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Gowen: Wheeler Doesn't Get Its Due
By DAVID RAINER
Wheeler Lake is kind of like a middle child. It sometimes gets overlooked. Although it’s smack-dab in the middle of Alabama’s Tennessee River run, Wheeler doesn’t get the attention of its fellow river lakes – Guntersville and Pickwick.
Yet, this 67,100-acre lake does have its followers, like Decatur’s Don Gowen, who considers Wheeler one of the best fishing lakes around.
“Wheeler is one of the premier lakes on the Tennessee River,” Gowen said. “It’s had its ups and downs through the years, but Wheeler is a good sound, bass-fishing lake. It doesn’t have the reputation of Guntersville for largemouth bass, and it doesn’t have the reputation that Pickwick does for smallmouth. But Wheeler is a good, overall lake.”
The variety of fishing Wheeler offers is one of the most endearing aspects of the lake for Gowen.
“You’ve got different kinds of fishing,” he said. “You’ve got river fishing. You’ve got wide-body water fishing. You’ve got cliffs and bluffs. You’ve also got one of the premier smallmouth rivers, Elk River that runs into Wheeler, that you can find.”
Of course, then there’s the Decatur Flats, an area made famous during high-profile bass tournaments and the stringers it produced.
“Back when they backed the lake up, the old river channel ran through Decatur but back to the north side was a huge flat that was kind of a swampland,” Gowen said. “It was full of oak, cypress and hardwood trees. Before they backed the lake up, they went in and cut the trees. So we’ve got stumps under the water from the railroad bridge all the way to the nuclear plant. That stretch is probably four, five or six miles. And the thing is it’s a mile or greater wide and feeds into one of the better tributaries that runs into the river in Swan Creek.
“Decatur Flats is best in the early spring when the water comes up in the latter part of March. When TVA starts backing it up to full pool level, that’s when the bass move out of the deeper water and deeper channels back onto the flats. The bass just hang around the stumps. There’s another thing about the flats that makes it really, really good. There are a lot of creek channels and ditches that run through it. Those feed into both the river and the back channel and allow for the migration of the bass from the deeper water to the spawning areas on the flats.”
Gowen said almost anything will work when the bass are hanging on the flats.
“A lot of folks use spinnerbaits,” he said. “Of course, you can use the lipless crankbaits like Rat-L-Traps or Rattlin’ Rap. Those are extremely good. Also, plastic worms, tube baits and Shaky Heads – almost anything will catch bass on the flats.”
Gowen said early morning fishing is good with topwater baits off the old river channel where it rises into the flats. The Decatur Flats will also have that morning topwater bite. There are also humps in the lake that hold fish.
“On the ledges and humps, we use a Carolina-rig or a drop-shot rig,” he said. “Some people will slow-roll a large spinnerbait. Others will throw deep-diving crankbaits but those will wear you out.”
“There’s a lot of good fishing all the way from Guntersville Dam,” Gowen said. “There’s good sauger fishing and good catfishing. There are plenty of good cuts and creek mouths all the way to Decatur at the Interstate Bridge, where it starts to widen out.
“The river ledges are extremely good all the way from Guntersville Dam all the way below the nuclear plant. Then you’ve got lake-type fishing on down the lake. You’ve got bluffs before you get to Elk River. That’s a good smallmouth area. When you get up into Elk River above the Highway 72, you’ve never seen the like of timber. A lot of people like to fish structure. And it’s some of the best fishing I’ve ever seen.”
Wintertime is the best time for smallmouth, and the worst weather possible is when the smallmouth like to bite, according to Gowen.
“Most people think Wheeler is a largemouth lake, but there are quite a few smallmouth in Wheeler,” he said. “When I first moved to Decatur in 1964, on one of my first fishing trips I was bream fishing and caught a bream. Then all of a sudden my pole bent double and up comes what look like about a seven-pound smallmouth with that bream in his mouth. Then he just spit that bream out. That was my first encounter with a smallmouth bass.
“Then we had a member in our club, Mike Johnson, and on the coldest winter day, he came into the weigh-in and he had five fish that weighed 23 pounds and all of them were smallmouths. Every one of them, and he caught them within sight of the ramp in Decatur.”
Gowen said anglers have had to work a little harder the past couple of years because the aquatic vegetation was plentiful in the lake several years ago has almost vanished.
“For whatever reason, the milfoil has disappeared,” he said. “We had a period of rain and high water that put a high level of sediment in the water. Milfoil and hydrilla don’t do well in that kind of water. TVA studied and said that was probably what caused it to disappear.
“If the milfoil comes back, I think the fishing will be as good as it was before. But it’s still good. We have more tournaments on the lake that we’ve ever had, especially since we got Ingalls Harbor.”
Speaking of Ingalls Harbor, it may be the finest launch/parking facility I’ve ever seen. The City of Decatur and the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitor's Bureau realized the potential of an old dry dock and harbor area near downtown and it was converted into the modern, 21-acre area that can host any size fishing tournament around.
“It is one of the premier facilities in the nation,” said Gowen, who is very active in promoting youth fishing events and organizations in north Alabama. “All the pros in the major fishing organizations have nothing but kind words for it. When you can put 10 to 12 boats in at one time; when you can have tournaments with 400 boats in it; when you can get all those boats out in 30 minutes, it’s got to be world-class.
“And we’re just getting started with Ingalls Harbor. The Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitor's Bureau has five phases they’re working on now. They’re getting ready to put in a large pavilion and kind of a conference center. It’s going to be absolutely beautiful when it’s done.”
PHOTOS (Gowen photo by David Rainer, harbor photo courtesy of ESPN): Don Gowen shows off a chunky largemouth that took a trick worm in Wheeler Lake on the edge of the Decatur Flats. The abundant space at Ingalls Harbor boat launch gives anglers in the Bassmaster Elite tournament plenty of room to prepare for the start of the day’s fishing.