By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Bass anglers who fished Lake Guntersville in the first half of the current decade enjoyed possibly the best bass fishing in the nation with phenomenal stringers anchored by 8- to 10- to 12-pound whoppers.
When those 30-pound-plus stringers of five bass started to wane the past couple of years, lake property owners and bass anglers who regularly fish the lake, affectionately known as the “Big G,” began to fret and then became downright afraid there was something significantly askew in the lake.
Property owners and anglers proclaimed their concerns at both Alabama Conservation Advisory Board meetings earlier this year, prompting the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division to take a closer look at the Tennessee River lake.
What that research revealed is that staying atop the bass-fishing mountain is not sustainable when natural cycles are in control of a reservoir the size of Guntersville at 69,000-plus acres. That stretch of phenomenal fishing was an anomaly, and the current fishing, which still is some of the best in the nation, is back to normal levels.
Even as the lake returns to “normal,” it can still produce some outstanding catches. Earlier this year, Casey Martin weighed in a five-fish limit at 40 pounds, 11 ounces. More recently, two anglers in the Alabama Bass Trail tournament had five-fish stringers that exceeded 30 pounds each.
Damon Abernethy, WFF’s Assistant Chief of Fisheries, said that ironically a drought led to the outstanding fishing that Guntersville experienced earlier this decade.
Unlike a lot of lakes and reservoirs, there’s not quite as much variability at Guntersville because of the abundant aquatic vegetation and the reduced fluctuations in lake levels.
“Guntersville is pretty resilient,” Abernethy said. “The great fishing we’ve had in recent years is not something that is normal. It was the result of an extremely large year-class that was produced during the drought years of ’07 and ’08. We saw this happen in other reservoirs, but it seemed to be more prevalent at Guntersville. It was not unique. It was related to a weather pattern that affected the whole Southeast.
“Fish have a gauntlet they have to get through. There are a lot of years when big spawns and abundant fry are produced, but that’s not always relevant. The limiting factor is how many survive that first winter. What’s really important is how many you have left the following spring. Environmental factors and species interactions, such as predation and competition, determine that. In theory, you could have a light spawn one year and a heavy spawn the next year and end up with exactly the same number of fish after one year.”
Abernethy said bass will lay thousands of eggs because most of them will not survive predation and environmental conditions.
“Then some years, the stars will align and that’s what happened in ’08,” he said. “Most bass can live about 10 years, although some can live beyond that. Speaking on population levels, 10 years out, that spawn is essentially gone. That’s what has happened at Guntersville.
“There are a few really big fish being caught now. Those are likely the remnants of that ’08 class. That 40-pound bag Casey Martin caught in March was impressive, but the two 30-pound bags at the Alabama Bass Trail were more impressive to me. You don’t see many 30-pound bags in June. There are still some big bass out there, but they will be gone soon, and we’ll be back to normal.”
Of course, normal at Guntersville still yields impressive catches of 5- to 8-pound bass.
“That ’08 class was such an unusual occurrence,” Abernethy said. “We have never documented a year-class like that. But we do have some pretty decent year-classes coming up. I don’t see the lake in decline. I see it settling back to where it ought to be.
“Even when Guntersville is normal, it’s better than most lakes by far.”
To allay some of the concerns of those affected anglers and property owners, WFF Fisheries field personnel took a minnow seine to several locations around the lake to check the success of the bass spawn this past spring.
“We do this from time to time to reassure anglers there are plenty of fish out there,” Abernethy said.
Keith Floyd, WFF Fisheries biologist, led a crew to four locations on the lake to do seine hauls to check the number of bass fingerlings in the area.
“We did 11 seine hauls and caught 221 fingerlings,” Floyd said. “That’s an average of 20 per seine haul. That’s pretty good from what we normally see. It’s hard to get an idea of what that means until next spring, but it does mean the bass have spawned and spawned pretty heavily.”
Floyd took several concerned people with him on the seine hauls, including Guntersville fishing guide Mike Carter, who had enjoyed the outstanding fishing of a few years ago.
“Mike was very surprised how many were in there,” Floyd said of the seine. “I showed Mike some of the long-term data back to the late ’80s. That cycle he had been fishing on for the last 10 years was not normal. The lake is now back to the long-term-average mode. They’re still catching nice fish, just a little smaller than what they had gotten used to.”
Carter said the seine hauls were eye-openers for him because he obviously doesn’t see the results of a spawn while fishing with a rod and reel.
“We feel a lot better about the lake now,” Carter said. “The number of fingerlings we saw was more than the biologists were expecting. It was a big shock for me. They told me to begin with that if we saw 8 or 10 fish in a seine haul, it would be good. There were times we were getting 25 or 30 fish in a seine.
“When the biologists were trying to tell us this at our previous meetings, it was hard to soak it in until you get out there and experience it firsthand. I highly commend Mr. Keith Floyd for inviting me along.”
Carter said he and his customers caught a good many small fish last fall and this spring, which gives him hope for the future.
“We were spoiled,” he said. “Everybody is looking at what we had 4-5 years ago. In my opinion, I think that’s coming back.”
Abernethy reiterated that a great spawn doesn’t necessarily translate into a great year-class.
“Fertility has a lot to do with it,” he said. “The fertility of Guntersville is just right, not too high or too low. It’s in the range where you can grow bigger bass. The vegetation contributes to it. If you have a weedy lake, you find a lot of big bream. Big bream grow big bass. That’s why fluctuation in the vegetation levels can impact your populations.
“The vegetation also makes the bass at Guntersville easier to catch. It concentrates the fish on those weed edges. The fish are sitting there ready to ambush and not having to roam around and look for food. If you were to compare the fish population in Guntersville to some of our other lakes, you might be surprised to see that they’re not all that different. But they’re a whole lot easier to catch at Guntersville.”
Although the Lake Guntersville Conservation Group has plans to stock largemouth bass in the lake, Abernethy said it will likely have no biological impact.
“If the goal is to increase abundance, it’s not going to do that,” Abernethy said. “Stocking can introduce desirable genetic traits into the population. We did that 25 years ago by introducing Florida bass into the lake. Right now we have about 30 percent Florida alleles in those bass.”
Florida bass grow fast and big, but the Florida strain is more easily affected by weather changes, especially cold fronts.
“We don’t want to go much higher than 30 percent,” Abernethy said. “Then we’ll end up with a bunch of big fish you can’t catch.”
Abernethy said other Alabama lakes that benefitted from that ’07-’08 year-class are also settling back down into traditional fishing success.
“The bump from that drought spawn is not as evident in other lakes as it was in Guntersville,” he said. “We don’t really know why we got the bump, but it was correlated with the drought and their ability to survive the winter.
“And I don’t want people to think the fishing is not good. It might seem bad when you’re coming out of those glory years. We’re settling back to regular years. We’re not concerned about the fishery. It’s just natural variation. It’s happened many, many times before and will continue to happen. It’s environmental variables that we can’t control. All we can do is control harvest, and harvest is not what’s causing the fluctuations.”
PHOTOS: (Mike Carter) Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries biologists Keith Floyd, left, and Phil Ekema drag a minnow seine across one of 11 areas that were sampled recently at Lake Guntersville. Those seine hauls revealed an abundance of bass fingerlings in the lake. Fishing guide Mike Carter, who has caught many big bass at Guntersville, has spearheaded the effort for additional stockings of Florida-strain bass in the lake.