When temperatures drop, action heats up for monster smallmouth bass on Pickwick Lake. Many people think the Tennessee River impoundment near Florence, Ala., could produce the next world record smallmouth. The lake already delivered smallmouth exceeding 10 pounds and largemouth topping 14 pounds!
Pickwick Lake spreads through 47,500 acres across parts of Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. The lake runs from Wilson Dam in Florence 53 miles downriver to Pickwick Dam at Counce, Tenn. The lake offers anglers 496 shoreline miles, including 85 island shoreline miles.
“Pickwick is both a river and a lake,” explained Jimmy Mason, (256-762-0014, www.jimmymasonbasspro.com) a bass pro from Rogersville, Ala., who has guided on Pickwick since 2003. “At the upper part, from the Natchez Trace Bridge to Wilson Dam, it’s a river. From the bridge toward Mississippi, it turns into more of a typical reservoir. The lower lake has a phenomenal amount of ledges, grassy flats and structure.”
Anglers can catch smallies from dam to dam, but the best action typically occurs closest to Wilson Dam. In the rocky Wilson Dam tailrace, the lake still resembles the old river channel. The Tennessee Valley Authority maintains the channel for commercial traffic so it averages 10- to 12 feet deep.
Although anglers frequently catch smallmouth and largemouth bass in the same spots on the same lures, smallies prefer more current, deeper water and rocky bottoms. When water flows through Wilson Dam, currents flush baitfish and other forage downstream. Many people fish right next to the dam, vertically jigging spoons or Texas rigs along the concrete. When the TVA opens some gates, but not all of them, closed gates create slack spots that attract fish. Even downstream, current from the dam positions fish.
“Typically, smallmouth go a little deeper and get in the eddies,” Mason explained. “Smallmouth will stay in those eddies until it’s time to spawn. In the spawning season, smallmouth get behind the gravel bars to look for sandy gravel flats out of the main flow where they can spawn. In the winter, I like to fish close to the flow, but still outside of it. I look for anything that breaks the current, like a rock pile, sand and gravel bars or islands. I look for current seams where fish can get behind something and don’t have to fight that current.”
From Wilson Dam downstream to the Natchez Trace Bridge, the river flows around several islands, rocky shoals, sandbars and other obstructions that break the current. Some old rocky jetties that once marked the natural Tennessee River channel can hold big smallmouth.
“Those old rock rows are dynamite areas to catch smallmouth in the winter,” Mason advised. “They create great areas where fish can get out of the main flow. When the river is flowing heavy, I like to fish those rock rows. I drift backwards with the current. I use the trolling motor to slow the boat drift and cast upstream. Then, I use the current to sweep my bait into the eddies.”
Like rainbow trout in a mountain stream, bass wait in calm water behind obstructions for currents to bring prey to them. When bass see something they like, they swoop out into the current, snatch it and then return to their lairs. Since smallmouth often key on abundant threadfin shad, use lures that simulate baitfish.
“For big smallmouth, I throw 5-inch Yum grubs on 6- to 8-pound-test,” Mason said. “Heavy line catches the current and can pull a bait away from the sweet spot. With light line, the current pushes a bait into the eddy. I also throw 1-ounce spinnerbaits or Yum Money Minnow swimbaits. With the swimbait, I use a 1/2- to 1-ounce jighead, depending upon the current strength and water depth.”
Lure colors depend upon water clarity and sunshine intensity. In stained water on a sunny day, throw natural colors like pearl, blue glimmer or other shad colors. On a cloudy day with dirty water, throw brighter baits, such as chartreuse, white or maybe something with a little orange.
“When the water is clear, I like to throw smoke with blue flakes,” Mason recommended. “My all-time favorite swimbait color is Foxy Shad, a shad color with a splash of chartreuse on the shoulders. That imitates a threadfin shad very well. I also throw Hologram Shad when the water is clear and the sky sunny. I’ll also throw a Tennessee shad.”
Fishing on Pickwick Lake generally improves when the TVA releases water through Wilson Dam. For the Wilson Dam generator schedule, see www.tva.gov/lakes/wlh_r.htm.
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Top Photo: Mason holds up two smallmouth bass he caught on an Alabama rig while fishing at Pickwick Lake near Florence, Ala.