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Make Guntersville Great Again
Anglers hope the fishing on Guntersville will return to greatness
By Greg McCain
Originally published in the July 2017 issue of AON
Guntersville guide Casey Martin hammered a 40-lb. sack in a tournament earlier this year on the lake.
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The theme of “Make America Great Again” dominated political headlines over the last year. Closer to home, Alabama anglers want a similar resurgence for a revered fishery.

“Make Guntersville Great Again” could well be the slogan of fishermen who want to see the lake return to its exceptional past.

Once the premier bass fishing destination not only in Alabama but also in the Southeast, Guntersville offered in-state and out-of-state anglers unparalleled access to quality fishing at the highest level. On lists that ranked the best bass fishing in the country, Guntersville always entered the conversation near the top. The fishing peaked about five years ago.

“Then we began to notice a decline, especially in the last year or two,” said long-time Guntersville guide Mike Carter (www.anglingadventures.info).

Mike was not alone in his concern. Magazine and newspaper headlines proclaimed the demise of Guntersville. Internet forums and social media were abuzz about the “awful” fishing on the Big G. Even writing back in early 2015, I questioned the overall quality of the lake, mainly based on anecdotal evidence and personal observations.

In general, the tone was one of doom and gloom. In reality, the state of the lake was one of mixed reviews.

Was the quality of Guntersville bass fishing diminishing? Absolutely.

Was it as bad as some anglers would like to suggest? Probably not.

“We’ve seen a decline in the bass density. I’m not going to argue that,” said Keith Floyd, District II fisheries biologist for WFF.

“We had real strong year classes in 2007 and 08. Those fish really showed up in 2010 as 3 year olds. That’s what I try to look at, age 1 and age 3. They enter into the fishery at 15 inches on average at age 3.

“Essentially what happened on Guntersvillle, those fish dominated the last four or five years and then died off from old age. They’re just old fish that naturally died off. The age classes that came in behind them are just average year classes, not real strong.”

Unfortunately for anglers experiencing the exceptional Guntersville, those peak years slowly waned. Fishing became more of a challenge. Those tournament-quality fish—mature 3- to 6-pounders—were still available, just not in the numbers of previous years.

“You know, Keith Floyd made a good point,” Mike said. “We have been spoiled. He said through the last few years, up to about five, six, seven years ago, we have been experiencing great fishing. Now that we are not getting that consistently good action, everyone is concerned.”

Keith added his own words to what Mike had to say.

“We’re kind of right now into the average mode,” Keith said. “Just as long as we stay close to the average mode, I’m pretty well pleased with the fishery. That may not be what the anglers want, and it might not be what they’re used to.

“It’s like I told Mike—I was showing him some of the data that we had collected over the years—everybody over there has been riding the dream the last seven years. It’s the best that it’s ever been.

“We have not seen recently the numbers of fish that we’ve seen within the last seven years. We’ve been doing these samples since ‘86, and the last 10 years have been really strong. Our data shows that. Now we’re seeing the decline, and we’re getting back into that average mode.”

For Mike, the state of fishing on the lake had declined to such an extent that he, his wife Sharon and other concerned individuals formed the Lake Guntersville Conservation Group to address not only the numbers but also the factors that contributed to the decline. Early plans included stocking Florida-strain bass in the lake.

The group considered the many factors that contributed to the challenging fishing. The concerns included intense pressure, both in terms of tournament and non-tournament anglers, fish care in tournaments, the spraying and killing of grass, the chemicals used to kill the grass, and the change and variability in aquatic vegetation (eel grass has become dominant in some parts of the lake, replacing milfoil, hydrilla and other grasses). Among many other possibilities, even the widespread use of umbrella rigs has been cited as a reason for the decline of the bass population.

The data collected by the state and by Auburn University suggest a natural decline in bass numbers. Typically, the natural cycles of a lake’s fish populations override other factors in lower numbers, and studies conducted by Auburn fisheries personnel in 2013 and 2014 support that idea.

The consistency of the lake is a main concern of anglers. Guntersville has been as good or perhaps even better than ever on occasion, dead at other times. The “average” Guntersville produced a 40-lb. limit for local guide and tournament competitor Casey Martin earlier this year. In more recent days, anglers needed just more than 30 to win the Alabama Bass Trail team tournament in early June.

While naysayers would suggest the top of the leader board is not the best indication of a quality lake, Guntersville still houses the quality, numbers and genes to maintain a quality fishery.

Some new revelations, however, suggest another peak period in the years ahead. The new data reveals excellent potential for the future of the lake. Mike participated in a seining survey at the invite of Keith and his district fisheries staff in the early days of June. The numbers of bass fry and fingerlings were far above average for such a sampling.

The seine sampling is a simple technique to determine spawn numbers. The sampling offers Keith an easy response to complaints that the bass have disappeared.

“The fishermen are always complaining, ‘The fish are not spawning, the fish are not spawning, the fish are not spawning.’ The seine survey answers that question. Yes, they are spawning.”

Using a seine about 15 feet long, one person enters the water with one end of the seine while another holds the other end stationary at the bank. The biologist in the water sweeps the seine back to the bank, trapping the anticipated samples.

 “If we can come in and find six to 10 fingerlings per seine haul, I’m comfortable with that,” Keith said. “The fish are not going to be evenly distributed around the bank. You are going to have little concentrations of them.

“We had some pretty high numbers. I was surprised that we got that many actually. Normally, I’m a happy camper if I can get to that six to 10 number. In 11 seine hauls, we were averaging 20 fish per haul.”

Mike watched the biologists seine in Browns Creek, Spring Creek and in Town Creek around Guntersville State Park. He also suggested that the biologists skip their normal routine of seining in the mid-lake area and head upriver to Mud, Crow and Town creeks. Mike lives in that area and is especially concerned with the decline of bass fishing there.

“I was impressed by the numbers that we saw (in the upriver creeks),” Mike said. “They were not only impressed but also surprised by the numbers.”

The recent numbers complement an excellent 2016 year class of bass, indicating the potential for another explosion on Guntersville in the next three- to five-year period.

“I feel better about what I’m seeing,” Mike said. “We caught great numbers of small fish back in the fall, which supports what Keith said about 2016. I would expect to duplicate those catches again this fall. Of course, there are still quality fish in the lake, but the spawn data suggests good things for the future.”

Keith and Mike agreed that the natural “stocking” of the lake trumps any man-made efforts to improve the bass population.

“Keith said that you can actually tell people we just got (Lake Guntersville) stocked with 2 million fish, and you wouldn’t be lying,” Mike said.

The Lake Guntersville Conservation Group has made tentative plans to add 50,000 Florida-strain largemouth to the lake’s gene pool, likely in spring 2018. The details of stocking permits, choosing a hatchery, and determining a means of distribution remain to be worked out. Mike said dispersing the fingerling bass in a tournament setting—competitors take bags of young bass and release them around the lake at their first stop—is a definite possibility for a spring stocking.

The group at first had planned to stock 100,000 fingerlings but has settled at 50,000 at the suggestion of biologists.

“We’re looking at boosting that Florida gene and dispersing it into various creeks,” Mike said. “We want to put them across the lake and not just in one spot. The Florida gene is already in there from stockings in the 90s. We just want a little extra boost with more Floridas.

“We were going to try to get it done in the fall, but a spring stocking is probably a better idea.”

A main reason that spring stockings are preferred, Mike said, is that those fingerlings are less food-dependent than fish that have been housed in a hatchery over the summer.

“Keith said fingerlings released into the water in the fall just sit there waiting to be fed,” Mike said. “They become easy prey. Fingerlings released in the spring are less dependent, more aggressive in finding their own food, and have a better survival rate.”

In the meantime, the Guntersville debate rages on much like the one in the political world. Can Lake Guntersville become great again? The next three to five years will determine that idea.

July Bass Fishing Forecast For The Big G

While anglers can debate the current state of bass fishing on Lake Guntersville, little doubt remains that quality fish will be caught every day in July.

Whether the fishing is good or bad as a whole, anglers who find the right school at the right time this month can still load the boat. Consistently finding those willing schools from day to day has been the challenge recently. The school that produces one day disappears or won’t bite the next.

A traditional approach usually involves the following scenario: fish shallow grass early, move to slightly deeper grass and/or ledges, and then scope out deeper grass edges and ledges as the day heats up. The potential for a shallow bite returns late in the day.

Early morning action almost always involves some topwater possibilities. Anglers traditionally alternate between Spook-style walking baits and poppers. A relatively new addition to the topwater arsenal is the River2Sea Whopper Plopper, which has a body that resembles a walking bait with a revolving paddle-like tail. Retrieved steadily, the plopping action of the bigger versions drives bass crazy and draws explosive strikes.

Fished on heavy braid over grassbeds or paralleled along outside edges, the Whopper Plopper is a definite option.

Later in the day, the fish bury into the grass or suspend just off grass lines, over shellbeds and around deeper ledges. The amount of current usually dictates where the fish hold. A standard arsenal includes swimbaits, deep-diving crankbaits, football jigs and magnum shaky heads. Don’t ignore traditional setups like Texas-rigged, 10-inch or bigger worms and Carolina rigs.

If the fish remain in shallow grass, flippers and punchers also find success with big jigs or plastics fished under a heavy tungsten weight.

Late in the day, some schooling action takes place. Good choices for tempting schoolers are topwaters that can be cast long distances, necessary to avoid spooking the fish. Lipless crankbaits are also effective, especially in open-water areas.

Night fishing is another possibility on Guntersville. After-hours fishing is a great opportunity for one-rod fishing… as long as it has a dark spinnerbait tied on. Slow-roll a thumping blade around Guntersville grass at night, and a good fish will eventually slam it.

Anglers should be cautious, especially after dark. Be familiar with the area and run only in the channel at night. Water depths change suddenly. Otherwise, the lake remains productive this month with peak activity in low-light conditions.
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