on face book too!