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Wilson's Smallmouth Fishing Something to Crow About

April 18, 2013

By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
 
 
When it comes to fishing renown among the Tennessee River lakes in Alabama, Wilson is the lake most likely to be overlooked despite its smallmouth bass population. When it comes to real estate, Wilson’s 154 miles of shoreline is covered with houses, camps, weekend retreats and multi-million-dollar mansions.

Brent Crow of Decatur, Ala., is uniquely positioned to take advantage of both the less-pressured fishing and the real estate market. Crow owns a captain’s license and a real estate license. If requested, Crow’s real estate clients can get the view of the property from inside his bass boat.

“I think the reason Wilson gets overlooked is it’s so small,” Crow said of the 15,500-acre reservoir. “It’s not much more than 15 miles or so from dam to dam. Plus, you don’t have any major tournaments on it. They’re either on Pickwick, Wheeler or Guntersville. Wilson never gets the national tournament recognition.

“The locals, the people who live around here, they know Wilson. It’s as good a place as any to catch big smallmouth and big largemouth. It’s probably just as good as Pickwick and better than Wheeler in my opinion. Pickwick has always been known as a smallmouth lake, but there are just as many in Wilson and just as many big ones.”

Crow did say there is a distinct difference in the topography of the lake bottoms of the Tennessee River chain.

“The main difference is that Pickwick, Wheeler and Guntersville all have the Tennessee River channel with ledges,” he said. “Wilson doesn’t have the defined river channel and ledges. It’s just like a mountain lake, where it’s 60 feet out in the middle. That’s why there is so much real estate development around Wilson. It has the features of a recreational lake where people can participate in all sorts of water sports.”

When it comes to fishing spots, Crow said there are three main types of areas that hold fish in large enough concentrations to be targeted by anglers.

“On Wilson, you can fish the banks on the lower end and the pockets, but more than anything it’s below the dam,” he said. “That’s what most people call it – below the dam. The tailrace at Wheeler Dam has got to be the best one in the world. I think there are probably more big smallmouth, and more big largemouth, within 500 yards of the Wheeler dam than anywhere on the Tennessee River.”

Good tailrace fishing is dependent on several factors, according to Crow.

“First, you’ve got to have current,” he said. “The more the better for the most part. There are 11 turbines on Wheeler Dam. Depending on which turbines are running, the fishing can be awesome. There are perfect conditions with certain turbines running, but as long as you have some running you should be able to catch some fish. If no turbines are running, you’ve got to go down the lake. But if the conditions are right, it can be unbelievable.”

When the turbines are running, Crow makes sure his three trolling motor batteries are fully charged before he heads for the tailrace.

“Mostly you want to fish the edge of the swift water,” he said. “You want to be right on the edge of the slack water, throwing into the swift. It seems like that at different times of the year, different baits work best. For the most part, we throw spinnerbaits, crankbaits, Alabama rigs and swim baits. You just kinda have to experiment each day until you find out what they’re biting that day. It will usually hold up for a week or two and then it changes. They never run the same turbines, so you never catch them out of the same places over and over again. It takes a while to learn it and read the current. After a while, you can learn where the fish are going to be.”

The tailrace on Wilson is best known for its fall fishing with live bait. During that time of the year, it’s not uncommon to see plenty of smallmouth in the 6- to 8-pound range with an occasional 9-pounder. The Alabama state record of 10 pounds, 8 ounces came from the tailrace in 1950, caught by Owen Smith of Fairfield.

“All the shad in the lake seem to come to the dam in the fall,” Crow said. “That’s what the tailrace is known for. But the shad come to the dam in the spring, too. When the water temperature falls from 70 to 65 in the fall, that’s when it gets really good.

“There is so much bait up there. You can take your cast net and make one throw and get all the bait you need for a half a day. There’s threadfin and gizzard shad. Gizzard shad are harder to keep alive. The ideal bait is about a 5-inch threadfin shad. But if you don’t have them, you use gizzard shad. You have to use a circular tank to keep the bait alive. You can’t use your livewell. And you have to pour rock salt on them. The main thing is you have to change the water. What I try to do is catch enough bait for three or four hours of fishing. When I run out of bait, I change the water and then go back to the dam to catch bait. Most of the time it’s easy to catch bait.”

The other interesting factor about fall fishing with live bait in the tailrace is the number of predator species that hang around swift water.

“You’re not only going to catch smallmouth, but there will be striped bass, catfish, freshwater drum and largemouth bass. That fishing is really good for kids and adults who haven’t fished that much. If you just want to catch fish, that’s the time to be there. And at any time, you might catch a 6- or 7-pound smallmouth.

“We haven’t had a shad kill up here in two or three years, so the lake is just absolutely full of shad. All these bass have just huge bellies because they’ve been eating so many shad. The fish are the healthiest I’ve ever seen them.”

During the spring spawning period, Crow throws a Shaky Head rig with a finesse worm in green pumpkin or watermelon red with 8- to 10-pound test line or braided line with a leader.

“There will be a good topwater bite in May after they spawn,” he said. “After they spawn, there will be another big feed. You can catch them at the dam, and you can catch them down the lake. In the summertime, Wilson gets tough because it’s so deep. We fish 10- or 11-inch worms or football jigs in 50 or 60 feet of water. But Wilson is a great nighttime lake in the summer. Used to be, the only thing people threw at night were bear-hair jigs. This used to be the bear-hair jig capital of the world for a while. My favorite at night is throwing a spinnerbait on rocky points, fishing from 10 to 30 feet deep. When a 5-pound smallmouth hits your spinnerbait at night, there’s nothing like it.

“The reason I come to Wilson, any time of the year, is because of the 5-pound-plus smallmouth. I think Wilson gives you the best chance to catch one.”

Contact Crow at brentcrow@bellsouth.net or call 256-466-9965 for more information.

PHOTOS: Brent Crow has fished all the Tennessee River lakes in Alabama extensively. He considers Wilson Lake one of the top smallmouth fisheries anywhere, although large largemouth bass, like this 6-pound, 11-ounce fish, are also plentiful in Wilson.

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