By DAVID RAINER
The old adage among bass fishermen who have had the good fortune to land both largemouths and smallmouths is that if the two species of similar size were tied tail to tail, the smallmouth would drag the largemouth all over the lake.
The smallmouths with their beautiful bronze color are football-shaped packages of power that love current. And there’s no better place to land a drag-stripping, downright mean smallmouth than Pickwick Lake on the Tennessee River in northwest Alabama.
Tim Horton of Muscle Shoals, the Bassmaster Angler of the Year in 2000 and regular on the Elite Series circuit, got his start on Pickwick as a guide. Jimmy Mason of Rogersville, who spent some time fishing the Elite Series before returning to his guide business, loves to put customers on big smallmouth on Pickwick. Both agree, now is the time to catch a trophy smallmouth.
“Mid-March, on a scale of one to 10, is about as close to a 10 as you can get on Pickwick Lake,” said Horton, who started guiding on Pickwick in 1995. “The smallmouth are really feeding up. They are as big as they are all year long because they’re coming off their wintertime deal with the cold water temperatures. Their metabolism isn’t quite as high, yet, but they’re feeding up. They’re really fat right now. A normal six-pounder will weigh seven pounds right now.
“And right now, I like to fish for them just below the Wilson Dam in the eddy water with a swim bait. Or I like to move on down the lake to the gravel bars and catch them on crankbaits.”
Mason has a technique that he relies on farther down the lake that involves both hard and soft plastic jerkbaits.
“When the water temperatures gets in the upper 40s and low 50s, those fish will start coming up on those gravel bars Tim mentioned,” Mason said. “I also fish the knobby points and even some of the ledges. The high spots on the ledges that are solid, they’ll start staging up and grouping up on those. A jerkbait is hard to beat for me that time of year.
“When I’m fishing the jerkbait, from a smallmouth standpoint, I think the biggest thing is to slow it down. I’ll make a long cast and jerk it down to the desired depth. I’ll typically start with a 10-count. I’ll jerk it twice and count to 10, jerk it twice and count to 10. One of the things I like to do is point my rod back at the jerkbait right before I snap it. That throws a big loop of slack in it, which gives the bait lot harder cuts. A lot of the bites will come with the bait sitting still. Sometimes you’ll get to the 7-8-9 count and then it feels almost like a worm bite. You’ll feel a little tick when they hit it.”
Horton said for people traveling to fish Pickwick that a great deal of the fishing technique will be dictated by the flood gates and water color.
“If you get here and the flood gates are on, don’t let that be discouraging,” Horton said. “That can be some of the best fishing you can find on some of the cutbacks and some of the bluffs. The cutbacks I’m talking about are where a bluff makes a turn and you’ve got a little eddy. When you find them in areas like that, you don’t have to worry about what bait you’re using. You can flat-out catch them stacked up there and it’s a lot of fun.
“When the water really gets dirtied up, those fish will be in two to three feet of water down on those bluffs walls on the lower end. They’ll even be up in the tailrace areas behind the islands and some of the cut-through areas. You want to look for something blocking the current.”
While there are plenty of lakes to the north that offer outstanding smallmouth fishing, both Mason and Horton agree the quality of the bronzebacks at Pickwick is unmatched.
“You hear Pickwick compared to Lake Erie a lot,” Mason said. “But I think you have a much better chance of catching a giant on Pickwick.”
Horton added: “To catch an eight-plus, your odds are lot better on Pickwick. To be honest, you’re not going to catch as many three- and four-pounders here as you will on Erie. But you don’t have to fool with the 10-foot swells on Erie, either.
“Here, smallmouth bass `fishermen love to largemouth fish, too. And Pickwick is on par with any lake in the South right now. It’s because of the hydrilla and the smallmouth fishing has not suffered. It may have even gotten better.”
Unlike other Tennessee River lakes, Horton said that Pickwick has large flats that are relatively shallow, which enhance current flow.
“What current that comes through just keeps on pushing down the lake,” Horton said. “And the gravel and spawning habitat is just right for smallmouth bass. And they’re the farthest south in their natural range, so you’ve got a longer growing season and, therefore, bigger fish.”
Mason caught his personal best smallmouth, which weighed 8 pounds 2 ounces, last spring.
“You’ve got an abundance of bait on Pickwick,” Mason said. “You’ve got both gizzard and threadfin shad. In that long growing season, that abundance of bait really helps them to get bigger.”
Horton caught his top smallmouth live-bait fishing in the fall about 10 years ago. The fish’s length and girth were measured and the fish released. The measurements indicated the fish weighed between 9 and 9 ½ pounds.
“It was a giant,” Horton said. “That was in 2001 and I had just come back from a Bassmaster tournament in Mobile when I caught that one.”
As the fishing transitions into late spring and early summer, both anglers tie on topwater baits or use a different technique for the jerkbaits.
“Think surface when you’re thinking late spring and early summer,” Horton said. “Even on into the summer and into the fall, they’ll be near the surface early and then move out on the ledges.
Horton said one thing to always remember about Pickwick, no matter what time of year, the fishing will always be current oriented. Look for main river bars and shell beds in that four- to five-foot range that are close to deep water.
“As you transition on into summer, I’ll start throwing a Carolina-rig on the river ledges,” Horton said. “They can be as shallow as eight feet, but the hotter it gets the deeper they’ll get – 14 to 18 feet. We’ll also catch them deep-cranking and on a football jig as deep as 20-22 feet. That’s about as deep as you’ll catch them.”
But Mason cautions not to forget about the topwater baits in low-light conditions.
“Even in 100-degree weather, there’s going to be a little flurry in the morning where you can catch some really nice smallmouth on the surface,” Mason said. “And when the current is really ripping, those smallmouth will start schooling around those bars and eddies.”
Horton added: “Really keep your eyes open. You’ll see those threadfin shad shoot out of the water. They look like mullet skipping through the water. When you see that, usually there’s a smallmouth chasing them.”
After the first couple of cold fronts of the fall, Horton and Mason get back to the surface fishing.
“October has some of the best topwater fishing of the year,” Mason said. “I like the soft jerkbaits that time of year. I like the bluffs with current to do that.”
Horton said the hydrilla has added a new feature to fishing on Pickwick in the fall.
“You’ll find the smallmouths schooling on the heads of the hydrilla mats,” Horton said. “If you see some schooling action, sometimes you’ll find smallmouths and largemouths in there together, but you’ll catch some big smallmouths doing that.”
At times on Pickwick, you can catch a five-pound smallmouth on one cast and a five-pound largemouth on the next.
“There are a few other places where you can do that, mostly Tennessee River-related,” Horton said. “But there’s no place better for that than Pickwick.”
Visit www.colbertcountytourism.org/ for information on fishing Pickwick, available accommodations and other attractions when you’re not on the water.
PHOTO: (By David Rainer) Tim Horton of Muscle Shoals grabs a chunky smallmouth that hit a crankbait at Pickwick Lake on the Tennessee River in northwest Alabama. Guide Jimmy Mason of Rogersville catches trophy smallmouth on jerkbaits, swimbaits and crankbaits during the spring of the year in the swift water in Pickwick below the Wilson Dam.