Photo by Joel Shangle
By MIke Pehanich - December 30, 2018
The family home of Major League Fishing pro Gerald Swindle rests on a 100-acre vegetable farm that straddles the Locust Fork River north of Birmingham, Alabama. This small tributary of the Black Warrior River is rich in biological diversity.
For Swindle, it was playground and classroom combined.
“The (Locust Fork) is where I learned about bass fishing – fishing current, fishing spotted bass, learning how to read breaks and water color,” Swindle reflects. “That small stream led to this big career that I have now.”
Gerald and his brothers lived for the days when they could fish the river from one bridge to the next. Mom was there to pick them up at the end of the 12-hour float.
“Most of the river was knee deep to waist deep,” recalls Swindle, Bassmaster’s 2016 Angler of the Year. “It was full of redeye bass, true spotted bass, and some largemouth. If we had a weekend we didn’t have to work, we fished that river. We didn’t go to Disney. If we had time off, we would take inner tubes and float the river.”
Growing up with spotted and redeye bass made for a unique bass-fishing upbringing.
“I learned how to catch the hard ones first,” he grins. “It was fun to learn fishing from them.”
When the classroom shifted from stream to reservoir – Smith Lake – spotted bass were again in charge of his education. Their influence lingers.
“I have noticed over my career that learning to fish for spotted bass first probably helped me,” he reflects. “They can be very stubborn to catch, and even on lakes like Table Rock or Bull Shoals, sometimes you have to target that fish, that particular species. And I understand them a little bit.”
What he learned often collided with conventional “wisdom.”
“That early experience with spotted bass really helped me interpret the water and the fish’s behavior because a lot of what I hear people say about spots is a myth,” he says. “One myth is that they all live deep. Growing up, I learned so much about how shallow spotted bass like to live, and what it takes for them to remain shallow. “
Summer rains brought red mud from newly plowed farm fields into the Locust Fork. Dealing with variations in water clarity enabled him to debunk another spotted bass myth.
“If the only day you have to go fishing is after the rain, you better learn how to catch them in that mud!” notes Swindle, whose understanding of the spot’s reaction to water color has served him on waters like Table Rock Lake. “I learned how quickly spotted bass would react to suddenly dirty water and how quickly the baits and patterns change. They may be biting a finesse worm in super-clear water one day. Then, when the mud gets flowing, they’re biting a chartreuse crankbait. It really gave me insight into rising water, how fast fish adjust to color, and where they position themselves in the current.”
He learned, too, that smaller mouths don’t curb appetites for bigger meals.
“Spotted bass like BIG spinnerbaits. They like big jerkbaits,” he says. “Just because they have small mouths doesn’t mean they don’t like big baits. Yeah, you catch them on finesse equipment, but you can catch them on ‘power’ fishing baits, too.”
Swindle has since replaced his inner tube with a Triton boat and a big Mercury motor, but he still pays homage to the narrow river that led him to Major League Fishing.
“Small waters are where you get your start,” he reflects. “Ponds and streams…those are the places where the love of bass fishing is instilled in you.”