Pickwick Offers Scenic Diversity, Great Fishing
By DAVID RAINER
Anyone who doubts the diversity of fishing venues in Alabama has obviously never had the opportunity to cast a bait in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and then travel to the other end of the state to fish the Tennessee River lake known as Pickwick, which offers some of the most scenic vistas in the state, as well as some of the best freshwater fishing.
Pickwick Lake is the home lake for avid bass anglers Lance Walker and Chris Armstrong. Although they might fish all over creation, they always end up at the 47,500-acre impoundment that lies in extreme northwest Alabama and borders Tennessee and Mississippi.
“Up river toward Florence, there are a lot of gravel bars down through there,” Walker said. “In late February through early April the smallmouth and largemouth like to spawn on those bars. In the summer, it can be really good, too, but it is current driven. Then later in the summer, you can target the grass on the ends of the islands all the way up toward Florence. From mid July through October you can have great fishing in the milfoil, much like Guntersville, on that end of the lake.”
Before the grass gets thick, Walker depends on current to push the fish into areas he calls “roll-ups,” upwellings where the current pushes bait over some hump or ledge, offering an ambush point for the bass.
“You’ve got to have current for these fish to relate to cover,” said Walker, whose personal best smallmouth is 7 pounds, 3 ounces, caught this past spring in Alabama waters on a Lucky Craft 100 jerk bait. “In the spring, I run the deeper gravel bars. You’ll have obvious points you can see on the bank and others that you can’t see. You want to position the boat in 15 to 20 feet of water and make a quartering cast with a big, deep-suspending jerk bait, whether it’s a Lucky Craft or a Rapala bait. You want to jerk it down and then let it suspend and fish it slow. A lot of the fish are suspended off those gravel bars.
“You can also catch them on a big spinnerbait, a ¾-ounce or 1-ounce spinnerbait. If you get a real warm day, you can catch them on a Red Eye Shad or Rat-L-Trap. The water on the Alabama side warms up faster than the Mississippi and Tennessee sides. The fish on the Alabama side are the first fish to pull up and spawn.”
Armstrong’s personal best smallmouth is 7 pounds, 8 ounces.
“I actually caught that fish within sight of the Florence Bridge,” Armstrong said. “That one was caught in the fall on a Fluke-type bait.”
When the spawn is finished, Walker and Armstrong depend on electricity generation from the river’s hydro-electric plant to improve the bite. That’s when they switch to a variety of baits, depending on water depth – a Carolina-rigged creature bait like a Baby Brush Hog; a V&M High Tail, a drop-shot rig with a trick worm like a Vicious Shakin’ PT or Limit-Ator; a football-head jig with a craw chunk; or a Norman DD-22 crankbait.
“At Pickwick Dam, if they have one gate open, you can catch fish,” Walker said. “But for it to get good, you really need three gates open. That will move the fish that are up on flats or fish that are suspended, it will make them key on structure. About an hour after the three gates are opened, those fish will pull to the heads of those islands or to bends in the river. Most people think you fish the down-current side, but these fish will move to the roll-ups on the up-current side, where the current hits the structure and bounces up. The fish will position themselves where they can pick off whatever bounces over that little rise.
“If you watch the big green channel markers and can see the current going around the markers, you can go up there and catch a lot fish.”
When the grass gets thick later in the summer, Walker changes strategies and ties on a bait that mimics a crawfish with a relatively heavy weight.
“It’s much like Guntersville, and this is really something new for Pickwick,” Walker said. “I use a half-ounce tungsten weight. You can use a Paca Craw or any crawfish-imitation bait with this technique. You don’t have to punch through the grass, but you catch them flipping the edges of the grass. Usually the best spots are the points where the grass stops and you can find hard bottom in 8 to 10 feet of water. You might catch one and you might catch eight or 10. They tend to school on those points. The key is, when you pitch to the edge of the grass, do not engage the reel. Let it drop straight down.”
Armstrong added, “And you need to fish it all the way back to the boat, because those fish will be on those shell beds or gravel bars.”
When Walker and Armstrong head toward Pickwick dam, they are looking for mussel shell beds and ledges.
“There is not as much grass on that end of the lake, so the fish are more ledge-related,” Walker said. “It’s really more of a river system once you get above Bear Creek. Current seems to help those fish on that end of the lake, but those fish don’t have anywhere to roam. So you can pull up and catch three or four fish on a ledge if you don’t have a lot of current. When I’m looking for spots, I look for the drops, but the key is whether I see bait fish. The bass are going to hang with those bait fish. And you’ve got have hard bottom – shells or gravel. You can go along a ledge for miles and then find one small area with shells and that’s where the fish will be.
“And it can be a smallmouth one cast and a largemouth the next. They all run together.”
Because of Pickwick’s scenic shoreline, it offers another fishing technique called bluff fishing.
“The bluffs are not all created equal,” Walker said. “You want to fish the deepest bluffs. Basically, bluffs are little ledges. You may go down 15 feet and there’s a little outcropping. Those fish will suspend on those outcroppings. I use a Shaky Head worm, 3/16ths-ounce or ¼-ounce jig or a brown and purple finesse jig, a 5/16ths ounce. When you make cast on a bluff bank, don’t engage the reel. Ninety-nine percent of your bluff bites, the fish hit it on the fall. If your line stops, you need to check and see if the fish grabbed it on the fall. If it gets all the way to the bottom, you might as well reel it in and make another cast. You can catch a lot of fish that way.”
Because Pickwick borders three states, reciprocal license agreements are in effect within certain boundaries.
Alabama’s reciprocal license agreement with Tennessee pertaining to the Tennessee River-Pickwick Lake reads: A reciprocal agreement is in effect between the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to recognize the sport fishing licenses of the two states within the impounded waters of the Tennessee River-Pickwick Lake lying within Hardin County, Tennessee, and Lauderdale County, Alabama, from Pickwick Dam (approximately TRM 207.8) upstream to where the common boundary line of Colbert County, Alabama, and Tishomingo County, Mississippi, meet the Lauderdale County, Alabama, boundary line at approximately TRM 224.8.
Alabama’s reciprocal agreements with Mississippi at Pickwick and its tributaries reads: Reciprocal agreements are in effect whereby sports fishing licenses of Mississippi and Alabama are mutually recognized for fishing either the water or from the banks of said water of the following part of the Tennessee River or embayment or impoundments. All that part of the Tennessee River and its embayment and impoundments between the junction of the Tennessee-Alabama-Mississippi line and a north-south line projected across the Tennessee River from the eastern end of the old Riverton Lock, except and exclusive of that part of the Big Bear Embayment lying south of the Southern Railroad bridge. Visit www.mdwfp.com/Level2/Fisheries/PickwickLicense.html for a map of the aforementioned waters.
While Wilson Lake, the next lake up river, rivals Pickwick in terms of smallmouth fishing, Walker insists Pickwick has the potential to produce a new world record smallmouth (currently 11 pounds, 15 ounces).
“There is no question in my mind there is a 12-pound smallmouth swimming around in Pickwick,” Walker said. “The lake is so healthy with so many bait fish; I know there is a record fish down there. The thing is, I think they are different creatures. They stay deeper and I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t spawn in 20 feet of water. The average fisherman is not fishing for that fish. But she’s down there.”
PHOTOS: Top - Lance Walker shows off a 6-pound-plus largemouth that fell for a Carolina-rigged Baby Brush Hog on one of Pickwick's many mussel shell beds.
Bottom - Chris Armstrong's 7-pound, 8-ounce smallmouth bass was caught within sight of the Florence Bridge in October, 2004.