Fishing a "Rat"
Fall Means 'Rat' Fishing at Guntersville
By DAVID RAINER
Already rated as one of the best bass fishing lakes in the nation, Lake Guntersville is about to celebrate one of its heralded features – fishing a “rat” in the grass mats.
As the first cool fronts of autumn sweep across northeast Alabama, the fishing on this 67,900-acre Tennessee River impoundment starts a shift to a pattern that gives any angler a thrill. And although most people call it “rat” fishing, the anglers are actually using a lure that looks more like a frog, mainly Snag Proof’s Moss Master Tournament Frog.
Guide Tim Chandler visits his favorite fishing holes and looks for signs of a combination of bait and bass.
“I listen for that popping noise,” Chandler said. “I call it Rice Krispies. Bluegills and baitfish are kissing the water, eating insects, and it makes a sort sucking, popping sound. I pull up to a mat, cut the motor and just listen. As long as you hear a little bit, there’s probably a fish in the area. If you don’t hear that, you’re pretty much wasting your time.
“When it's really good, it’s loud. You think they’re in the boat with you it’s so loud.”
Although the bass are going to hang out where they’re the hardest to reach the majority of the time, that’s not always the case, according to Chandler.
“Let the fish tell you what kind of grass they want to be in,” Chandler advises. “That yellow-looking slimy is usually the best. It almost looks like melted cheese on top of a pizza. It’s thicker and has been there for a while. And it doesn’t matter if the water rises or falls, it just goes up and down with the water. Some of the other grass, the water will cover it, which is not good for frog fishing. Then you have to switch over to the buzz baits and buzz frogs.
“But most of the time, they like the thick stuff. You hear the pops and do fan casts. If they’re there, it doesn’t take many casts. They’re gonna maul it.”
If Chandler hears a minimum of the Rice Krispies sound, then he looks for signs of bass attacks.
“I look for what I call blowholes,” he said. “That’s a hole in the grass where a bass has come up to bust a bream or shad. That’s a telltale sign a bass is in the area. It can be the size of a grapefruit up to a basketball. I’ve been out there many times fishing a rat and a crane or kingfisher will swoop down at the grass and one of the bass in the mat will strike at him. He sees the shadow come by and hits that. When you see that swirl, the fish just showed himself. Then you can usually throw your frog over there and he’ll nail it.”
Chandler said a water temperature drop of as little as five degrees can trigger the bonanza in the grass, which consists of milfoil, hydrilla and coontail moss.
“The fish start moving up when the water temperature starts dropping,” he said. “It doesn’t take much. A cold rain can drop the surface temperature 10-15 degrees. With the cool nights we’ve had lately, the water has dropped over 5 degrees. That helps the fishing. The bass start roaming and moving to the fall pattern. Like (lakes) Wilson and Pickwick, you can see a lot of schooling fish. I call them wolf packs, where they’re out chasing balls of baitfish. That happens when the water gets cooler.
“The bass just follow the baitfish. The bluegill and shad move up shallow into the grass mats. That’s why the fall bite gets so good. The frog is at its best, in the fall. I also catch them pretty good on buzzbaits and plastic buzz-type frogs (YUM BuzzFrog, Ribbit and Seismic Toad) in the scattered grass. That’s why you have to let the bass tell you what kind of grass they like. Sometimes it’s the middle of the mat, and sometimes it’s the edge of the mat.”
For me, it took a bit of coaching from Chandler to get the hang of the retrieve the fish prefer at Guntersville. I was accustomed to a steady retrieve that worked on the bass in the lily pads on Ross Barnett Reservoir in Mississippi, which has a purpose at Guntersville, but not to catch fish.
“The steady retrieve is an excellent way to cover water and locate them,” Chandler said. “But 99 percent of the time they won’t get it. Most rat fishermen work with the rod tip down as if working a jerk bait. Pull, pause, pull – about 18 inches a pull. If one hits it, they have a good chance to get it. About 80 percent of the strikes, they hit it to stun it. If you get a bite, throw right back over and you’ll likely get another bite. Their intention is to eat it.
“I’ve never seen a rat or frog run out across a mat. They think it’s a bluegill or shad. When a bluegill gets chased out of the mat, it will flicker two or three times before they can get back through the mat. That’s ringing the dinner bell for a bass. It’s like dragging a string by a cat, he can’t resist it. He’s going to jump on it because he can.”
The main thing I did learn about frog fishing at Ross Barnett was to delay the hook-set as long as possible.
“Never set the hook until you feel him pull,” Chandler said. “He’s not going to let go if he’s going to eat it. You’ll see your line move or you’ll feel him pull. That’s when you set the hook. At least give him two seconds.”
If you’re a light tackle angler, you’d better find another pattern to try at Guntersville.
“Don’t even think about bringing spinning rods,” Chandler said. “You need heavy action casting rods with a minimum of 65-pound test braided line. You’ve got to have the heavy artillery to fish that grass. I use a seven-foot heavy action Falcon rod with 65-pound Power Pro and Snag-Proof frogs. The first thing I do is cut the legs off the frog. It casts farther and more accurately. The fish can’t see the legs anyway.
“If you’re fishing buzz frogs, you can get by with 20-pound test mono, but if you’re in the mats you’ve got have the heavy stuff, unless you want to get your heart broke.”
Fishing on Guntersville, which has a 15-inch minimum size limit on largemouth bass and smallmouth bass, goes through another transition in November when the serious cold fronts come blowing through. The wind associated with the fronts will break up the grass mats and send them down the river or push pieces back into coves.
“You’ll have stringy grass left over,” said Chandler (256-655-8292). “When that happens, you’ve still got fish roaming in groups. You can catch them on spinnerbaits, soft and hard jerk baits and shallow-running crankbaits, buzzbaits – anything you can fish over scattered grass. It’s kind of like the spring at Guntersville, when the grass is just starting to grow.
“But if you find grass mats in November and December, they can be very, very deadly. The mat may not be but 20 feet wide, but it will hold fish that will hit a rat. And there’s nothing quite like watching them hit a rat.”
While you’re out on Lake Guntersville, be sure to be on the lookout for the bald eagles that call the area home. The eagles return to Guntersville in the fall and nest through the winter.
Lake Guntersville State Park is one of the top spots to be on the lookout for the eagles, especially at Town Creek. The park offers cabins, chalets and improved campsites for anglers and bird-watchers alike. Go to www.alapark.com for more information on accommodations and eagle-watching activities.