Sunday, March 9, 2014

Notes from Smith Lake Bassmaster Southern Open

Birmingham Alabama is the location of the Bassmaster headquarters, and one hour north was the location of the Southern Open stop #2 In Jasper, AL.

I set up camp at the Smith Lake County Campground on Ryan Creek, about 30 minutes north of the event launch site. 

When I arrived in Alabama, Smith Lake was still in a winter setting. The county had been experiencing radical weather: record snowfall a week before we arrived, then a warm front in the 60s, followed by light snow flurries and temperatures in the 20s. We fished every day of practice and the tournament under different weather conditions. 

Snow on boat seats and frozen hatches.
Main lake water temperatures were in the mid 40s, but creek temperatures would rise and fall daily. Snow melt and rain water flowed into some backwater creeks bringing stained water. Throughout the week, the sun would quickly warm up the shallow creeks whenever it would shine, only to have overnight low temperatures cool them down again. 

Spotted bass are known to spawn when water temperatures reach 55° and largemouth in the low 60s. One day during practice the backwater areas warmed up to 54° and set the stage for a pre-spawn/ spawning fishing tournament.
Shallows reached temperatures in the 50s

When I first started my practice it was partly sunny and I confirmed feeder streams were flowing stained, warm water into the backwater creeks, turning them a light turquoise color. The nutrients were surely allowing algae and zooplankton to flurrish which should attract the shad and bass. 

With water temperatures rising into the 50s I fished on the assumption that spotted bass were ready to spawn. I concentrated my fishing in this warmer, shallow water at first. Then, I simply fished the rocky shoreline and floating docks all the way out to the crystal-clear main lake. My goal was to find schools of pre-spawn bass. 

Standing timber lined the entire bottom of the creeks leading into the bays

On my second day of practice it was overcast all day. The shallow waters started to cool down but the deep, clear waters of the main lake held steady at 48°.  Forecasters told of snow and more cold weather coming overnight. The approaching front was sure to slow down my shallow water largemouth bass bite so I worked to locate the more aggressive spotted bass in deep water. Depth would buffer the effect of the weather and provide a blanket of comfort to the fish. 

Since the lake is predominantly a clearwater system, I found that overall the bass would hit better during overcast days or in the shallow turquoise-stained water during sunny days. I was able to get bites on bluegill colored swimming jigs and shad colored hard jerk baits.

I caught several nice bass during my hunt, including a brute at nearly six pounds. 

My biggest bass were holding on a cement road surrounded by boulder rock. The road traveled down the bank and into the lake and was located at the mouth of a shallow creek. It was the perfect prespawn staging area for big bass. 

Weather during practice changed so much it was difficult keeping up with the bass. My practice only yielded one good area and a fishing pattern of using jerkbaits and swim jigs in shallow creeks. Not a good feeling going into an event.

The first day of the tournament was partly cloudy with a potential for afternoon showers. Launching out as boat number three I was able to beat the anglers to my best area and had the creek all to myself for about an hour. I found the creek starting to clear up and the warm water temperatures had dropped back down to 47°.  Conditions didn't look good for that big shallow-water bite I had found in practice. 
Using a hard jerk bait, I was able to catch three bass under two pounds in the first hour. I left and went to another bay and caught a three-pound spotted bass working my jerk bait over a hump that rose up to 8 feet out of 40 feet. Moving to a third bay I fished fallen trees and caught a four-pound largemouth bass to fill out my limit. I had the rest if the day to just fish and catch bigger bass. It never happened.

I tried my hardest to fish shakyhead and skirted jigs in deeper water, but I only enticed one small bass that I culled immediately.  I finished day one with a weight of 11 lbs. 9 oz. for five bass.  It put me in 42nd place, just 3lbs, 6ozs from making the final day top-12 cut. 


The second day of the tournament we fished under bluebird skies, calm winds, and bright sunshine. During the first low-light hours I fished jerkbaits in the shallows to successfully draw the attention of two bass. One spotted bass of nearly three pounds and a largemouth in the two pound range. The bass only nipped at my hard jerk bait and never committed to eating it. Their skittishness told me that fishing pressure and front had taken their toll on making the fish weary. 

After an hour without a fish, I moved out of the creek to the main lake and fished my jerkbaits along bluff walls and rock piles that gradually dropped from 10 feet into a hundred feet.

I noticed the bass were suspended between 10 and 30 feet and probably not feeding well. I managed to catch a two-pound spotted bass off a rock ledge that totally ate the jerkbait. When fish totally swallow your artificial lure it usually means you have found the right lure and fishing technique. 

With that in mind I felt that each backwater feeder creek was worth at least one bass, so I began fishing as many as possible. The creeks had warmed up to 55° and schools of shad were starting to show up. I caught two more small bass in the creeks but this method was not going to get me in the top-12. 

With only three hours left I sped up Ryan Creek to fish a large stained bay that I had found in practice. I had seen mostly largemouth bass in the area and they would really help my bag if I could catch a few.  Unfortunately, the creek was loaded with anglers and did not produce a bass. 

In one cove I saw stripped bass busting baitfish under a dock that was sitting in 60 feet of water.

I tossed my jerkbait to them only to have them eat my lure and break my line. Dang..lost my best jerkbait. I quickly tied on a topwater bait and worked the surrounding docks. I caught one small largemouth bass amongst the stripers that gave me four bass total. ...a very slow day. 

I worked a Carolina rigged trick worm on primary and secondary points the rest of the day trying to relocate the bass. I never did find them. 

I finished day two with four small bass that weighed under six pounds and ended my chance of making a top placing. 

My final weight of 17 lbs, 5 oz. put me in 75th place out of 158 pros and a mere three pounds out of the money.
Had I hooked one of those early morning bass I saw following and nip at my jerkbait I would have achieved a better outcome. 
On my drive home I listened to the top 12 anglers tell how they caught their bass, and many spoke of jerkbaits in the shallow water creeks.  Looks like I had the right pattern, I just didn't get enough of the right time. 

Most of Smith Lakes's bass species seemed more oriented around the abundant shad than the bluegill. Algae growing on the rocks from 8 to 12 feet was the primary food source I found for shad, crayfish, zooplankton, and shrimp.

Changes in bass behavior appeared to be driven by angler pressure, water temperatures, and lowlight feeding opportunities. When the water warmed our fish catches increased. 

Studies have determined that cold blooded aquatic critters experience a 50% reduction in metabolism for every 10°C  (18°F) drop in water temperature. This means the algae grows half is fast, zooplankton reproduce slower, and bass take twice as long to digest their food, so they stay full longer.  Even so, bass are top predators and are opportunistic feeders even when full. If the conditions are right, they will often gorge themselves. Normally though, bass feed less during periods of slower metabolism such as cold water. 

To improve my game on the Bassmaster Opens Trail I need to get better at locating and catching bass between 8 and 25 feet. I know how to fish most lures required for this depth range, but I need to do my homework on developing more efficient fishing methods.

In the end, I did not finish as high as I would have liked, but it was good for my fishing career to experience what a clear water spotted bass fishery goes through during early spring cold fronts. Bassmaster Classics are now held during the late winter time of year, so I needed this experience to hone my skills for my upcoming Classic appearance. to think positive. 
During warming trends the fishing was phenomenal and Smith Lake bass were fun to catch. During cold fronts the bass quit biting and fishing really stunk. 

All and all, another great Bassmaster event full of excitement and anticipation. The staff at BASS and the Cullman County Chamber of Commerce hosted an amazing venue. The vunteeers from the Alabama Bass Nation did a professional job. My hat goes off to all those who made this event go so smooth. 

My biggest thanks go to my wife, family, friends, and sponsors for all the "fish wishes" and for following along my Facebook page ( 
I hope you enjoyed my fishing notes.   Jeff 

(Bassmaster Profile Page)

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