Smith Lake, Hot to Spot in Cold Weather
Playing word association with Alabama fisheries yields ideas etched in the mind of almost every serious fisherman.
For Guntersville, the images are grass and largemouth bass. For Pickwick, think smallmouth. On Weiss Lake, crappie always come to mind. For Lewis Smith Lake, the highland reservoir located north of Jasper and west of Cullman, the dominant image shines in vivid detail as well.
Fishing on Smith Lake evokes thoughts of giant spotted bass. Some anglers call them footballs; others use the submarine metaphor. Regardless of the comparison, Smith remains best known for spots, bulging feeding machines that rival their relatives, smallmouth bass, in fighting ability.
Once the home of the world record spotted bass, Smith is home to giants that now roam the sprawling reservoir chasing the vast schools of invasive blueback herring. Whether another world record exists in Smith is a matter of debate.
What is not in question is the fact that Smith remains one of the premier spotted bass fisheries in the eastern United States. Rarely does a better time exist to pursue these fish than that point when fall merges with winter.
Specifically, December and the months that follow are the best period of the entire year to catch numbers of chunks, spotted bass from two to five pounds that never seem to stop feeding in an average north Alabama winter.
“I’m not sure why it is. Maybe the baitfish are easier to catch in the cooler water or maybe they’re closer to the bottom,” said perhaps the hottest stick on the lake, Jesse “Crank” Wiggins, who lives near Cullman and won a B.A.S.S. Southern Open on Smith early last year. “I just know I catch more of them. Those bigger fish are from 2.5 to five pounds.
“You might catch a string in the spring with three or four good fish, but have to really work to catch them and to get something to go with them. In the winter, you are going to catch 40 or 50 on a good day with the smallest being 2.5 pounds.
“Cold weather just makes them bite better. They are more active in that cold water and spots look for weather changes. It doesn’t get too cold for them. They are always eating.”
Two-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier David Kilgore, who lives just north of Jasper not far from the lake won the 2014 Southern Open on Smith. He does not like to let fishing interfere with his deer hunting. At times, however, the fishing news is just too hard to ignore.
“Last year, after the Christmas flood, the lake came up 17 feet,” Kilgore said. “I kept hearing all of these stories, and I had to go get me some of it. I went out a couple of times and the fishing was pretty incredible.”
‘Crank’ Keeps It Simple
On many days, Wiggins could go out on the lake with a single rod on the deck.
“The best bait is a jig head and worm,” he said. “It’s the best year-round. It’s a simple bait. If the water’s not muddy, that’s about all you have to tie on.”
For Wiggins, “a jig head and worm” is basic, pre-shaky head terminology.
“We’ve been throwing it since before they called it a shaky head,” Wiggins said. “I can’t ever remember not throwing it. Then they came out with the shaky head like it was something new.”
“Cold weather just makes them bite better. They are more active in that cold water and spots look for weather changes.” — Jesse “Crank” Wiggins, bass fisherman
Wiggins, who will fish the 2017 Bassmaster Classic as a result of his Southern Open win on Smith, throws the shaky head on a 7-foot, 2-inch medium-heavy spinning rig. He spools his reel with braid and adds a 12-pound fluorocarbon leader. Wiggins makes his own shaky head jigs. He makes 1/8- to 3/16-ounce models with round heads and 4/0 hooks. He adds a 4- to 7-inch straight-tail worm and sticks with one color exclusively.
“Color doesn’t matter as long as it’s green pumpkin,” he said.
On other occasions, especially if the water is stained, Wiggins adds a crankbait to his repertoire, perhaps aptly so for a fisherman nicknamed “Crank.” Wiggins got the nickname when he stepped on a crankbait when he was five years old and needed a hospital visit to have it removed. His dad nicknamed him “Crankbait,” which has been whittled down to “Crank” over time.
“Not many people even know my real name,” Wiggins said.
He mainly tosses a Norman’s Deep Little N, a small bait that dives to about 10 feet down on 12-pound test line. On the rare occasion, he opts for a Norman DD22 to target the deeper fish.
Wiggins works the crankbait through water about 10 feet deep out to about 25 although he added not to ignore the shallows.
“The big fish will sit up in five or six feet of water at times although you need deep water nearby,” Wiggins said. “Points, drops, cuts, I’m looking for places that have a depth change. If it has a little bit of brush on it, the place is that much better. A little bit of brush always helps. Docks are good. They need to have brush on them or be next to a drop.”
Almost every single dock on Smith is of the floating variety, which move up and down with the water levels. While the normal winter drawdown is about 13 feet below summer pool, the movement of certain docks may actually help the fishing.
“As long as the dock has water on it, it doesn’t matter,” Wiggins said. “The water is dropping only about 10 feet or so. That means most of them still have 20 feet of water on it. Any time a dock is closer to the bank, it’s going to make it better because it has more shade on it.”
Wiggins makes long casts along and across the rocky Smith Lake terrain and reels the crankbait at a moderate speed. He favors a 6.4:1 reel mounted on a 7.5-foot cranking rod. His favors crawfish (Spring Craw) and shad (Mountain Dew) imitators.
A final piece in Wiggins arsenal is a homemade umbrella rig, which some people call an A rig, adorned with 3.5-inch boot-tail swimbaits. He throws the rig on heavy bait-casting tackle and 50-pound braid.
“If there is a lot of wind, the A rig can be very good,” he said. “You fish it down a bank or across a point just like you would a crankbait.”
Wiggins occasionally deviates from the 3-lure lineup – a jig has been part of his arsenal in the past – but says the basic approach works for him.
“It’s simple, but effective,” he said. “I’ve been fishing this lake a long time. You don’t need much else to catch these big spots.”
Wiggins said to expect excellent winter catch rates as long as the water temperature stays above 45 degrees, which is the average low in a normal year.
“It gets a little tougher if the water temperature ever drops below 45,” he said. “As long as it’s in the 45- to 55-degree range, which is normal for this time of year, you can expect to catch numbers of qualify fish.”
Kilgore, who finished seventh in the 2014 Bassmaster Classic on Guntersville and also fished the Classic at Lake Hartwell in 2015, targets Smith Lake spots in many of the same places and with some of the same baits as Wiggins. He does, however, vary his approach to cover the water column from the bank out to past 30 feet. His multi-level presentations include a jerkbait, shaky head, football jig and dropshot rig.
“It’s no secret,” Kilgore said. “Everybody catches them on shaky heads and jigs out on the points. I have several points I usually run and you usually run into (the spots) on one of them. You may not catch any and then catch four or five good ones off a single point.”
Kilgore won the 2014 Southern Open on an umbrella rig fished around docks although that approach has not worked for him recently. What is his advice now?
“Get in a ditch that has a lot of herring in it,” he said, adding that both baitfish and spots show up well on electronics. “Or get out on a point that has the herring on it if they haven’t worked back in the ditch yet. They swim up in the ditches at night and then when it gets daylight they head back out. It’s not an every ditch thing. You might have to fish 10 or 12 ditches before you find them. All of a sudden, you are in the mother lode.”
Kilgore starts with a jerkbait, working a Strike King KVD Deep Diver down to at least 10 feet and beyond. If the fish are shallow, he throws a shaky head and jerkbait. For mid-depth fish, Kilgore drags a 1/2-ounce Strike King football jig. For deeper spotted bass, he fishes vertically or across a point with a dropshot.
Kilgore fishes all presentations on Duckett Fishing rods and reels, a White Ice bait-caster and Macro Magic spinning rods. He spools his bait-casting reels with Vicious fluorocarbon and his spinning reels with braid paired with a Vicious 10-pound fluorocarbon leader.
“I’ve always relied on the KVD 300, but the Deep Diver is ridiculous,” said Kilgore, who likes clear colors or those with purple, blue or green hues that favor the blueback herring. “Put it on 10-pound test and get it down to 11 or 12 feet. The Deep Diver makes fishing a jerkbait so much easier.
“I throw a dropshot on deeper places. On the shallower ones, I use a shaky head. In between, I drag a Strike King football jig from 15 feet out to about 25. Anything over 25 feet deep, I throw a dropshot.”
Kilgore uses a relatively new Strike King lure, the Half Shell OPT, on his dropshot rig. He nose-hooks the lure with a Gamakatzu hook. Kilgore sticks with green pumpkin for all of his plastic needs.
“I fish a dropshot with a 5- or 6-foot leader with the hook about a foot above the weight,” Kilgore said. “The bait is more like an old reaper-style bait that glides in the water and really appeals to the spots.”
Smith will occasionally muddy up in the winter. Then, Kilgore deviates from his lower-lake, point-running routine and goes “4×4 fishing.” At those times, he throws a jig or a Strike King 1.5 square-billed crankbait.
“It’s rare that the lower end of Smith gets muddy, only in a major flood event,” Kilgore said. “We had that last year and I went ‘4×4 fishing.’ I caught them on one trip flipping a jig up the creeks and then on the square-bill on another.”
World Record Re-Visited
Smith Lake once held the world record for a spotted bass with an 8-pound, 15-ounce monster caught in 1978. Soon after, some Smith Lake stock was transplanted to other states, notably California. The days of a potential Smith Lake world record are probably gone because the California fish enjoy a protein-rich diet of rainbow trout.
The current world record came from New Melones Reservoir in California in 2014. It weighed 10.48 pounds although a bigger fish was caught in Nov. 2015. That 11.25-pound brute was released and never certified as a world record although the catch and weight were captured on film.
“The biggest that I have seen (on Smith) in the last 10 year is about seven pounds,” said Kilgore, whose personal best is a 5.5-pounder. “I do not think the (blueback) herring will grow a world record. The lakes east of here with bluebacks haven’t grown one that big. Only trout will grow the next world record.”
World record or not, Smith Lake still grows plenty of magnum spots. Wiggins landed four fish that weighed between 5.75 and six pounds. He has heard of a fish that reportedly weighed nine pounds. It was caught and weighed in a tournament, but he’s not sure that a world record will ever come from Smith Lake.
“I just know there are plenty of those bigger fish from 2.5 to about five pounds that make Smith Lake great for spotted bass,” Wiggins said. “For whatever reason, there’s not a better time to catch them than in the winter.”