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Smallmouth Bass On Wheeler’s Lower End
November’s great for smallies on often-overlooked Wheeler.
By Greg McCain
Originally published in the November 2017 issue of AON
Good smallmouth action awaits anglers on the lower end of Wheeler Lake in November.
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Smallmouth fishing reaches a peak in November along the Tennessee River in north Alabama.

Pickwick and Wilson lakes traditionally receive all the attention from both locals and visitors, with Pickwick enjoying the greatest reputation as a smallmouth factory but Wilson yielding as many or more smallmouth per acre. Moving upstream, the lower portion of Wheeler Lake is often ignored as a smallmouth fishery, producing fish at a similar rate as the other Tennessee Valley Authority reservoirs and serving as something of an extension of the fisheries downstream.

The roughly 10-mile stretch of Wheeler from the dam to Elk River, a major tributary that enters from the north near Rogersville, is an unlimited expanse of smallmouth country with deep-water sanctuaries, protected spawning flats, abundant feeding areas and a surplus of baitfish that allow the fish to grow big and strong.

While Pickwick claims the title of “Smallmouth Capital Of The World” and the Wheeler tailrace on the upper part of Wilson Lake attracts legions of boats each day in the fall, Wheeler Lake grows a similar brand of smallmouth. The entire length of the 60-mile-long, 67,000-acre lake holds smallmouth, but the best congregation of fish exists on the lower end, where visitors will find plenty of good facilities that make for a comfortable trip.

While I haven’t gotten to sample the best fall fishing on Wheeler this year—water and weather conditions have kept the fish in their late summer and early fall patterns through the first few days of October—the production should only improve throughout November as water temperatures drop.

A couple of trips through the years perfectly illustrate the potential of Wheeler in the fall.

One such occasion found me fishing a tournament out of Decatur. My partner and I intended to stay close to the ramp, but a drop in water levels forced us out of the shallow, weedy grass flats in the mid-lake section.

We chose to run downstream and fish the section of the lake just above Wheeler Dam. The move proved productive as I landed two high-quality fish—one almost 6 pounds and another almost 5. At one point during the day, I had five smallmouth in the livewell that weighed close to 17 pounds, typically a winning limit on Wheeler. All of those fish bit soft-plastic jerkbaits fished slowly around pea-gravel banks in sloughs off the main river. Other than drifting live bait in the tailrace below Wheeler Dam, the day proved to be the best I ever experienced for smallmouth on the Tennessee River.

Another Wheeler trip in late November last year ended in a frenzy of smallmouth action. I was fishing for fun on this occasion and had spent most of my day in Second Creek. The mouth of the big creek is adjacent to the Wheeler Dam lock, and the smallmouth were conspicuously absent for most of the day. I had caught only a few largemouth bass in an afternoon of fishing.

I decided to end my day on a tapering point near the entrance to Second Creek and found bass schooling, a mix of bigger smallmouth and a few largemouth smashing bait up against a short, clay bank in just a couple of feet of water. I tossed a topwater lure, a Spook Jr., at the schoolers, and typical of the feeding smallmouth, they got to the walking bait first. The first eight to 10 casts brought four heavy, tiger-striped fish to the boat. Those four smallies weighed right at 16 pounds, with a big fish approaching 5. Just as quickly as it started, the smallmouth frenzy ended, and I only caught largemouth as the schooling continued.

Such are the vagaries of catching smallmouth on Wheeler or really any other Tennessee River lake. Fish won’t be found on every stop and perhaps not at all on certain days.

The action described on the trips was typical of smallmouth fishing on Wheeler. Because the fish are so nomadic, being on the right spot at the right time is vital to success. Anticipating the spots where the fish will hold and feed is something of an art.

Despite the fact that smallmouth can pop up in unpredictable places and their movements are inexplicable at times, they can still be pinpointed to a certain degree.

In general, the best place to regularly find brown fish in the fall is along bluff walls on the main river. Bluffs both short and tall are abundant on the lower end of Wheeler.

The fish occasionally can be caught on vertical facings over deep water but more frequently are found in a transition area where the bluff ends or changes. Any outcropping or rocky structure is a likely ambush point for smallmouth, and a surface lure on top or a jig dropped vertically can trigger a strike.

Actively feeding fish are more likely to be found either on points on the main river or in the creeks or in sloughs or small cuts.

Some of the best points to consider are those found where the feeder creeks meet the main river. In particular, Second Creek has several possibilities. The rounded shoulders of the entrance to the creek on the right has shallow shelves where smallmouth feed daily, particularly early but potentially all day long as the water cools in the fall.

The tapering points on the left in Second Creek are also good targets. The fish seem to school more on these points, pushing baitfish from deep to shallow. Some of the best action on the lake occurs when this situation occurs.

Farther up in the creek, a series of small cuts on the right just downstream from the Highway 72 bridge regularly yield good fish. Just as I described on the points, smallmouth herd baitfish into the back of the cuts and slice through them for easy meals. A topwater bait or a small spinnerbait are ideal for these smallmouth.

The best lure choices for Wheeler smallmouth run the gamut of shad and crawfish imitators.

My absolute favorite and a regular producer of smallmouth is a white pearl or albino Zoom Super Fluke fished weightless on either mono or fluorocarbon line. If the fish seem to prefer a moderate to fast retrieve, I will use mono and a 2/0 round bend Gamakatsu hook to help keep the Fluke on or near the surface.

If the fish like a lazy retrieve on a particular day, I will use fluorocarbon for a couple of reasons. The fluorocarbon line and a slightly bigger hook, a 3/0 or 4/0 round bend, will keep the bait slightly under the surface and also combat line-shy fish. The slow rise of a big smallmouth under a slowly fished Fluke is one of the great images in fishing.

Traditional topwaters also produce well at times, and a steadily walked bait like a Super Spook or Spook Jr. creates explosive strikes. Occasionally, the smallmouth also like an old-school prop bait like a Heddon Torpedo or Cotton Cordell Boy Howdy. The different sizes in the Torpedo series also help to match the hatch when the baitfish are running small. The 2 1/2-inch Baby Torpedo is a good all-around size.

Several sub-surface lures stand out for fall smallmouth on Wheeler. A white or white/chartreuse 3/8- or 1/2-oz. spinnerbait is excellent for shallow smallmouth, as is a shad-colored squarebill crankbait.

For slightly deeper fish, a medium-running crankbait can be highly effective. A 1/2-oz. jig in black-and-blue or green pumpkin is a good all-around choice regardless of water depth.

Another possibility, especially when targeting bigger fish, is a swimbait fished slowly over the tapering points or paralleled around bluff walls or around transition areas.

Smallmouth fishing on Wheeler is definitely not a daylight-only proposition. For those fishermen who like to venture out on the lake after hours, the night bite on Wheeler proves effective throughout the fall and even into the winter months. Traditionally, the full moon and new moon periods provide the best bite, although some anglers prefer the complete cover of darkness under no moon.

Perhaps more important than moon phase is the weather. Some fishermen suggest that the best bite occurs during pre-front conditions or even during slightly stormy weather. A cool, drizzly night with a little wind may not guarantee a bite but most often proves effective for hardy fishermen.

Simplicity is one of the positives of night fishing. Only two or at most three rods are necessary for fall night fishing. A spinnerbait rig, usually medium-heavy with a low-ratio baitcaster filled with 15- to 20-lb. fluorocarbon or mono, is a basic tool for night work for smallmouth. The low-ratio reel helps with the slow-rolling technique when the spinnerbait is allowed to sink and tick the bottom as it is retrieved back to the boat.

The fish seem to favor darker colors at night—black, blue, purple or red in some combination. The spinnerbaits can be either long- or short-armed but are normally equipped with a single No. 5 or bigger Colorado blade.

Some type of Texas-rigged plastic crawfish imitator or jig is almost always used on a second rod. Black-and-blue, brown, brown-and-orange and green pumpkin jigs and trailers are good combinations.

For more of a finesse presentation at night, a good choice is a small plastic crawfish like the Zoom Lil’ Critter Craw. Fished Texas rigged on a medium spinning or baitcast rig, the Critter Craw can be deadly. The bait is normally paired with a quality 1/0 hook, a 1/8-oz. weight and 8- or 10-lb. fluorocarbon. A slightly smaller (1/16) or bigger (3/16) weight can be used, depending on water depth. Good colors include green pumpkin and junebug with a hint of garlic-flavored dye added to the claws.

Night fishing presents the normal boating hazards and requires a minimum of fore-and-aft navigation lights. A good spotlight or mounted head lights, while not a requirement, make boating easier and safer. Otherwise, water depths away from the bank are almost always adequate for running on this section of the lake.

Good facilities are abundant on the lower end of Wheeler. Good ramp facilities can be found near the entrance to Joe Wheeler State Park in First Creek ($5 launch fee) or in Second Creek (no fee). Both are located a few miles apart just off Highway 72 near Rogersville. On the south side of the river, a good ramp is located in Spring Creek. A full listing of launch facilities can be found at www.tva.gov/file_source/TVA/Site%20Content/Environment/Recreation/pdf/wheele_rec_matrix.pdf.

In addition to the ramp and plenty of parking at Joe Wheeler, the state park offers a lodge with full-service restaurant, marina facilities, cabin rentals and a popular campground. Reservations can be made at www.alapark.com/joe-wheeler-state-park-reservations.

Regardless of the choices, good fishing awaits a visitor to the lower end of Wheeler, even rivaling the better-known smallmouth fisheries just downstream. November is a perfect month to sample that fishing.
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