LAKE GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — Are you looking for a lake where the term "hawg bass" comes to life? If so, you should settle your crosshairs on northern Alabama, where some of the country's most incredible fishing is available within an hour of the Army's Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville.
The 'Bama lakes in the Tennessee River system are legendary for quality bass fishing.
A short casting distance west of Huntsville are Pickwick and Wheeler lakes, two of the biggest destinations for anglers seeking smallmouth bass that will push the rod-breaking 10-pound range.
If largemouth bass is your game, head east of Huntsville to Lake Guntersville, Alabama's biggest lake.
There is a certain allure to using your boat's trolling motor to carefully navigate narrow channels that cut through the thick aquatic vegetation. Pitch a topwater lure rigged to run weedless and let it bounce over the milfoil carpet, occasionally splashing into tiny pockets of open water. Then, picture a 12-pound — or bigger — largemouth erupting through the grassy ceiling to bust the lure.
Phillip Daye and Mike Carter are well-familiar with that experience, and they readily shared their love for the lake and its trophy fishing during early fall outings last year.
Daye, a retired guide, has hauled more than 20 10-pound-plus bass from Lake Guntersville. At one time in the early 1990s, he held the record for the second-largest fish ever weighed in at Guntersville, a 13-pound, 2-ounce bass he caught in June with a spinner on 12-pound monofilament line in the mouth of Goose Pond Colony. The same fish two months earlier at pre-spawn would have weighed an additional pound or more.
Lake records now top 14 pounds.
Carter, a prominent regional-tournament-angler-turned-full-time-guide, once weighed a five-fish limit that tipped the scales at 34 pounds.
"I've seen some five-fish limits coming in over 40 pounds," he added, shaking his head as if to indicate that he wouldn't have believed it if he hadn't seen it. "I've seen some spring days when a 10-pound fish wouldn't even place in the top three."
Prime time for big fish
Lake Guntersville's 69,100 acres span 75 miles, dominating scenic Jackson County, a locale labeled as the place "where the mountains meet the lakes." The Cumberland Plateau stretches west and north, with Sand Mountain soaring to the east.
Most bass anglers lusting for lunkers work the lake east and south of Scottsboro.
Carter says May and June are rock 'n' roll months for the biggest fish, just after the late-April spawning season. He's also keen on late fall, when bass are tying on the feedbag in anticipation of colder water and slimmer pickings of forage fish.
The Tennessee River channel cuts through the lake, and Carter targets the river ledges, using deep-running crankbaits and 1-ounce spinner baits. Other favorites include slow-fishing a 10-inch worm in a red shad or green pumpkin color.
Hopping a frog lure over a carpet of milfoil is becoming increasingly popular, but anglers need to be rigged properly for that style. Heavy braided line and a rod with lots of backbone are a must. You'll need it to crank in an uncooperative bucketmouth sporting a hairdo of soggy aquatic greenery.
The affable Daye, 67, retired as a Huntsville businessman to become a Guntersville guide, but he said guide work got too good.
"I had to scale back," he said. "Sometimes I'd fish from daybreak until dark for 14 days straight."
He still fishes nearly every day, but mostly for fun.
Daye has become a big fan of the Stanley Lures Ribbit Frog, and he'll fish it in the early morning hours before the sun rises to warm the lake's surface. His favorite is a blue/black color combination, a pattern popular with bass anglers throwing a pig and jig lure setup.
Methodically fishing the clear shallow water among the dozens of docks and rustic boathouses lining the lake's eastern edge, Daye tensed and reared back, saying, "There's one." Winding line back into his Shimano Bantam Curado reel, he cautiously maneuvered the 3-pound-plus fish toward the side of his boat.
After a few more early morning strikes, Daye switched to a Mann's 5-inch Dragin' Swim Worm in a pumpkin-flecked motor oil color. He likes to add a slit in the lure's flat tail to give it a little more wiggle action on the retrieve.
Despite catching several bass within a few hours, Daye called it "a slow morning," adding that late October mornings frequently yield 25 to 50 bass, with a couple in the 5-pound to 7-pound range.
Lake Guntersville also sports an abundance of Kentucky spotted bass, a much smaller cousin to the largemouth. The "spots" tend to behave more like smallmouths, biting best when current is moving through the system.
The lake's upper reaches and into the river itself, all the way to the Tennessee state line, are prime spotted bass habitat.
Spotted bass usually orient around structures, such as barge pylons. Warm water discharges near the Widows Creek Steam Plant create havens for congregating fish in cool weather.
Undoubtedly, one of the reasons Lake Guntersville is prime for big largemouths is the incredible habitat. Aquatic grass, among an angler's best friends, can be a serious bane to recreational boaters.
J.P. Parsons, of the Jackson County Convention and Visitors Bureau, a staunch proponent of bass fishing in the region, said Jackson and Marshall counties work in partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority to manage aquatic grasses such as hydrilla and milfoil. The goal is to achieve a situation that satisfies both anglers and boaters, he said.
Lake Guntersville is also home to humongous blue catfish, some weighing in at more than 80 pounds. Bluegill and crappie fishing are also excellent throughout the lake. Some anglers even catch the occasional walleye or sauger, mainly during the winter and early spring.
Public boat landings are well-managed, and several free access points are available to anglers bringing their boats to Guntersville. One of the most popular spots to launch is the Mud Creek boat landing, a short distance north of Scottsboro.
Lake Guntersville has become a regular stop on the pro fishing circuit. The most recent tournament to hit the lake was the new Women's Bassmaster Tour event the first week of May.
Parsons said Guntersville formerly hosted a regular Defense Department-oriented tournament event. He said it was great seeing the colonels out on the water fishing with the corporals, bonded not only by their service to their country, but also their love of fishing.
If you go
• Getting there. Huntsville is 41 miles from Scottsboro on Lake Guntersville, so Huntsville International Airport is your best bet for air travel.
• Lodging. Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville has an outdoor recreational campground; it was slated to reopen in early June following a construction project. It offers 14 pads with full RV hookups and a bathhouse. For information, call (256) 876-4868 or see http://www.redstonemwr.com/html/rv.html">http://www.redstonemwr.com/html/rv.html. If you want to stay closer to the lake, the Jameson Inn in Scottsboro is reasonably priced and close to at least three quality boat landings. Call (256) 574-6666.
• Licenses. Nonresident fishing licenses are $6 for a seven-day trip. They're available by phone and online, as well as through probate offices and tackle or bait shops. See http://www.outdooralabama.com/fishing/freshwater/license">http://www.outdooralabama.com/fishing/freshwater/license.
• Guide services. One option is Angling Adventures, where Mike Carter works as a licensed fishing guide. Carter also guides on nearby Weiss Lake, a lake known for behemoth crappie. Call (423) 802-1362, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.anglingadventuresmjc.com">http://www.anglingadventuresmjc.com.
• More info. For local information, contact the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce at (800) 259-5508, e-mail email@example.com, or see http://www.jacksoncountychamber.com">http://www.jacksoncountychamber.com. To learn more about fishing in Alabama, along with other outdoor recreation options in the state, see http://www.outdooralabama.com">http://www.outdooralabama.com.
Ken Perrotte is a freelance writer in King George, Va.