Jimmy Mason: Pickwick Lake and the Smallmouth Bass

Certain things just go together. In the fishing world, Pickwick and smallmouth has a certain ring to it, an attractive combination that lures fishermen from near and far in search of brown bass.

Admittedly, Pickwick Lake, the second stop in the North Division of the Alabama Bass Trail, has trended toward an elite largemouth fishery in recent years. Guntersville is no longer the only grass lake in North Alabama, and the largemouth population on Pickwick has expanded exponentially as its vast hydrilla fields continue to flourish

Yet the largemouth has not totally supplanted the smallmouth as the dominant black bass species on the 47,000-acre reservoir that stretches almost 50 miles from Wilson Dam in Florence to Pickwick Dam in south-central Tennessee. As the lake thrives and remains a fixture as a premier bass-fishing destination, the two species complement rather than compete directly against each other.

The notion of Pickwick as a premier smallmouth lake remains embedded in the minds of most knowledgeable bass fishermen. It continues to be one of the best locales in the country to catch trophy smallmouth bass. Erie may produce more tournament-quality, three- to five-pound fish on a daily basis. Dale Hollow may boast more top-end smallmouth. Pickwick continues to yield all of the above, a lake that gives up numbers of smallmouth along with the opportunity to catch a true giant.

While not necessarily common, five- and six-pound fish are readily available. Bigger fish, up to about nine pounds, roam the lake. And when discussions begin about the lake that could possibly produce the next world record, Pickwick always enters the conversation.

I’m lucky in the sense that I get to fish all of the Tennessee Valley Authority lakes in North Alabama. Each offers a distinct appeal, yet the potential of the smallmouth fishing on Pickwick makes it a favorite for me and for the fishermen whom I guide. When repeat clients inquire about fishing in the region, they almost always ask, “what are the smallmouth doing on Pickwick?” Many would rather catch a single Pickwick smallmouth than a dozen largemouth on Guntersville.

Scheduled for March 22, the Alabama Bass Trail event promises to be a slugfest, and smallmouth will almost certainly factor in the winning equation.

The upper reaches of Pickwick, from Wilson Dam down to about the Natchez Trace Bridge, boast prime smallmouth habitat. Heavily influenced by current generated at Wilson Dam, an almost unlimited array of bluffs, rock piles, gravel bars, and ledges provides plenty of ambush sites for feeding smallmouth.

Specifically trying to target smallmouth, I almost always focus on the main lake. While I catch the occasional smallmouth in the feeder streams that pour into Pickwick, focus on the main body of water. Smallmouth are a current-oriented, main-lake fish.

I’m looking for some type of structure, either rock or wood, that breaks the current. Learn to identify that type of structure, and smallmouth will be somewhere close. Some of it, like bluffs and rock rows, is obvious, but also rely on electronics to pinpoint hidden underwater structure. While smallmouth are not always identified with wood, big stumps located just off the main river channel are ideal feeding locations for trophy fish.

A variety of presentations will fool Pickwick smallmouth, ranging from light-tackle set-ups to umbrella rigs. I really like to chase smallmouth bass with light tackle and small lures. I love throwing a grub on spinning tackle. A YUM Muy Grub, a bucktail jig, or a Sassy Shad-type lure all work in a similar fashion.

Often when I am thinking exclusively smallmouth, I will be sitting inside a cut, beside the Sheffield rock rows, or on the back side of a bluff point.  I will cast the lure out and upstream above the intended target. Allow the current to sweep back toward the structure, into the eddies where the fish will be holding.

Mentally picture where the lure is heading. Cast in such a way to guide it past these locations. Lead the bait down to where it will hit the structure.

Quality tackle is imperative in these situations because Pickwick Lake smallmouth are among the most powerful fish that swim in freshwater. The Dobyns 704 spinning rod is great for this application. I use relatively light line, eight-pound test, so a reel with a smooth drag is important.

I’m not suggesting that all Pickwick smallmouth are taken on finesse tackle. Many situations arise that demand heavier equipment. If the current is really whipping, then lighter lures are out of the question. They simply won’t get down in the current.

At those times, I might be fishing in similar places but replace the lighter grubs with something like a five-inch YUM Money Minnow on a 1/2-ounce jig head. You still want good equipment – the Dobyns Champion 745 DX is my favorite swimbait rod – but the principle is exactly the same.  I want that bait to sweep through the feeding areas where the fish are holding. The current, however, dictates a heavier lure.

Of course, ignoring the umbrella rig on Pickwick at this time of year is probably a mistake. While I catch more largemouth than smallmouth on a YUMbrella Rig, I still catch plenty of big smallmouth on the Flash Mob and Flash Mob Jr. Depending on current and water clarity, I use a combination of Money Minnows, YUM Mud Minnows, and MUY Grubs on the outside arms of the umbrella rig with a five-inch Money Minnow in the center.

Few scenarios in fishing rival the strike and the fight of a big smallmouth bass. My heart threatens to explode when a tiger-striped brown bass explodes to the surfaces. The leaps are epic, more often measured in feet rather than inches.

Yes, the smallmouth can be fickle. They are notorious roamers, homesteading on a location one day and migrating to parts unknown the next. Yet the chance to catch a Pickwick trophy smallmouth often trumps the dependability of largemouth.

That’s why certain combinations – in this case Pickwick Lake and smallmouth bass – just can’t be ignored.

Jimmy Mason

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