Editor’s Note: Nolan Shivers of Birmingham. Alabama, and his fishing buddy, Cap Wilover, brought in a box full of smallmouth bass to be mounted at my brother Archie Phillips’ taxidermy shop years ago. They had 10 smallmouth bass, weighing a total of 98 pounds, that they wanted to be mounted on a stringer. That was the biggest catch of smallmouth I ever had seen in my life. When I asked Shivers how they caught those smallmouths, he explained that they caught them minnow fishing below Wheeler Dam on Wilson Lake on the Tennessee River in swift water within 50 yards of the dam down to 2 miles past the dam on shell banks, Indian mounds, drop-offs and ledges. During the fall and winter months, the smallmouths and other bass on the Tennessee River gang-up near the dams, because the water coming from the hydroelectric plants is warmer than the water in the Tennessee River lakes and feed on shad minnows. A few weeks ago, I fished The Tennessee River’s Pickwick Lake on the borders of Tennessee/Alabama/Mississippi with guide Brad Whitehead of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, (email@example.com) and (https://www.facebook.com/people/Brad-Whitehead/100008425833568) and Ronnie Leatherwood of Killen, Alabama.
Ronnie Leatherwood has been bass fishing Pickwick Lake for 35 years and defines himself as a bluff fisherman. Like many lakes on the Tennessee River, Pickwick has numerous sheer rock bluffs. During the fall and winter months, you’ll see Leatherwood casting these bluffs and catching bass. The casual observer may assume that Leatherwood is a tourist fishing the bluffs because he doesn’t know where to fish, but Leatherwood is a dedicated student of bluff fishing
“I’ve learned that in the fall of the year, the shad minnow migrate up toward the dam as the water temperature begins to drop, and the zooplankton out in the lake are much less available for the shad minnows,” Leatherwood reports. “These minnows want to move to a place where the water’s warmer. The water released from the hydroelectric plant is warmer than the water in the lake.
“The primary route I’ve learned that the shad minnows take to get to the dam is along the bluff walls. The minnows are moving up toward the dam and holding on the bluff walls to feed on the algae on the rocks at the bluffs. Although the bluffs look like straight rock walls, actually there are outcroppings, small caves and different types of uneven structure on these sheer rock walls. These small outcroppings of walls and cutbacks create current breaks where the minnows can rest and feed on the algae as they move closer to the dam. The smallmouth, spotted and some largemouth bass and probably about every fish in the lake follows the minnows, which is their food supply. Another advantage of fishing the bluff walls is those rocks hold the heat from the sun – even on the coldest days. There only may be a 1 – 2 degree change in water temperature right up against those bluffs, but that’s enough warmth to cause the minnows to be there.
“The bass will be following the minnows and holding in those same eddy breaks on those bluff walls. Oftentimes the bass will be concentrating right up against the bluff – not a foot or more away from the rocks. Cast your bait as close to the bluff as you possibly can, and let it fall down right in front of the bluffs. Or, cast a crankbait so that it almost hits the bluffs before you start cranking it down. Or, if you’re fishing parallel to the bluffs, start cranking just as the crankbait hits the water. Try and keep that crankbait running as close to the bluff as you can.
“The same is true if you’re fishing soft plastics like swimbaits, worms or other lures. If I’m fishing with live minnows, I’ll use either 8 – 10-pound test Stren Hi Vis line (http://www.stren.com/), a No. 1/0 or a No. 2/0 Eagle Claw Kahle circle hook (https://www.eagleclaw.com) tied to the end of the line and no weight.”
For further information about Pickwick Lake, contact Colbert County Tourism
(www.colbertcountytourism.org), or call 800-334-0783. A great place to stay is the Cold Water Inn in Tuscumbia, Alabama, for delicious food and very-nice rooms. Call 855-249-1953, and visit (http://coldwaterinn.com).
To learn more about bass fishing, go to John E. Phillips’ book, “Winning Strategies of the Bass Pros” Winning Strategies of the Bass Pros” available in Kindle, print and Audible versions at https://amzn.to/2XJrz3k.
Tomorrow: What Other Cool Weather Smallmouth Bass Tactics Work at Pickwick Lake