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Guntersville Bass When It's Tough
The dog days are tough, but September begins a fall transition.
By Greg McCain
Originally published in the September 2017 issue of AON
Jim Leary and Belle show off some good Guntersville largemouth caught last September.
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The bass bite traditionally gets tough this time of year on Lake Guntersville.

High water temperatures, thick grass, fishing pressure and lack of current are just a few of the factors that contribute to the seasonal decline in bass fishing. The same fish that were seemingly abundant and actively feeding in the late fall through early summer pull a disappearing act, dispersing in the thousands of acres of grass or roaming open water chasing balls of baitfish.

In an average year, the situation frustrates even the most seasoned fishermen on Guntersville. They know the fish are present, but putting together a quality tournament limit or experiencing a good day of fun fishing often becomes a challenging task for even the best fishermen.

“Typically, you see a big difference in the fishing after the Fourth of July,” said long-time Guntersville guide Tim Chandler. “It starts to slow down. Not to say that there are not good days out there, maybe one out of every three or four days when it’s average to good. By that time of the year, the grass is getting taller and taller and starting to top out in places. That’s one of the reason that it gets so tough. There’s just so much grass.”

All the guides surveyed for this story pointed to the abundance of grass as one of the reasons that the fishing gets more difficult in late summer, at least through September. The canopies of grass provide cover that is not easily penetrated. Froggin’ and flippin’ become a common theme and account for the majority of tournament wins, but the average fisherman is not always prepared to deal with the drudgery and hard work associated with those tactics.

“There’s only so much of that you can do,” Tim said.

“The grass is a double-edged sword on Guntersville,” he added. “Grass made fishing great on Guntersville. It gave them so many places to hide and to grow. On the flip side of that, there is so much cover, they can be hard to find. There’s 70,000 acres of water, and it seems like 40,000 of it is covered in grass. That can be intimidating. To a lot of people, they don’t know where to start. It all looks the same.”

Even for heavy-line tactics like throwing a hollow-bodied frog or flipping plastics under a big weight, not all of the abundant grass is suitable.

“At this time of year, the fish disappear, but I what I really think happens is it’s a big transition month,” said guide Jim Leary. “The grass is thick, but not the type grass that you can ‘frog’ yet. You can flip it, but sometimes it’s just not the right flipping grass either because it’s too thick.”

Unlike the grass, some unseen, hard-to-quantify factors also come into play.

Guide Donald Johnson usually avoids the grass and fishes offshore, using his electronics expertise to locate ledge fish on shellsbeds. In the deeper water, he combats a factor not often associated with current-oriented reservoirs like Guntersville.

“For me, it all depends on where the thermocline sets up at this time of year,” Donald said. “They are always going to be above that thermocline. If I can find them on my electronics above the thermocline, I can usually catch them. If the thermocline sets up at 10 foot, I know all the fish are going to be in the grass. If the thermocline is 15 or 18 feet deep, I’ve got shellbeds at 12 or 15 feet that will hold fish. This year it’s actually deeper and opens up more spots.”

The thermocline is that area of oxygen-deprived water. The depth of the thermocline rises as the water at the bottom of the lake heats up each summer. In general, in areas with a thermocline established, all fish must live higher in the water column.

Another factor that impacts fish in late summer and early fall is pressure. Tim said the fish seem to be ultra-sensitive at this time of year to boat and fishing pressure.

“They will stay in an area as long as they are not pressured,” he said. “As soon as they start getting pressured, they will leave. When people start catching them and pressuring them, they will move. Everything on Guntersville gets fished, so the bass are going to move. You can count on that.”

A final consideration is the overall health of the Guntersville bass population. It has generally been on a decline over the last four or five years with an abundance of smaller fish emerging last year and early this year.

Tim said the lower numbers of bass have contributed to the demise of one of the great patterns traditionally experienced on Guntersville, one that has salvaged many trips during the summer and fall doldrums.

“You used to be able to go (to Guntersville) in September, October and November, and there were schooling fish everywhere,” Tim said. “Now you go and you don’t see that same level of schooling activity any more. People ask me that all the time. ‘Why are the schooling fish gone?’

“My theory is the only reason that fish school is there’s a large congregation of fish in that area, and they are competing for baitfish. If there’s only two or three fish in an area, and a school of minnows comes by, they don’t have to compete. When there’s 50 to 100 fish there and that school of minnows comes by, they go crazy. You don’t have that any more.”

Each of the guides, however, suggests that there are still bass to be caught despite the difficult conditions. This summer, in fact, has proved atypical with better fishing running through at least early August.

“In a normal year, it’s always super tough by this time,” Donald said. “This year has been a little different. The water temperature is not up there in the 90s. It’s been 87, 88, but not super hot like it is some years. The thermocline is running about 21 or 22 feet deep, and that’s letting those fish visit some of the deeper shellbeds that I fish.”

He catches most of his fish on a Tight Line football jig paired with a Strike King Rage Tail Craw trailer. He produced catches of 29 fish on one early August trip and 24 on another, both quick four-hour jaunts that saw his clients land several quality largemouth among those numbers.

“For this time of year, I’m wearing them out,” Donald said. “Typically, that doesn’t happen. You might get on a school and can’t make them bite. It’s time to move on to the next one. I might visit 15 or 20 schools before I can get them to bite.”

Jim also said his fishing has produced unusually well recently.

“I’ve got a couple of tournaments coming up and have been trying some different spots,” he said. “I pulled in on one recently that I probably haven’t fished in two years, caught a 5-pounder right off the bat, cast back in there and shook off another bigger fish. There was a good school of bass there that were ready to eat. That’s doesn’t always happen this time of year.”

One of Jim’s go-to weapons to combat the tough bite is a swim jig. Because the fish are scattered, he tries to cover water, and the swim jig allows him that opportunity.

“I keep a 1/2-oz. in my hand most of the time,” Jim said. “It’s very versatile. If you’re close to a dock, you can skip it up under and swim it out. You can fish it deep in the grassline, or fish it up on top of the mat.”

Jim also keeps a spinnerbait on his deck and fishes it on grass edges or away from the grass on laydowns.

“The spinnerbait will really bail you out at times,” he said. “If you can get on some laydowns that are not choked with grass, you will eventually catch a good one.”

For his less experienced clients, Jim likes a weightless Senko fished on spinning gear. Jim said the do-nothing nature of the stick bait provokes strikes even when the fish may not be actively feeding.

“The bait will just lay there, and the fish will eat it,” he said. “We’ve actually had great success on the Senko already this year.

“When I am dealing with people who are inexperienced, I always Texas-rig it. You don’t want them getting hung up all the time. It’s frustrating for them. They get real aggravated (hanging up a wacky rig).”

For Tim, combating the difficult late-summer, early fall bite means trying to anticipate the movement of fish and enticing them to bite with a variety of lures. He said he generally starts over every day because the fish follow the shad schools, vacating locales that proved highly productive the previous day.

“Wind and current will move those schools of baitfish, and the bass are going to follow them when they move,” he said. “You pull in on a spot that was loaded one day, and they are gone the next.”

Much like Donald suggested, Tim keeps moving and attempts to quickly figure out what the bass prefer on a particular day. Some topwater action takes place early, perhaps not the frenzied schooling of years past but still enough to consider in low-light conditions.

In the absence of schooling or other topwater activity around the grass or shallow ledges, Tim throws a frog, flips plastics or swims a jig or a big worm. For deeper fish, he likes to throw a crankbait.

For visitors to Guntersville, the good news is that fishing should improve, perhaps as early as September but definitely at some point in the fall.

Both Donald and Jim said the really good fall fishing usually starts for them late in October or even early November. Tim said that good fall bite is normally weather dependent.

“It’s usually late September for me,” Tim said. “What we really need is a couple of doses of cooler weather. When I say cooler weather, it’s usually cooler nights. That’s going to help.

“Typically when that happens, some of your deeper fish will move up shallow and even the grass fish will move up shallower in the grass. The bluegill move up, and that’s an important factor in the fall. That’s what makes the frog fishing good in the fall.”

Donald said the cooler weather is like “flipping on a light switch.”

“My specialty is deep-water structure fishing, but I catch very few of them out deep (after cool weather arrives),” he said. “Most of them then will be in the grass. I catch bass pitching a jig, flippin’, and froggin’.”

Many fishermen rush the frog season, throwing both hollow-bodied and swimming models throughout September. However, Jim said other tactics work better through the early weeks of fall, with the “real frog bite” starting in late October or November.

“A couple of good things are going on at Guntersville right now,” Jim said. “The summer bite is definitely better than usual, and you always know that some of the best fishing of the year is just around the corner.”

All three guides mentioned in the story are available for trips on Guntersville. Generally, a week-day trip is advised simply because of the intense pressure on the lake on the weekends. Saturday or Sunday guide trips are available as well, however.

Contact Tim at Tim Chandler’s Pro Guide Service (256) 655-8292; Jim at Guntersville Bass Guides (256) 698-6593) or Donald at Donald Johnson Fishing (256) 603-1350. Each can be found on Facebook, as well.
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