If you love mixed bags of big largemouth and smallmouth bass (and who doesn’t?), you’re going to want to pay close attention to the Toyota Series Southeastern Division opener on Wheeler Lake March 26-28. Local pro Sam George, who fishes the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit, expects to see mid-20-pound limits cross the weigh-in stage, and predicts the winner will almost certainly weigh both green and brown fish.
Here’s a rundown of what’s on tap for a potential Tennessee River prespawn slugfest.
Toyota Series Southeastern Division
March 26-28, 2020
Hosted by Decatur Morgan County Tourism
How the lake sets up
The 60-mile-long, 67,100-acre Wheeler Lake is the third largest reservoir on the Tennessee River system and is just a tad smaller than Lake Guntersville, the legendary reservoir that’s just upstream. On the other side of Wheeler is Wilson Lake and then Pickwick, making it one of the main jewels on the legendary chain that stretches across the northern end of Alabama before turning north through Tennessee and Kentucky.
Wheeler is well known among bass anglers for its tailrace fishery, offshore ledges and other structure, as well as the Decatur flats area. Below Decatur, which is where the tournament will put in, Wheeler opens up into a broad, slowly snaking reservoir as is typical of the Tennessee River system. The lower end is lined with small pockets and a handful of large tributaries that stretch off from the main stem. Upstream of Decatur, Wheeler necks down and takes on the look of a true river, winding its way to the Guntersville Dam.
While Decatur isn’t exactly in the center of the reservoir, it’s a good dividing line. George says pros have to make a choice in most tournaments: Run upstream and fish the river, or go downstream and fish the lake.
At one point in time, parts of Wheeler were full of hydrilla and milfoil, but now eelgrass is the primary vegetation.
“It’s been a while since they’ve had a major FLW event here, and there’s actually quite a bit of eelgrass in the lake now,” says George. “It’s been a factor a little bit locally, but it’s going to definitely be a wild card for that event just because I’ve never been to a lake with grass in it where the grass hasn’t been a factor.”
Finally, Wheeler is capable of producing mammoth largemouths and smallmouths, particularly in early spring.
“As far as big fish, it [Wheeler] has been putting them out recently. I’ve had two smallmouth over 7 pounds in the last three years out there,” George says. “The smallmouth will definitely be a factor. There’s no way they’re not that time of year. I think mixed bags of largemouth and smallmouth will be a factor. I think that Wheeler is home to some of the biggest smallmouth in the Tennessee River. It doesn’t get the attention that Pickwick and Wilson and some of the others do, but as far as true giant smallmouth, they live there. And they get mixed in.”
What to expect
Not surprisingly, the weather will ultimately decide the fate of this tournament. The entire Tennessee River Valley has been drenched this spring, causing flooding in many areas and higher flows than normal throughout the system. Wheeler was at 558 feet above sea level in mid-February, which is 2 feet above summer pool and 6 feet above the 552-foot winter pool mark that is sort of the standard this time of year. At the time of this writing (March 5), the lake was on a steady drawdown and had returned to 553.5.
The water usually starts to rise to normal summer pool by mid-April, but resource managers have a lot of factors to consider when they determine flow levels that could result in any number of scenarios come March 26.
According to George, the kind of unstable conditions experienced this spring have, in past years, kept bass from heading to the banks early. That, and the fact that the tournament is still a couple weeks ahead of the usual prime spawn time, makes him think that this will be a full-on prespawn event.
“There’s no telling what’s going to happen,” says George. “If we get a whole bunch of rain it could be won in 2 feet of water, or it could be won offshore. We’re going to have to treat it week by week or even day by day. With normal conditions, I highly doubt spawning fish are going to be playing a factor by then. If we just get astronomical warm weather, then possibly. But those fish are dependent on water level as to when they want to pull up.
“It’s going to be a prespawn deal. When I say prespawn, I mean the last leg of a prespawn transition into the spawn period. You’re going to be able to catch them on moving baits unless a complete cold front hits. I can see guys doing well covering water, trying to find fish that are starting to move up but not on the bank yet. They’ll be on those last few places they get before they head to the bank.”
Last season’s Phoenix Bass Fishing League presented by T-H Marine Bama Division event at Wheeler in mid-March was won with 21 pounds, and everyone in the top 10 had at least 15. George thinks that’s light for this time of year. He’s predicting 58 to 60 pounds for the winning three-day total, with at least a couple mid-20s limits. The rest of the top 10 won’t be far behind.
A final factor to consider is the tailrace bite. In mid-March, it can be red hot, but everybody knows it. A good boat draw might be the difference in getting on the juice and getting left out.
“There is no way, shape or form that Guntersville Dam does not play a factor in that event,” George adds. “I hate going up there because there are only a couple places they get on, but I would be shocked if that wasn’t a factor in that event. It’s probably going to get won up there.
“Otherwise, with it being a prespawn deal, current is going to play a role – typical Tennessee River fishing.”
Baits and techniques
A little bit of everything should work in March at Wheeler.
“I really think in the top 10 you’ll have guys up the river close to Guntersville and all the way on the lower end closer to Wheeler Dam,” says George. “If I had to pick five baits, I would pick a crankbait, a spinnerbait, a jig of some sort – whether a flipping jig, football jig or some other kind of jig – probably a single swimbait, and an umbrella rig.”
No surprises there. Those are Tennessee River 101 baits; power-fishing favorites. And they’re surely going to dupe their share of big Alabama bass when the Toyota Series commences at Wheeler Lake.